Could Boomers Still be the ‘Greatest Generation?’

tom_honig_sAs the 1960s ended and the ’70s began, the baby boomers stood tall and arrogantly proclaimed that the previous generation had made a mess of things, and this generational bulge of humanity was going to set things right.

Now it’s 40 years later and what do we boomers have to say for ourselves? Look at the Wall Street bankers who almost brought down the entire world economy. Look at a broken political leadership in Washington (and in Sacramento). Look at Santa Cruz County with 12 percent unemployment, gridlocked traffic and not enough water.

After writing a book about the boomers’ predecessors, “The Greatest Generation,” newsman Tom Brokaw took on the next generation in his book, “Boom.” USA Today reported that some wondered aloud whether the boomer book would be called “The Worst Generation.” Brokaw wrote that he assured “my Boomer buddies that I don’t think they represent the worst—far from it—but I also teased that I didn’t think any of them were as great as they thought they were.”

But the boomers aren’t done yet. As the leading edge of the baby boom generation prepares for Medicare, its impact on the rest of the population is huge. The potential for disaster is huge. But so, maybe, is the opportunity for us boomers to live up to our potential.

By this time, nearly everyone knows about the widening federal deficits—and the potentially cataclysmic debt. But the news is actually worse than what you see—because of the aging baby boomers.

Smart observers have been warning for years of what will happen when boomers go on Medicare and collect Social Security. Essentially, here’s the scoop: by 2040 all our federal tax revenues will add up to cover exactly two things: interest on the debt and Medicare/Medicaid costs. Everything else – education, building roads and dams, welfare, defense, Social Security – is unfunded.

The most recent—and perhaps the best— writer to explain the scope of the problem is David M. Walker, former head of the General Accounting Office, in his book, “Comeback America.” Walker argues that unless something dramatic is done, the United States will be something less than it is today. A child who is 10 years old today has the following to look forward to, says Walker: “So much of their money will be devoted to keeping government afloat that they’ll have relatively little for everything else in life. Their homes will be smaller and drabber. There will be less to spend for cars, vacations, dinners out and big TV sets, which their parents took for granted. … They will have less to offer their children, including less educational opportunities. … I am embarrassed by the mess we are passing on to them.”

Walker is unlike some observers, in that he sees solutions. I wish I could be as hopeful. In this space two weeks ago, I pointed out that the wrong people – elected officials – are in charge of the health-care debate. The wrong people are in charge of our budgets, whether in Washington or Sacramento. The electorate is falling prey to the electeds’ mass-produced talking points. Special interests are wielding far more influence than the general voter.

But just maybe there’s an opportunity here for the boomers. Maybe, finally, as we age we can just cast our selfish eyes on the next generation. For the last 40 years or so, we’ve demanded a lot from our government: lower taxes and more services.

Now is the time to demand something new: a better world for the next generation. Imagine if politicians could get votes for acting responsibly and spending on things that matter in the future. Politicians will only do that if the general public starts demanding more.

Boomers—and that means interest groups like AARP—will have to change their focus. We can’t advocate solely for ourselves anymore. Face it: most older people are wealthier than their younger counterparts, and it’s time to readjust entitlements in order to reflect that reality. When public officials propose cuts or increased revenues, it would be nice if occasionally it could be greeted with something other than knee-jerk protests.

Perhaps it’s even time to change the two-party system. Republicans won’t allow more taxes; Democrats refuse to restructure social spending. Maybe it’s time for a good third-party candidate. But who could do it?

Hmmm. Maybe now that Santa Cruz City Manager Dick Wilson says he’s retiring, he could move to D.C. and take up the challenge. After all, he’s kept Santa Cruz afloat all these years.

To Top