July 31, 2013

Greg Kesich: Baby boomers are watching the world unwind

The crisis created by large numbers of people aging together sows the seeds of a new social order.

I was behind from the moment I was born.

Coming into the world near the tail end of the baby boom generation -- people born between 1946 and 1964 -- I've seen the older members of my cohort dominate the world with their tastes and preferences, while people like me tagged along and lived with their choices.

The watershed moments of what's supposed to be our shared history are just history for me: I was getting ready for second grade when my generation was supposed to be rolling in the mud at Woodstock. The first time I ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr. was the day he was murdered, not the day he delivered the "I have a dream" speech.

The first wave of boomers famously demolished old institutions and dramatically lost their innocence. People my age just grew up with broken institutions and a lot of guilt.

For decades, baby boomers have set the cultural agenda. When they discovered sex, it was a revolution. The music they liked in college is now called "classic rock." Their stars are stars forever, so Mick Jagger (who is older than Ronald Reagan was when he moved into the White House) and Bruce Springsteen (about the same age as Olympia Snowe) have to jump around for their millions and act like they like it.

And now the boomers are creating a national crisis just by getting older. In Maine, our highest-in-the-nation concentration of boomers is destined to crush us economically.

Sitting here at the tail end of the boom, I can expect to spend the rest of my working life supporting benefits for older members of the "Me Generation" knowing that there will likely be fewer younger workers around to support me.

As my boomer elders used to say, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," and it's obvious what I'm part of. As if missing out on the Summer of Love wasn't bad enough.

What happened? There are a lot of boomers in America, but it's more than just numbers. According to journalist George Packer, author of "The Unwinding: An Inner History of a New America," we younger boomers are living through the dissolution of the old social order and waiting for a new one to take its place.

"If you were born around 1960 or after, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding," Packer writes. "You have watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape ... When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders left their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone."

Packer writes about people who are coping with the change, like an auto worker from Youngstown, Ohio, or the son of a North Carolina tobacco farmer struggling to find a new way to make an independent living off the land.

He also writes about a political organizer who starts out wanting to make a difference but discovers he has a knack for raising obscene amounts of money, and a Silicon Valley financier who imagines a decentralized economy that thrives outside the constraints of Washington and Wall Street.

Some of the stories are sad, but the book is not without hope. Packer said that every generation or two has seen the old order fall apart and a new one grow up to take its place.

It happened when the Founding Fathers' generation gave way to a battle between parties and "factions." It happened after the Civil War and again after the economic collapse of the Great Depression. "Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion."

The last 40 years or so has been a bad time for political parties, labor unions, churches, newspapers, marriage, homeownership and other institutions that used to be needed to bring people together and provide stability.

We see a mass of contradictions in the world as it exists. There is more freedom to make your own way, but less social mobility. Corporate profits soar while wages stagnate. Technology brings us together, but people still feel alone.

You can't see much of the future when you are in the center of the implosion, so it's hard to predict what a new social contract would look like. But one thing is pretty obvious, it will be another generation that builds something from the rubble we're leaving behind.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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