From ‘the greatest generation’ to ‘the greatest generational failure’


Has the baby boom generation become one of the greatest failures in leadership in American history? Walter Russell Mead, himself a boomer, recently published a thought-provoking essay in regard to this question, and his answer seems to be an unequivocal “yes.”

“At the level of public policy and moral leadership, as a generation we have largely failed,” Mead proclaims. He cites a 30-something Washington Post writer who states that the boomers inherited “a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers,” which created an atmosphere of safety from external threats. They also “were endowed with opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work.”

And what did the boomers do with such fortuitous circumstances?

The political class slumbered as the entitlement and pension crisis grew to ominous dimensions. Boomer financial leadership was selfish and shortsighted, by and large. Boomer CEOs accelerated the trend toward unlimited greed among corporate elites, and Boomer members of corporate boards sit by and let it happen. Boomer academics created a profoundly dysfunctional system that systemically shovels resources upward from students and adjuncts to overpaid administrators and professors who by and large have not, to say the least, done an outstanding job of transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to future generations. Boomer Hollywood execs created an amoral morass of sludge — and maybe I’m missing something, but nobody spends a lot of time talking about the towering cultural accomplishments of the world historical art geniuses of the Boomer years. Boomer greens enthusiastically bet their movement on the truly idiotic drive for a global carbon treaty; they are now grieving over their failure to make any measurable progress after decades spent and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away. On the Boomer watch the American family and the American middle class entered major crises; by the time the Boomers have finished with it the health system will be an unaffordable and dysfunctional tangle — perhaps the most complicated, expensive and poorly designed such system in the history of the world.

Mead blames this monumental generational failure on a rejection of the “maturity” of the past. In his words, “we didn’t need their stinking faith, their stinking morals, or their pathetically conformist codes of moral behavior. We were better than that.” He continues,

Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment. Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty. That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.

Too many Boomers high and low clung to the ideology of youth we developed back when we didn’t trust anybody under thirty and believed that simply by virtue of our then-recent vintage we represented a unique step forward in planetary wisdom and human capability; those illusions are pardonable in a twenty year old but contemptible in those whose advancing years should bring wisdom. Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves.

Mead goes on to detail many cultural, political and economic sins of his generation. But perhaps his most stinging indictment comes when Mead suggests that “it is hard to avoid the sense … that somehow in our quest for new frontiers, shiny new ideas, and most of all that uncompromising demand for personal fulfillment at all costs — we neglected the most important things.”

Mead’s essay raises two important points, among others, that are worth noting. First, though Mead does not write in these terms, the essay highlights the wisdom inherent in a conservative perspective. Radical “progressive” thought is reckless in that, at its core, it reflexively rejects the thinking and values (read: wisdom) of previous generations because it views the past with disdain or outright hostility. Instead, radical “progressive” thinking blindly assumes that history has fated current and future generations with a greater share of reason and “enlightenment” than was granted their ancestors.

Second, Mead’s essay illustrates how soon the cultural inheritance of freedom and prosperity can be squandered by subsequent generations. To quote Ronald Reagan’s 1961 address to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream.” And as The Gipper pointed out, prophetically from the perspective of Mead’s essay, “[freedom] must be fought for, protected and handed on for [the next generation] to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”