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What old people think

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In talking with my age cohort of people over 70, I generally find the following sentiments expressed: “Our generation—the first wave of Baby Boomers–was really lucky. We grew up at a time when the U.S.A. was at peace (Vietnam wasn’t exactly “peace” but it sure beat World War II). The land was basically secure from internal mayhem. The social contract endured; the streets were mostly safe. And the country was prosperous. We did well, for the most part, accumulating such savings as we were able, buying homes (most of us), and retiring with pensions. And, of course, Social Security is still intact, as is Medicare. So all in all, in the post-World War II period in America, we did pretty well.”

At the same time, we shake our heads in sorrow. “Sadly, all that seems to be changing. Our kids and grandkids might suffer, and suffer badly, as America hits the skids. Will they have jobs? Will they be able to save enough to retire on? Will they ever be able to afford a house? Will the deepening social crises make their lives unbearable? As the social contract erodes, what kind of future are they inheriting?”

This is how we think, and let me assure you, we don’t do so happily. I know of no one who wants the younger generations to inherit a broken, violent, polluted mess. And yet, we don’t know what to do about it. The country and the world seem like they’re spinning out of control. Everything is so broken. Nobody has a crystal ball, but if in your imagination you plot out the trend lines into the future—to 2030, 2040, 2050—you have to wonder if America is going to look like something out of Mad Max. So, in that sense, we old people, while glad we were spared that evil, anguish over the fate of younger Americans.

Was my generation selfish? Some say so. The case against us, roughly, is this: We looted future generations of money by allowing the national debt to pile up to insane proportions. We let the environment go to hell. We failed to tackle the issues of race and gender equality. We allowed our political system to degenerate into the mixed martial arts combat it now is. We sold out on our hippie ideals, the minute we got old enough to worship money. For all our Sixties talk of “all you need is love,” we became obnoxiously materialistic.

Much of this critique is true. I could offer defenses: we tried our best. We became involved in our communities, gave to charity, voted for progressive politicians. Perhaps our best defense is this truth: it’s not so easy to change the world. In fact, it’s downright hard. We could also offer, in our defense, another truth: We did accomplish a lot. We managed to get gayness accepted, even gay marriage. That’s a huge deal! We advanced the cause of women by leaps and bounds: when we were kids, women were expected to be “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.” With respect to Black lives, I’m reluctant to speak for that community; but it seems inarguable that the majority of African-Americans are better off today than they were fifty years ago. We also created the modern environmental movement; we’ve made amazing inroads in protecting our planet. Of course, in all these areas, there’s a lot more to be done. But still, we’ve nudged the ball a little further down the court.

My point is that the Baby Boomers were not entirely a negative phenomenon. But it’s what we failed to accomplish that the younger generations hold us accountable for, and all I can do is plead mea culpa. We old people hope the younger generations do better. What they’re doing in the streets now, against considerable blowback, post-George Floyd, is remarkable; we hope it has traction, and results in better things. At the same time, there’s nothing we old people can say that will change the minds of some younger people who see us as incredibly selfish, short-sighted, arrogant and stupid.

Some people say there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. They’re wrong. Democrats aren’t perfect—who is? But if America had been governed by a Democratic majority for the last 50 years, instead of a recalcitrant, reactionary Republican rump, things would be so, so much better for everyone. So no matter what you think of American politics—no matter who you are—I beg of you to vote in November, and vote a straight Democratic ticket. A third-party vote is a vote for Trump. Not voting is a vote for Trump. A vote for Trump is a vote for Trump. And Trump is the gravest peril facing our future, the gravest peril facing the world.

One thing we old people know, which younger people may not yet grasp, is that change comes only with difficulty; and the bigger the change is, the more difficult achieving it becomes. Dr. King said the moral arc bends toward justice. He did not call it an express train. Western civilization has been championing for Justice since the time of the Biblical Prophets. We will get there, one step at a time.

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