Which Generation is Responsible for the Crisis?

There is a lot of debate about who is to blame for our current economic woes, the likely culprit is probably not an individual or organization, but rather an entire generation.

Generations span 20 or more birth years and each has a different character. Some certainly blame the Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) while others place the blame on Generation X (born 1961-1981). For a brief overview of generational research see my “start here” page. But what generation is most responsible for our current crisis?

The Baby Boomers were born during a cultural “High”, a time when the American Dream seemed attainable and the upward path of the country seemed Manifest Destiny. They were doted on during their youth and encouraged to be independent thinkers by their parents (many of whom were of the GI Generation, born 1901-1924). By the time they reached young adulthood in the late 1960’s they started to rebel against the established culture of the GI’s by protesting against an ugly war and cultural values they did not agree with. Through the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s the Baby Boomer generation managed to tear down most of the social institutions and norms that had been created by the GI Generation. Although the Boomers were adept at challenging the establishment, they were not nearly as capable at building a new society.

It was in this cultural storm that Generation X came of age. Because of the battles being waged by the Boomers against the established GI’s the young Gen X’ers were mostly ignored during their youth. They became the alienated young adults in the 80’s and 90’s who had to figure out how to get by on their own. As a generation they are extremely independent and pragmatic, but also given to cynicism and selfishness.

It’s easy to say that the Boomers started the downfall with their expectation of extravagant lifestyles and their anti-civic nature. It’s also easy to blame the Gen X’ers, who don’t really seem to care much about the direction society is headed as long as they can protect themselves. But there is another possible culprit in this scenario, and it’s not the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) that came after the GI’s and before the Boomers. They were the “go along to get along” types that provided little leadership or direction (as a group), but also should not shoulder much blame.

No, the generation most responsible for our current crisis is Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation, the GI’s who built our unsustainable American Dream in the first place. The Boomers were right when they called out their elders and stated that the American Dream was shallow and unattainable for a majority of the people. That did not stop the GI’s from continuing to lead as if it could go on forever. A long series of Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr.) along with a vast majority of the legislature and corporate leaders all hailed from the GI Generation, and they mostly believed that our good times could carry on forever, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. This is part of the reason that the various politicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s were so stunned by the Boomer reactions to their leadership. Didn’t everyone agree that the American Dream was the perfect ideal? Well, no, said the Baby Boomers, but unfortunately they did not have a singular viable alternative.

Although the GI Generation might suggest prudence and wagged a finger at our excesses in the last 20 years, they were the ones that chose the direction and got the ball rolling. Yes, they won a war against an evil enemy. Yes, they bolstered a society to have pride in its amazing accomplishments. But the Greatest Generation definitely suffered from the hubris of not knowing when to say when.

This is also a cautionary tale for the young Millennial Generation (born 1981-200?). You have been given all the tools to succeed by your parents, and will face many daunting challenges. I am confident that the Millennials will see us through these difficult times and come out victorious. But there are already early signs of the hubris that the GI’s had that may lead to yet another false ideal and another turn in the cycle of generations. Is it possible for this generation to be both strong and humble? Will they have the strength of character to see that the values that pull us out of a crisis are not necessarily the right foundations for a healthy society? Only time will tell.

22 thoughts on “Which Generation is Responsible for the Crisis?”

  1. As a Millennial I am deeply disheartened at your conclusions. It is undeniable that the creators of our past institutions came from a generation of people that saved their incomes, established plenty of capital and equity, expanded capital and thereby made America a more productive economy. These people that engineered America’s rise to greatness came from the period of the Gilded Age (1880-1920s) and their children, the GIs were the last generation that upheld these beliefs. My dear friend, who fought and conquered an enemy thousands of miles away in a matter of 2 years? The Gis built the great institutions that we have until this day including the major highway system implemented under Eisenhower, the Space Age fosterd by Kennedy and the Pax Americana that lasted from 1950s-1960s.

    It is undeniable to believe that the flower children (aka Baby boomers) have added any value to our society in any meaningful way. The baby boomers inhereted the most POWERFUL nation in the world in terms of economic, militaristic and diplomatic supremacy. And what have they accomplished? They have destroyed the economy through reckless borrowing and spending, they have consumed our nation’s resources to oblivion and our now asking to be bailed out by asking future generations to foot the bill. I severely despised those selfish bastards because they are too selfish to realize that they have truly made America a weaker nation as a result of their own misguided actions. As of 2009, 56% of our national debt is owned by foreigners, including $1 trillion held by the Chinese…and this has all occurred under the Baby Boomer leadership. Tell me, what great institutions have been built by them? What lasting contribution to America’s greatness have they left behind? My answer is none, as they spent their youth getting high and drunk (their cultural experience is exemplified by Woodstock 1969). Why should we keep carrying their dead weight and keep following their misguided policies? Sure, they are hippies that want to preserve the environment. But at what expense? The destruction of manufacturing jobs? Dear friend, I sincerely hope you see the errors of your conclusions.

    And for any Baby Boomers reading , yes my parents are Boomers and I could see how selfish, stupid and misguided they are to this very day with their financial resources. All I have to say is FUCK YOU, and no we will not bail you out when Social Security will come due…..you guys have left way too much debt(some studies cite $400,000 per person per year in debt repayment in 2040) that we will have to cover. No, the chicken has come to roost and you must suffer the consequences.

    1. @globaltrader, it’s true that if all that our nation stands for is Power in terms of economy, military and diplomatic supremacy (translation: being able to tell others what to do), then the GI’s did a fine job. But the Boomers believed there was more that this nation should stand for. As an X’er, Boomers drive me crazy as well, with a bunch of talk and not much action. But when it comes to using up this nation’s (and the world’s) resources, the GI’s were the ones that said it was endless. You are absolutely right that the Boomers did not create any great institutions, that was not their role. Their role was to stand up to the hubris of the GI’s and show them the error of their ways (even though Millennials and many others seem to revere the GI’s as if they were flawless).
      I think many Millennials would find my words blasphemous because GI’s are held in such high regard. But their time is past and the Boomers, for all their preaching and inaction, were helpful in taking down the unsustainable institutions they created. Now the challenge for the Millennials is to build a new society, based on their newer ideals, which will hopefully be more in line with our environment and neighbors. I am confident that the Millennials are up to the task, but it’s important to not get too caught up in hero worship of the GI’s. They blew it in their own way, as does every generation.

  2. No one generation is responsible for the current state of the economy – which by the way is global, not just in the US. Check out this awesome big picture story that explains how we got into this mess http://vimeo.com/3261363

    I like your discussion of generations, but it comes down to each person making a decision to do the right thing (e.g., people not borrowing $ they can’t pay back, brokers not doing no documentation loans, banks not packaging garbage mortgage, insurance companies not insuring instruments whose risk they don’t grasp, etc, etc.) If that were the case, we would not be in this challenging economic times. The economy has cycles, this one was just amplified by people’s bad decisions. Plenty of people from all generations had a role in creating the mess.

    Best, Zeev.

  3. Hi David. I’ve enjoyed following some of the Gen X files, this is my first comment. In a word (to globaltrader), whoa! The stereotypes are not helping, nor are they true for the most part. Some Boomers drank, smoked, and snorted too much, as is true for every generation. Most did not, just as most Americans have not been to colege, and most make very little money. As for the extravagant lifestyles and anti-civic attitudes, I did not see that among my fellow boomers, but I did among the boomers I did not fellowship with: among those who attended college, the business schools were among the most popular, and I imagine (though I don’t know) that that’s been true for generations. That’s the ticket to making serious money (along with law school and some science applications). The renewal of the cooperative business movement and employee-owned businesses are impulses that boomers figured highly in recently.

    Defending boomers is not my main concern though. Who screwed up is not as important a question is how did we screw up, what attitudes, practices, and decisions led to various messes? And the most important question is, what kinds of attitudes, practices, and decisions will clean up the messes and lead those of any generation to follow better practices in the future? (Yes, I’m a boomer and I want the conversation to get back to the future 🙂

    Dave’s final comment speaks to this, “They blew it in their own way, as does every generation.” The great task of every generation is to redeem itself from its weaknesses. What qualities are redeeming? I won’t list the cardinal virtues, rather some that seem especially needed today: thrift, patience, willingness to listen (to each other, to our kids, to the natural systems and animals we live with) which will help us see that the opposite of greed is not just generosity– it includes wisdom, and a willingness to make decisions together. Cooperation and consensus will help us avoid the mistakes that come from limited individual vision. The last thing I would add is to go beyond killing the television. It’s not the television per se, it’s the amount of time and what we watch/listen to/talk and blog about/etc. The more time and energy we spend passively recreating, or negatively reacting to (as opposed to positively responding to), the less we have to learn about, grow in, and build up a sustainable, respectful, and love-motivated world.

    Thanks both of you for the stimulating thoughts!

    1. @Jerry. Yes! Yes! Yes! I think you really hit the nail on the head. Each generation has it’s own unique path and part of that path is figuring out how to “redeem itself from its weaknesses”. We all need to acknowledge those weaknesses (individually and collectively) and find a way to overcome them by applying our strengths. For example, Gen X can be pessimistic, but if we use that character correctly then it turns into a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jerry!

  4. Too many chefs in the kitchen to say one in particular spoiled the broth. And frankly, if you want to say that no one generation is responsible for bringing us out of the WWII crisis (and there is not one) then you can’t lay blame for fomenting a crisis, either.

    How we got here is academic at this point. What really matters is what each generation does next knowing what each of our proclivities, strengths and weaknesses are. How do we solve this crisis without creating the fuel for the next one? And hate to tell you this, Globaltrader, the answer is not “screw the boomers.”

    1. @Scott. Agreed. My point with the post is that we can blame any (and all) generations for this crisis. And until we stop revering one (GI’s) and despising another (Boomers) we are not going to make it very far. As you say, “How do we solve this crisis without creating the fuel for the next one?”. It’s an excellent point and one that each living generation should really think about.

  5. It does seem to me that the current crisis is a joint project contributed to by many generations and forces. I blame anyone who has not read Ayn Rand critically – here we have a rather painful lesson that de-regulating banks can lead to disaster, and that allowing governments to become little more than rubber-stamps for industry rather than real leaders who keep long term goals for society in mind can create a country whose manufacturing base deteriorates into a meaningless service economy. I worked with young people recently, and frequently tried to get them interested in getting into politics if they showed signs of both intelligence, awareness and a burning drive to make things better – but they always seemed to reject the idea as being something that “someone better” could do – I think if we all wait for that “someone better” to come along and fix things, we will be waiting a long time.
    I am not an economist, but that is my view – and I was able to predict the real estate “downturn” of 1990 and act accordingly.
    As a Canadian, I see what is happening at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation lately as a microcosm of this effect. Profit-motive managers in charge there are systematically destroying anything worthwhile in the network. They bring in the most peurile American sitcoms to alienate their audience, try to make money on the nonprofit style programs such as news and current affairs but do that by removing any of their edge or meaning, and try to make their entertainment programming socially redeemable thereby making them humourless and turgid. Oh, but occasionally they try to sell with sex and sensationalism and end up with something as pathetic as the Tudors series. They couldn’t stay with providing excellent Canadian style programs and providing a unique and objective Canadian voice – they had to go trying to provide a watered down version of a big corporate network. The end result is that they are losing viewers in the droves and therefore sinking any value their commercial space may have had. It seems that relentlessly chasing the dollar can lead you to chase it right into the gutter. Especially when there is no knowledge behind these changes. Perhaps again it comes down to education – I am shocked at how uneducated doctors are compared to doctors of my parents generation, OR doctors trained in other cultures (such as India or France) where education still has standards. Teachers should not be afraid to fail students, to mark hard, to challenge the class with hard work, and to not have their classes be “fun”. So many young people are bored out of their minds with school – you can’t set a whole education system to the least intelligent child – I am sorry, some kids DO get left behind – and then maybe they become excellent workers who leave school early and live happily ever after.

    1. @susan – I am not a fan of Ayn Rand, but I agree with your point about our crisis being a joint project. I just saw an article in Fast Company or Wired about how successful NPR has become. Your comment makes me want to read it carefully for signs of what you have seen in the CBC.

      I will say that we judge the Millennial Generation too harshly if we really believe they are less educated than previous generations. They may be the “everyone get’s a trophy” generation, but many of them have earned it through hard work. They may also act entitled, but that does not mean they are incompetent. Comparing grades, SAT scores, social responsibility, and many other factors, they come out WAY ahead of Gen X. Not to say that we don’t have our strong points 🙂

  6. As a gen X / gen Y’er, I feel like the promise that previous generations made to mine was that as long as you get good grades and good SAT scores and get a college degree (bachelors), you’re good to go, and you will be successful. They must have thought this was the case, because they financed the schooling.

    The idea of the American Dream seems to be that as long as you do those things, you’re bound to be employable. And if you’re employable, you’re bound to be able to afford to buy the things that people think of — the house, the car, and the white picket fence. Which was probably true of previous generations, but not mine.

    What I notice is that there’s inflation about what education and experience you’re thought to need to do a job. A person needs a 8 year degree to be even considered for example to work in a library. And that library job is not a well-paying one.

    Education inflation’s part of something I like to call “the institutionalization of everything.”

    Another part of this phenomenon is working for big companies. Today, most people my age (20s-30s in 2009) graduate, and work for someone else. Nobody teaches basic things like how to start your own business, be independent, take responsibility, how to take calculated risks, etc. What they teach you is to continue being part of an organization.

    I think the problem’s not that there’s too much freedom for individuals. In fact, the average joe probably has less freedom than he would have 50 years ago. I think the problem’s that these large institutions, like schools, governments and big corporations are crushing our opportunities, and we go work for someone else. It’s the “institutionalization of everything.”

    Example: If your grandpa wanted to start a coffee shop after getting out of WWII, he’d just go start it. Now there are big rules about that, and you also have the Starbucks’ of the world to contend with. People don’t think about this when they go work for Starbucks. Starbucks has lobbyists. How am I supposed to compete with that?

    Example: Especially way back in my great-grandparents’ generation, local small business ruled the roost. They owned a bakery and were self-sufficient. People grew cabbages in their front lawn. I get mine from Mexico, shipped all the way to Ohio.

    All I’m saying is corporations and institutions do things they think are good. The price of good coffee goes down because Starbucks has millions of stores. But there are unintended consequences of everything. People are creatures of habit and they like consistency, so they love Starbucks and not having to grow cabbage.

    My generation is paying the price for this institution-big-business way of thinking. And I’m afraid there’s no going back. Big companies are efficient at what they do – but it sucks the life out of you. Your actions appear to have no consequences.

    The current crisis comes not from any generation, but from institutional policies to allow lending to people and other banks without considering risk: http://tinyurl.com/cobtqg

    Big companies did clever accounting to make big profits. And now we’re bailing them out. The only way we know how: through another institution: government. Taxes.

    1. @Scot, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree that there are a lot of problems with the institutions we have created, and younger generations are going to have to restructure and deal with creating new ones for our modern times. As a Gen X’er (born between 1961-1981) I never felt that good grades and a college degree would get me much of anything (even though I got both). The American Dream always felt like something foreign to me, and I think that is true for much of my generation.

      1. I remember being pushed to college in the 1990’s then graduating in a crummy job market and a crummy income challenge. All my peers where all buying the college high status. I’m glad to graduate but like Dave, I didn’t think it’d really relate to my true interests.

  7. Wow. That was quite a read. I will admit I was highly intrigued by the title of this post, and yet after reading it I feel slightly disatisfied. I can see how it might be beneficial when researching to narrow things down by looking at a group of people instead of individuals but to blame a group for our current crisis seems a little far fetched. Maybe not every individual in the GI generation believed in creating these so called “unsustainable” institutions. But obviously the people in crucial roles did (president) therefore the whole survival of the fittest notion. I guess what I am trying to say is blaming a generation seems like the wrong area to be placing our energy. We should seek to understand past generations mistakes, successes etc. then move on to SOLVING the present. Still intersting to read posts like these.

    1. @Rachael – I was a little dissatisfied after writing it as well 🙂

      I meant to play a bit of Devil’s Advocate in the post. Part of my (convoluted) point is exactly what you said: instead of focusing on blaming Silents, Boomer, X’ers or Millennials we should just get on with solving the problems in the present. By blaming the GI’s, who are mostly dead, perhaps we can move on to action instead of moralizing and blaming. Every person and generations has a particular character and makes particular mistakes. The goal, in my mind, is to figure out how to work with those personalities to create something better.

  8. But doesn't blaming the GIs go against one of the main tenents of the Strauss and Howe's generational theory: that the fourth turning is a dramatic climax because of the refusal of a society to gradually adjust itself in order to avoid calamity? And the whole generational dynamic works on the idea of time being cyclical in nature (turnings) rather than linear. How can you blame a generation whose attributes where about making progress and changing society as the ones who are to blame for it when this whole generational theory rests on the idea that a society heads for calamity because of its refusal to make progress by adjusting itself accordingly through change? Looking back on their circumstances, changing society wasn't so much of a choice as it was necessary; their youth was frugal because survival necessitated it and then they were staring down gun barrels in a world mobilized by war. How could these same people support massive personal debt and a lack of banking regulations that created the poverty of their childhoods and ultimately the social and political crises that sent them to war in the first place?

    The GIs rebuilt society after it collapsed on itself, but like you say in your post, it was their children, the Boomers, who tore at that society but didn't offer real alternatives. The Boomers started the breakdown by voting for Reaganomics and shunning the frugality of the Silent and GI generations. And the Boomers have ever since held the reins of power because of their sheer size — the body politic. The lack of memory of the previous crisis starts with them, so naturally they would have fewer misgivings about gambling with hedge funds and loading up on debt. The GIs moved to the suburbs and started the mass dependence on automobiles, and even though the Boomers raged against their parents, they continued that same lifestyle. The GIs brought the television home and their Boomer kids are still sitting in front of it. And its the Boomers that are the most partisan and polarized group, who are holding the upper-echelons of power now and refusing change by continuing the Culture War from the 60s and 70s, which instead of stabilizing society, is accelerating it further into crisis.

    Honestly, I don't think we are going to get anywhere until the Boomers' children (Millennials) barge into their parents living room, shut off the TV and explain to their parents the abyss that comes along with high unemployment in an unsustainable economy and the calamity that their dependence on fossil fuels is brewing, we are not going to have future as a society. I guess you could call it, as part of your video showing the circular generational dynamics and what Strauss and Howe call the "Hero" generation's "movement during the crisis," as the Millennial Uprising.

    In the meantime, I'll will continue to try and detach my father from his TV.

  9. Here’s the G.I. script to put on this Site: Directions for G.I.’s

    “G.I. Script”

    “The Hero does not look forward to passing on during an Unraveling, an
    era of disintegration for the social order he once constructed. It is
    the Hero’s late-in-life frustration to see so many problems fester and
    younger people unable to fix them. The Hero must acceptthat he may never
    know what the next Crisis will be, nor how it will resolve. However, he
    can take solace in knowing it will happen when the Hero’s shadow( the
    Prophet) plunges society into an era of emergency like the one in which
    the Hero once thrived. Yet the Hero gains no comfort from this. Finding
    the temperament of the younger Porphet too self-centered, he fails to
    understand how this temperament is needed to raise a child Hero whose
    power and virtue can match his own.

    The G.I.’s script requires them to move beyond the old residue of
    their old Awakening-era quarrel with Boomers. G.I.’s need to find in
    Boomers the spirit of their sires-and in Millennials the scoutlike
    virtue of their child selves. G.I.’s should welcome the Boomer style as
    necessary to raise children who can someday soldier a Crisis as well as
    they soldiered World War II. To do that, however, G.I.’s must allow
    Boomers to secure a place in public life for Millennial children. That,
    in turn, requires the G.I.’s to accept that the well-being of
    Millennials (and not of themselves) must be goverment’s highest
    Unraveling-era priority.

    Alone among the adult archetypes, G.I.’s possess the civic virtue that
    America will need to triumph in the Fourth Turning. They know better
    than anyone else the degree of public sacriface that will be required.
    However, their post-Awakening seperation from the Boomer-led culture has
    diminished the G.I. reputation for selflessness, eroded the national
    memory of their youthful valor, and served as an excuse for them to shed
    their original notions of duty and sacrifice. To prepare America for
    the Fourth Turning,G.I.’s must reestablish their reputation among the
    young by reverting to the old Depression-era substance of their civic
    virtue (the community first attitude) and rejecting it’s late-life
    variant (the we first attitude). Younger generations will never compel
    G.I.’s to give up their Hero reward. By agreeing to relinquish some
    unneeded portion of it, however, G.I.’s could transform themselves from
    seniro citizens to citizen seniors, able to speak to the young with
    renewed authority about the need to arrest the current decay of civic
    behavior.

    If G.I.’s fail at this script, the America they once saved will be
    weakened. Lacking resources and civic nuture, Millennial children might
    not grow up with enough of that legendary “right stuff” to triumph in
    the Fourth Turning. The G.I.’s , who put the sword back in the stone
    after V-J Day, have waited four generations for a child to arrive who
    could pull it out again. That time is nearing. If G.I.’s see this and
    apply thier script well, they can die believing, as Sir Thomas Malory
    wrote of King Arthur:Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus
    (Here lies Arthur, who was once King, and King will be again).”

    The Fourth Turning 1997 PG.322-323 Chapter11.Preparing for the Fourth Turning

  10. Dave: Another reminder of the GIs was during their Senior citizen years, was from the books the Fourth Turning, 13th Gen, The Greatest generation was not relevant in values debates. If Xers remember, not relevant in cultural trends beyond the 1950’s. This is another lesson for Millennials as they defuse the blue/red zone culture wars but another early sign of being irrelevant in another set of values divide and cultural creativity like the GIs were from Boomers as the upcoming prophet launch the next Awakening. Remember we discussed how you believe Millennials would end up developing a fairly shallow if all virtual culture?

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