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.