The United States today is in a dismal state of affairs—as far perhaps as it is possible to be from the mythical American Dream of peace, prosperity, security, and unity without fomenting open rebellion in the ranks of the citizenry. If you're in doubt about why this is, just stop to ponder who's running the country these days and what that means. In virtually every walk of American life—certainly in government, business, and academe—the Baby Boomers are fully in charge, and it isn't a pretty sight. In fact, it's downright ugly.
In the interest of full disclosure, I herewith admit to being a card-carrying Boomer myself and not especially proud of it. Not completely ashamed yet, not altogether embarrassed, but certainly not proud.
Just look at the "leaders” we've put forward over the past fourteen years to represent us—as president and vice president, as Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials, as party front men on both sides of Capitol Hill. To put it charitably, euphemistically, they've given new meaning to the concept of leadership. I needn't name names; you know who they are. And though some of them, and others like them, had already shed their diapers by 1946, Vietnam was their formative life experience, and they have been card-carrying practitioners of the Boomer ethos ever since.
These individuals aren't the brightest or best, nor the most virtuous or competent, among us. Quite the opposite in most cases. But they're clearly the most ambitious; as such, they define who we are and how history will remember (or forget) us.
Whatever we Boomers may have been or done in our individual capacities, on the big matters that legacies are made of we have been outclassed, out of our depth, unable to offer the strategic leadership that would leave something of value to posterity. Most importantly, we have shown ourselves singularly incapable of greatness.
Maybe there's something to former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw's claim that the World War II generation was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” We'll overlook the fact that they bequeathed the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and McCarthyism to the rest of us. What defined that generation (and supported the claim to greatness), Brokaw notes, was sacrifice, selflessness, modesty and, most of all, signal achievement.
By contrast, Boomers have, for the most part, never had to make significant sacrifices. We didn't live through crippling depression, and we didn't have to wage a grand, glorious, unifying war against regnant evil. Ours was a pointless, prolonged, desultory (and did I say pointless) war that divided the few who served from the many who didn't and left a permanent scar on the psyche of a generation.
Boomers are anything but selfless and modest. In the main, we are totally selfish—self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-serving. Our most visible members are unrepentantly shameless self-promoters, intent on being someone rather than doing something. Given the choice between mingling with celebrities and bettering the human condition, we'll take the former every time.
During our coming of age, when inexperience and unworldliness should have made us the most modest, we were the most impatient and intolerant. We had all the answers, even if we didn't understand the questions.
Hypercritical then, we are hypocritical now. Those who refused to serve when it was our turn are now among the most strident, hawkish flag wavers around. And most of those who were vehemently anti-establishment then have now sold out to (or bought into) “the system.”
Most notably, there's the matter of achievement. Remember the famous lines from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night? “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.” Given the improbability of being born great and the random infrequency of great events, true greatness is almost all about achievement.
So, have we Boomers achieved anything worthy of the ages? The answer, plain and simple, is no. We've been too busy getting ahead. Greatness requires vision, courage, and boldness, none of which we have to offer. We're reformed malcontents turned myopic creatures of convention, perpetuators and exploiters of the status quo, technocrats posing as statesmen. Opportunism is our motive force, rhetoric our métier.
From us you've not gotten, and won't get, sweeping new ideas, institutions, or initiatives that can live in perpetuity and inspire future generations. We still don't have a clue how to get beyond the Cold War (much less how to extricate ourselves from the Iraq debacle with the country's dignity intact), or how to achieve comprehensive health care, reform education, or rid politics of the corrupting influence of money. Surely you don't expect us then to live up to the rhetoric of our youth and eliminate poverty, injustice, or war, craft an enduring post-millennial ideology, or create futuristic global institutions. What's in it for us?
There's a verse of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's that is relevant here:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sand of time.
How regrettable that my generation, oblivious to what it takes to achieve sublimity, seems destined to leave no imprint—no positive imprint, that is—on the sand of time.
Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., where he previously has served as George C. Marshall Professor and J. Carlton Ward Distinguished Professor and Director of Research. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com.