A blogger reacted to an article recently posted by another author sayng, "Anyone who thinks Boomers aren't resented by a large proportion of Gens X and Y is living in a dream world. But what else is new?" This comment struck me not only because of its biting sentiment, but because I felt myself reluctantly empathetic. Being a Boomer myself, it made me wonder: Are we in fact dreaming, or finding ways to discount and distort what this younger set is saying over and over? They are clearly angry and it might benefit us all if we took some time to just listen more carefully.
The article that provoked the blogger's comment, in my opinion, gave him cause to bite back. It dismissed the schism between generations as "completely manufactured; A faux battle whipped up by provocateurs who find reason to pit eras against each other." The author described Gen X and Y's anger as a "red herring," serving to deflect from the real issue, "Gerascopia," the fear of aging. She asked, "Does anyone really think the Generations since are paying any attention to what the Boomers did or didn't do?" Her answer: "Laughably, no! They don't have time and, frankly, they don't care." At the risk of alienating Boomers who might resonate with this response, I have to say that I believe it perpetuates the perception of us that many find disturbing: a self-involved, chest beating and indifferent group.
While assigning labels to entire generations is not accurate or helpful, completely dismissing their issues isn't either. Another comment, this one by a Boomer, validated Gen X and Y's angst: "We have left a generation without jobs, health- care or a free college education, unlike most of the rest of the world. That generation should be called the 'ninja' generation. No job, no income. That's our legacy, and we should be ashamed." Clearly, branding one group as "Ninjas" or another as "Gerascophobic" is the kind name-calling that ignores how complicated we all really are. But, when strong, angry feelings are repeatedly expressed, there are usually good reasons for them.
I recently wrote a piece here, "True Boomer Power," addressing this issue. Its intent was to heighten my generation's awareness of how we are viewed by others. I highlighted articles in the media that reinforced the perception (or misconception) that Boomers were self-involved and self-promoting and suggested we take actions to change that perception. Largely, it was a plea to work together with younger generations to deal with global issues facing us all. I placed the burden largely on the backs of Boomers, whom—by nature of our age, experience and numbers—I believe hold an important responsibility to those that follow. I received very strong reactions to that piece too—and not just from the 50-and-older crowd. Some were thoughtfully written, from readers of all ages who understood where I was coming from. Many were passionate, even volatile—from Boomers who felt defensive and Gen X'ers and Y'ers who felt deeply resentful.
These comments got me thinking. How can we understand this inter-generational hostility? What is the anger really about? Can it be explained simply as elderly crankiness or youthful rebelliousness, the kind we historically find between generations? Is it "manufactured," as the aforementioned article suggests, simply to create drama for authors like me to write about? I suppose this back and forth emotional interchange fascinates me because I am a psychologist—trained to listen carefully, read between the lines and get to the bottom of things. Or maybe it's just the optimist in me, who believes we can do better than react passively or reflexively to this generational conflict. In any case, I truly feel we are missing an opportunity to understand each other and work together. There are reasons behind what we are hearing—from both sides—and they are worth further discussion.
Below are a couple of the comments posted in reaction to the article I wrote. When you read them, listen not only to the words, but to their tone. Instead of reflexively reacting to the labels or dismissing the accusations, let's see if we can come up with wiser solutions.
One Gen X'er's anger was palpable in his comment:"The Boomer generation has done more to steal from future generations than any other in history. The deficit, Social Security, precious natural resources like water, fossil fuels, trees and forests, toxic chemicals, etc. As a Gen X'er, I'm angry."
Another Gen X'er called her feelings disdainful: "Growing up as an X, I always had feelings of disdain toward the Boomers. They were like that kid who goes off to college and comes back all condescending and arrogant, like they know better than everyone else, even though you know they are still kids and their immaturity makes them act as such."
Here, I heard anger mixed with feelings of fear and loss: "Infrastructure is crumbling, 50 million with no medical care, another 15 million on food stamps and the worst financial crisis in 75 years ... Stop congratulating yourselves and help fix the mess you've created in this country!"
More fear and loss, this comment was about losing security: "I have yet to see many wonderful things that have come from that generation, other than dependence on Lipitor, Viagra and evidently making sure that every job that could be available to anyone under 40 is shipped overseas immediately."
Fear and loss often lead to blame: "And what do we have from the Boomers? Three to four decades of near absolute hedonism."
More blaming: "As always, Boomers overrate their importance."
Feeling helpless also leads to blame: "If they're so powerful and wise, then why is the U.S. spending most of its yearly budget on defense and two wars?"
And resentment: "The thing about Boomers that upsets me is their belief they changed everything."
Gen X'ers and Y'ers fear their future: "It may not be true that Boomers are past caring, but it's certainly true that they have left a screwed up world for future generations to deal with."
They fear for their children: "Boomers as a generation have got to be the worst grandparents that the western world has ever seen. Given their level of self-involvement, they are more concerned about their dating lives and social events than their role as grandparents."
And for their children's future: "My children will not have the opportunity to have the same fond memories of their grandparents that I have of mine because of my parents and in-law's all-encompassing narcissism."
So what do I hear? Clearly, there is nothing new about each generation having its own urgent needs and fears. For the the Greatest Generation, it's about debilitating illness and long term medical care. For the 'forever young' Boomers, it's the physical realities of aging and retirement fears. For Gen X'ers and Y'ers, it's about raising families and finding jobs to support them. Generational issues may not be new, but what is—and this is the concern I hear the younger set telling us loud and clear—is that they are the first to have an acute awareness that we are a growing population, living longer lives than ever before in an increasingly fragile and depleted environment. And they are scared! They feel helpless and are reacting with rage.
One blogger, also a Boomer, expressed what he took from my article "Leaving Narcissism Behind" in his comment: "As a Boomer who is closer in age to Gen X, I'd say we both have a right to be angry, but here's the thing: Blaming others accomplishes nothing, while taking responsibility for ourselves, as you sound as though you are doing, changes everything. So, let's do our best, regardless of generation, to clean up the mess."
Another wrote: "We're beyond calling out each generation ... coming together now transcends all ages, gender, cultural and sexual differences. We are one human race, and we had better come together to hold it together."
None of us really has the luxury of blaming those who came before or ignoring those who come after. Some say it is time for Boomers to pass the torch to the next generation, that we are too old and too late to impact change. Others believe we've done our share, and it's our turn to relax, indulge and look after ourselves. I say, we have too many vital years ahead of us faced with too many issues that concern us all to simply let the generations that follow fend for themselves. I believe we need to let our torch continue to burn with the kind of caring and generosity we claimed would always be among our core values.
Please join this ongoing conversation and tell me what you hear when you really listen?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.
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