The other night after the ball fell in Times Square, toasting the New Year, a couple I've known for decades looked pretty glum. "Why are these people celebrating?" my friend—let's call him Jim—wondered as he looked over at the bright, smiling, cheering, mostly young faces on TV. "We're all just another year closer to being dead."
"Come on," I said, the anthropologist in me stirring. "This is one of the great rituals of the modern world. We dance, we make noise, we even sing Auld Lang Syne even though nobody knows what it means. Okay, there's a counterphobic aspect to it—we celebrate partly because we know what you said. But we're also toasting the joys of a pretty good year behind us, and hoping for a better one ahead."
But their Grinchy assault on New Year's Eve continued, despite the fact that they are among the most successful humans on the planet-both award-winners in their respective professions, with two attractive, successful kids—one happily married, one soon to be-and all the comforts of upper-middle-class life. Then Jim said something about how a great generation is passing.
I thought he meant The Greatest Generation-that of our parents, who slogged through the Great Depression, defeated Fascism, held Communism at bay and at last brought it down without triggering nuclear war, and still had the strength and optimism to raise a bunch of ungrateful brats, namely us. To the extent that it's measureable, their suffering and sacrifice in depression, war, and political threats was far, far greater than ours.
"I'm tired of hearing about the so-called 'Greatest Generation.' We accomplished more than they did." Jim was referring to rights for minorities and women, but those trends began in the forties and fifties, and our (okay, impressive) advances built on theirs. Yet, in those few minutes after midnight, as the first official Baby Boomers turned 65 (the last ones will do that twenty years from now), a pall of gloom hung over our whole generation.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, Boomers are more dissatisfied (at 80 percent!) than any other age group, even the elderly. Dissatisfaction among Millennials (18-29), hit far harder by unemployment, is only 60 percent. Yet we Boomers seem to think we've suffered most from the Great Recession, and we're the most likely to think that our standard of living is lower than that of our parents.
The reality is we've been living high off the hog all our self-absorbed lives, borrowing relentlessly against our children's future. Our parents handed us a national debt equal to 28 percent of GDP; we're handing our kids a debt proportionally more than double that, at 62 percent of current GDP. And we're not stopping any time soon: Boomers are more likely than other adults to oppose raising the age for Social Security benefits or taxing high-end health insurance benefits.
We lost money in the recent crisis, so we may have to postpone retirement. O dreadful news! Social Security was slated to start at 65 when people only lived a few years after that, and many were already feeble. Today 65 is the new 50 and, with Medicare paying the doctor's bills and Social Security paying the rent, we can expect to live a couple of decades at our kids' expense. Would it really break our hearts to start at 67, so our kids can have a good life as well?
We are eating their seed corn and whining all the way. The Boomer Bust will come crashing down on them and their kids, and they will look back and curse our selfishness, just as we look back, and if we are honest, thank The Greatest Generation for their sacrifices. I'm one of the ones who will turn 65 this calendar year, so like the other first-year Boomers, I had what I call my Beatles birthday last year—you know, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"
Most Boomers reaching 64, will be able to answer yes to those questions. Of course, those who have lost jobs or homes in this crisis are experiencing disaster at a very awkward time of life. But that is not most of us. On the whole, life has been good to Boomers, and we need to appreciate it. Do I have bad moments in the middle of the night, thinking about my losses-physical, economic, and worst of all in unfulfilled dreams? Sure, and so did all generations before ours. But they sucked it up, and so can we.
Last night I went to the 60th birthday party of another friend. The poor guy's face was the very picture of Boomer Gloom. I told him life begins at 60, which is a gross exaggeration, but it's no lie to repeat the cliché: This is the first day of the rest of your life. What's the alternative? Walking around with a frown on our face for whatever time we have left? Spreading debt and regret to younger generations?
Get over it. Put a smile on your face and a hand on the shoulder of someone younger. Give them a little push forward and let them know that life is good, that when they get older it can still be good. Let's put an end to Boomer Doom and Gloom. As one of the oldest of that privileged and successful generation, that's the advice I have for everyone in it, starting with myself.