And I'm sorry
Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…
I’m a Boomer. And therefore I’m responsible for much of what’s wrong with our country and life in general.
I’m sorry. (Sometimes it’s best to accept responsibility right away.)
For years I thought being a Boomer meant simply that I was born between 1946 and 1964. That’s what the term meant when it was first used. “Baby Boomer” was how the term first appeared, and later it was shortened to “Boomer.” By definition, I am a Boomer.
Mostly I have been comfortable with this term. After all, I was the child of “Greatest Generation” parents, a term coined by the NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw in a book which takes those words as its title. When my father returned from World War II, he married my mother, and in relatively short order they contributed three new humans to an unprecedented population surge, known as a “boom.” I simply accepted the notion that each generation would have a term of its own—like “Millennial,” which is a perfectly good description for those born between 1980 and 1995, because most of them became adults at around the turn of the millennium.
I realize that I skipped over “Generation X,” the term that describes those born between 1964 and 1980. I meant no offense. If my wife and I had started our family a few years earlier, we might have had a Gen Xer in the family and would have loved that one as much as the Millennial who came later.
Somewhere along the way, however, the term “Boomer” stopped referring simply to an approximate date of birth and began referring instead to a whole host of problems, including rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarization, and the climate crisis. As I mentioned, I’m sorry for all of this. It’s no way for one generation to leave things for the ones coming along behind.
According to my reading, it was Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012—who first pinned the blame on me and my age cohort. “Essentials are more expensive than ever before,” they complained. “We pay 50 percent of our income for rent, and no one has health insurance. Boomers have left Generation Z with the short end of the stick.”
From there it wasn’t long before the expression “OK Boomer” came into use. When I hear those words, I imagine an exaggerated rolling of the eyes. Also, the words “grumpy old person” come to mind, referring to someone who, for example, is helpless in the presence of new technology.
As you can imagine, I’m liking the term “Boomer” less and less these days. I can be defensive about it too. Look, I can generalize about other age groups as well as anyone. I sometimes see Millennials as whiny, narcissistic, and too politically passive. Don’t get me started.
Still, I am self-aware enough to know that the generations coming after me have a point. Things aren’t good in the world right now, and Boomers came of age with all the advantages and opportunities an age cohort could possibly want. My Greatest Generation parents brought me up in a mostly white and comfortable suburb and told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. And what did we do with all this potential and privilege? Beyond some really good rock and roll music, it’s hard to say. It’s becoming clear, though, that a lot of our promise was squandered. We were never going to be as “great” as our parents, but by most measures we’ve left things worse than we found them. It’s not a good record.
I attended my 50th high school class reunion last week and was startled to see what a large group of Boomers looks like up close. We haven’t aged well. I know I haven’t. Twelve of my classmates, out of a class of 192, have died. Those of us who are left have endured divorces and bankruptcies, surgeries and psychotherapy. It was remarkable that we laughed as much as we did.
But I was struck by something else: We were alike in some ways, but hardly in all. At least half of my classmates seem to have voted for Donald Trump, leaving the other half to avoid the subject. The largest number of us live in Michigan, but the rest live all over the United States, the farthest in Hawaii. About all we had in common—other than being white and having been born during the same year—was that we were all grateful to have made it this far.
Gratitude is an unusual way to define an age group, but it was the one thing we could agree on, mixed with some sadness about life in general. Blame us if you want. Speaking for my classmates, we’re sorry.