I’m so, so, so sorry: A Baby Boomer apologizes on behalf of his generation
Dear Gen Xers and Millenials,
As a professor and dean for the last 30 years, I have sought, with varying degrees of success, to prepare some of you for the world into which you were to graduate. My generation has been curating that world for a couple of decades now and, as we are about to pass the metaphorical torch, maybe it’s time to take stock of the job we did.
Today’s is a strange world, replete with monsters every bit as scary as the ones that lived under your bed and populated your childhood dreams. Iranian fanatics and a North Korean madman (my apologies to President Trump, but it’s true) are on the brink of possessing or already possess weapons capable of ending this little experiment of ours on Planet Earth. One meaningful revolution in Pakistan or expansion of the current dust-up with India and...I don’t want to think about it.
The Chinese recently landed heavy bombers on what were once inconsequential shoals in the South China Sea, are building a blue-water navy, and continue to menacingly make claims on Taiwan and parts of Japan. Russian troops occupy portions of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, again threaten the Baltics, and in recent years have launched nerve-agent attacks in the U.K.
Hungary and Poland remind us of the terrifying fact that the past is often prelude. People are starving in Venezuela. Italy remains ungovernable. The U.K. is soon to be on its own. And the U.S.A. is flat broke.
The previous generation, the Greatest Generation, saved the world by sending Orwell’s rough men into the crucible of war in the interest of peace. My generation, the Baby Boomers, was to live the life purchased for us by the boys of Normandy, the Ardennes, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other killing fields. White marble crosses and Stars of David in these places testify to the enormous price of that purchase. And live we did. What a party we threw ourselves. So, as I reflect on the goodness of the job my generation has done, I apologize. I apologize for it all.
I apologize that we Boomers bankrupted this great nation. We made all manner of promises to ourselves while leaving you the bill. Herbert Hoover once quipped that “blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.” He was only partially right; it’s far worse than that. I’m not talking about $22 trillion in treasury debt or even the exponential rate at which it’s growing. I’m talking unfunded liabilities.
Were one to add today’s treasury debt to the unfunded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid promises we’ve made to ourselves on your behalf — valued somewhere in the $120 to $200 trillion range depending on assumptions about discount rates, life expectancies, etc. — the total would exceed the market value of the United States of America. (I think that prior to pulling the most powerful lever in the world, every U.S. citizen should be made to write $120,000,000,000,000 in a box on his or her voter registration form.)
In accounting terms, we have a negative net worth. In everyday terms, we’ve already spent or committed everything we have, everything, to support our generation’s lifestyle, now and in retirement. And it’s no accident. Just because we don’t care doesn’t mean we don’t understand. By the time the bill comes due, we’ll have the distinct advantage of being dead. So, if you think paying off your college loans is going to be tough, I have a shovel-ready infrastructure project to sell you.
I apologize for Democrats who simply refuse to staunch the fiscal bleeding, and for Republicans who, er, simply refuse to staunch the fiscal bleeding. I apologize for Donald Trump, who took the White House, in part by campaigning as a fiscal scold, and immediately proceeded to explode the country’s deficit. His largesse followed eight years of generally declining profligacy under President Obama who, in an inter-generational game of kick-the-can, still managed to double, that’s right double, the accumulated national debt during his tenure. In fact, I apologize for almost all of the tanned, bleached, toupeed and plugged worthies we’ve sent to Washington to run your life.
I apologize that the Trumpists’ and, on the world stage, their fellow travelers’ nationalist fervor threatens to morph into xenophobia, race baiting and thinly disguised Jew-hatred. Charlottesville, the Yellow Vests Movement, as well as the Labor Party and its grand cyclops, er, leader, Jeremy Corbyn raise questions as to whether humans are really the highly evolved life-form we like to think we are.
Many of the marchers in Charlottesville and Paris were young. Shame on us that they parroted the tired, hateful rhetoric of the past. Was such invective the pernicious if logical consequence of the way we raised them? Where did they get this stuff if not from us?
One would have hoped that the history of race relations in this country would have required placing the evil, if pathetic, Charlottesville Nazis on an ice floe, not presaged presidential weaseling. In France, one would have liked to believe that the lessons of the past were well-learned and well-taught, but apparently one would be naïve to think so. And in the U.K., the nation that voted the heroic Winston Churchill out of office mere months after he helped save civilization is apparently no wiser.
As Margaret Thatcher once reminded us, democracy is a fragile thing. At its shaky foundation is the requirement of an informed electorate. Well...that didn’t work. Only one-in-four adults in the U.S. can name the three branches of government; one in three can’t name a single branch. Not one. Zero! Zilch! And it doesn’t appear that it’s going to get better any time soon. Only seven of the nation’s top 25 liberal-arts colleges require history majors to take an American history course. You can blame the students, but it’s the generation at the helm, the Baby Boomers, who gave in to their squeals for relativism and feel-good instruction.
It’s comforting to think that great societies will endure, if not triumph, in the end. Someone should ask the Etruscans.
I apologize that we allowed you to think that the world outside of academe will be filled with therapy puppies, safe spaces and crying rooms. I apologize for black graduations, Hispanic graduations, lavender graduations and all of the other graduation-types that celebrate something other than academic achievement. During our lifetimes we’ve witnessed where tribalism leads (think Yugoslavia), and it never leads anywhere you’d want to live.
In fact, I apologize for what’s become of much of our educational system (although we’d be in first place were it not for 30 other countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment survey). Maybe I’m being too harsh. Okay, so we trail Slovenia and Estonia, just be happy you’re not in Moldova.
I apologize for the continuation of race-based preferences, even as the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow fade into the dark mists of history. Teaching at or sometimes leading three of our nation’s more diverse business schools, I’ve seen the damage these preferences visit on protected as well as majority groups. I’ve seen the way some judge the beneficiaries of racial preferences, and I’ve seen the way some of the beneficiaries judge themselves.
I don’t know which is more distressing. Both are personally tragic, economically wasteful, and manifest the worst angels of our nature. While some cite true and truly horrific historical wrongs needing correction, the majority of my minority students seem to view preferences and set-asides — not as compensation for past crimes, but as a post-modernist slur. My experience tells me that incalculable harm is being done intra-psychically and otherwise. I grieve for my black students, as bright and capable as any group I’ve ever taught, who feel themselves discriminated not against, but in favor of, because others feel they can’t otherwise compete.
So let’s review the bidding. My generation has spent its inheritance, beggared its kids, spiked the nation’s education infrastructure, and is at risk of substituting one type of racism for another in the interest of ending racism. On one side of the political ledger we’ve gifted the country Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Chris Christie and Rick Perry (today’s secretary of energy, for those of you without a scorecard). On the other, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid (he’s retired but he still deserves honorable mention), Blago (same although in prison) and Maxine Waters. And things are no better in the Old World.
No need to thank us, we’re going out happy, spending your hard-earned dollars on early-bird specials and Jazzy scooters. History, we know, will be kind. Paraphrasing that paragon of insight and clear thinking, Homer Simpson: “Our generation will never be useless. Future generations can always use us as a bad example!”
Papamarcos was a visiting professor at CUNY’s Baruch College, professor and dean of the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, professor and dean of the business school at Norfolk State University, and is now a clinical professor in the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary.