My reaction to Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” documentary and book was typical of my approach whenever I read biographies. I stand in awe of these individuals, even when they are young, at their accomplishments, their energy, commitment, drive and talents.
It is not too hard to contemplate the next step, leaping from admiration to introspective evaluation on my own life, or in Tom Brokaw’s case, our own generation. What after all have we in the Baby Boom generation accomplished? What kind of world are we turning over to our children? Quickly, I reach the conclusion that we pale by comparison, that the Greatest Generation handed us on a silver platter a society that we have messed up. A collective selfishness gave way to self-indulgence, not hardship and effort, and leaves our children with challenges we did not endure, like monumental national and personal debt and the prospect of insoluble entitlement programs for the ill and elderly which they may not be able to benefit from. We’ll make sure we get ours, thanks to their contributions and those of our parents. We are handing over the dominant nation we inherited to the next generation as a nation in decline, unable to compete against rising powers in Asia or Latin America. We lost our wars, in Vietnam, and the ones on poverty and in drugs.
Depressing? That is, until I saw the “Madmen” episode of Don and Betty Draper littering on their family picnic. It is a scene which everyone who watches the show remembers, cringed from. Advertising executive Don stands up at the end of the picnic, crunches his beer can and tosses it into the woods. His wife Betty hustles the children into the car and then shakes the picnic blanket full of dirty napkins and empty potato chip bags on to the lawn and leaves. Viewers cringed, repulsed, disbelieving that people actually could commit such an unspeakable act.
Then again, much of “Madmen” is, while hopefully exaggerated for dramatic effect, reenacting a bygone time, when people smoked in public places, men ran the office, took liberties with the secretarial pool, stayed hidden in the closet, kept liquor bottles in their offices and drank heavily throughout the work day, among other things.
“Madmen” has triggered a re-evaluation of contributions of the Baby Boomers. It’s not just litter along the highways and in our parks, which still exists, but not to the same extent, thanks to Keep America Beautiful, the EPA, Lady Byrd Johnson, Earth Days, recycling and much more. It’s expanding fuller participation in broad aspects of society (work, study, voting, athletics) on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, ability, age and so on. It’s seat belts and car seats for children; it’s awareness of the costs of war; it’s foreign policy based on human rights and development, not just security; it’s decreasing the threat of atomic war.
What’s striking about some of these is that the accomplishments were grass-roots movements or campaigns. Our most significant achievements were not government-run, but government played catch-up to campaigns already underway, such as adversion to tobacco or seat belts. As a result, these changes are deeply ingrained, ensured to elicit the kind of reaction viewers had to Donald Draper throwing a beer can into the woods.
So, maybe we’re not as great as the Greatest, but we didn’t entirely waste our time on this planet either. Give yourselves a break, boomers.