Boomers to This Year's Grads: We Are Really, Really Sorry

June 10, 2009 | By Douglas Belkin

In 1969, Baby Boomers took podiums at college graduations around the country and pledged to redefine the world in their image.

Forty years later, they have, and now they are apologizing for it. Their collective advice for the class of 2009: Don't be like us.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, 60 years old, told the graduating class of Butler University last month that boomers have been "self-absorbed, self-indulgent and all too often just plain selfish."

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, 55, told Grinnell College graduates in Iowa that his was "the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts."

And Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, at 44 barely a Boomer himself, told seniors at Colorado College that the national creed of one generation standing on the shoulders of the next was at risk "because our generation has not been faithful enough to our grandparents' example."

The Baby Boom generation represents roughly 78 million people born from 1946 to 1964. Far from the hope and idealism they expressed when they were coming of age, Boomer commencement speakers today -- in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- are striking a tone marked with self-recrimination and gloom.

But their apologies fell flat with some students, who wondered why the speakers weren't urging their fellow Boomers to do more to clean up the mess they created.

"They have been pretty selfish, but they're still going to be around," said Ben Slaton, a Butler graduate. "They need to do their part."

The speeches, which were tailored to their audience of early 20-somethings, understandably dwelled on what younger people could do to help fix the country's problems. And no matter what this year's crop of speakers said, they were likely to encounter skepticism from students entering the worst job market in decades.

Furthermore, these speakers did at least apologize for missteps on their watch, when they also could have pointed to their many accomplishments, from progress shrinking racial and gender divides to stunning advances in technology to the opening up of educational opportunities.

But Neil Howe, an author and historian who has studied the cultural impact of different generations on society, said the raft of apologies sounded like a ploy to absolve a generation of its mistakes. "You think about what an apology does, it allows you to maintain the moral high ground."

It wasn't supposed to come to this. In 1969, a few months before Woodstock helped define her generation, Hillary Clinton repudiated an "acquisitive and competitive corporate life" in her class address at Wellesley College. She called for "a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living."

Initially, that impulse helped propel social movements and bring an end to the Vietnam War, Mr. Howe said. But the idea eventually "caved in on itself" as boomers focused more on "their own inner voyage" and less on their obligation to society.

In his address at Colorado College, Sen. Bennet, a Democrat, used three figures to make his point about boomers' failures. Since the beginning of the decade, annual median family income in the U.S. declined by $300; health-care costs climbed by 80%; and the cost of higher education jumped 60%.

"We have limited the potential of future generations by burdening them with our poor choices and our unwillingness to make tough ones," Mr. Bennet said.

That theme echoed around the country. At Texas Tech University, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, 51, told graduates: "I know you're looking up here at my generation and you're thinking, 'Great, thanks, just when it was our turn, you broke it." Speaking at the Boston College commencement last month, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns compared the divisiveness of this era with the Civil War period. In an interview, he said the boomers' tragedy was to "squander the legacy handed to them by the generation from World War II."

Some commencement speakers went beyond castigating their generation's failures to highlight opportunities presented by the current crisis. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, 53, who has criticized his generation as selfish, urged graduates to answer the call to service to build a sustainable energy sector. Mr. Bennet asked graduates to join him in working for affordable health care.

Stefanie Sanford, an education advocate who has written a book about the interplay between the generations, last month told graduates at Hood College in Maryland that their generation is well-suited to make a difference. The so-called Millennials, born between 1982 and 2001, "just want to focus on what works," she said in an interview.

Julie Meador, who just graduated from the University of Kentucky and listened to the speaker at her commencement apologize for the financial mess her class is inheriting, said she isn't thinking about saving the world just yet. The 21-year-old marketing major is earning $7.50 an hour as a part-time sales associate at the Gap while looking for a position that allows her to put her degree to use.

"Right now what I'm thinking about most is finding a good job," she said. "My plate is pretty full."


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