I was born in 1951, part of the postwar surge in child-bearing that came to be known as the Baby Boom. The Baby Boom was preceded by relatively low birthrates during the Depression and the War, and it was followed by a more drawn out “baby bust” that probably traces its origins to the wide availability of contraceptives and abortions after the 1960s. Whatever the causes, the demographic bulge that baby boomers created as they gradually aged has had important consequences for the nation’s economy and culture since we first began poking our heads out of the womb in 1946.
When I was a child in the 1950s, there was much concern about providing adequate schooling to all the new kids, so government at every level spent more money on public education. When I was an adolescent in the 1960s, politicians and policymakers were worried about youthful experimentation with drugs, so the government poured money into drug enforcement. When we entered the labor force, the government tried harder to create jobs, and as we grew older it added healthcare benefits like the prescription drug subsidy. At each stage in the generation’s progression, politicians have understood that they ignored the vast number of votes associated with the Baby Boom at their peril, and so they tried hard to respond to the challenges that boomers were then facing. It will be the same when we are all retired.
So what does this have to do with national security — the supposed focus of the Early Warning blog — other than the fact that entitlements for aging baby boomers will make it harder to afford defense programs in the years ahead? Well, what’s the next stage that baby boomers will face after retirement? C’mon, you can say it. That’s right — death. The final stage. The one challenge for which government has no answers other than trying to prolong the preceding stage. Is it possible that current ideas about security are being shaped by the fact that the baby boomers who largely run our society are increasingly forced to face up to their own mortality?
Obviously, many of our healthcare initiatives are aimed at prolonging life, but you’d expect that in any generation. What I’m talking about is the undertone of panic and fatalism that increasingly permeates our popular discussion of the future. The global warming debate is an obvious example, but turn on the Science Channel and you’ll be treated to a dozen alternative apocalypses that might befall us any day now. Meteor hits. Cosmic rays. Reversing gravitational fields. Virulent diseases of every imaginable sort, perhaps engineered by mad scientists. Such concerns seem to pervade our public-policy discussions to a greater degree now than they did back when the Russians had 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at America. The pessimism infects popular culture too, in movies like The Day After Tomorrow (wherein a U.S. president who looks a lot like Dick Cheney is forced to emigrate to Mexico to escape the effects of global warming) and 2012 (where global flooding causes the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy to land right on top of the White House).
Let’s face it, the youthful optimism of the New Frontier has given way to pervasive pessimism, even though just about everything has gotten better since the Kennedy days both at home and abroad. The one thing that’s gotten worse is that baby boomers are now a lot older, and they know there is no escape from the death that awaits them early in the new millennium. So maybe there is a link between the aging of America’s dominant generation and the declinist mentality that permeates our public discourse. I’m not proposing this as an all-purpose explanation for our dour national mood, but when members of the dominant group in your society know they will soon be dead, it doesn’t exactly bolster that old can-do spirit.
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