The Nation's Pulse

Screwing It Up, One More Time

The Boomers at 60 -- more untrustworthy than ever.

By 12.27.05

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The other week, Dallas Morning News correspondent Bob Moos wrote a widely-circulated article (from the business section, yet!), titled, "At 60, Boomers Re-Define Aging." The precious self-regard of the boomer drips from the subhead, "National conference to explore challenges as transformative generation turns a corner," and from the lead, "Here come the 'abbies.' That's short for 'aging baby boomers,' the newest nickname for the 78 million Americans who have transformed this country at each stage of life."

A little later on, Moos quotes some unnamed somebody who says, "Sixty is the new thirty," contrasting it to the People's Park protesters' "Never trust anybody over thirty."

What do you want to bet that Moos, his copy editor, and the editor of the business section all belong to the boomer generation? The entire story oozes the worst of the baby boomer generation, the self-obsession, the propensity for acting as though nobody has ever gone through whatever-it-is before, the snoring inclination to create slogans and trends (viz. Gail Sheehy's Passages), the one-more-time insistence that the personal is the political.

I am a boomer so far as the calendar goes. For everything else, count me out.

I GOT SOBER WHEN I WAS 33. Aside from everything else I learned and gained from that experience, one thing stood out: I met a whole lot of old guys. Real old guys, guys in their 60s and 70s. I made friends with them. They were kind and helpful to me, and they showed me how to live in an unassuming and natural way at that age. Viagra had not yet come on the market. My friends didn't have young trophy girlfriends and they didn't run around in unbecoming costumes in public.

Contrast the old guys being held up to us by the TV commercial industry. They wear studly athletic gear. They ride motorcycles through the mud, run high hurdle races, or jump out of airplanes. Count on a journalist to include at least one such "role model" in a story, and Bob Moos does.

"'I'm postponing old age,' said Gene Putnam of Dallas, one of 3.4 million Americans born in 1946.

"Mr. Putnam is the father of two school-age boys, is an avid runner and weightlifter, and is an executive with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. He says he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. 'I have too much to do.'"

One reason Mr. Putnam may have too much to do is that the boomer generation is "in debt up to my eyeballs," to quote another TV commercial. The drivers of the widely noted housing boom, boomers have refinanced their houses over and over again during the recent time of falling interest rates. Each time, they have pulled out extra cash from their burgeoning equity, often investing that extra cash in the stock market. That, in turn, argue some analysts, has driven a stock market rise that cannot be sustained.

Boomers have gotten richer and richer -- on paper. But come retirement, who is going to buy all those pricey assets of the boomer generation? Wharton Professor Jeremy Siegel maintains, in his new book The Future for Investors, that globalization will step in. But what if Mr. Yang or Mr. Gupta is smart enough to wait for the prices to go down on Americans' holdings before stepping in to buy?

MOOS'S NEWS HOOK was the start of the four-day White House Conference on Aging, slated for Sunday, December 18. The comments of one Molly Bogen, director of a senior help center in Dallas, framed the conference's focus nicely. On the one hand, she said, "We boomers haven't been afraid to ask for anything. If we all vote, it'll get the politicians' attention." With the elder population doubling in the next 25 years, that's certainly true. On the other hand, Ms. Bogen said, "Boomers are in trouble because their expectations outrun their resources."

The whole scenario presages an inevitable demand, by the baby boomers, on government resources of all kinds.

And we're not likely to be polite or nice about it. If the Moos article is true, we can count on my nominal cohorts to do what they have done with every other social stage or trend: screw it up. The generation that invented self-esteem will, as always, simply end up creating more self. It'll be unbearable.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.