Baby boomer former mayor thinks boomers should clean up their mess

One of the important purposes of BoomerCafé is to give baby boomers a voice, and here’s a perfect example: the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, uses his voice to tell us how he thinks baby boomers can “make amends.” Dave Cieslewicz says, Maybe We Can Clean Up The Mess Before We Leave.

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good time to be reflective about not just the year gone by, but the years behind us — to give some thought to what we’ve done and what kind oflegacy we’re leaving in our wake. As a generation, it looks like my people are planning on being a burden on our children.

Dave Cieslewicz

Dave Cieslewicz

There are 75 million of us, the baby boom generation, out there in America and more across the globe. Born between 1946 and 1964, we’re starting to get on in years. And as we move through life we change everything. We’ve been compared to a big rat moving through a python, not altogether inappropriately.

In the 1960s we changed music, politics and sexual mores. In the 1970s we rejected materialism and sought to find ourselves. Remember Erhard Seminars Training? In the 1980s, having not found ourselves so much through Erhard Seminars Training or much of anything else, we thought we’d try materialism after all. We were the beneficiaries of the largest transfer of wealth in the nation’s history as our parents, chastened by the Great Depression and World War, couldn’t stop saving and so left us — as a generation — with a bundle. And also a lot of empty plastic margarine containers that work great for storing leftovers.

In the 1990s our own kids started to reach high school and college and began to figure out that the world we were leaving them wasn’t so cool. Unlike us, they don’t categorically reject their parents’ music and lifestyle, but they seem to cast a sober eye on us. It’s as if the roles have been reversed. It’s as if it was their parents who had the radio playing too loud and weren’t paying attention and ran the family car into a ditch and we’re just lucky that nobody got hurt, but you did what? What were you thinking? And it’s us who look down at our shoes and don’t have an answer.

What were we thinking when we left them with a messed-up global climate, a significant national debt (though I think that one gets overblown), an economy that is especially hard on young people and in which social mobility is actually less than it is in Europe, a corroding stockpile of nuclear weapons, a growing stockpile of deadly domestic weapons, an exploding world population, and a related coming water crisis?

When you stop and think about it, has my generation solved just one significant social, economic, or environmental problem? Well, actually, yes we have. Jim Crow is pretty much dead. Lynching’s ended. An African American has become president. Nelson Mandela wasn’t one of us, but we helped make him. For all of our continuing failings on the race- and gender-equity front, you just can’t compare 2013 to 1963. Things are much better. You’re welcome.

And that’s not all. You don’t have to breathe someone else’s smoke on an airplane or in a restaurant or bar. Also, it was a baby boomer who invented the personal computer and the smartphone that succeeding generations are addicted to. The smoking thing is good; the jury’s still out on the smartphone.

Now comes news that we may be comfortable in our retirement while our kids will struggle. A recent survey found that baby boomers had 81% of what they need for retirement squirreled away, while younger workers were on track to have just 60% of what they need. Before we congratulate ourselves, remember that much of that comes not from our own work and saving but from that inheritance from a far more parsimonious generation before us. Plus, 80% of what we need is still 20% short, and who do we expect to make that up?

So it seems to me that as we start our long, slow fade into history, we can do three things for our kids and grandchildren: volunteer, stay healthy, and relinquish power gracefully.

Volunteering is important because with fewer workers behind us, we’ll need to find ways to stay productive and contribute to the economy without sitting on good jobs that should go to younger workers.

Staying healthy is important because if we get too sick and stick around too long, we’ll crush the health care system. Each one of us should dedicate ourselves to living as healthfully as we can for as long as we can and then plan for a quick, gentle, and inexpensive exit into the never-ending summer of love in the sky.

And finally we need to transfer power in all endeavors — business, nonprofits, politics — gracefully. Refusing to give up the stage to new perspectives and ideas is not doing anyone any favors. We need to cultivate new generations of leadership, not plug up the line of succession because we just know that we have all the answers. As a generation, we can be really arrogant about that.

If we follow that formula, if we can become a little more humble and flexible as we age out of existence, then maybe we can be remembered for the more liberal and diverse society we created, which is our real accomplishment.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you. Sometimes it is important to recall just exactly what our generation did achieve. Sure we are not the generation that saved the world from Fascism, but we did play a role in confronting communism and we did as you say play a large part in the civil rights movement. Yes we have a lot to be thankful for and proud of. Now it is also that time when we need to help those that follow accomplish even more.

  2. The title of this article made me laugh. I don’t think I have any mess to clean up and I certainly haven’t stopped being a part of this generation and I have no intention of fading away. The Baby Boomer generation has to stop taking the guilt for all the ills of society. If anything we are the generation that saw and made change happen.

    The newer generation had their chance recently with the development of The Occupy Movement which failed miserably because they have no leader. I will stand here now and say that it will take a Baby Boomer to lead that movement to get it working.

    If the generations after us are not happy with the world the way it is then get off your cell phones, get off your twitter and social media rants and get up and make changes. If there is anything our generation needs to be sorry for is that we have a younger generation that seems to think their voice means nothing and why bother to vote, or act, or engage because the status quo is going to stay the same.

    The world can change, it just needs a leader to band the people together. Everyone from our generation who wanted the world to change was silenced with a sniper’s bullet. Who will lead the next wave of change? I’m ready to join anyone qualified and with the proper vision. Will they be a Baby Boomer or a Millennial? My money’s on a Baby Boomer.

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