13.2.09

TALKING ABOUT MY GENERATION. A USA Today columnist seeks to put me in the same cohort as President Obama.

I coined the term "Generation Jones" for this large cohort born between 1954 and 1965. It's a generation that includes the new president, me and 53 million other Americans. Jonesers have long been lumped with Boomers simply because we arrived during the same long post-World War II spike in births. But generations arise from shared formative experiences, not head counts, and the two groups evolved with dramatic differences. Our background is just as distant from Generation Xers'. We fill the space between Woodstock and Lollapalooza, between "Turn on, tune in, drop out" and "Just Say No," and between Dylan going electric and Nirvana going unplugged. Jonesers have a unique identity separate from Boomers and GenXers. An avalanche of attitudinal and behavioral data corroborates this distinction. Generational self-identification is particularly compelling. When polled, those in this age group identify not with Boomers or GenXers, but overwhelmingly with this generation in between.

So who are we? We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part. The name "Generation Jones" derives from a number of sources, including our historical anonymity, the "keeping up with the Joneses" competition of our populous birth years, and sensibilities coupling the mainstream with ironic cool. But above all, the name borrows from the slang term "jonesin' " that we as teens popularized to broadly convey any intense craving.

The Jones runs deep in us. It arose from our 1960s childhoods. While the Boomers were out changing the world, Jonesers were still in elementary school — wide-eyed, not tie-dyed. That intense love-peace-change-the-world zeitgeist stirred our impressionable hearts. We yearned to express our own voice. By the time we came of age and could take the stage, though, a decade of convulsions had left the nation fatigued. During the game we'd been forced to watch from the sidelines, and passage into college and careers came only after the final gun had long since sounded.

The Boomers had their opportunity, and the GenXers weren't around soon enough to bear witness. Neither was left jonesin'. But the actual children of the 1960s yearned for something more. Our unrequited idealism has bubbled beneath the surface ever since.

That's one perspective. (If you hear an echo of the Port Huron Statement in that second paragraph, you probably intuit that I'm going to object to the column's premises.) From my perspective, that of a senior member of that cohort who finished high school relatively young, some of this doesn't ring true. Yes, the people who came of age later could characterize their experience as "after the final gun" (or perhaps after the party had ended). But the attitude of many of the older cohort of Baby Boomers had the attitude Milton Friedman summarized as good things taken for granted, evils blamed on The System, but The System was a social construction that could be changed and rearranged without disrupting the continued provision of the good things.

Some part of that cohort never went along with that mind-set, and some who did later went shopping at The Great Indoors.

What generation produced the current leaders in business, industry and politics, those who have held the reins of power for the past decade and a half? We need look no further than the last 16 years in the White House, the terms of Clinton, who represents his generation at its hedonistic best, and Bush, who represents the same generation at its my-way-or-the-highway best. Still, I’m a touch less cynical about them than the media who reported on their administrations. I see neither man as motivated by evil intentions. How can we blame Clinton for saying he “never had sex with that woman” or Bush for his weapons-of-mass-destruction argument for invading Iraq? After all, both were part of the generation reared on Dr. Benjamin Spock’s grand theories, children counseled and coddled, rarely punished for being wrong or irresponsible or held accountable for lying.

I can’t pin dates of birth on all the leaders of industry and finance, but the current CEOs of the big three in Detroit were born post-WWII, as were Jeff Skilling, Michael Milken and the guy who ran Home Depot into the ground and walked away tens of millions richer. Governor Rod Blagojevich, that Baby Boomer wunderkind from Illinois, took office in his late 40s and by his early 50s wore waders in his office to navigate the swamp of corruption he’d built. Boards of directors hand out bonuses to CEOs for demonstrating ineptitude, engaging in irresponsibility or practicing outright deceit. Did I mention the ends-justify-the-means generation?

But the leaders are only partially to blame. Baby Boomers, look in the mirror. What do you see? Someone figuring out how to turn a house after two years into a 50 percent profit?Or use its equity as an ATM? Someone who borrows against his home to pay cash for that BMW in the driveway, the one he really doesn’t need? Our system of politics and business encourages self-serving irresponsibility by rewarding it.

True, the Boomer generation gave us its share of accomplished, legitimate entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and inventors, but even achievements such as “Hotel California” and the wonders of the dot-com aren’t enough to overcome the vapid aspirations of those who idolize Madonna and her ilk. Now that they have plunged the country into a financial crisis that may end up as epic as the Great Depression, the Boomers can hand matters over to their offspring, who hopefully will be prove themselves the next great (well, good) generation.

Even as one of their own, Barack Obama, prepares to tackle this economic crisis, don’t be optimistic those in their early 40s will do better. They have been long misguided, ferried as they were from school to soccer games to karate lessons. The wisdom best passed on to Gen X is that there is no Great Indoors and never was. Not even the bones of a Swell Indoors will be left as a metaphor for Baby Boomer failure. Start change by ridding the language of the word “great,” discard it along with “awesome” and all words associated with the Dr. Spock syndrome. Revive the language of the generation that won WWII. Restore humble words such as “grit,” “integrity,” “diligence,” “honor,” “responsibility,” “sacrifice” and especially “accountability” to the social vocabulary. Let Boomer hyperbole vanish along with the merchandise the scavengers fled with when The Great Indoors finally closed.

That will require President Obama to say no to his own party, in which the Speaker of the House is a very early Baby Boomer and the Senate Majority Leader a member of the Silent Generation, quite possibly the most spoiled and indulged generation in U.S. history.

I'll give the last word to Peggy Noonan.

We hire politicians to know what to do about empty stores, job loss, and "Retail Space Available." But they don't, and more than ever we know they don't.

And there's something else, not only in Manhattan but throughout the country. A major reason people are blue about the future is not the stores, not the Treasury secretary, not everyone digging in. It is those things, but it's more than that, and deeper.

It's Sully and Suleman, the pilot and "Octomom," the two great stories that are twinned with the era. Sully, the airline captain who saved 155 lives by landing that plane just right—level wings, nose up, tail down, plant that baby, get everyone out, get them counted, and then, at night, wonder what you could have done better. You know the reaction of the people of our country to Chesley B. Sullenberger III: They shake their heads, and tears come to their eyes. He is cool, modest, competent, tough in the good way. He's the only one who doesn't applaud Sully. He was just doing his job.

This is why people are so moved: We're still making Sullys. We're still making those mythic Americans, those steely-eyed rocket men. Like Alan Shepard in the Mercury rocket: "Come on and light this candle."

But Sully, 58, Air Force Academy '73, was shaped and formed by the old America, and educated in an ethos in which a certain style of manhood—of personhood—was held high.

What we fear we're making more of these days is Nadya Suleman. The dizzy, selfish, self-dramatizing 33-year-old mother who had six small children and then a week ago eight more because, well, she always wanted a big family. "Suley" doubletalks with the best of them, she doubletalks with profound ease. She is like Blago without the charm. She had needs and took proactive steps to meet them, and those who don't approve are limited, which must be sad for them. She leaves anchorwomen slack-jawed: How do you rough up a woman who's still lactating? She seems aware of their predicament.

Any great nation would worry at closed-up shops and a professional governing class that doesn't have a clue what to do. But a great nation that fears, deep down, that it may be becoming more Suley than Sully—that nation will enter a true depression.

What was I saying about the effects of enabling fecklessness?

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