Hey baby boomers, a quick show of hands: In your young adulthood did you think things were just going to get better and better?
Some of you don’t have your hands up. You say you didn’t trust the direction society was going even back then? Yeah, I hear you. Me too and yet, for all my radicalism something in me still believed our problems were only going to get more manageable. Even while I was protesting, I thought our protests were part of the solution.
Only five years ago I believed that government’s response to the Market Crash of 1929 had fixed the Banking industry’s one big vulnerability. Once and for all. Amazing that I was that naive. You think the ground beneath you is getting more and more solid and then it falls out from under you just like that.
Unexpected disappointments are such a drag and we baby boomers have a lot of them all at once, some personal, some political, some environmental and some financial. No matter what the scale, my first response is always the same:
This can’t be. I just checked my height and I’m down two inches. Two inches! That’s not supposed to happen. No way. Maybe in your 80s you start shrinking a little. But I’m in my 50s! The tape measure’s wrong.
This can’t be. I live in the richest country in the world. I was a big earner and my benefits were supposed to go up with seniority. And now what, I’m supposed to settle for less?! Politicians say it’s the end of the American Century but I don’t buy it. They screwed up and they’ve robbed me of my birthright. We’re Americans, the best damned nation in the world. No way our lead is shrinking.
This can’t be! It’s not in my budget. You’re telling me the gaskets are shot? I expected my car to run fine for another five years. Over a thousand to fix it?! No way am I going to pay that much. You’re just trying to gouge me.
This can’t be! I’m getting wrinkles everywhere. I’m a member of the younger generation. I pledged I’m never growing old, so there’s no way I am. I’ll tell you what the problem is. Later generations don’t see me as the radically refreshing young thinker I’ve always been. There’s a conspiracy to treat me like a senior. This won’t stand!
My job is being shipped to Asia?! Are you kidding me? That can’t be. You owe me this work. I haven’t done a thing wrong. Don’t you love America?! Then how can you with a clear conscience rob me of my right to work?
My faith a bad thing? Debunked by science!? Are you kidding me? Do you know how long we’ve maintained the faith? How much we endured? We deserve respect for our sacred traditions and instead you spit on them with your supposed facts. You’ve just trying to kill our spirit.
Lung cancer? Me? I never smoked! I’m vegetarian! I exercise! It can’t be. Treatable, you say? good chance of survival if I do the chemo? This wasn’t part of the plan. Vegetarians are supposed to do better, not worse. And you’re telling me I’ve got to ingest poisons just to maintain normal health! That’s pain with no gain! Damned medical establishment.
What the hell’s this noise about a climate crisis? I’ve lived a good life. I’ve earned everything I’ve got. And some scientist is going to tell me that my car is too big? That I’ve got to use those ugly light bulbs? When I was a teen, gas cost 24 cents a gallon. And now they’re telling me $4 is too low? It can’t be. I’ll tell you what this is. It’s a conspiracy to disappoint me, and I say no way. It’s a hoax.
These first reactions are natural and normal. They’re the sound of our shuddering tires as we brake for reality, the sound of our momentum, our optimistic expectations propelling us forward still, even as reality stops us short.
Normally and naturally when reality persists we adjust, accepting the disappointing news that we have to do more than we expected, that our status quo, our assumed, reliably happy future is now one we have to fight for, new pain and no gain.
There are ways out of adjusting, ways to keep reality at bay through righteous indignance. Call it reverence for tradition, sticking to principle, conservativism, perseverance, standing up for our values. These are all names for what is often simply clinging, living in the past, refusing to face reality.
They say we baby boomers never grew up, but what they might mean is that some of us have trouble shrinking down when we must.