Generational justice is the key to the Dream. The opportunities afforded younger generations depend directly on whether older generations honor their duties as citizens.
Like fantasy football, reality TV, and Black Friday, the “American Dream” is part of the social and civic fabric that holds our country together. It is, however, woven from threads that are thicker and stronger than entertainment, consumerism, and technological advancement. The American Dream could be alive and well without electric cars, high-speed internet, and 4G smart phones. These are just materialistic representations of a cramped vision of the Dream.
Fully unfurled, the American Dream is based on the belief that each generation should be better off than the one that came before it, and that each person should have opportunities that are limited only by her aspirations, work ethic, and talents. As James Truslow Adams observed in “The Epic of America,” Americans believe in “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” We believe in a “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Today, both components of the American Dream are in danger. With regard to generational progress, which is the focus of this Post, Generation X+ is doing worse than the Boomers by virtually every meaningful measure. Since we reached adulthood, our wages have been stagnant, our share of the national debt has exploded, our retirement security has evaporated, and the war on poverty has reached a stalemate. And this generational downturn has occurred against the backdrop of an increasingly dangerous world. Putting aside technological advances, it is hard to argue that members of Generation X+ are leading better, richer, and fuller lives than the Boomers.
Each generation bears some responsibility for its own fortunes. Generation X+ literally bought into the myth that accruing massive mortgage and student loan debt was sound personal finance because home ownership and college degrees offered terrific and low-risk returns on investment. But we can also place blame for our misfortune on the Boomers. We came of political age and entered the workforce in an era where Boomers drove our debt to unhealthy levels without making sensible investments in our future, failed to make a dent in poverty levels, turned a blind eye to the unsustainable costs of Social Security and Medicare, failed to anticipate the rise of fanatical Islamic terrorism, and borrowed to pay for an enormously costly war of convenience.
The Boomers, therefore, have failed Generation X+. In so doing, they have violated the generational duty that underlies the American Dream. As Teddy Roosevelt argued, “[w]e should not forget that it will be just as important to our descendants to be prosperous in their time as it is to us to be prosperous in our time.” Even if the Boomers were negligent rather than selfish, they have started tugging on a thread that could unravel the fabric of the American Dream.
The question facing Generation X+ is whether we will keep pulling or start sewing. As we take the political reins from the Boomers, we are in danger of perpetuating this downward cycle and completely eroding a social compact that holds this nation together. We face enormous (but not insurmountable) challenges over the next 25 years. If we do not address them now, but instead cut our losses and kick the can down the road as the Boomers have done, then not only will we cement our own generation’s relative decline, but we will trap younger Millennials and our children in a downward cycle of spiraling debts, taxes, and national security problems from which they will not be able to escape.
To imitate the Boomers would constitute generational hazing. As it was explained to me 25 years ago, fraternity brothers hazed pledges because they were hazed when they were pledges. Does this make any sense? Of course it doesn’t. So why is Generation X+ poised to repeat the behavior of the Boomers? We need to recognize that two wrongs do not make a right. We need to honor our duties as citizens and leave this country better off than we found it.
Ultimately, it is not just the American Dream, but America itself that depends on honoring this generational duty:
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”
– Teddy Roosevelt.
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