And boomers seem to know that the future won’t be brighter for Max and his friends. Nationwide, optimism that today’s youth will fare better than their parents is down from a peak of 71 percent a decade ago to 44 percent today, the lowest level since 1983, according to Gallup. Pessimism is highest among—you guessed it—baby boomers.
My emotional argument seals the case. Where I finally best my dad is on the question of why his cohort hasn’t stopped the freight trains of generational woe that have been barreling down America’s tracks for a few decades now. The question he can’t answer is this: How could the members of a generation so willing to lecture everyone else on personal responsibility not recognize, even at this stage in their lives, their collective responsibility for ending this mess?
You used to be such an idealistic generation, I say. You were going to change the world. Yet you’ve known all this was coming and haven’t tried seriously to stop it. You’ve reaped all the benefits and left the rest of us the bill. And you knew what you were doing. Why?
He hooks and nets a fish. When he has rebaited the line, he vents some frustration at his boomer peers/clients. “I’m saying, there are problems,” he says, “and I’ve been talking about them for a long time.”
He stops pushing back and starts making concessions. On the budget, he says, “You’re right, we haven’t had the, whatever, to say to our parents’ generation, ‘No, we’re not going to give you those Social Security raises,’ ” even when, as in recent years, low inflation levels haven’t warranted them.
Those raises represent a tiny fraction of our future debt load (the lethal combination of soaring Medicare costs and insufficient tax revenue accounts for most of it), but, hey, I’ll take what I can get. Life isn’t Perry Mason; the defendant never confesses on the stand. The closest my father comes, in this case, is with energy policy and carbon pollution. “I’m disappointed in the environmental thing,” he says. “We could have done a lot more.”
Our budget and economy are struggling through a huge transition, he says. “But if the country says we’ve got this big challenge, and we’re going to share it in a fair way, then Max will be fine.” I wonder aloud, what are the odds that will happen? He grimaces under the mustache. “Your generation, my generation, everybody,” he says. “If someone says you can have something for free, you tend to want to have it.” He asks me to swing the motor, and we steer back toward the dock, into a gathering mass of black clouds.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Only later do I notice the knife he’s left in my side. We are sitting at the kitchen table. He is joking about regrets (“You raise these kids, and then they turn on you!”) when he suddenly becomes serious and offers me a rare piece of fatherly advice. “We didn’t stop it. Maybe someday, Max can have the same discussion with you and ask you why you didn’t stop it. He’ll get the article out. He’ll say, ‘You knew about it! You knew about it even more than [your parents] did!’ ”
The knife twists. I am 34 years old. I have some pretty successful friends. How have we sacrificed to balance the budget, to slow climate change, to deliver better opportunity for our children? We haven’t. I own an SUV, and I don’t compost my trash. We are barreling, generationally, toward higher and higher levels of carbon emissions; a demographer from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research estimated last year that an individual’s emissions rise some 50 percent from the time he is in his 30s until the time he retires. Worst of all, we don’t seem to care about changing things: Only about a third of registered 25-to-44-year-olds voted in the 2010 election, compared with half of registered baby boomers.
If my father is a leech on the future, then I am becoming one, too.
“Your generation should be thinking about how you’ll step up to the plate,” my dad says, brown eyes boring into mine. “And you also need to step up to the plate, learning from us about the politics. Just say no to the kind of politics that get in the way of what you perceive are the solution.”
He rises to water the saplings behind the cabin (“for the next generation”), and leaves me to stare out through the tall firs. My little boy has come in from playing in the dirt.
“Daddy,” he yells.
Parasite, I hear.