As the boomers pass en masse through middle age, it is assumed that they will undergo “generativity,” a term coined by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in 1950 to denote “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Generativity represents a sociological moment of truth for adults entering the second half of life, an opportunity to move from “me” to “us” that reduces self-interest in favor of the interests of generations who follow. This was cultural ethos of the boomer’s parents. Their “group-centric” upbringing championed the common good above excessive magnification of self. Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation highlights their generational resistance to excessive adoration of WW II survivors, an insult to the “real heroes” who never made it off the battlefield. But will the boomers follow in the same sociological footsteps? All indications are they will not.
Blame it on the parents of boomers who wanted their post-war children to have a better future. Their good intentions ushered in the first child-centric society in US history. But what seemed magical on the parenting drawing board wound up replacing the group-centric ethos of the “greatest generation” with a new, self-centric ethos, a societal sea change that only intensified as it cascaded into succeeding generations.
This unprecedented magnification of self is proving difficult to shed in the passage through middle age fraught with financial setbacks, chronic health problems, and an overall generational distaste for being old. The boomer version of generativity is turning out to be a movement from “me” to “more me.” What does this mean?
Sadly, self-magnification rarely self-corrects. The societal narcissism introduced by boomers has become a full epidemic of self-magnification in succeeding generations, a perfect co-dependency between new technologies and child-devoted parenting. It is a shift in societal DNA that bodes poorly for boomers on a number of fronts:
1. Personal Health Over focus on self is a form of magical thinking. It assumes “just in time” interventions from the outside to save the day, which has been true for most of the boomer’s generational trek. Schools were built, jobs appeared, and opportunity flowed freely decade after decade. But health ultimately is the product of internal accountability, lifestyle, “health habits” that prove to be destiny. In this regard, boomers are self-centric consumers waiting for the illusive intervention of modern medicine to save them from unhealthy habits. Yet all the tests, procedures, and medications offered by the US healthcare system cannot override poor lifestyle choices, and they haven’t. The only rescue from poor health and its symbiotic twin bankruptcy is self-rescue. Ironically, medicine has known this for decades but has taken a different path. It seems doubtful that the boomers will recognize or accept this inner truth about accountability before time runs out.
2. Generational Mentoring Over focus on self sees old age as the worst of all possible outcomes. Not surprising, magical thinking is once again the boomer storyline as they bet the farm on anti-aging products and procedures to delay the dreaded “looking old,” a slight of hand trick that allows sixty-five to be declared the new forty-five. In this model that sees aging as disease, elders fade from society’s vernacular, and with it the loss of a historically stabilizing force in families and society. The traditional elder role of compassion, patience, and big picture wisdom is replaced by anxious sixty-something adults whose attempts to fend off being old only become more and more exaggerated.
3. Philanthropic Empathy Over focus on self trumps empathy for others leaving “someone else” to take care society’s problems. The sheer complexity of being middle age, up to your neck in debt, poorly positioned for an expensive longevity, and slipping into declining health leaves little emotional bandwidth for society’s “greater” needs that seem to be everywhere. Ironically, the largest generation of fifty year olds in the history of the world may wind up being the most costly in terms of social burden while being the least philanthropic.
Shakespeare noted that “past is prologue” but not all boomers are stuck in this self-magnified approach to the second half of life. They have taken the lifestyle path less traveled, high on accountability with careful attention to health habits. But the majority of boomers are at risk. Certainly late-onset course corrections are possible even against the stiff currents of self-magnification. But minus the support of a group-centric ethos, sustainable changes require a rare epiphany and determination to accept what needs to be done and then find a way to “just do it.”