Understood in this way, our national mood over the past fifteen years begins to make sense: it’s a mood of fatigue, of an unwillingness to accept the fact that changes and challenges are always coming and going, and that the moment of hope and achievement so cherished in memory by the boomers did not in fact resolve anything in a permanent way. How can we still be fighting these fights and facing these problems? Why could our glory days not last?
This is not quite to say that our mood has been detached from reality. The concerns we express through nostalgia speak to very real problems. And yet that nostalgia is not the best way to understand those problems. That the baby boomers so dominate our national memory and self-image means that we don’t think enough about what came before the golden age of the boomers’ youth, and that we don’t think clearly about just how things have changed since that time. We use the era of their youth as a benchmark for normality, which keeps us from seeing how very unusual it actually was.
America needs to be careful not to let aging baby boomers define its outlook. We cannot afford to farm out our vision of the future to a retiring generation. We can already see some indications of where that will lead: our political, cultural, and economic conversations today overflow with the language of decay and corrosion, as if our body politic is itself an aging boomer looking back upon his glory days.
We must resist this narrative of decline, which leads us to attribute the economic growth and social cohesion that characterized midcentury America to a kind of youthful energy, and the contemporary diminution in both to something like senescence. The median age of the U.S. population is certainly older now (roughly thirty-seven years old) than it was in the 1960s (just over twenty-nine years old), and a growing proportion of Americans are elderly. This demographic fact bears on the state of the country, of course, but it is not the essence of the problems that most trouble us.