Richard Smith: Do I belong to a “failed generation?”

richard_smith2Baby boomers—those of us born between the end of the war and the early 60s—are a failed generation,” said Alex Jadad, chief innovator and founder, Centre for Global eHeath Innovation (and much else), at a conference on last week. I’m a baby boomer. Am I the member of a failed generation? Sadly I think that I am, although there might be just time to put it right.

There’s no disputing that we are an extremely privileged generation, probably the most privileged that has ever lived. My grandfather was at Gallipoli, and my father at El Alamein. I’ve never been in the army, never at war. I’ve hardly ever seen violence—except on television. My father left school at 14, my mother at 16. I was the first in my family to go to university. I have 21 years of full time education and three degrees (but still can’t speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument.). What’s more, I was given a grant to go to university, have an index linked pension that begins when I’m 60, and a house worth over a million pounds. My mother hardly ever went abroad, and my father only to fight. I’ve been to 66 countries.

I am, I must confess, one of the lucky of the lucky, but us baby boomers are richer and better educated than any other generation and have enjoyed more peace. So what have we done with all this privilege? “Buggered it up for everybody” is the sad answer.

It’s hard to know whether our biggest failure is to do with climate change or poverty. Scientists first began to recognise climate change soon after the war, and activists were beginning to call for action some 20 years ago. Yet here we are pumping out almost as much greenhouse gas as ever and with a gross failure in Copenhagen. And in our ever more desperate attempts to find oil we are destroying environments like the Gulf of Mexico. The world is a much more polluted place than when we were born, and thousands of species have disappeared forever.

Considering how rich we are we’ve made precious little progress with poverty. The gap between rich and poor has widened, and 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day. We did manage to create the Millennium Development Goals, but we look set to miss most of them.

Then through greed and financial ignorance, a disastrous cocktail, we’ve managed to accumulate levels of debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay off while working ever longer and trying to find a way to care for the air craft hangers full of us dementing baby boomers. (I could understand if they didn’t bother.)

One “achievement” has been to lengthen life for ourselves, but this is a dubious achievement as we seem to overemphasised quantity and underemphasised quality. And we have created such an obesogenic and unhealthy environment that our children may have shorter lives than us.

We baby boomers have perhaps another 30 years to go and that might be enough time to make amends. But our record so far gives little cause for optimism. I think of Kennedy’s quote–

“To those whom much is given, much is expected”

—and weep.