The notion that the Baby Boomer generation is defined by its egocentric, or “self-centered,” nature seems to have gained widespread acceptance. Consequently, we must also consider how this self-absorbed mentality has caused harm to our society. Author P.J. O’Rourke, who often writes on his generation, took on the question and concludes that the selfish, often shortsighted nature of the Baby Boomers did not have such a significant impact on the world, because their egocentric nature prevented them acting as a whole to take on big causes aimed at serving the greater good. Obviously, his arguement is somewhat self-serving, yet this question is best answered under a different paradigm.
It is important to recognize that an elder generation’s investments create costs and benefits for the subsequent generations. As such, the sins of a generation with a self-serving, egocentric mentality will be paid by their children and grandchildren. Where the Baby Boomers invested wisely in themselves to improve their lives and their communities, the subsequent generations gained a foundation from which to build. Where they acted selfishly in a vain effort to satisfy their own indulgences, they displaced costs onto the next generations.
While the Baby Boomers may not have started a world war as P.J. O’Rourke notes, they did sacrifice young Americans in Vietnam and allowed the Cold War to divide the globe for decades, i.e. they neglected to resolve critical problems. Certainly, Baby Boomers did a lot to advance society; however, they did over-consume our limited natural resources in such a way that they caused untold environmental damage. They also amassed huge public debt to fund shorted-sighted, self-serving public policies. In other words, a great deal of what they build is unsustainable while the resources the subsequent generations need to fix these problems are no longer plentiful.
That said, the Baby Boomer generation is probably no more terrible or unique than the many generations that preceded it. Humans are born egocentric, i.e. we perceive the world through our eyes, while we naturally gravitate toward selfish behavior. Although there is such a thing as healthy selfishness, these natural characteristics undermine the very fabric of our society. After all, communities function only if they balance our interests with the interests of others as we must be willing to give up some of what we want and need, so everyone can benefit from the community. That said, Baby Boomers are probably no more egocentric or selfish than most of the generations that preceded them.
People process information intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively. During the Twentieth Century, human society grew more and more educated, thus we had to rely more on intellectual arguments to direct and justify our decisions. Our scientific based education, which seeks to replace emotional and intuition thinking with thinking driven by intellectual arguments, is so relied upon that, for example, we often forget social protocols like laws and public policies can be based on public opinion without regard to scientific fact. In other words, our society has learned to understand the world in intellectual terms instead of emotion impulse and socially trained intuition.
If not for what might be called the “intellectual architecture” that our schools train us in from an early age, we would make decisions based mainly on our emotions and social values, not laws, economic principles, or other intellectual arguments. Unfortunately, incomplete intellectual arguments turn this process of intellectualization into one that hurts society. Where community values and other socially trained attitudes once automatically pressured people to behave in the interests of their communities, intellectual arguments now have to be made in order for people to understand why we should not be egocentric or selfish.
Unfortunately, the thinking of the Baby Boomer generation was not dominated by altruistic philosophies. Instead, the philosophies of the era encouraged the rejection of traditional pro-social values, i.e. the social protocols of social institutions like religion and customs could not be supported by the intellectual arguments of the time. Because people are naturally inclined to be shortsighted and driven by self-serving impulse, the egocentric thinking of the Baby Boomer generation resonated broadly throughout our society. This continued, of course, until major problems started to arise, i.e. National Debt, the Great Recession, the failure in Iraq, etc.
What made this such an issue was that the Baby Boomers enjoyed an unprecedented amount of influence in the world thanks to technology, economic success, and globalization. The egocentric tendencies of the Baby Boomers were a far greater problem than those seen in the preceding generations, because the potential to do harm was so much greater for the Baby Boomers. Where the Greatest Generation turned away from the egocentric tendencies of their less educated parents’ generation after experiencing the horrors of technology fueled World Wars and a greed fueled Great Depression, their children regressed when they needed to progress toward a more thoughtful way of life in order to meet the challenges they were facing.