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From a Baby Boomer to a Boomeranger

Dear Twentysomething Friend:

Please forgive us, your elders, for the many sins we have visited upon you. Specifically (for I know the list is long), for failing to foresee the end of growth. Given our quest for infinite growth on a finite planet, we should have seen this coming. And it has come…and, unfortunately, just as you and your peers are entering the work…errr un/der-employment force.

I know you don’t need me to tell you this; you experience this reality daily. And I appreciate that you kindly try not to talk about the unwinding of “our way of life” when us older folks are within earshot. But I’m pretty sure you talk about it when we’re not around, so let me try to open up an intergenerational dialogue.

We (especially your elders) need to sort out how and why this happened, and what can be done. So, although we’re a little late coming to the party, I hope we can join you in conversation and action. You’re left holding the bag, but maybe we can help.

Please don’t judge us — your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — too harshly. We simply did what was instinctive and seemed logical when resources appeared infinite and cheap energy limitless: Consume! We were (for the most part) trying to do the right thing for ourselves, and for you. We just, well, kinda sorta went a little overboard. OK, a lot. And we passed on that overboardness to you.

Your parents — with lived experience on their side and love in their hearts — encouraged you to run up massive debts in pursuit of a better life. Unfortunately, when rising expectations met declining growth, something had to give.

So now it’s: “Mr. & Mrs. Baby Boomer, meet your Boomeranger. You helped your child fly into the world, and now she’s returning home, as underwater financially as many of your neighbors…and the companies they work for.”

Yup, we’re in a pretty fine mess. And, as you’ve probably realized already, if your parents’ financial plans for themselves turn out to be as misguided as their plans for you, you’ll inherit their burdens as well.

What can be done? First of all, what can’t be done: We can’t reinflate the balloon of compounding growth. Neither stimulating nor slashing will pump the economy back into continuous expansion. So ignore the partisan bickering in Washington and in the media, and pay closer attention to the #Occupy movement. They’re expressing something important: Our predicament is bigger than conventional wisdom, and it admits no “solution.” We can’t solve it; it is already solving us.*

Here’s what can be done: Adapt to the new reality. Redefine expectations. Change the conversation. Find the opportunities. Live your values, not your fears. There’s a 101 books and memes out there to express this, so I’ll not repeat them. You know in your soul that quality of life trumps quantity of money (above a certain level of well-being, of course). So grow that. And some kale.

As a young person, you’re better equipped to adapt, and to show us older folks the way forward. With your generation’s penchant for sharing, transparency, and community (both local and global), you’re already developing the skills we’ll all need in a world without compounding economic expansion. So grow those. And some peas.

My generation had an easy task: Making a good life during the Growth Era. We screwed up. We’re sorry. Well, I’m sorry. Some of my peers may take a little longer to apologize.

You have a much harder task: Building a good life beyond continuously compounding economic growth. Of course, you’ll screw up, too, and will some day write a letter like this one. But between now and then, good luck, and don’t be afraid to fail forward!

We’re counting on you,

Your Baby Boom Buddy

*With appreciation to Robert Kegan.

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