A Final Service?

The Silent Generation (folks born during the run-up to World War 2) is dying. As a cohort, they were a remarkable bunch. Tom Brokaw calls their parents “The Greatest Generation,” but Tom Brokaw can go suck eggs. This little cohort is the group that kicked the western world into high gear after World War 2. They built the infrastructure that the Boomers took for granted, and they had an extraordinary work ethic and sense of optimism that, until recently, went missing from the national (and international) consciousness after the the economic and social train wreck of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They don’t get enough credit for proving out the bedrock notion of a liberal democracy, that ordinary people doing ordinary things can (and do, and will) create a world of abundance worth inheriting.

Some of that great generational character comes about by accident. They were born at a time when the conditions were right for them to perform that massive, world-changing, and largely invisible service.

Now, again by accident, they are doing something else that might have an even bigger impact on the future of humanity:

They are dying.

Since the age cohort runs from 73-90 years old, the fact that they’re dying isn’t much of a surprise. But the fact that they’re dying now is massively important. This generation is the first generation ever to die in public. They’re not fading away in nursing homes, or wasting away invisible in hospice care. They’re dying on Twitter, on Facebook. Their discontinued existence is something that is happening right in front of their friends, peers, acquaintances, children, fans, and strangers. They’re dying of diseases that give them the chance to talk publicly about what dying means, and how it affects them.

Most importantly, maybe, they’re dying in front of the Boomers. The Baby Boomers are a generation with an interesting set of qualities, culturally speaking. They are revolutionary down to their bones, which brings with it some great things (like Internet startups, anti-authoritarianism, creative thinking about social and environmental problems, an intolerance for visible injustice against historically oppressed people) and it brings with it some very bad things (like helicopter parenting, hard-right and hard-left authoritarian social engineering, identity politics, and the sort of shallow, callow selfishness Georg Carlin nailed so well).

The Boomers are next in line for the grim reaper. Their generational attrition has already started ticking up, and they don’t like it.

They don’t like it, and they have a lot of money.

Money that they’re starting to dump into some very radical research aiming to slow, prevent, and maybe reverse aging and its related degenerative/chronic diseases–because they live in an era where aging is transitioning from a fact of life to a complex set of biochemical problems that might be solvable.

It is very, very likely that all that money will go to “waste”, in the sense that very few (if any) of the people spending it will live long enough for the research to bear the kind of fruit that would actually change their lifespan appreciably.

But their children might live long enough. And their grandchildren will live long enough.

Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist, published an essay yesterday that got me thinking about all this. It’s very worth a read. He has terminal cancer, and has shared his thoughts in The New York Times.

So, I’m tipping my hat to the Silent Generation. They not only created a world worth living in, they are now helping to create a world worth living in forever. And the only thing about that that really sucks is that they’re not going to hang around long enough to enjoy it. The world is poorer for losing them–but their loss may also make us richer and fill us with more possibility than any other loss in the history of the world.

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