Baby boomers leaving a mess for next generation

Posted Jan. 10, 2011, at 9:42 p.m.

The young man before me does not look that impressive. He’s not that big, his clothes are a little shabby, and in the photograph I’m holding he’s not doing anything remarkable. The picture is black-and-white, so he does not even stand out chromatically from the background.

Yet, he is my father, the clothes are his Army uniform, and the background is the war-torn Italy of 1944. His hands are empty, but carry the skills of a combat medic honed at Anzio, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. His chest is bare of medals, but somewhere, perhaps in his tent, are two Purple Hearts for combat wounds and a Bronze Star for valor under enemy fire.

As I trolled through old family photographs recently, I came upon that one of my father. That he was one of the best of the so-called “greatest generation” got me wondering how I will do when called to serve, for I am to be called, and so will you. It will not be to arms, so our sacrifice and courage will never have to measure up to what was required of my father. But the war for my generation is coming, and will ask for service and sacrifice from each of us in a great cause.

That war will be the one to make America a country that it, and the world, can afford. Its great battles will be over how to provide good health care and adequate Social Security for all without going bankrupt. Its campaigns will not be to free Europe from the Nazis, but to free us from a way of living that is helping consume the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate, and to find the balance between individual and collective responsibility for each American’s well-being and opportunity to succeed.

At its core will not be the question of whether the fray sweeps us up, because it will; these issues (and more) will confront us regardless of whether we want to face them. Rather, the core question will be whether we each will do our part.

Can you and I live more simply, consume less and share more? Are baby boomers willing to retire later and spend less Social Security so it will be there for our children? Will we all drive and pollute less so there will be oil and ozone for all? Will you sacrifice a sedentary lifestyle in order to be less expensive to medically insure?

Will I help the health care industry to which I have dedicated my professional life cut back and be brought to an affordable heel? Can our generation lead us collectively in the battle to equitably distribute the sacrifices necessary to bring down the federal deficit before it brings down the country?

While the dimensions of the individual and collective sacrifice we will have to make in this cause remind me of my father and his war, there’s another echo of his time equally important for us to hear. It’s the need to rekindle the collective sense of everyone being in this together that characterized the America of his generation.

Two things about our coming call to duty should make us anxious to get started. The first is that our peril grows and time is short. In 10 years, current trends in our spending will probably have us owned by our Chinese debt holders, insolvent, or both. To date, our principle response to that fire licking at the walls of our national home has been squabbling.

The second is just plain embarrassment; We should not be able to stand the thought of leaving our children this mess. Just thinking about it makes me blush. America’s best cannot go, in one generation, from being men and women who donned uniforms and saved bleeding soldiers while under fire, to being a bunch of contentious, selfish fiddlers while this country burns. We — the baby boomer generation, conceived by the greatest generation — must look unblinkingly at the menace that confronts us, answer the call to serve, lead with our sacrifice, live with a sense of collective purpose, stand and deliver.

Our fathers, mothers and children wait to be proud. We must give them cause.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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