As youths, the Greatest Generation endured the Great Depression. As adults, they endured the snows of Bastogne and the heat of Bataan to win a world war. Then they resumed the lives they had scarcely begun, rejoining their loved ones, marrying, having children, building churches and businesses — all with a zeal for life that had been pent up by decades of deprivation.
The families they formed were larger than the norm, as was the economy they built to nourish the next generation. How did they do it? Their gratifications deferred, to some extent by the forces of history, they knew how to do without for the sake of others.
My parents were such people. They filled a modest Cincinnati home with 10 rowdy kids. They celebrated like it was Christmas Day when they finally had enough cash to buy a clothes dryer.
One prosperous year they bought their own car, a no-frills station wagon. I wrecked it a month after my 16th birthday. Consider that a parable.
The people of the Greatest Generation viewed their kids as their crowning achievement. But too many of us did not inherit their greatest virtue: an ability to sacrifice. Instead we embraced instant gratification and self-infatuation. We arrogantly thought we had invented sex, when all we did was invent new ways to trivialize it. We mistook wants for needs, borrowed too much, saved too little. In the process we helped our proud and productive nation recast itself as a consumption-dependent economy. Ours became the Age of Appetites.
Appetites have consequences. Out-of-wedlock births are up more than 600% since the 1960s. Household debt is soaring. Our sense of middle-class entitlement is soaring, too.
We Boomers have run the race poorly, but we can finish strong. We enter our last laps with difficult decisions before us. We can demand flush retirements and lavish health care, board gaudy cruise ships, and foist today's deficits on the next generation. Or we can relearn the meaning of sacrifice and the virtues that gave us birth.
Though the hour is late, the choice is ours to make.
Charles A. Donovan is a senior research fellow at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared USA Today