Education

The unfulfilled promise of a generation

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OPINION | By Don Parker, Contributing Writer

The measure of any generation should be what it leaves behind relative to what was left for it.

Each generation should be expected to create a better standard of living for its successor than what it inherited. This is commonly referred to as the promise of a generation. The promise was routinely fulfilled by generations preceding the baby boomers.

Boomers, as my generation is known, inherited prosperity and opportunity. The middle class and the American dream were thriving. A single income family could own a home, take an occasional vacation, provide an education for their children, and look forward to a comfortable retirement. 

The prosperity we inherited was shared, meaning that all segments of the population were doing well together. And we immediately began taking it for granted.We are coming up on the final decade of work for the last of the baby boomer generation, and I am ashamed of what our report card is shaping up to be our legacy.

We have presided over the demise of the middle class and the creation of a great economic divide.  Prosperity is no longer shared. It is reserved for a small segment of the population while a large segment has descended into hopelessness.

The economic divide isn’t in anyone’s long term best interest, rich or poor. 

Hopelessness is brewing in the urban centers of most of our cities and that is a dangerous prospect for everyone. 

The antidote to the economic divide and a return to shared prosperity is a universally available, high-quality public education. 

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Photo Courtesy of Raise Your Hand

Baby boomers benefitted from such a system. And have presided over a sustained decline in its international competitiveness. Everyone seems to agree that our public K-12 education system has degraded in effectiveness over the past forty years. 

Instead of doing anything about it we have argued over ideology while generations of young people are sentenced to a life with few options because of their lack of quality education. 

This is especially tragic for minorities who are being disproportionately impacted.

There would be a reason for hope if we had taken the political system we inherited, one that valued working together and understood the need for compromise and improved it. 

I’m sorry to say that we missed that opportunity. Unfortunately, we will be leaving behind a system that requires extremism in ideology and where compromise is seen as a sign of weakness. 

We have created the greatest political gridlock in history. 

Moderates on either side of the aisle can’t survive their primaries and if they did they would be wounded going into any general election. I see almost no hope for reasoned political leadership emerging for the foreseeable future.

I wish I could say that we should be proud of our track record on the environment. The implications of our lifestyles on the environment have become increasingly clear. 

As this has happened alternative choices have presented themselves, but these would require sacrifice or threaten someone’s economic vitality. They might require political agreement on solutions or at least a direction. 

Sacrifice and agreement are things we struggle with, and so, unfortunately, we will be taking the ozone with us when we go.

There is one thing we that will be leaving behind to our heirs, debt. We have been consistently unable to live within our means, and so we are piling up debt in our government that there just isn’t time to pay back. 

Future generations will have two choices; pay our debt for us through higher taxes with no increase in government services, or reduced quality of life through a significant reduction in government services for the same price you pay today.  I suppose some combination of the two is the likely outcome.  

How’s that for a life filled with choices?

One more thing, we didn’t replace ourselves. 

We can’t seem to agree on a reasonable immigration policy that would ensure our country has the workers necessary for a healthy economy long term. But we also didn’t replace ourselves to an extent that a workforce would be available internally. 

We will strain the social safety net to the point of breaking as we pass through it in our later years putting greatly increased burden on a workforce too small and not prosperous enough to bear it.

The report card is not good and unfortunately, about the only thing we seem to be able to do about it at this point is say, sorry.  

If somehow the post-baby boom generations can come together and file a class action lawsuit against the boomers compelling them to act responsibly and clean up the mess they have created, I will testify on your behalf.

We haven’t done our best. Hopefully, the post-baby boom generations can do better.


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Don Parker is a retired technology and financial services industry executive, a student of government and social justice through Harvard University’s Extension School, and Executive Director of KIPP Tulsa, a Tulsa Public Schools sponsored charter school.

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Categories: Education, News, Opinion