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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  A Few Clouds
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How baby boomers can make amends
Maybe we can clean up the mess before we leave
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As the year draws to a close, it's a good time to be reflective about not just the year gone by, but the years behind us -- to give some thought to what we've done and what kind of legacy we're leaving in our wake. As a generation, it looks like my people are planning on being a burden on our children.

There are 75 million of us, the baby boom generation, out there in America and more across the globe. Born between 1946 and 1964, we're starting to get on in years. And as we move through life we change everything. We've been compared to a big rat moving through a python, not altogether inappropriately.

In the 1960s we changed music, politics and sexual mores. In the 1970s we rejected materialism and sought to find ourselves. Remember Erhard Seminars Training? In the 1980s, having not found ourselves so much through Erhard Seminars Training or much of anything else, we thought we'd try materialism after all. We were the beneficiaries of the largest transfer of wealth in the nation's history as our parents, chastened by the Great Depression and World War, couldn't stop saving and so left us -- as a generation -- with a bundle. And also a lot of empty plastic margarine containers that work great for storing leftovers.

In the 1990s our own kids started to reach high school and college and began to figure out that the world we were leaving them wasn't so cool. Unlike us, they don't categorically reject their parents' music and lifestyle, but they seem to cast a sober eye on us. It's as if the roles have been reversed. It's as if it was their parents who had the radio playing too loud and weren't paying attention and ran the family car into a ditch and we're just lucky that nobody got hurt, but you did what? What were you thinking? And it's us who look down at our shoes and don't have an answer.

What were we thinking when we left them with a messed-up global climate; a significant national debt (though I think that one gets overblown); an economy that is especially hard on young people and in which social mobility is actually less than it is in Europe; a corroding stockpile of nuclear weapons; a growing stockpile of deadly domestic weapons; an exploding world population; and a related coming water crisis?

When you stop and think about it, has my generation solved just one significant social, economic or environmental problem? Well, actually, yes we have. Jim Crow is pretty much dead. Lynching's ended. An African American has become president. Nelson Mandela wasn't one of us, but we helped make him. For all of our continuing failings on the race- and gender-equity front, you just can't compare 2013 to 1963. Things are much better. You're welcome.

And that's not all. You don't have to breathe someone else's smoke on an airplane or in a restaurant or bar. Also, it was a baby boomer who invented the personal computer and the smart phone that succeeding generations are addicted to. The smoking thing is good; the jury's still out on the smart phone.

Now comes news that we may be comfortable in our retirement while our kids will struggle. A recent survey found that baby boomers had 81% of what they needed for retirement squirreled away, while younger workers were on track to have just 60% of what they needed. Before we congratulate ourselves, remember that much of that comes not from our own work and saving but from that inheritance from a far more parsimonious generation before us. Plus, 80% of what we need is still 20% short, and who do we expect to make that up?

So it seems to me that as we start our long, slow fade into history, we can do three things for our kids and grandchildren: volunteer, stay healthy and relinquish power gracefully.

Volunteering is important because with fewer workers behind us we'll need to find ways to stay productive and contribute to the economy without sitting on good jobs that should go to younger workers.

Staying healthy is important because if we get too sick and stick around too long we'll crush the health care system. Each one of us should dedicate ourselves to living as healthfully as we can for as long as we can and then plan for a quick, gentle and inexpensive exit into the never-ending summer of love in the sky.

And finally we need to transfer power in all endeavors -- business, nonprofits, politics -- gracefully. Refusing to give up the stage to new perspectives and ideas is not doing anyone any favors. We need to cultivate new generations of leadership, not plug up the line of succession because we just know that we have all the answers. As a generation we can be really arrogant about that.

If we follow that formula, if we can become a little more humble and flexible as we age out of existence, than maybe we can be remembered for the more liberal and diverse society we created, which is our real accomplishment.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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