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Bye-Bye Baby Boomers, By Carolyn Baker

Depression 3A May 2 article in the New York Times “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply In US (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2013/05/03/health/suicide-rate-rises-sharply-in-us NULL.html?_r=2&)” informed us that not only have suicide rates increased in the past decade among teens and the elderly, but more surprisingly, they have surged among the baby boomers. Ten days later, an article on the Alternet website asks, “Is Cutthroat Capitalism Pushing A Growing Number Of Baby Boomers To Suicide? (http://www NULL.alternet NULL.org/hard-times-usa/cutthroat-capitalism-pushing-growing-number-baby-boomers-suicide)” Certainly, we might expect adolescents and the elderly to take their own lives, but why baby boomers—people in the 35-70 age bracket?

 

What is it about this group? The Times suggests, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.” Author and labor activist, Les Leopold, who penned the Alternet article lays blame at the feet of vulture capitalism. Here we see two different hypotheses. The first from the Times, focuses on the internal mechanism of the baby boomer demographic whereas the second targets external influences. Those familiar with my writing know that I generally favor the both/and rather than the either/or perspective, and for me, this issue is no exception. Much of the human condition entails suffering—both external suffering and our response to it, but I do not believe that we can ameliorate it by focusing only on ridding our lives of the conditions that create suffering nor on pre-occupying ourselves exclusively with our responses.

 

From the external perspective, we are living in an era of both replicated and unprecedented woes. Economically, our world has not suffered to this extent since the Great Depression, but those of us who are boomers were born of parents who by and large survived the enormous losses of that era. Financial hardship is not new to our species. What is new, however, are the daunting challenges of energy depletion and climate chaos. Add these to grinding economic hardship, and this planet can feel like an inordinately brutal place to be. I see no “solution” to the “Three E’s” predicament—economics, energy, and environment, but only possible responses, otherwise known as resilience—a topic unaddressed by both the New York Times and Alternet articles.

 

So why might it be so difficult for baby boomers to cultivate resilience?

 

One aspect of the legacy of the Great Depression was a generation of parents who vowed that they would never allow their children to experience anything like it. And so it was that post-World War II, most of us were deluged with “stuff.” It wasn’t so much about having anything we wanted, but rather, knowing that if we really needed it, our parents would find a way for us to have it. Our public school education extended this sense of security by assuring us that if we worked hard enough (especially if we were white), we could acquire anything we wanted. We were socialized to aspire to a college education with the guarantee that it would be our ticket to success. “You can do anything you want,” was the constant spoken and unspoken message. Of course, girls were not given as much permission to achieve as boys were, but nevertheless, the message was “be all you can be,” long before the U.S. Army capitalized on the slogan.

 

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, many of us believed that our lives would be cut short by a nuclear exchange. “Duck and cover,” made it palpable, as did the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. However, as we discovered with the Vietnam War and beyond that wars of Low Intensity Conflict rather than nuclear wars would likely be the preferred method of dealing with international conflict, we began to entertain the possibility that we might live longer. And of course, we were socialized to believe that living longer meant living longer in the manner to which we had become accustomed. Naturally, if we worked hard and saved our money, we would have a fat pension, a 401K, or another retirement instrument(s) to allow us to travel, spend time with our grandchildren, and pursue all those things we didn’t have time for when we were working so hard to make all this happen.

 

What we didn’t count on was massive unemployment; the sudden, pre-mature demise of our careers; the endemic scourge of Wall St. corruption that would cause pensions and retirement savings to vanish; a collapse of the global financial system that would result in austerity policies throughout the Western world; and a posse of politicians who were hell bent on putting our Social Security checks and Medicare benefits into their own pockets.

 

All the while, no one really taught us anything about resilience. Resilience? Wasn’t that for soldiers in combat or those poor souls in third-world countries? Who needs adaptability, flexibility, or fluidity when our future is a done deal? A perspective, of course, which humans quite naturally adopt when they assume that life will unfold exactly as the elders and high priests of their society have predicted and which, also quite naturally, they desperately want to believe. In other words, baby boomers, like all generations before them on some level, were sold a bill of goods to which they unquestionably tied their hopes and dreams.

 

No, the suicide rate overall in the United States doesn’t begin to approach the suicide rate in a country like Greece with its total financial collapse, but a surge in suicide among a generation so thoroughly socialized in the narrative of entitled and guaranteed success is very telling.

 

To many, resilience just seems like the most natural response to crises, but for others, it feels over-reactive. “Things will turn around,” we keep telling ourselves. “No need to get hysterical,” others say. Our country has gone through recessions before and come out of them stronger than ever. For still others, the notion of resilience feels beneath them or somehow humiliating. After all, they argue, this is America. To talk of resilience means that one is giving up or walking away from the lifestyle to which one feels entitled.

 

To embrace resilience requires not merely a shift in thinking, but a modification of the psyche at a deep level. Quite literally, it involves an emotional surrender to what is and an openness to examining the consequences of it. When this has occurred, then taking the steps to prepare for challenging times usually follows with little effort.

 

That is to say that everyone who is living resiliently in the face of unprecedented changes has undergone some type of letting go—a saying goodbye to hopes and dreams or a particular way of life—a shift that obviously is easier for some than others. This is precisely why I argue that preparation for the collapse of industrial civilization is not exclusively, or even predominantly, a rational decision. Rather, I believe, it is instinctual so that in the same way that an animal knows it must abandon a particular habitat in order to survive and does so with probably more distress than we would like to imagine, we respond to something within the deeper self that says, “Your old way of living, doing, being, thinking, and feeling isn’t working anymore, and you won’t survive unless you forsake the old and surrender to the new.”

 

I cannot overemphasize the debt of gratitude we owe to visionaries like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who gave us a model for doing just that in her Five Stages Of Grief. And before her, another Elizabeth poetically articulated the “One Art” that may surpass all others:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

 

 

 

 

 

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11 comments to Bye-Bye Baby Boomers, By Carolyn Baker

  • ~mike~

    In other words, having sprouted, matured, flowered, and begun to wither solely within the most opulent times and circumstances in the entire history of the planet and having never been introduced intellectually to this fact, baby boomers generally seem to be having difficulties adapting to diminishing opulence.

    You can talk about them but for the most part, you cannot talk to them about the state of the world and resilience. “Panglossian Disorder”, Kathy McMahon would say, eh? Personally, I have witnessed not a single recovery. Talk about needing hospice care…

    ~mike~

  • Martin

    I can certainly understand why some folks choose suicide and I can well imagine that many more have contemplated it, having done so myself back in my middle years – but, as hard and terminal as things/times may appear, life does go on, if one allows it to, so I figure I might as well enjoy it as best I can as long as I can.

    A long footnote: I’m 76. I was born in the midst of the depression into a lower-middle-class family that already had enough children, came into my late teen years through WWII and fear of THE BOMB, lived through Korea and Viet Nam (I luckily slotted age-wise between the two) and the agony of the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy and Dr. King, came through two marriages and two divorces, never did better than just-below-average financially and am now living with my Social Security ‘entitlement’ as my sole income since no one will hire anyone my age even for part time work. And there have been numerous other life and soul stresses during my three-quarters-of a century lifespan. Am I unhappy or suicidal? Not in the least. Am I happy? At times, yes.

    The Boomer kids would do well to stop feeling sorry for themselves and/or the world, dig out of their personal depression (I know it is possible, having been ‘clinical’ myself for eight years) and get on with living. ‘Happy’ is a bonus.

  • freeacre

    I concur with everything you wrote, Carolyn. I think there is another aspect to be taken into account with us Boomers. Health. I live in a semi-rural area with a lot of retirees. The Oregon Health Plan is not an insurance plan. It is a loan for those who have property. Every dime they spend will be collected by a lien on you property after you die. Personally, I would rather shoot myself than leave my son with no cushion at all, with the bleak prospects for his generation.

    Another aspect of health: Looking around, we retired Boomers are limping around in seriously bad health and much pain, contrary to what is portrayed in the mass media. All we hear is how if we eat “right,” get plenty of exercise, etc. we will experience a happy life after we retire. Bullshit.

    The friggin’ food is poisoned with chemicals and genetically altered to render it indigestible for many. I could not lose any weight until I stopped eating wheat, for instance. I have been contaminated (probably from chem trails) and have suffered chronic pain from fibromyalgia for ten years. This gets really old and exhausting. Not looking forward to another ten years of this, especially since they are taking away the pain meds and wanting to get us on anti-depressants instead, which don’t work.
    Previous generations could be sustained after retirement by their families. But, now, with the children living far away, with their own practically insurmountable challenges ahead, I would hate to add my dependence on them to their burden.

    We may not be as resilient as those in Somalia. But, who wants to live like Somalis?

  • Carolyn

    Thanks for your comment. I did not include in the article a strong belief that boomers have had no training in becoming elders of the culture. In other places I have written about a culture’s need to initiate its youth and train them to be elders. Indigenous cultures have known this for millennia. Those who have studied initiations suggest that there is something in us that requires it, and when we don’t have it, we encounter barriers to maturity (a culture that never grows up?) When a community or culture never matures, it cannot produce elders who have the wisdom to guide the rest of the community. Part of the purpose of the collapse of industrial civilization is to initiate humanity into mature adulthood and compel us to encounter the wisdom that abides within the deeper self.

  • Jason

    I know you did not mean it, as you are so compassionate, but the title of the article sounds uncaring. Please please change it.

  • freeacre

    I believe you are totally right, Carolyn, regarding not having rituals and becoming elders. In politics, the same ones who ran things since the Kennedy administration are still running the government. Prince Charles will have to tear the scepter from the Queen’s hands. Our generation has been disenfranchised. The ones from our generation who rose to the top often inherited their position, or were absorbed and transformed, like the Borg, through prep schools and Fulbright Scholarships and things like that.
    The rest of us are like the American Indians on the reservations or Aborigines in the cities. Lost. Our children are thrill-seekers decorated with tattoos. Trying to make a new tribe, I guess.

    I hope they get their chance.

    I once knew a woman who had been sexually molested as a child, and later had several similar bad experiences as well. One day she decided to have a cleansing ceremony with milk. Since then, she felt better, and moved on.
    She didn’t feel like “damaged goods” any longer.
    We have much to re-learn.
    I value your thoughts on these things.

  • izzy

    As a guy who boomed onto the scene in 1947 I’m certainly part of the demographic, but somehow avoided the mindset. Whether through the vagaries of karma or my mother’s influence, I soured on the obviously toxic “american dream” decades ago, and have spent most of my adult life on the philosophical and life-style fringes, which didn’t used to be such a hard place to inhabit. That our current arrangements are both untenable and poisonous seems more than apparent, but while there are certainly folks of the same opinion online, I have not yet met such an individual in real life. The percentage is small. Dazed and confused or steeped in denial seems to be the norm these days. Perhaps my views are too extreme. In any event, I’ve picked up a lot of useful skills along the journey, and I’m still alive and intend to stay that way as long as possible. A great reckoning is on the way, and it’s going to be a challenge.

  • Carolyn

    If you want to meet kindred souls unlike what you’re finding online, consider attending the Age of Limits conference (www.ageoflimits.org)

  • Terry P. Rizzuti

    Or maybe they’re committing suicide because they finally looked in the mirror, recognized their own culpability in this mess our generation has created, and simply couldn’t accept further participation. Being one of the Vietnam Vets that learned a little resilience, I’m actually looking forward to the chaos. Maybe then my greed-driven peers will actually be worthy of meaningful comradeship.

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