A gift of days with the extended family stretching from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday inevitably invites reflection on the fields of folly where we find the rising generations at work and play. Youth, beautiful in its blossoming, arrives with predictable attitude, often illustrated by various piercings and tattoos. They're adolescents forever in search of a way to make the "meaningful" statement, as elusive as the maturity that lies ahead.
Babies, naturally, are exempt from criticism, gurgling and sucking their thumbs, blissfully unaware that the Brobdingnags around them are blowing their inheritance on big-government deficits. But as the seniors say, leaving on a cruise to the Caribbean, they made a deal with Social Security a long time ago, and they're not going to apologize now for living long enough to collect on the bet.
Between those who crawl and those who walk unsteadily, often with a cane, the sisters and the cousins and the aunts of the generations ranging from baby boomers to millennials come with a mixed bag of aspirations and motivations. The easiest target, because it's so big, are the 75 million boomers born after World War II. P.J. O'Rourke, one of the self-appointed, self-flagellating spokesmen for his cohort, concedes that his generation has a one-sided approach to all problems, whether economic, social or psychological. "We won't face them," he writes in The Wall Street Journal.
Why should they? There's a website for solutions, support groups for commiseration, exercise classes for pain and gain, alternative medicine that does no harm, and lots of celebrities famous mostly for being famous and who boast of surviving it all on gluten-free cupcakes, free-range chicken and gourmet kale.
"History is full of generations that had too many problems," Mr. O'Rourke continues. "We are the first generation to have too many answers."
Nevertheless, time marches on, as the World War II newsreels once portentously reminded us. Many of the babies of boomers are now boomerang children, returning to their old rooms at home after college, seeking subsidized health care "just like their grandparents." Only they want it before lumbago and arthritis, when they have to order new knees, hips or hearts. They rightly worry that the inefficient processing of Obamacare is proof of an inefficient program. Why shouldn't the digital delivery designers have the wizardry of those college dropouts named Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who smoothly expanded their networks online without having to offer humiliating apology after embarrassing excuse?
The generation that never trusted anyone over 30 has grown into the "age of accountability," and like it or not, they're the generation over 60 that can't be trusted, either. Hillary Clinton, the aging star in the crowded political firmament, can't even say what happened in Benghazi on her watch as secretary of state, when four Americans, including an American ambassador, were slain by terrorists. She couldn't have been more arrogant or irresponsible than the "best and brightest" who brought us the Vietnam War and whom the boomers held in such contempt for the petty bureaucratic and overweening political considerations that trumped common sense and human values. Her famous reply to a question from a Senate committee about Benghazi -- "What difference, at this point, does it make?" -- will define her from now on.
The generations born after the boomers were not so self-important and overconfident as their predecessors, who like all those who benefit from historical hindsight wanted a different kind of life. Those of Generation X, Y or Z did not bask in such huge numbers as to make them think they could remake the world in their own image.
The millennials have been described as selfish, self-absorbed and narcissistic, but scholars of the 20-somethings see them as a fluid and changing generation, particularly the younger ones troubled by unemployment and despair after the Great Recession of '08. Given their low-budget circumstances, they're less given to material values than to the search for "meaningful work." They prefer to see themselves more as "givers" than "takers."
But "meaningful" is reckoned by where you fit into the changing classifications of race, economic class, gender (or transgender). Among the latest definitions of "meaningful" is how you cultivate your organic garden. Raising tomatoes, radishes and broccoli in your backyard may feed your family, but it contributes nothing to the children who arrive at school hungry. Feeling virtuous, as popular in some quarters as that may be, isn't the same as acting virtuously.
Every generation builds its life on how it perceives its best interests, though the choices people make won't necessarily serve them or others as well as they think. Alas, you could ask any boomer about that.