Did We Build a Better World?

Most of us arrived at Yale with ideals and fervor to change the world. We marched, petitioned, questioned authority, and loudly demanded change. Looking back now, with 50 more years of life experience, how did we do?  Your responses are mostly thoughtful, well argued, and articulate.  They paint a decidedly mixed picture – a few hopeful bright spots on a dark background of pessimism.
—Joan Hendricks Garvan, Tony Garvan, and Jeff Johnson

Question 9: We protested against the world our parents built. Did we build a better one?

On balance, yes. I would highlight that conformity and uniformity are no longer considered positive, women are closer to being considered normal human beings, and at least lip service to being open to people in general (not just ’people like us’) is the norm. It would be good if the reality conformed better to the lip service, but this is overall good. My (Y2007) son says, “You inherited a world on fire. You made it better.”

So I say we grew up in a scary and rigid culture; it’s differently scary but it’s less rigid.

I’m disappointed in one way, and we blew it in two areas where we didn’t see big trends until they broke over our heads.

My biggest disappointment is that as a generation we succumbed to crass capitalism by the 1980’s. My first hint was seeing dry-cleaned jeans at Penn in 1974. For me, this heralded the glorification of Wall Street (New York financial district and movie!). I thought we’d be more altruistic.

The areas where we got blindsided were climate change and intractable homicidal violence, both global and domestic. We totally missed and failed to mitigate climate change, though we were the first to sound the alarm on the negative environmental impact of humans. Those who cared about the environment failed to enlist the less interested. Neither strident misanthropic accusations nor dry data-driven scientific communications enroll people to take action.

We wanted to give peace a chance; we thought that if nations and generals didn’t pursue wars the world would be harmonious. Asymmetric warfare wasn’t on our radar; and school (and shopping mall and music festival) shooters were unimaginable. There’s just a lot more individual hatefulness and destructiveness than we included in our worldview.

Now I’m going to go listen to “Imagine” on repeat.
Joan Hendricks Garvan [CC]


  1. Established caring for the environment as a necessity.
  2. Huge strides in science, medicine, technology, engineering.
  3. Avoided WWIII, if not Vietnam II (Iraq).
  4. Defused the population bomb.
  5. Delivered on the promise of economics to avoid total economic meltdowns.
  6. Made America a fairer place for non-whites and women.
  7. Greatly increased universities’ endowments.
  8. Less elitist than the greatest generation.
    Tony Garvan [CC]

This is a complicated question. Our parents don’t deserve full credit or blame for the state of the world we inherited. They inherited much about that world and could only make adjustments. Further complicating the question is that some developments initially considered beneficial are actually detrimental.

Negative impacts of our parents’ generation included WWII and the Holocaust, inventing and using nuclear weapons, fostering a cold war between West and East as well as hot proxy wars like Vietnam, dismantling low-cost public universities, and allowing large corporations to dominate the economy, lower their taxes, pollute the environment, and treat people as mere consumers.

Positive impacts included stopping the march of fascism and ending the Holocaust, promoting civil rights, vaccinating whole populations against diseases, improving communication media, creating a market for music, and launching humanity into space.

Plastic and corporate monoculture mega-farms, both inventions of our parents’ generation, were initially considered great but later were found to cause serious harms.

Similarly, our generation could only adjust the world we inherited.

Our negative impact mainly consists of failures to act: allowing nuclear arms to proliferate, merely watching and cheering as the Soviet Union collapsed into a dangerous black hole, failing to rein in ever-expanding corporate dominance, allowing corporations and the ultra-rich to keep their taxes low, and hemming and hawing as humanity continued to wreck the planet with greenhouse gasses, plastic, and dangerous chemicals.

Our good works include: broadening the concept of civil rights, discarding needless formality, bringing computing to the people, containing AIDS, expanding mass transit, promoting recycling and renewable energy, developing urban parks and greenways, pushing for world peace over global dominance, and helping the developing world develop further, thereby raising billions of people out of poverty. The Internet is our generation’s Pandora’s Box: once considered great but now we see its downsides.

Are we leaving the world better off than our parents’ generation did? In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s a toss up. But here’s the deal: If you are reading this, you’re not dead yet.
Jeff Johnson [CC]

In the end, our hard work for the environment since ’74 may have only prolonged the reign of our hideous species.

The excellent answers suggested above all tend to address the really big issues. I don’t feel like I had any significant impact on these. However, my wife (married nearly 50 years now) and I raised two very decent and honorable human beings who have positive impacts on society. I took care of many patients at a public ’last resort’ facility, including work on nights, weekends, and holidays. And I trained hundreds of residents to practice medicine humanely, ethically, and at the highest possible level of quality without regard to patients’ ability to pay. This last factor has probably been lost in today’s healthcare environment which is much more focused on money than that of 30-50 years ago, unfortunately.
— Anonymous

It ain’t over yet! I’m a planetist and Earth scientist. For me the “world” is the planet and this survey question is… asked and answered. Hell no. Humanity has steadily accelerated its/our destruction of the livable planet. Americans still pollute at 1000x the global average and we from Yale 1974 are probably 3x the U.S average. I would (re)count the ways for you but I’m old and tired and too depressed. The wonderful things we have accomplished in all the arts and sciences risk becoming a lot of noise if we succumb as a species. What’s going to kill us off? Terminal tribalism as much as weapons of mass destruction? In the end, our hard work for the environment since ’74 may have only prolonged the reign of our hideous species, and the pace at which we self-immolate is faster than Earth herself is degrading. Some kind of plan! Save the Earth: End the Species! Solution: almost 12% of humans recycle?! Too little too late. I’m still working at this full time,* it’s easy for me to be cynical, hard to see any other way. So, tell your progeny, ’we are still working on the better world’ and stay engaged.

*I fix buildings to reduce pollution and use clean energy. I have worked in 10,000+ buildings in the past 50 years and we only have 14 million more to go, in the US alone. Cheeses. I think we built better for about a decade after we left Yale but stalled out after that. See you in May!

First, many thanks to Joan & Jeff for braiding critique with celebration in a tone of realistic optimism. Perhaps that balance is itself subject to a double-edged view in which we see progress for some, loss for others, along with simultaneous advance-and-retreat within key issues, rather than a holistic “us” who won-some/lost-some. One can play Pollyanna or Cassandra and find plenty of evidence for the role. E.G., vis. environmentalism: consciousness has been raised and ameliorative policies implemented, while the environment has been catastrophically degraded; vis. civil rights: many have been newly & effectively enfranchised, but we are now PRE-Roe-v.Wade and PRE-VotingRightsAct; vis. civic discourse: what counts as identity, art, desire, vocation have been helpfully expanded, yet the culture is in greater disarray, having become pervasively divisive, censorious, hateful, and hurtful; vis. technology: unimagined innovation has enlarged our wealth, creativity, and intimacy, but on several fronts (from unchecked AI to the scourge of social media) we have sown seeds of social and psychological destruction, and perhaps even the end of democracy itself. And then there’s the problem of imagining that “we” actually exercised collective agency rather than floated in a slipstream propelled by forces both greater and narrower than our collective body (just as “we” intervened in a dreadful war that raged on despite us and ended without anyone seeming to have really heard us). For all that, I trust that among us are many who — far more than myself — have done what they could in the cause of a better world wherever they found themselves blown by time’s heedless winds: gratitude and props to you all for that!

As Jeff says, this is a complicated question. The way I see it, the extreme focus on the individual rather than the community has had mixed results. We are today, at least in most parts of the country, more tolerant of individuals who fall outside of what in the 50s were considered societal norms. Mostly that’s good, although the breakdown of the nuclear family leads to less happiness and, by and large, less good outcomes. The notion of the “common good,” however, is all but lost as money has replaced community as the ultimate individual goal. More people than ever seem to be angry or feel disenfranchised. Guns are everywhere, as is Trump. I don’t think we have done much better overall.
Fred Peters [BK]

Yes. And No. I marvel at (and have directly benefited from) the improvements in modern medicines and health care. With respect to mental health care — not so much. On the energy front, I toiled on behalf of natural gas as a bridge fuel to a post-carbon future. I do marvel at the solar panels and wind turbines, but secretly pine for safe nuclear. Tribalism, in all its manifestations, continues to present its ugly head across the globe. China’s treatment of the Uyghur people and the denial of the Kurdish people of their rightful place are but two examples. On the other hand, progress in justice and recognition for all manner of minority groups has been encouraging. MAGAism could blow it up.
Jim Pavle [BK]

Short answer: yes we did. Until it got trashed in 2016.

I have been horrified by the repeated waves of backlash against non-conforming women and never more so by the successes of the anti-abortion movement.

Seriously? You can ask me again in five years’ time, but between then and now we are likely to suffer four more years of Trump, Russian victory in Ukraine, and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Today, to me, the better outlook for humanity is mass extinction as a result of climate change in the next century. The worse outlook is nuclear annihilation within this decade. Sorry to be so gloomy, classmates.
Scott McGlashan [CC]

Did we build a better world? We get an A for effort, but the outcome hasn’t matched the effort. I often think of what I would say to my late parents if I could write them a letter and tell them about the ending of their story, the ending they never got to see. It would go something like this: “Dear Mom and Dad, I hate to break it to you, but the world didn’t turn out exactly as you planned or even hoped. Remember how Al Gore warned us in 2006 that, if we didn’t drastically cut back on carbon emissions, the world would get too hot and the climate would spin out of control. Well, we didn’t and it did. “And remember when it was illegal to carry a dangerous weapon. Not anymore. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is for people to get guns and how often some of those gun getters are using them to kill kids in schools and grownups in churches, synagogues, and supermarkets. And remember how the Supreme Court protected the right to an abortion, the separation of church and state, and the goal of creating equal opportunities for historically disadvantaged minorities. We have a new Supreme Court now, and they seem to like it just the way it was in the early 1950s. “And remember the Gettysburg address? Well, democracy in America probably reached its zenith when you were alive. We could be holding a funeral for it next year. “So my generation is very sorry about how this all turned out. We did our best, but I guess our best wasn’t good enough. “On the plus side, my siblings, my friends, and I have done well for ourselves. Despite the seemingly ubiquitous chaos in recent years, life has been good to us. And best of all, I now have five grandchildren. They’re absolutely precious. You would have loved them. I won’t let them forget about how much promise our past held for our future and my optimism that they too can find a way to achieve it. Love, Ken”
Ken Berman [TD]

I give ourselves an “A” for effort. We were very socially conscious and contributed to important movements, like the one to withdraw from the Vietnam War. There were also the beginnings of environmental consciousness, with our support of “Earth Day.” Of course, we were misguided on many issues. Our support of George McGovern led to the re-election of President Nixon, for example. But at our age at that time, I give effort a lot more weight than wisdom. I’m not sure that future generations had as deeply rooted a sense of social consciousness as we did. Maybe that’s one area in which we could have done a better job in the years after we graduated.
Steve Bauer [SY]

Not even close, renaming Calhoun College not withstanding.
Peter Groninger [SM]

I protested very directly against my father’s participation in the Vietnam War as an official of the US government. And I protested against my mother’s world in which women were dependent on men and their whims. My views on Vietnam and colonialism in general led me to a life focused on understanding China, Japan and other parts of Asia as a journalist and writer. I was and am obsessed with viewing them as they really are, not through a lens of US national interests. In this, I follow many of the scholars of my generation — although I would not call myself a scholar — and in a limited way, this way of looking at the non-western world has had a positive effect. It is now quite unusual to find anyone in the public sphere that does not accept multipolarity in principle. But then, I spent much of my adult life engaging with China in particular and that now puts me on the wrong side of history along with many of my peers. As a feminist, I never wanted to be dependent on a man and I succeeded in that, but I have been horrified by the repeated waves of backlash against non-conforming women and never more so by the successes of the anti-abortion movement. So, my answer is that our generation has succeeded in small ways but has been unable to defy the great currents of history. It’s remarkable that we tried, though.
Edie Terry [PC]

This question is especially difficult because it is not at all clear what agency “we” had in the matter, because we all went in different directions, and because the answer must of course be mixed to the point of equivocation. I know that some of us have in actual fact made a better world. I know that some of us in actual fact made a worse world. And there is not a saint among us or in the world who did not mess up in some manner that hurt people. America in the 70s was freer in so far as life was less formal. You bought something, you counted out the cash. Today every purchase is part of a massive system of formal structures and controls. There was less surveillance. You could sneak through lots of situations. It was then possible to live in a big city when young by working one dumb job and have plenty of time to explore life. This is no longer the case because our form of capitalism is blunting our hopes, controlling our desires, and even defeating the species’ basic survival instinct. In other ways we are freer: it is somewhat more possible to thrive if you are in one of the groups broadly oppressed a half-century ago. However, thriving is more difficult because the needs of individualistic economic & social structures require vast controlling mechanisms of mute compulsion as well as coercive force. This is also a worldwide degradation of human wellbeing. Finally, life in the US is objectively worse now because, whereas fascism lay outside normative politics then, it now threatens all of us. An international authoritarian phalange, made up of greedheads and fanatics who use each other, is at work too. But just domestically, the dehumanization that fascists push is becoming normalized; the murders follow. And when the components of the coalition turn on each other in a country with more guns than people, it will take resolve, work, and sacrifice to retain democracy. “We” had very limited capability. We improved some things. But “we,” very much including me, did not press and fight hard enough and smart and long enough to reach those fundamentals that lay within the reach of moral change in a society.
Bennett Gilbert [SY]

We were young and idealistic — and angry. To a large degree focused on the Viet Nam war which was brought into our childhood living rooms. Many wanted to bring justice to issues of various -isms, but the backlash was horrific. We established Earth Day — tho’ most of us had no idea how much was needed beyond cleaning air and water and recycling. We flooded into new areas—certainly for women — that were barred or harder for our elders. Those areas were not exactly hospitable and often required a focus on sheer survival. Millennials might sneer and say “OK, Boomer.” But they have a lot in common with us. They also have a lot more information, training in strategies and ways to connect with each other. I sure wish them well.
Ann Larson [BR]

We are constantly bathed in hot media … featuring up-close-and-personal wars, disasters, and various assorted tragedies that cinematographically increase our stress levels.

I do not believe that “we Yalies” (or more broadly, “we Boomers”) have built a better world than our parents. According to a recent Gallup-International Survey, “Do we live better than our parents?”:  Only every second citizen (51%) of the world believes that their life is better than that of their parents. The other half of the people asked is equally divided between those who assess a worse life (23%) and those who find it the same (23%). 3% could not answer.  51% is not a passing grade. Satisfaction with the living standard is a key factor.  According to a survey by Pew Research, more than two-thirds (68%) of US respondents said they think today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents, up from 60% in 2019. Only 32% think children will be better off. 

My Yale “Grim Professionalism” mental tattoo focused my attention on working hard as the way to get ahead.  Today, adults ages 18 to 25 are nearly twice as likely as teenagers to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to data released by an initiative of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.  Nearly half of Americans age 18 to 29 are living with their parents — “Rent is Too Damn High” and “Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat” are familiar current memes.  

Certainly, the stress of the coronavirus pandemic has made many parents pessimistic about their children’s future.  And, “long” Covid lingers. The world had over 6.8 million deaths attributed to Covid. The USA has had to date: 1,186,671 Covid deaths — compare that to 418,500 total US civilian and military deaths in WW II of our parent’s era.   The effects of climate change are plainly evident as record temperatures are recorded worldwide. Desertification, flooding, landslides, salinization, are attributed to changing precipitation patterns.  The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation is seemingly slowing.  Ice sheets and glaciers are melting — sea levels are rising.   Presciently, most of Yale is roughly 66 ft / 20 m above sea level … and Science Hill is approximately 80 ft / 24 m at a 4.5% grade, processing northward to a peak elevation of 150 ft /46 m above sea level. 

As an oldie software guy, I learned that: “If builders built houses the way programmers build programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.” — attributed to early computer scientist and author, Gerald Weinberg’s “Second Law.” It is no wonder that today’s conventional software systems that facilitate our lives are so complex that no one understands how they work.  Experts openly admit that they do not understand how new A.I. Machine Learning systems work. Turn it off; turn it on again — and hope for a solution.  Cybersecurity still has not protected our personal data from winding up on the “dark web.”  So, the fix for that is to be offered an Identity Protection insurance policy.

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse (as is autocomplete).  On the Internet, I can find anything that piques my interest.  But, it has also created a conduit of disinformation — where lies and truths are touted and shouted.  “In war, truth is the first casualty” is a military maxim attributed to Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy.

Our US politics have descended into tribal and culture wars — our 2024 pre$idential election$ will be decided by $ix “$wing” $tate$ and many million$ of dollar$. And, our poorly scripted political reality TV show is being wired into our children’s brains as how to create government. 

Back in our Yale daze, we had no e-mail or cellphones.  Now, my e-mail address is more important than my name.  I get dozens of suspect or spam e-mails a day — and several phone calls with the Caller ID of someone named “Spam Risk”. At Yale, we had black-and-white TV with rabbit ears and a few broadcast channels.  Now, we have hundreds of high-def channels on a plethora of 24/7 priced media providers — including some specializing in political propaganda and anxiety.  We are constantly bathed in hot media (see Marshall McLuhan) featuring up-close-and-personal wars, disasters, and various assorted tragedies that cinematographically increase our stress levels — so that biologically we will pay more attention to advertisements for various unpronounceable drugs.

Our Vietnam and Afghanistan wars ended, but World Peace has not manifested. The Israelis have not nuked Iran, limiting themselves to destroying Gaza.  Pakistan and India have not exchanged nukes.  Russia has not tactically nuked Ukraine (thus making their reclaimed sovereign territory radioactive). China has not destroyed the world’s semiconductor industry by attacking Taiwan. Civil wars rage in Africa. Gangs are rampant in Haiti.  Houthis threaten shipping in Red Sea. 

Don’t get me started ranting as to whether today’s popular music is “better” than our 1960’s–1970’s era. But as The Dude observed: “Yeah, well, ya know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Thomas Corbi [TC]

I protested against racial and sexual discrimination as well as America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. I never thought I was protesting against “the world our parents built.” As a young adult, there were things that simply felt inappropriate and/or unacceptable in how our society was functioning, and I wanted to join with others who shared my feelings. However, I also knew that we would all have to “become the change we wanted to see” and that it would be up to each of us to live lives that reflected our stated values. Did we manage to do that? That’s a question every individual needs to answer for themselves. The world is a very big place, and it evolves…for the better and for the worse. What energies and actions did each of us contribute to its evolution?
Singie Shepley-Gamble [BK]

Our activism played a role … in bringing an end to the Vietnam war, improvements on civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, legislation to protect the environment, investigations into US conduct in Central America, and other important changes.

We started out well, in my view. Our activism played a role of some kind in bringing an end to the Vietnam war, improvements on civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, legislation to protect the environment, investigations into US conduct in Central America, and other important changes. But we underestimated the backlash against these steps, much of it from members of our own age group who had contrasting views. And we got distracted as we pursued our careers and started our families. The setbacks have been serious, and our society is now very divided, as it was when we were in college. But I remain hopeful, in part because the young people in the programs where I teach share the passion we had for making the world a better place.
Barbara Borst [SY]

Did we bring more “Lux et Veritas” to the world? As individuals maybe, but the collective result is less clear. The internet and social media give a soapbox to stand on to anyone. Articulate intelligence can spread misinformation. There are malign actors putting nasty stuff out there with the goal of creating a divided society. Lies are repeated until they are viewed as truths. They say that the one who wins the war is the writer of the history book. I doubt the definitive history has been written but when it is we will likely view it as revisionist. On a more optimistic note many of us did things that improved the lives of others. “How far that little candle throws its beam, so shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

Hard to say. Things are on balance better since 1970 than formerly, but did we have a hand in that or were we just along for the ride? After all, we were big beneficiaries of the triumph of Reaganism, and we liked the money. And Reaganism begat Trumpism. Overall, it mostly looks like a pendulum swinging back and forth over time with incremental advances in reason and justice (fewer witches burned) taking hold, but hardly universally. Did our gang contribute or did it just happen with or without us? I don’t know. Most of all though, I’m struck by what a bubble YC was for us. As a result, we emerged into a world nowhere near as changed from the 1950s we grew up in as we thought.
Steven Kimball [MC]

Haskell Peddicord [CC]

Did we build a better world? I don’t believe I can provide a meaningful answer to this question. I assume, by the use of the word “we,” the subject is the Yale Class of 1974, composed of more than 1200 individuals. We are an impressive group, filled with celebrated doctors, lawyers, economists, business-people, politicians, actors, writers, etc. I have some sense of their accomplishments and they certainly have improved the world. But what about those classmates about whom I know little or nothing, individuals uncovered by the media? It would be grossly improper to conclude that they have not improved the world — not made a difference. Philip Larkin’s poem, “Faith Healing,” contains the following verses:

In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.

Many, I hope most, of our classmates have lived a life according to love, loving others and being loved. And I am certain that they have made a difference even if, in my ignorance, I have no knowledge of the lives they have touched and all they have achieved. When considering whether “we” or perhaps “I” have built a better world, I think the closing sentences of Middlemarch, George Eliot’s masterwork, are apt. Speaking of Dorothea Brooke, the novel’s heroine, a woman of great intelligence and ideals, someone who accomplished much but also made serious mistakes, she used these words:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Steven Davis [ES]

Yes and No.  No: remember when they called us the “me generation”? The consequence of “me-ness” has a significant decline in trust, increase in consumers, and commitment to the commons and the common good. And Yes: We created social entrepreneurialism, vastly expanded the realm of spiritual traditions, understanding complex adaptive systems, and our music still drives. And we have an enormous responsibility to usher in a paradigm shift to a more distributive and regenerative world.
Jonathan Rose [BK]

I’m thinking about this at the individual level. I arrived at Yale with a desire to learn — especially about how to make social change happen. My senior project/thesis was about improving diagnosis and treatment of lead paint poisoning in the Hill and Dixwell neighborhoods, which led to a citywide ordinance on removal of peeling lead paint. Over the next 15 years I worked with others on womens’ employment rights, pay equity for library workers and a collective bargaining agreement for Chicago City workers as a way to provide more fairness and equity. Building a better world starts with people who decide to take action to improve our world. Human beings’ ability to innovate assures that the world is better than when we were kids. For me, the relevant questions are: how did we contribute to that and how did we change our own behavior in order to “build a better world”? After I retired, I got back into the better-world business … creating more community, working with others in my city to address key issues facing us. For me it’s changed how I view myself and my world and it’s been very rewarding. So my small part of the world is a better one.
Callie Kenady [BR]

No. For a much touted, outspoken, largely anti-war generation tilting at windmills, I feel like we largely sold out, and are one of the most selfish generations around. Our parents’ world had amazing heroes from MLK to RFK to Cesar Chavez to Harry Belafonte to name a few. Ours, I don’t feel we cashed that generation’s checks so well. I mean, look at the country today, a certified racist demagogue controls the national discourse and has turned it into a sewer. Meanwhile, back to my original point, most of us got ours and that’s mostly what mattered to us.

No. But I built a better family than my parents or grandparents did. And that’s what matters to me.
Alec Haverstick [SY]

Certainly, the world is a better place with advances in medicine. I have three new joints and would otherwise be crippled.

Rather than take on this important question directly, in all its breadth and complexity, I’ll go back to a strong memory and follow the thread it unspools. Throughout my childhood, my parents would say to me and my brothers, “You can do anything you want in life; you just have to work hard.” They wanted to encourage us, certainly. But the older I got, and the more I reflected on history — and family history — the more I heard in their encouragement an unspoken belief. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants who escaped Eastern Europe, arrived in America with very little, and ended up sending their own children to college. Those children, my parents, embraced professions and business careers and moved out to the suburbs, where my brothers and I could benefit from a good school system and a safe, enriching community. The unspoken lesson I took from my parents was: Our generation survived the Depression, defeated fascism, asserted American democratic values during the Cold War, supported the Civil Rights Movement, and in the process brought unparalleled prosperity to the United States. You boys are inheriting a country in which freedom, democracy, tolerance, and technological progress open endless possibilities. Go out and flourish!

I think that our generation’s protests “against the world our parents built” actually reflected the unspoken assumptions that our parents — at least mine — imparted to us. The better world we envisioned was, in part anyway, the further unfolding of the progressive values they had struggled toward. It was as if they had made a promise to us; we took it seriously and strove to fulfill it. We took for granted that Enlightenment values had prevailed and were now rooted in the world forever. Indeed, buttressed by economic prosperity, those values had brought us to the threshold of a new kind of individualism. Material constraints no longer controlled life as they once had. We could indeed become “anything we wanted.” Our idealism was, I feel, partly a belief in the possibility of self-fulfillment. Work wasn’t a matter of survival; you chose to do what you loved. Success wasn’t material comfort; it was personal happiness. Reality turned out to be more complex.

On the one hand, our generation helped to advance Enlightenment principles — for example, widening the fight for civil rights to include gender and sexual orientation. On the other hand, our style of individualism — different strokes for different folks, whatever floats your boat, just do it! — may have contributed to the erosion of civic institutions and of a sense of American commonality. And then there’s the current backlash against the post-war progressive consensus.

Today, the vision that I inherited from my parents, of ever-expanding possibility and tolerance for all, seems naïve. The Enlightenment’s universalist values contend with new forms of tribalism, clashing cultures, dangerous populist movements, and anti-intellectualism. Everyone seems aggrieved and angry. Amid the current turbulence and uncertainty, it’s hard to assess what kind of difference we made and how the values we took for granted are faring. John Quincy Adams once said: “I have to study politics and war so that my sons can study mathematics, commerce and agriculture, so that their sons can study poetry, painting and music.” We boomers did, in some ways, live out that metaphor of progress. (And, yes, we’d amend the quote to read “sons and daughters.”) Perhaps we made a world with more poetry. But we certainly didn’t manage to transcend politics and war.
Dan Laskin [ES]

I don’t think we gave our parents generation enough credit. I feel very lucky to have been born to good parents in a good country in the second half of the 20th century. We escaped nuclear war, infant mortality, mass murder by dictators. I am alive today due to medical advances all begun in our parents’ generation. So I think we owe our current world more to life and chance than to anything we have personally done. Having said that, in my personal life and professional life as a urologist I hope to have been a positive influence on others and the future.
John Heller [SM]

Certainly, the world is a better place with advances in medicine. I have three new joints and would otherwise be crippled. My husband had rotator cuff microsurgery and his three tiny entry points will soon disappear.

I am generally an optimist, but what I see happening to the land is frightening. Development and encroachment are out of control. I mainly travel north-south in the East. I-81, which was a quiet highway through farmland, is now filled with trucks that pass humongous distribution and data centers — totally out of human scale. Shopping malls and modular apartment buildings border Route 29 near Charlottesville, Virginia. The town has lost its character. At Yale, I drove from New Haven to my home in Sweet Briar so easily. Charlottesville was a sign on the road — wouldn’t know it existed. Now the road is totally congested and there is no way you want to drive near DC. People say Charlottesville has become part of northern Virginia. And that is not a compliment! We have lost our sense of place; everything is becoming homogenous. We moved away from Chapel Hill, North Carolina for similar reasons. Traffic, new apartment buildings or cookie cutter homes everywhere, shopping malls galore.

We are losing any sense of local culture. Short-term gain rules over sustainability and environmental integrity. I abandoned what was once a lovely island off Cape Cod because everyone now must have a pool, air conditioning, and a manicured lawn. What happened to sea breezes?

My other big concern is what we are doing to many creatures of this planet. Most people focus on charismatic megafauna, but the insect world — the food web building block — is being decimated. You don’t see lightning bugs much now. Hardly any insects and moths are attracted to your outside lights. Bees are in major decline. Pesticides and development are the main culprits. And finally, kids don’t play outdoors anymore. Nature is foreign to them. So sad. I hate to be a bummer, but these problems are tragic.
Cilla Leavitt [TC]

What makes a world better? Less pollution, less global warming, more democracy, less violence, fewer wars, less hunger, less human trafficking? İt is difficult to make precise evaluations based on these and other criteria. One thing is for sure: the world we are handing over may not be better than what we took over.  But it is certainly better than what it would have been if we had not built it.
Resit Ergener [JE]

I would not be surprised if somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion people die as a result of changes in our climate.

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Any answer is an illusion. Our technological and medical knowledge evolves rapidly and benefits billions of people daily. Yet are we capable of using what we know to truly benefit ourselves, our earth, our universe? Do we even agree on what that means? I think humanity is better off today than in 1970 — materially. But do we enjoy deeper and lasting relationships? A greater connection to the world? A sense we enjoy freedom and liberty and participate in decisions that affect our futures? Is our thinking better than people’s earlier concepts of their world? Have we had many breakthroughs in ethics, morality, human rights, creativity and awareness? I think our differences remain intractable. Or is it better to say they ebb and flow as they always have?
Peter St. Clair [CC]

On balance, I would have to say no. Despite great advances in technology and medicine, a number of factors overwhelm my opinion to the negative. Since graduation our world has become increasingly obsessed with money. So much of our lives have become transactional. Schools are more focused on technical education/skills. Humanities suffer. I believe our ability to think wider and deeper has suffered immensely. Our education has become narrower.

Politically, we are a mess. Too many of us are not open minded, empathetic, or caring. We have built a greedy, tribal world. To hell with democracy. In too many places around the world, democracy is in retreat. The fact that Trump is even a possibility for a second term is all one needs to know about the state of our cherished and fragile democracy.

And then there is climate change. I would not be surprised if somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion people die as a result of changes in our climate. Mass migrations, starvation, drought, war, political, economic and social upheaval will cause much ruin. And, we are destroying so many other species, it is despicable. The indicators for our future are not good.
Chip Spear [JE]

It’s an enormous question with many ways to answer it. I will stick to my own personal experience, and certainly will not attempt to be all-inclusive or even objective. In some ways we are better off. In others not so much. I never thought I’d be able to ride a bicycle on protected bike lanes up and down the canyons of Manhattan. Central Park has been restored, and livability in our cities has improved. Yet homelessness is worse than ever and plastic pollution is just one of many unresolved environmental threats. Medical and scientific breakthroughs are encouraging, even while science and truth are being questioned. My life as a gay person has vastly improved. Back then I never even dreamt about gay marriage as a possibility. Its acceptance has been a personal boost for me. I am deeply disappointed by the political dysfunction of our country and never would have thought that our democracy would be on the line. I am saddened by all the unresolved conflicts, and gun violence.
Walter Blumenfeld [CC]

No. Yeah, we questioned authority. But now we’re unquestioning authoritarians. Ignoring lessons of Vietnam, we let our neocons resuscitate American imperialism by promoting war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, and poking the Russian bear into a war Ukraine can’t win. Yeah, we continued some legacy projects: neoliberal policies improved health and prosperity and promoted democracy; foreign policy undermined the Soviet Empire; and economic and social reforms expanded equality and personal liberty.

But what of our own sorry legacy? Examples: (1) kids don’t learn civics and seek “safe spaces” free of offensive thoughts they perceive as “violence”; (2) schools fail to teach basic skills to the least among us; (3) ideological opposition to nuclear power has accelerated climate change; (4) we tolerated a post-9/11 surveillance state of the sort Orwell warned against; (5) our hands-off approach enabled Big Tech to exercise monopoly power, cripple newspaper journalism, collude with government censors, and corrupt callow youth; (6) naively believing free trade would liberalize China, we celebrated greedy businessmen (e.g., Tim, Lebron, Elon) who’ve helped the CCP build an evil empire Brezhnev could only dream of; (7) we infiltrated academia to grow a political monoculture, dispensing with lux et veritas in favor of “social justice” and identity politics; (8) journalists in major media (e.g., NPR, NYT) became activist hacks rather than speakers of truth to power; (9) after questioning authority in 1974, we succumbed to fear-inspired shutdowns in 2020, including disastrous school closings; and (10) we’ve sponsored polarizing cynicism destroying public trust in almost every institution. Meanwhile, abetted by our self-indulgence, national debt during 1974-2024 grew seventyfold (from < $0.5 trillion to > $34.5 trillion) — to say nothing of unsustainable debt we’ve maintained with Social Security and other entitlements for the affluent. We feed at the trough at the expense of our descendants.

So did our new establishment build a better world? Puh-leeze. There are few heroes among us. Overall, we took a world built through sacrifices of the Greatest Generation and frittered it away as the Worst Generation. But hey, as long as we feel good about ourselves, what else matters?

I’ll cut my parents some slack that I certainly didn’t when younger. They went through the end of the Depression and World War II.

I agree with Jeff Johnson that our parents did not build the world they lived in from a blank slate, but worked with what was handed down to them. It was during their lifetimes that the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China emerged as major communist powers, although not by our parents’ doing. My parents both enlisted in U.S. armed services to fight off the Nazis, although the rise of the Nazis was during their early years and also not of their doing. Their struggle against this evil was certainly a benefit to us. It also made our parents believe that war was a necessary protection against the rise of evil power, whereas our generation, not threatened by foreign powers, thought that war was a means for our own government to take advantage of us. Our generation saw a vast increase in employment opportunities available to women. This began to be required by U.S. law at least by the mid-1960’s. We have continued to be benefited by technological developments. Christian faith has become less prescribed as people have studied the Bible and sought to implement its teachings rather than simply relying on professionals to interpret things for them. Other significant developments have taken place during the years since we graduated. Can we take credit for these? Perhaps not, but they did take place during our watch. Sharon Vaino [SM] First, as to the premise, I’ll cut my parents some slack that I certainly didn’t when younger. They went through the end of the Depression and World War II. They did not build the entire world that we entered, but I take your point. I remember how fervently I believed I could change things. The movements in which I participated, Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s Liberation, ERA, Pro-Choice, Gay and Lesbian Pride, Earth Day, Co-educating Yale, did make deep social changes. I believed in working for non-violent social change in the style of Gandhi. I had to learn that significant changes on the above fronts did not mean they would stay changed. Anti-war protests affected Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968 and we left Vietnam, evacuating people by helicopter from the Embassy roof, in 1973. We have had Iraq & Afghanistan, since, and who knows what will happen in the Middle East and Ukraine now. We had Roe v Wade (1973), now have Dobbs (2022) and 50 States. DOMA in 1996; Gay marriage legalized in Massachusetts in 2004; DOMA ruled unconstitutional in 2013. Civil Rights Act 1964; Voting Rights Act in August 1965; Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder invalidated Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. We tried hard; we made ground; we lost some of it. On the Feminist Takeover of Yale, I will add this anecdote. My daughter, Class of ’90, when she was partly through her Sophomore year, asked, “Mom, what was the big deal about co-education at Yale?” Our job is to work our way out of a job and to make it look seamless to the next generation. We have had a foreign attack on U.S. soil, 9/11, and a domestic sack of our Capitol to prevent the orderly transfer of power, January 6. As of this writing, I do not know what form of governance our country will have. “Well Doctor [Franklin,] what have we got — a republic or a monarchy [?].” “A republic, if you can keep it.” Patricia Sheppard [DC] Our parents were in the Greatest Generation, and they sacrificed, they built a strong country, and they endured the Great Depression and World War 2.  They had old fashioned values that included hard work, charity, family — while at the same time were blithely or purposefully unaware of the misery and brutality of the lives of their fellow Americans of color.  But what about us?   While eventually more aware of the total American experience, our generation strikes me as having become selfish, and lucky, to have home ownership, social security, the luxury of exotic travels, while leaving our children with debts, threats to social security, and a fractured and dangerous world.  We had men of integrity like Eisenhower, or inspiration (JFK/RFK/MLK) to look up to as leaders, and today we have all encompassing threats to democracy, women’s rights, immigrants, even factual truth, and no gun laws to protect ourselves anymore.  So, no, we didn’t build a better world.  I think we worry about our children’s futures a lot more than our parents worried about ours.Richard Hall [SM] Did we build a better world? My answer would depend on the time period in question. I would have said YES when: Barack Obama was elected as the first black President in US history. The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay marriage was permitted under the US Constitution. Joe Biden was elected as the utterly needed anti-Trump after the chaos, fraud, violence, incompetence, and lies of the previous administration. With the added bonus of Kamala Harris being elected as the first female, and black, Vice-President in US history. When the January 6th House Committee revealed the arrogance, narcissism, and fascism of Trump’s dangerous attempt to remain in power after the 2020 election. Trump was found liable for sexual assault of E Jean Carroll and subsequently twice found liable for defamation, with judgements approaching $100 million dollars. Trump was found liable for fraud against banks and businesses in New York, with judgments approaching half a billion $.  I would have said NO when: The United States doled out “Shock and Awe” via missile attacks on the people of Iraq after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The George W Bush administration lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Abuse and torture atrocities were visited upon the prisoners of Abu Graib in Iraq. Trump said the Covid 19 pandemic would be over in a few days. Trump recommended that people ingest bleach to protect themselves from the effects of Covid 19. The Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that women were no longer entitled by the US Constitution to control their reproductive health via abortions. That their rights were to be determined state by state. I would continue to say NO given: Our inability to address Climate Change. Our inability to address Gun Violence. Our inability to push back against Racism and Bigotry. Our inability to stymie the adherents of Authoritarianism and Fascism in the US and around the world. —Colly Burgwin [SY] I have been thinking a lot about this in the past weeks, with the current Gaza protests. One of my colleagues recently said the college protest movements have proven to be on the right side of history, which also gave me pause to think if that was true of those we participated in. I think we did make a difference in turning some of the tides in the 60’s and 70’s, but were not prepared/ready for what it took to sustain them, and grew comfortable in the early successes and moved on to other things, not all of which have been beneficial, and over time lost influence. (And I suppose some moved to the dark side!)  Two good examples:
  1. The nascent environmental movement, we were aware of the potential for global warming and greenhouse gasses. (Or maybe only us biology majors.) I certainly remember the first Earth Day, the Cuyahoga river burning and the gas crisis. However, as our generation assumed leadership, we did not act to pull any levers to slow down the path that we are now on. Hopefully we can support the younger generation who will have to grapple with the sequelae of our inaction.
  2. Reproductive Health Rights: I remember the sex ed booklets distributed to us at Yale, and the impact of the pill, and less happily of the early IUD’s. We lived in fear of pregnancy, and celebrated Roe v. Wade in our junior year. Contraceptive technology and access has advanced considerably in the ensuing years, and women have had better access to the full range of family planning services, including abortion in the last 50 years. And now? Need I say more?
I think the moral is that no matter how successful and or comfortable we are in our current life, as we enter the third phase (see the last question) we should endeavor to continue to support those same movements.Lucy Loomis [DC]