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The Japan Times recently reported that the workers desperately trying to keep the Fukushima nuclear meltdown at bay are working in terrible, unsanitary conditions, are under horrific stress, and are effectively being treated like a suicide squad:
Many of the workers went as long as 10 days straight without a bath or proper rest after March 11. They also witnessed the hydrogen explosions nearby "and testified that they were prepared for death," according to Tanigawa. "Their level of stress is something unimaginable," he said, adding that psychological care will be necessary for their posttraumatic stress.Consider, then, the bravery of elderly people, retired nuclear engineers, who are volunteering to work at the plant and continue to control the situation once the current workers flag. From a Time report:
With all the blame being tossed between generations in the online media these days, it's hard to imagine a parallel sentiment regarding inter-generational responsibility, duty and sacrifice being expressed in the West.But lest anyone think that Japan's growing coterie of elderly doesn't contribute to society, a newly formed group called the Skilled Veterans Corps shows just how vital pensioners are to rebuilding a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Composed of nearly 250 retired engineers and other professionals as of June 1, the group is volunteering to tread where few dare to go: the forbidden zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which is still leaking radiation after the earthquake and tsunami devastated the facility. Skilled Veterans Corps was founded by Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year-old retired engineer who believes that it is the older segment of society that should expose itself to potentially deadly radiation, thereby protecting younger Japanese from long-term health risks. “Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop,” Yamada told the BBC. “I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live.”
The stoicism and selflessness with which Japanese have dealt with this year's natural disasters have been remarkable to behold. But nowhere is the collective, sacrificial spirit greater than among Japan's elderly. They, more than younger Japanese, remember what it was like when Japan was not yet a rich, comfortable nation. Many, like Yamada, are determined to contribute whatever they can to return their country to normal. “Our generation who has, consciously or unconsciously, approved the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and enjoyed the benefits of the vast supply of electricity generated… should be the first to join the Skilled Veteran Corps to install or repair the [Fukushima plant's damaged] cooling system,” says a mission statement on the group's new website. “This is the duty of our generation to the next generation and the one thereafter." ... So far the elderly volunteers have not gotten permission from the government to enter the nuclear no-go zone. But the dangers at the Fukushima plant, where three reactors have most likely suffered meltdowns, show little sign of abating. Plant operator Tepco announced earlier this week that yet two more workers, one in his 30s and another in his 40s, may have been exposed to radiation levels surpassing maximum government limits. (The current maximum of 250 millisieverts is already more than double the previous ceiling of 100 millisieverts.)
Since at least World War I, the burden has fallen upon younger generations to make sacrifices for the survival of Western societies. It's a modern problem. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), the British anti-war poet, remarked: "the [First World] war was a dirty trick which had been played on me and my generation." Since the 1950s, the expectation that the young will pay the price has been glossed over by a burgeoning Western youth culture. But the underlying, implicit assumption - that the young in the West will pay tomorrow for whatever social costs we incur today - persists. The one generation that seems to have dodged that bullet, while fully capitalizing on it, is the Baby Boomers.
To take the Great Recession as an example, the only Western country where top managers consistently took pay cuts to prevent deep and widespread layoffs of younger workers was Germany. You can read reports on how mass layoffs of Generation X and Y workers were prevented in Germany here, here, here, here, and here. As a result, Germany is coming out of the Great Recession in much better shape than the US. In Asia, South Korea also followed this strategy, as did Japan, so that all generations bore the brunt of the recession equally. This is a sign that generational attitudes have a huge impact on how our societies are run. Negative intergenerational conflicts, which fueled the youth movements of the 1960s and were the source of Boomers' power, have created tremendous problems. They have destroyed almost all positive intergenerational dialogues.
As a result, a common attitude in the West is evident in a piece from BeWellPhilly: Boomers to GenX: Quit Your Whining; it's an article where the sanctimony and self-righteousness of the Boomer author is breathtaking. In response, Generation X commentators regard with dismay the collapse of the economy and the decline of public infrastructure under Baby Boomer stewardship - as well as Xers' lack of access to power to try to fix some of the damage done. Xer counter-arguments don't always make nice reading. With young families ruined and dispossessed and the entire job infrastructure that once existed in various professions totally gutted (but only after the Boomers enjoyed the last fruits of that infrastructure before weirdly reregulating and twisting it so that no job security could exist in the middle classes for those that followed) - the Generation X cohort has become fed up and angry. Ironically, they are simultaneously trying to shake off the lazy, cynical label which Boomers slapped on them in the early 1990s (for reports, see here, here, here and here). That label was created by Boomers in the media during another recession. It was a strange thing to do: labeling twenty-somethings at the time as 'lazy' and 'slackers,' when they were in fact unemployed due to a recession that the Boomers created. But the even deeper, hidden irony that Boomers do not appear to see is that, unlike Boomer rebels, Xers originally craved approval, support and guidance from their elders. They have always been a group that acknowledges traditions and the past, while keeping an eye on the future. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they looked to the Boomers, the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation to cement that attitude. They never got that affirmation from the Boomers (at least in a collective, generally recognized sense - individual experiences can obviously be different). Never. I've noticed this is a sentiment that sometimes comes up in the depressive subtexts of Gen X conversations: if they had just once encouraged us, we would have given them everything.
But the Millennium has turned, and all that is behind us. An article at SF Weekly confirms one Gen X response, namely, a slow movement toward apolitical attitudes; the author steps back from the toxic left-right political divide that Boomers have used to frame their ideological debates. The writer sees Boomers' radical political rifts as just another symptom of manufactured malaise that didn't help anything. The emptying-out of the political centre broke down civic dialogue and turned public life into a caustic melodrama for forty years, where the lack of consensus ensured politicians' and commentators' inability to recognize real, practical problems that badly needed (and need) attention.
A typical American X sentiment: "Infrastructure is crumbling, 50 million with no medical care, another 15 million on food stamps and the worst financial crisis in 75 years ... Stop congratulating yourselves and help fix the mess you've created in this country!" The mud-slinging in comments sections of these articles tells an ugly story, where there is no climate of mutual communication or cooperation, mutual responsibility or mutual duty. And there is particularly little or no sense of conciliation from Boomer elders toward their successors regarding the part the former played in creating the current state of domestic and world affairs. For one, halting acknowledgement, go here.
A final, sobering thought is the Boomers' occasional desire to pass the torch over Xers' heads to the Millennials. But this is done only to weaken the system further, while superficially shoring up Boomer agendas and ideals. During the Great Recession, middling Xer workers, finally up for promotion and bumping up against the nearly retiring Boomers, were fired. The junior, Gen Y workers, with their perceived 'better attitudes' took Xers' places, but only in totally compromised employment conditions that had no security. In the early-to-mid 2000s, Boomer rhetoric also encouraged rifts between Generations X and Y. These internecine conflicts have completely eroded the common good, in times when strengthening it is badly needed.
A change in values might do us all some good. We should look to the stoic courage with which younger workers at the Fukushima plant are labouring, day and night, to try to contain disaster. And we should consider the elder volunteers who are willing to take their places as part of bearing their share of the burden of decisions, whether those decisions were made last week, or decades ago.
See all my posts on Nuclear topics.
See all my posts on Generation Wars.
See all my posts on Generation X.
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