What’s the Verdict with Generation X?

This article is also posted on The Hawaiʻi Independent.

My ideas on generational politics have been brewing for years, but it was my former student Jacob Aki’s article “What is a Millenial?” in the Independent that provided the spark for me to finally put them to paper.

When I was deciding, in the late 1990s, whether to study history or political science, one book swayed me toward politics. It was called Revolution X, and its authors made the argument that “our” generation, X that is, should be concerned about things like social security running out. It’s almost laughable now but generational politics are not a laughing matter. Generational warfare is held by some to be as central a feature of future politics as water wars. Generation X is caught in the middle. We are the ignored generation, caught between the nearly inconceivable cultural achievements of the Baby Boomers (which may actually be two generations – more on that later) and the attention-obsessed Millennials (which I prefer to call, in our wake, Generation Y). In fact, we may be defined by these two generations just as the boomers were defined in opposition to the so-called “Greatest” generation – the Depression-WWII-1950s American dreamers.

In the Hawaiian context, I often imagine, and sometime see the generation gap which must have developed as the activist generation of the 1970s emerged from under the shadow of the World War II generation. When George Helm and Haunani-Kay Trask were portraying America as the bad guy, it must have baffled veterans who were quite certain that the bad guy was Hitler. While they had an enemy to unify and define them, we were said to struggle with our own identities, hence the X – the unknown entity. If the Millenials defining question is “why?” (why bother?) ours is “who?” (who am I?).

There is some dispute about the dates bookending Gen X: some, like the US Census and Jon Miller’s Generation X Report, label Gen Xers as those born between 1961 and 1981. This puts me smack dab in the middle, as I was born in ʻ71. It also makes Barack Obama the first Gen X President (if barely), rather than the third Boomer President (after Clinton and Bush 43). But Boomers are usually described as those born between 1946 and 1964. Some would divide this into two “generations:” The Vietnam Generation and the “Me” Generation. For reference, remember that only one of these groups, the latter, were disco dancers. The 1961-1981 dates fit with the definition of Millenials used by Aki: “the generation of people born between 1982 and 2002, some 81 million” young people. That Millennials are the indulged children of most narcissistic generation in history is the reason for the epithet “the Me, Me, Me Generation.” But the economic situation they will inherit makes me suspect they may in the end be called “The Disappointed Generation.”

And this is not to completely disparage their parents. The American philosopher Ken Wilber notes that the Me Generation, while narcissistic, is also highly “evolved” in terms of consciousness, being the first to integrate Eastern and Western modes of thought on a mass basis. The combination of high-level consciousness and high narcissism is a cultural “disease” Wilber calls “Boomeritis.” There are certainly worse diseases.

If one song can characterize Gen X, in contrast, it’s Madonna’s “Material Girl.” If a movie can characterize us, it’s not The Breakfast Club, but Reality Bites. While the Boomers gave the world hippies and zippies, the New Age, flower power and communes, we gave it valley girls, New Wave and the word “whatever.” We are the last “American Dream” generation that had it good growing up, was mainly insulated from war and had a decent chance at college and a job. Things were not so competitive for us. A Pink Floyd song we grew up with went: “We don’t need no education.” If you did go to college, tuition was still usually in the four figures, and we finished in about average numbers (30%).

We saw transitions: Carter to Reagan, the 1990 fall of the Berlin Wall, the tech revolution (weʻre the first Apple and earphone generation – remember the Walkman?), and the 1994 Republican Revolution. We experienced Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock first hand. But we are also the first generation to be raising kids in the new austerity and whose children will likely have it worse than we did. And the 70s and 80s were not all pastel-colored, feathered-haired walks in Paisley Park. We experienced the terror of Mutually Assured Destruction. As the terror subsided, we tentatively struggled to find our place in the world.

One thing I did not realize until very recently, reading Gail Sheehy’s Passages, was Gen X has a real need to belong, and we did not belong to our idols the Boomers, and are out-of-step with Millennials. (While we were the first full-fledged hip-hop generation, we now somehow “don’t get it” according to them). Met Life says that we are most concerned about maintaining our standard of living – which makes sense in the generational transfer of wealth that is starting as Boomers hit 65. We have only slowly and recently had to grow up.

As we enter middle age and lines begin to appear on our faces, I see my peers entering positions of power woefully unprepared. One theory of change holds that the way change really happens is that the generation with the old ideas simply dies off and the new generation with the new ideas replaces it. So as we take over, what have we learned from contrasting the strictness of our grandparents and the laxity (albeit brilliant) of the Boomers, particularly as parents? Because this perspective we have had living in changing times is, in my view, one of our only advantages. As the transitional generation, X can bring an approach that balances the strengths of the two previous, and perhaps even the subsequent, generations to bear on the myriad problems we will inherit.

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