I’m a card-carrying member of what used to be called—derisively, it must be noted—Generation X. I watched the Berlin Wall fall and the Challenger explode. I read George H.W. Bush’s lips and learned who Tammy Wynette was from Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes. I was shopping for Doc Martens when I heard that River Phoenix had died.
They once said about my generation many of the things now said about Millennials. We were slobs and dreamers. We didn’t read enough. We watched too much TV. The world didn’t owe us a living. Why didn’t we just grow up?
The nineties were a blur of peace and prosperity. We were in our twenties, flying high on a wave of what, to us, seemed like technological progress. We got movie times over the phone. We played CDs in our cars. We dialed up AOL.
If you can’t get hired in this economy, they said, there’s something truly wrong with you. The wars in Somalia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Rwanda seemed too far away to knock us off stride. The newspapers warned that the Y2K bug would send us back to the Stone Age, but we woke up in a new millennium, certain that nothing could touch us.
On 9/11, however, reality finally intruded on Generation X. Peace and prosperity, we learned, are never permanent. History never ends. Technology is no match for human depravity. As our children were born, the country went to war. As we bought our homes, the economy collapsed.
Today, we’re in our forties, and they don’t call us slobs or slackers anymore. They don’t even call us Generation X. They just call us grownups. If you can’t get a job in this economy, well, join the club. After a decade and a half of war and stagnation, tempers are flaring. Our institutions are crumbling. Everyone seems to be losing their minds.
The generation ahead of us has exhausted itself. The Baby Boomers are looking to retire, maybe even a little early. They want to keep living in the high style they’ve grown accustomed to, but they didn’t leave enough cash in the account to pay the bills. When the subject comes up, they shrug their shoulders. “Whoops,” they say. “Sorry about that.”
The generation behind us is as much an annoyance as a mystery. The Millennials we neither trust nor understand. These kids are so needy! They make unreasonable and unwarranted demands on everyone: teachers, employers, coworkers, cops, baristas. They want positions of influence just for showing up. “We are the Millennials,” they say. “Give us high-paying tech jobs. Give us disruptive technology. Give us social justice.” To which we respond, “Why? Because you understand Snapchat and we don’t?”
Trapped between the spent force of the Baby Boomers and the selfish demands of the Millennials, Gen X-ers have inherited the big jobs: pacifying radical Islam, resurrecting our moribund economy, shoring up our eroded social and political institutions, keeping body and soul together—this is our mandate, as unlikely and unexpected as it is. Somebody, as we used to say, is going to have to step up. That somebody is us.
Never mind about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Their reliquary candidacies are just a distraction, not the future. They were both born in the late 1940s. Their support comes from old people. Should one of them happen to win the White House, it would be nothing more than a four-year funeral for a generation lost in space.
To save the world, Generation X will have to make use of its advantages. We are the last link to a time when childhood was still a bit dangerous, but produced adults who were naturally resilient. We grew up without text messages and dating apps, so we learned how to look people in the eye when we asked them to dinner or delivered bad news. Some of our homes were broken by divorce, but we know well the value of the stable-family ideal. They even taught us in school that sex had consequences.
For all its extended adolescent angst, Generation X wound up keeping faith with America. We know that you don’t get something for nothing, and that you don’t take what isn’t yours. But this is not the time for us to put our heads down and plough ahead. It’s time for my generation to step up. If not us, who?
Photo: Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder in 1994’s Reality Bites (Universal Pictures/Getty Images)