Matthew Hennessey joins City Journal managing editor Paul Beston to discuss Hennessey’s new book, Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials.
More than a decade after the introduction of social media, it’s evident that Silicon Valley’s youth-obsessed culture has more drawbacks—from violations of privacy to deteriorating attention spans—than many of us first realized. For many millennials, though, who grew up with the Internet, there’s nothing to worry about. And to hear the media tell it, this tech-savvy generation, the largest in American history, is poised to take leadership from the retiring baby boomers.
But a smaller generational cohort is overlooked in the equation: Generation X, those born, roughly, between 1965 and 1980, and destined to play the middle child between the headline-grabbing boomers and the hotshot millennials. Smaller demographically, they are reaching the age of traditional leadership, and they grew up in a less tech-dominated time. Hennessey calls on America’s “last adult generation” to assert itself before losing its chance to influence the direction of the country.
“America stands anxiously on the cusp of an unknown future,” Hennessey writes. “Unlike the baby boomers, Generation X’s race is not yet run. Unlike the millennials, we remember what life was like before the Internet invaded and conquered nearly everything. In that memory resides the hope of our collective redemption, the seed of a renewal that could stem the rot, decay, erosion, and collapse all around us.”
Matthew Hennessey is an associate editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal and former associate editor of City Journal.
Paul Beston: Hello, welcome to another edition of 10 Blocks, City Journal’s Podcast. I’m Paul Beston, managing editor of City Journal, and I’m here today with Matthew Hennessey, the associate op-ed editor of The Wall Street Journal. Matt has written a book called Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials, published by Encounter. It’s a book that warns about the all-pervasive role that technology is playing in our lives and that is a familiar topic by now to many of us, but Matt looks at it in a fresh way, through a generational lens. And he argues that if anyone is going to guide us toward a more proportionate, reasonable relationship with technology, it’s those Americans who belong to Generation X, because they remember a time when technology didn’t mediate every minute of our lives. Matt, thanks for joining us. So, speaking of Generation X, it’s almost like one of those terms, you know, it used to be so pervasive and you don’t hear it as much as you once did. So, to start with a question you are probably going to get a lot of, how do you define Generation X, and while you are at it, the millennials and the baby boomer in terms of the generational boundaries that frame them?
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, you are right. I find that people do often want to start there because while most people are very familiar with the term baby boomers and are increasingly familiar with the term millennials, Generation X has largely been forgotten or ignored. As you said, it was once on the tip of everybody’s tongue. So, the way I look at it is like this. The original term to refer to this cohort of Americans that I call Generation X was the baby bust. So, they were defined in relation to what came before, which was the baby boom. And the baby boom ran out of gas sometime in the early ‘60s or the mid ‘60s. So, you could say Generation X starts about 1965. That’s how I look at it. About 1965 and runs to about 1980. Having said that, a lot of people ask me all the time, well I don’t know if I’m Generation X. I was born in 1963. What does that make me? Well, it doesn’t make you anything, really. I mean, we all know people who seem to have been born in a, you know, with the soul of someone from a previous generation, but that, you know, look young, or whatever. So, these definitions are fuzzy.
Paul Beston: Sure.
Matthew Hennessey: You can’t just, you know, no one rang a bell in 1980 and said okay Generation X is over, let’s begin this millennial era. A lot of these things are sort of, they are determined in hindsight. So many cultural events and epics, you know, we don’t realize that we are in them until, in some cases, decades have gone by.
Paul Beston: Right, and there is always kind of a lag. I mean the front end of a generation and the back end of it is always kind of hard to…
Matthew Hennessey: There’s a lot of mixing…
Paul Beston: …to reconcile that.
Matthew Hennessey: Yes.
Paul Beston: You know, because you didn’t really experience the same things. But it is a general framework that we use.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah. So, the baby boom started after the Second World War, I think people are very familiar with that storyline. Gen X starts sometime in the mid ‘60s and runs out of gas, like I said, in the early ‘80s, probably no later than ’81 or ’82. If you were born in 1982 I guess you’re getting close to forty now, right? You are in your late thirties. So, we don’t tend to think of people who are currently in their late thirties as being millennials but, you know, depending on the way they are living their lives we might. So, the cutoff for millennials probably at this point, you know, the oldest millennials are probably 35 right now. And, again, there is some debate over whether, you know, kids who are in college right now in 2018 can actually be rightly called millennials. Some people think that that’s a different generation. I tend to think that if you are 18 or 19 now you are the very tail end of the millennial cohort.
Paul Beston: And like most generations, Generation X rightly or wrongly, acquired a kind of reputational character, at least in the media. What was that and how did it compare with, you know, how the boomers were portrayed, often by boomers, and how the millennials are kind of known and thought of today?
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, well the Generation X moment which kind of happened in the early ‘90s, let’s say. From about 1990 to about ’95 or ’96, something like that, where Generation X was sort of identified as a particular American type that was, you know – so, at the time we were viewed as slightly melancholy, dissatisfied with our lot, you know, like we had prolonged our adolescence, that we weren’t as, you know, get up and go as the generations that had come before. Of course, people say that about every generation of youngsters that comes along. I think most people agree that Generation X kind of outgrew that stereotype and sort of got on with the business of living. What changed, ultimately, and the reason why what differentiates Generation X from, let’s say the millennials in terms of how they experienced maturity, or approaching maturity in their twenties, is that the Internet came along. And the technological landscape shifted dramatically as Gen-Xers were really beyond the age of being able to fully incorporate it into their lives. So, you know, I always tell this story. I remember that I was probably 20 – I’m 44 now – I was probably closer to 30. It’s hard to believe at this point now since we all spend all day long online and staring at our phones. I was probably closer to 30 before I even checked my email every day. So that’s how radical this change has been. And so, the book, while it is concerned with the differences between the generations, I really tried to focus in on our different generational approaches to this new technology and how it has shaped us.
Paul Beston: Right, and that’s really the crux of the book because it’s talking about things that a lot of people are talking about today regarding the technology and the role it is playing in our lives…
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, the Gen-X and the millennials – the war between you know, the generations, is what gets the headlines and I admit it gets the headlines in my book. But the book is about something a little more complicated than just oh millennials are crap, or whatever.
Paul Beston: Sure, no I mean, one of the things you do so well in the book is weave personal stories into the larger canvas of the story you are telling. And you are, as you said, when you were born, I mean, you are one of those Gen-Xers that is not ambiguous, you are definitely a Generation X because you were born in the 1970s, so there is no confusion where you place.
Matthew Hennessey: No, there’s no confusion there.
Paul Beston: But you know, you talk about your own growing up as a Generation Xer – of course you didn’t think of yourself as that yet – but you have very evocative reminisces of what life was like back then. It’s funny to say back then, but that’s what it is, you know, compared to now. From things like socializing, meeting friends, asking girls out on dates, buying music, buying records. You know, talk about some of those experiences and also what habits you think that those instilled, which again, goes to the crux of the book. That is, it makes people from this generation in certain ways fundamentally different than the younger crowd.
Matthew Hennessey: Well, one of the things that I think about frequently is postcards. I find postcards to be a real interesting marker to talk about with people who are, you know, in their thirties or younger. This idea that you could actually – like you’d go on vacation, say, with your family in the summertime for a week, and you would spend the first two days at the beach buying a bunch of postcards to send to all your friends back in your you know, in your town or whatever. Say hey, here we are at the beach, we’ll see you next week.
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: And it really seemed like you were far away. It really seemed like you had gone somewhere even if you were, you know, an hour away from home.
Paul Beston: Right. And the postcards never got there until you were back home.
Matthew Hennessey: Sometimes that was true, but you loved to get a postcard from somebody, from your aunt who went to San Francisco or something like that.
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: That was a real experience that is totally gone. I mean, maybe people send postcards now, here and there, but what it meant, what it signifies to me is that there was a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – where you had to be satisfied being out of touch with someone that you wanted to be in touch with, perhaps that you loved or that you enjoyed being around – you simply had to accept that they weren’t going to be in touch with you for a while. You might have to wait a couple of days to get the answer to your question. You might have to…
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: Right. So, what did that do? Why is that important? It’s important because on some level it cultivated in people an understanding that – what we often call delayed gratification – that you have to, you have to be patient in order to get satisfaction.
Paul Beston: Right, and old-fashioned television comes out, ironically, looking good in this treatment. Because, you know this is this technology that really became widely dispersed in the ‘50s and there are all these warnings about how it was going to destroy kids brains and turn off from reading. And it has had some of that effect, but in your context, old-fashioned TV, network TV, we had to put it on, you know, if you are going to see a show you had to be home at 7:00 or 8:00 to see it and there was no other way to see it also cultivated this waiting…
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, in a strange way…
Paul Beston: …which today is people just get whenever, everything is one-touch.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, nobody has ever said like watching TV was really good for you or anything like that. I mean, so, you know, of course grownups back in those days used to wag their fingers and say like you shouldn’t be watching the boob tube, you are melting your brain and all that kind of stuff. But as I point out in the book, and as you just sort of sketched out, it was oddly, required some discipline.
Paul Beston: Yes.
Matthew Hennessey: There was, you know, a TV Guide and it told you that your show was going to be on at 8:00 on a Tuesday night, and if you didn’t get in front of a TV at 8:00 on a Tuesday night, you were out of luck. And people lived their lives accordingly. For better or for worse, they changed their plans in order to be in front of the TV at that time. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. I mean, you could probably make a pretty fair case that now we have a lot more convenience in terms of the things that we can do and that probably makes us more productive or, you know…
Paul Beston: But also more impatient.
Matthew Hennessey: Also more impatient, that’s exactly right. That’s the downside of all this stuff. And I get a lot of, I get a lot of response when I’m talking about this stuff that sort of suggests that, you know, oh, well you are just now an old man now, you’re just what those old people were who were waving their finger in your face about the television – that’s just you now. And so…
Paul Beston: Right, is that some of the pushback you have heard so far from the book? And to me this is obviously a book that makes an argument and so people are going to have different views.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, I get a lot of that. That’s, I mean, that’s what I would say to me. That, you know, you are just nostalgic for a time that’s lost and you are not with the latest and you are confused and disoriented by this new wave of technology and you’re just moaning about it. And you need to get with the program.
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: You know, that’s a fair criticism. I think I deal with it pretty head-on in the book. What I wasn’t expecting which is, I’ve been accused by some people of not going far enough. With not, for instance, taking on the, you know, the disruptions – like some of the larger questions. You know, I frame this mostly in regard to my own life and how I’ve experienced these disruptions. But I have found that some people say well why don’t you go further? Why don’t you talk about, you know, the breakdown of the family or the sort of corrosive effects that these technologies have had on all these other areas of life?
Paul Beston: And you have accounts, you know, you have anecdotes about that which are very telling in the book. I mean, I think the one that a lot of readers will relate to is the one you tell about making pancakes…
Matthew Hennessey: Oh yeah.
Paul Beston: …for your kids on Saturday mornings. And, I mean, this is getting to the technology side of it. I mean, we have talked about the generational. So, the all-pervasive nature of these devices, which we are all familiar with now, we know about it. We are starting to get concerned about it. We are not really sure what to do about it. But you are dramatizing that in everyday life and then we are going to talk a little bit at the end about some of the other stuff about the Silicon Valley crowd and their plans for the future and you know, the aspects of that that trouble you, but the pancake story is very evocative. It’s a timeless episode that people have been doing forever and yet there is this new presence there that wasn’t there, maybe even ten years ago, that’s distracting you from the time with your kids.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, so what happened was, and this is probably the seed that was planted that ultimately flowered as this book. I make pancakes with my kids on Saturday mornings. I work all week. It’s not easy to get time with my kids in the morning or in the evening before and after work, so on Saturday mornings I really enjoy and cherish this time making pancakes with my kids and I help, you know, the little ones stir the batter and all this kind of stuff, and we make a big to-do about it. The pancakes are quite good I might add. So, one day a year or two ago I noticed that I was kind of distracted. I was making the pancakes with the kids, but I kept checking my phone. I was sort of, my mind was wandering constantly, I was thinking what’s going on on Twitter or Facebook. Did I get any emails? I can’t remember exactly what was going on that day, but you know, I have to admit that it was a day like any other day where I was wanting to be sort of having a morning with my kids and I found that I was totally distracted and I wasn’t myself. And it occurred to me as I thought about it more that I didn’t used to be like that. That I used to be quite capable of, you know, putting the phone down or not worrying whether someone was trying to get in touch with me, or saying something nasty about me on social media, or you know, sharing a piece that I had written. I used to be quite capable of putting all that aside for a couple of hours at least – or a day, or a weekend – and picking it up again on Monday morning. And I noticed that something had shifted. Something pretty dramatic had shifted. So, I wanted to explore that and that’s ultimately what led me down the road, that led to this sort of analysis of how the generations were different and the role of technology and the role of the people who make technology.
Paul Beston: Right. And you broaden the scope, you know, as the chapters unfold, and one of your big targets is what has become known as the Internet of Things. So, you know, the increasingly computerized cars, the self-driving cars are obviously coming out soon, but I mean our own cars that we drive today are increasingly technologically out of our hands. This Amazon Echo is a big subject for you. The Alexa taking orders around the house. What is it, you know, succinctly, I mean, what does it do? Some people love this Internet of Things, they can’t wait for it to roll out further. What is your objection to it and what troubles you about it?
Matthew Hennessey: Well, I find it really creepy. That’s what troubles me about it. So, I have numerous examples in the book of, you know, things that have made the news that are related to these, you know, the Amazon Echo is the one that people are most familiar with, but Google has their own version of it, so does Apple, these personal digital assistants…
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: …that you have in your home that are always on and always listening and waiting for you to ask them to perform some function. It’s almost like – we have all had this experience of being on the Internet and looking at a product or maybe, you know, Googling something – and then turning around an hour or two or a day later and seeing that you are getting bombarded with ads for that thing. So, we have all sort of made peace with the idea that we are out there, they are watching us, we do something on the Internet and we’re going to get those ads. But lately – I don’t know if you have had this experience, I have, where you start to wonder hey is my phone listening to my conversations while I’m just sitting here talking with you, because I mentioned that thing, that ice cream or whatever to you, and now I’m getting ads for it online when I’m running around. What’s going on here?
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: Well, what’s going on here is that all of these appliances, from our phones to our coffeemakers, to our dishwashers, to our cars, as you mentioned, will shortly if they aren’t already, be spying on us, listening to us. And they’re going to want to be able to talk to each other too. That’s sort of the ethos here is that your coffeemaker wants to be able to order coffee for you when you’re running low. So, it’s going to make that call on its own eventually. That’s what Silicon Valley is hoping to get to.
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: Or, what’s another good example? Your car will want to be able to talk to your Amazon Echo to let it know that it need new wipers and can you order them, that kind of thing. You can see how it would be very convenient. You can see how, in some ways, wow, things are going to be easier. I’m going to have more free time. I’m not going to have to go shopping, all that kind of jazz. But I think it’s also, you know, you don’t have to be paranoid to see how it could potentially have some serious negative consequences on the way you live your life if a company, or several companies, based very far away from where you live is listening to your daily conversations. The one example I use in the book which I think people can actually relate to is, in the car. How many times have you been driving in your car and somebody cuts you off or somebody did something to you and prompted you to say something that you, you might have thought better of a little later, or you might have been embarrassed of, something, angry outburst or something. Would you really want that on record somewhere? Would you really want your car to be sort of taping you as you’re talking? I think most people could see how that could one day potentially be twisted and used against them in ways that, I mean, you know, you just have to watch TV…
Paul Beston: Sure, we are always connected…
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, to be always connected and to be always surveilled. I mean, I really do think of it in those terms. I think that the goal of many of these Silicon Valley companies is to get a spy in your living room so that they can – now this is the thing that is the most fascinating – so that they can more accurately target you for advertising. They want to sell you products. So, at the moment they can only find out what you want when you make a move, when you go online and you hunt around, you put your cursor over something for a little while and hover it, look at it for thirty seconds…
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: …they know, oh, he’s interested in that hat. Let’s send him some ads for that hat. How much better would it be for them if they could actually hear you talking to your wife about, you know, Christmas presents for the kids? They’d get right on it.
Paul Beston: That’s why you describe it as East Germany with kickass customer service.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, well I’m just trying to use evocative language that get people’s attention.
Paul Beston: That works, that gets through. And yet we do seem, I mean, largely acquiescent, at least so far. I mean, the convenience aspect of this is self-evident, as you say. I mean some of these things are great and they are very convenient, but at the cost of privacy and autonomy.
Matthew Hennessey: One of the things that people ask me is well what am I supposed to do about this? You say it’s Zero Hour for Gen X. What am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to go…
Paul Beston: Right. This is where the generational them comes back.
Matthew Hennessey: I’m supposed to go the generational barricades and, you know, beat back the millennial hordes? This Internet of Things is the sort of, to me anyway, it’s one of the things that Generation X needs to really push back on, because we are, we are currently at the age where we are raising children and we are buying homes and we are sort of, you know, we are the adult generation. We are in mid-life. And we have the power, we have the resources to push back against some of these things and we have the ability to say we don’t want a vacuum cleaner that is connected to the Internet.
Paul Beston: Right.
Matthew Hennessey: We just don’t need that, you know, or GPS. Or, you know, we can vacuum the house, you know, we know when we need to go to the dentist. We don’t need our toothbrush telling us it’s been you know, six months since you’ve been to the dentist, pal, and you need to go. So, when people ask me all the time what am I supposed to do about it, this is one of those things. Like somehow figure out a way through your shopping habits, if need be, to tell the people who are pushing this vision of the world that you don’t want it.
Paul Beston: Right. And I mean, this is a very fortuitous time for your book to come out because, of course, with the recent stock market rout that Facebook has suffered, in part because of its record with privacy.
Matthew Hennessey: Yeah. Well, 2018…
Paul Beston: People are slowly, people do seem to be…
Matthew Hennessey: Could be.
Paul Beston: …starting to, I mean, it’s too early to say. They still have, you know, these products still have enormous, you know, usage and pervasiveness in people’s lives, but this is a different scenario we are seeing, at least right now.
Matthew Hennessey: I’m hopeful. I think that perhaps this is the year that we will look back on and say wait a minute. That was when people sort of really got hip to what was going on. You have to remember that this industry is all very new.
Paul Beston: It’s very new.
Matthew Hennessey: It’s a decade old, maybe. As I was saying earlier, I mean I didn’t even check my email until fifteen years ago. So, now it’s been ten years of Facebook and, you know, they are finally sort of, people are finally sort of saying, hey wait a minute, maybe this social media always constantly connected revolution went a little too far too fast. And we need to – that’s essentially what I’m asking people to do with this book, is just slow down. Think about it. Think critically about the lifestyle that Silicon Valley is pushing on all of us. I’m not saying get rid of your phone. I have a phone. I have Twitter. I have all that stuff.
Paul Beston: Sure.
Matthew Hennessey: I’m trying to be much more mindful – that’s a word that people love to use these days – I’m trying to be much more mindful about the way I use those things and the way they use me.
Paul Beston: I have been talking with Matthew Hennessey about his new book Zero Hour for Gen X, which is out now. Don’t forget to check out more about this episode and a link to Matt’s book on our website at www.city-journal.org. You can also see and find Matt’s work on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages. You can follow Matt on Twitter, @MattHennessey. We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal. And lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks, Matt, for joining us.
Matthew Hennessey: My pleasure Paul. Thank you.
Photo: Anastos Kol / Flickr