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Zero Hour for Generation X

from the magazine

Zero Hour for Generation X

With baby boomers fading and millennials asserting themselves, it’s time for Gen X to step up. Summer 2017
The Social Order

Though one of its own sits yet again in the White House, the baby-boom generation, 78 million strong, is finally preparing to depart the scene. Theirs is a 40-year legacy of war, debt, and cultural conflagration. The boomers won’t leave a vacuum when they go, however. The young and hungry millennials—roughly speaking, those between 18 and 35—are licking their lips. Numbering 80 million, these tech-savvy kids are the largest generational cohort in American history, and they’re preparing to seize the commanding heights of the economy and culture. Given their size and cultural clout, the millennials could conceivably jump the queue, crowding out the more traditional priorities and preferences of the intervening generation—Generation X, those roughly between the ages of 37 and 52—and setting the terms of the national debate on everything from the shape of the economy to the future of free speech.

This skipping of a generation, if it happens, will be a special sort of injustice. The youngest Xers are entering the prime of their lives; the oldest among them have passed 50. With no time left to start over, they’re the ones for whom public policy, cultural change, and a growing economy really matter. Their salaries have stagnated over the last nine years, along with GDP growth. The underwater mortgages are largely theirs. The ever-heavier costs of college education fall on their shoulders. Social Security, if it isn’t somehow fixed, is going to disintegrate just as they are getting ready to retire.

As a cohort, GenXers have often been described as reticent, certainly compared with the generations before and after them. It might be time to shed this habitual reluctance, however: if they don’t assert themselves soon, they risk losing their ability to influence the direction of the country. Sadly, it will happen just as they’re entering their most productive years.

Many balk at using the concept of generations as a lens through which to analyze political, cultural, social, and economic trends, as if tens of millions of people could possibly be of one mind—or even similar minds—about important matters. University of California at Berkeley political scientist Laura Stoker calls the notion that you can divide the populace into discrete generations “fruitful if vexing.” It may be silly to assume that Americans born in 1965 would have precisely—or even nearly—the same attitudes and opinions as those born in 1980. But they are likely to share at least a common vocabulary, as Stoker notes, “by virtue of having experienced a specific set of social, economic, technological, and/or political circumstances at a formative period in their lives.” Viewing the world through the lens of generations is no more or less legitimate than viewing it through the lenses of gender, race, class, or immigration status. These broad frames are the conceptual tools available to us, and it’s not clear what better alternatives exist. “Generational boundaries are fuzzy, arbitrary and culture-driven,” acknowledge Pew researchers Paul Taylor and George Gao in a 2014 study of Generation X, but “once fixed by the mysterious forces of the zeitgeist, they tend to firm up over time.”

So what is Generation X? Born between about 1965 and 1980, Generation X came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. The oldest members of this cohort remember Watergate as children; the youngest are still forming their families today. Most became politically aware during the Reagan-Bush or Clinton years. They are more conservative than millennials and less partisan than boomers. Their outlook was shaped by a childhood defined by broad-based domestic prosperity, slow but steady technological progress, relative racial harmony and social stability, and the American Cold War triumph over the Soviet Union. They were raised with the expectation of inheriting a world at peace, a pax Americana enforced by the unprecedented global supremacy of the United States military, but also a world in which sexual relations were haunted by the specter of AIDS. They were taught in school that doing drugs was dangerous, premarital sex was to be avoided, and there were, in fact, just two genders.

The American divorce rate peaked in the early 1980s, just as the oldest Xers entered their teen years. Their mothers entered the workforce en masse. Many became so-called latchkey kids—independent, resilient, slightly cynical. Perhaps jaded by these experiences, Xers got married later than their parents did but have stayed married longer. Like millennials today, Xers were once slandered as sullen, withdrawn, and difficult to please. The charges didn’t stick. As adults, according to the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth, Xers have become “active, balanced, and happy.” Just 4 percent reported a “great deal of unhappiness” with their lives as they approached middle age.

The outlook for Generation X isn’t all rosy. A 2015 study by J.P. Morgan Asset Management found that members of Generation X have fallen well behind the baby boomers when it comes to saving for retirement. Xers would have to, at a minimum, double the rate at which they are saving, in order to catch up—not likely, unless the sluggish economic recovery of the last seven years suddenly kicks in to a much higher gear for a sustained period. Other studies have found that GenXers are having difficulty saving for retirement in part because they carry more debt than the baby boomers did. A fair number of Xers think they’ll never be able to retire. They don’t expect Social Security to save them. Still, they remain upbeat. Nearly half of Xers who responded to a 2015 survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America about retirement said they’d “just figure it out when I get there.”

Millennials feel upbeat, too, but for different reasons. Though the oldest of the cohort are only in their mid-thirties, their massive numbers threaten to swamp Generation X and push it off center stage. Millennials already constitute more than half the American workforce, and employers are eager to accommodate their habits and preferences. Millennial impatience with traditional business practices is no secret. Many expect to be promoted during their first year on the job. “I think the younger generation obviously wants to move a lot more quickly in positions than maybe the more senior folks like me,” said Kathleen L. Flanagan, president and CEO of the consulting firm Abt Associates in a 2013 interview with the New York Times. “They’re constantly curious about what they can do next. They’re almost impatient about sitting in a job for any length of time, and they always wonder about the next opportunity. There’s obviously tension there.”

Millennials already constitute more than half the American workforce, and employers are eager to accommodate them.

The clash between millennial values and those of older generations extends beyond the workplace. In a 2013 Time cover story, journalist Joel Stein called millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists” weaned on participation trophies and excessive self-esteem. He cited a National Institutes of Health study that found millennials three times more likely than baby boomers to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. “It turns out that self-esteem is great for getting a job or hooking up at a bar but not so great for keeping a job or a relationship,” wrote Stein. “All that self-esteem leads them to be disappointed when the world refuses to affirm how great they know they are.”

Millennials’ high opinion of themselves doesn’t extend to the country they share with older generations. Markedly less patriotic than boomers and GenXers, they see nothing particularly special about being American and recoil at the notion of American exceptionalism. A 2016 Gallup poll found that socialism was more popular than capitalism among those under 30. Nearly 70 percent of millennial survey respondents said that they’d be comfortable voting for a socialist candidate. During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, 80 percent of voters under 30 voted for Bernie Sanders in the crucial early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. In 2012, millennials put Democrat Barack Obama over the top in a tight race against Republican Mitt Romney.

Perhaps most troubling, millennials have displayed an indifference to the bedrock American principle of free speech. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 felt that the federal government ought to censor potentially offensive statements about minority groups. “Roughly two-thirds of college students say colleges should be allowed to establish policies that restrict slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups (69%), as well as the wearing of costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups (63%),” according to a 2016 Gallup survey. Nearly half of respondents said that they thought that there could be some “legitimate reasons” to prevent the press from covering campus protests.

These attitudes set millennials apart from Generation X and the baby boomers, but it’s Generation X that will feel their impact. The advertising world has already begun to turn away from marketing to middle-aged Xers and cater instead to millennials and their unprecedented purchasing power. Even the military is scrambling to adapt to the needs of its youngest recruits. The army is considering prolonging the amount of time that drill sergeants spend with new soldiers during basic training. “The problem that we do have is that right now the generation we have coming in is not as disciplined as we would like them to be,” said an army spokesman. “So we have to provide them with discipline over a longer period of time.”

Soon, every industry could resemble Silicon Valley, where recent graduates consistently rate high-flying firms like Google and Apple as the companies they’d most like to work for. The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber reported in 2014 that “ageism” in the tech industry has led executives in their late thirties and early forties to turn to cosmetic surgery in order to extend their careers. The experience and seasoning of these GenX techies don’t count for much within Silicon Valley’s youth-obsessed culture: “In the one corner of the American economy defined by its relentless optimism, where the spirit of invention and reinvention reigns supreme, we now have a large and growing class of highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers who are shunted to the margins . . . for reasons no one can rationally explain.”

It’s tempting to pin blame on older generations for failing to pass along their cultural values and cherished traditions. In this case, however, the parents and grandparents of the entitled, impatient, and politically correct millennials are only partly to blame. The primary culprit is technology. We’re only starting to digest the ramifications of how much the Internet has transformed the world and daily life—from how we interact with our friends and neighbors to how we absorb and process information. But technology’s influence can be seen most dramatically along generational lines.

With a seemingly blind faith in technology, millennials have an eager and welcoming attitude toward our online future. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, these “digital natives” can’t remember a time when the Internet wasn’t standing by, waiting to answer any question, fulfill any request, order any consumer good, transfer funds, shuffle playlists, pause movies, download books, or signal virtues. They don’t remember what it was like to browse the shelves of a bookstore, or to call someone to ask for a date. They do that stuff online. That’s what Amazon is for. That’s what Snapchat and Tinder and Match are for.

Most millennials feel comfortable moving human interaction onto the Web. They are the main cheerleaders for the flexibility and convenience of the “sharing economy.” They see only benefits from the creative destruction wrought by companies like Uber and Airbnb. They see no problem moving their personal information and documents to the cloud, or wiring up every appliance and device into the “Internet of things.” According to one survey, they create and upload twice as much online content as non-millennials. The app-based Internet world is where they want to live. Technology offers them ease of communication and an economy they understand. Nothing is lost. All is upside.

Rushing headlong into the digital future without considering what we stand to lose—or at least weighing the trade-offs—is grand-scale recklessness. Fifty-four percent of millennials told Time researchers that they were more comfortable texting people than talking with them. In a world that makes it easy to throw anonymous digital stones, the meaning of personal responsibility becomes diluted. Gossip, smears, rumors, lies, and threats metastasize online. The conditions for social conflict are optimal. Is it a coincidence that the 2016 presidential campaign was the most scandal-ridden, bottom-feeding election in living memory?

Many have noted the effects of technology on the millennial brain. The number of teenagers with attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder skyrocketed 43 percent between 2003 and 2011. Researchers from Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan found a link between AD/HD and Internet addiction. We know that the brain can reorganize itself. Whether in response to injury or a changing environment, the synaptic connections that govern how we experience and interpret the world are adaptable. Scientists call this “neuroplasticity.” It’s the product of evolution, and mostly a good thing. We need to rewire our hard drives once in a while. But mental illness, addiction, and a host of unhealthy habits can be imprinted onto our neural pathways through repetition. The brain doesn’t develop in only one direction.

Journalist Nicholas Carr charted the effect that the Internet is having on our brains in his 2010 book The Shallows. “The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains,” he writes. “As the many studies of hypertext and multimedia show, our ability to learn can be severely compromised when our brains become overloaded with diverse stimuli online. More information can mean less knowledge.” Worse, says Carr, digital overload makes it harder “to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise.” In computing terms: garbage in, garbage out. In human terms, millennials think that if it’s not online, then it doesn’t exist. Don’t believe me? Ask a high school teacher.

Given the eager acquiescence of millennials to the all-online world, Generation X has a formidable responsibility to keep faith with reality. They are the last analog generation. Raised in a prerevolutionary moment technologically, they are children of paper, books, handshakes, body language, and eye contact. They learned—even if they didn’t always practice or appreciate them—the virtues of patience, self-control, and delayed gratification. They knew what it meant to be out of contact with someone they loved. Some of them—too few—learned how to fix an engine or wire a light fixture. Most remember how quiet things used to be; how easy it was to be alone.

The death of waiting and paying threatens to turn us into a nation of angry, entitled children.

The brick-and-mortar world has virtues; chief among them is the human contact it enables. What does someone who remembers what it was like to browse the racks of a used-record store say to someone who has never heard a vinyl LP played through stereo speakers? How do you convince someone who’s never called a girl’s house and asked her parents if she was available to come to the phone that it actually took guts to do this, and that it was something to be proud of, something to remember—especially if she said yes, she would go see a movie with you and, yes, you could call her again to talk (not text). It was an entirely different experience from typing “Hey, Wr U at? Let’s conX” and waiting impatiently for the reply.

Generation X is a bridge between the analog culture of the mid-twentieth century and the digital culture of the early twenty-first. Anyone older than 35 grew up using the same basic communications technology that Franklin Roosevelt did: the telephone, the radio, the pen, the postcard. FDR didn’t have television, true, but television has always been a one-way street. It’s for entertainment, not for communication, and, at least until recently, it was linear, time-limited. You made an appointment to watch television. The show you were looking for was on at a specific time. You couldn’t take it with you. In its own way, television, much maligned, required a certain amount of discipline.

These analog tools cultivated patience. That was their prime virtue, one that no one fully appreciated until it was nearly lost. If you wanted to see what happened to Scully and Mulder in the next episode of The X Files, you had to clear your schedule and get in front of a TV at the appointed time. If you wanted to listen to your favorite artist’s new album, you went to the record store, paid for it, and brought it home. If you sent someone a letter, you waited for a reply. Sometimes you waited a long time; sometimes no reply came. The waiting embedded a sense that you can’t have everything you want immediately. Putting cash on the barrel for the movies you watched and the music you listened to reinforced the notion that good things have a price, and you can’t get something for nothing.

The death of waiting and paying threatens to turn us into a nation of angry, entitled children. In 2012, the comedian Louis C.K. did a bit on Conan O’Brien that achieved a rare notoriety in an age when late-night TV viewership is at a nadir. It’s become known as “Everything’s Amazing, Nobody’s Happy.” In it, the comedian satirizes an airline passenger enraged that he can’t get a signal on his cell phone as the plane hurtles through the skies. The flier has access to more and better technology than 99.9 percent of humans who have ever lived, and still he’s churlish when the in-flight WiFi cuts out on him. “We live in an amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots,” Louis C.K. joked. Five years ago, it was a new and hilarious observation on the emerging state of things. Now it seems prophetic.

Gen Xers were raised in an environment that better cultivated patience—such as going to the record store to buy music, rather than instantly streaming it on their iPhones. (FELIX CHOO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

So what can Generation X do to help save America? It can begin by reasserting the relevance of the flesh-and-blood world that formed it. On an individual level, this means putting the iPhone down, turning off the computer, and taking a book out of the library or visiting a museum. It means going to a movie theater instead of binge-watching a Netflix series. It means talking to your friends face-to-face more instead of mostly texting or e-mailing them. On a societal level, it means pushing back against those who blithely accept that technology can be the solution to all our social and political problems. It means adopting a healthy skepticism of millennials’ efforts to disrupt every industry, every institution, and every economy with technology and an ethos of “sharing.” It means fighting for your privacy.

Privacy, some say, is something that future generations won’t care about. Millennials seemingly have learned to love the idea that nothing is off-limits, everything is for public consumption, and everyone is always on display. Not long ago, families worried about sharing “dirty laundry” in public. Now people run to post on Facebook at the first hint of trouble in paradise. In living memory, one of the severest rebukes a person could imagine hearing was, “Mind your own business.” Few people under the age of 30 think anyone has their own business to mind any more. But this is mere glib reflection. The real problem is much more serious. The Internet of things—in which your home, household appliances, and even your car have been trained to spy on you—is a violent reversal of the long-standing distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere. GenXers should raise their children to view the Internet as a nice place to visit, not to live.

People remember the late actor Christopher Reeve for two things: for his 1978 role as Superman and for the horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1995. I remember him for something else. Shortly before his accident, the Juilliard-trained Reeve gave a supple supporting performance as an American congressman visiting the United Kingdom shortly before World War II in The Remains of the Day. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson took the starring roles, but Reeve’s fine work was noticed. In a 1996 interview with Larry King, the wheelchair-bound Reeve said that he felt that his accident had come just as he was poised to shake free of the action-hero persona that had clung to him since Superman and take a turn toward meatier roles in better films. “I was just getting the hang of it,” he said. Reeve did some more acting and a bit of directing for television from his wheelchair, but paralysis stole his opportunity to do what he’d prepared himself for. He died a few years later. The King interview added a layer of pathos to Reeve’s tragic story. He lamented the loss of his power and athleticism, but what really bothered him was that he could never show the world what he was capable of doing.

If Generation X doesn’t get its act together—and fast—it, like Christopher Reeve, will have the rug pulled out from under just as it’s on the verge of realizing its potential. That would be a shame, both for the individuals who could have made a difference, and for a society that desperately needs a counterbalance to the millennial rush to a digital world, where soft socialism reigns and freedom of speech becomes a relic of the old republic. Some say that, in America, everything works out in the end. We always find a way to grow, innovate, adapt, legislate, regulate, or pay our way out of our most difficult problems. These optimists put their full faith in the American system—representative democracy, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, free markets, free minds, liberty and justice for all; or, alternatively, they put their faith in the arrival of a political savior who comes along, Superman-like, to put us back on course. Sometimes, though, no Superman can be found, and an entire generation of Americans must step into the breach. It’s happened before.

Top Photo: Novelist Douglas Coupland popularized the term “Generation X.” (ERIC RICHMOND/ARENAPAL/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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