By Tom Pace, Ph.D. and Elwood Watson, Ph.D.
Americans of previous generations, when they were in their 40s and 50s, were often viewed as being in charge, as leaders of government, at the height of their earning power, and largely as setting the agenda for the larger, dominant culture. Contrast this with the Americans currently in their 40s and 50s — Americans of the generation known as Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). To declare them as leaders or setters of any agenda cannot be further from the truth. Indeed, the broader society, at least at the current moment, appears to be dictated by the long arm of the Baby Boomers and the even longer reach of their mostly Millennial children. Gen X, meanwhile, continues to labor in the shadows.
In his column in The New York Times, “GenX, Right-Wing Bastion?” Ross Douthat depicts Generation Xers as a demographic group more inclined to embrace the philosophy of conservatism because of their resentment of and disgust for Baby Boomer and Millennial emotivism and narcissism. His column makes an intriguing, insightful, and lavishly engaging read. Though he is precise in spots, his article is not entirely accurate and leaves considerable room for clarification and debate.
Douthat points out that Generation X trends more conservative than other generations and notes that “Joe Biden has led consistently with baby boomers since the spring, while Generation X is the only generation with whom Trump occasionally pulls into a tie”, suggesting a residual streak of conservativism leftover from when many Xers latched on to Reaganism during their formative high school and college years.
We don’t think Douthat is entirely wrong. But we do think that he fails to see that the failed conservatism from which Millennials (and many others) are turning away in favor of left-leaning policies have their early origins in the policies of former President Ronald Reagan, the ideology that Reagan seemed to prop up as stable and to which many Xers wish to return. We would stress that, if this country wishes to return to some semblance of normality, we must reject such laissez-faire conservatism and favor the new left that politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, among others, seem to embrace. Biden seems resigned to accept the new left and, should he do so, these politicians will form a significant part of his administration.
But we agree entirely with Douthat when he says, “There is an emotivism and narcissism that millennial liberalism and boomer liberalism seem to share, and in strong doses, it’s poison for institutions.”
Most Xers, as we see it, rejected left-leaning policies precisely because of this sort of brash, crass narcissism. Many of us Xers criticized Boomers and the left in our teens and 20s, and further into adulthood, precisely for this reason. The problem, though, seems to be that many Xers conflated that emotivism and narcissism with economic policies, which Reaganism ultimately overturned. Therefore, for many Xers, a return to Democratic rule fueled by progressive politics would seem to signal a return to the rabid instability that many of them experienced in their childhood. We suspect many Xers, particularly older ones, reject Biden as a result of the conservatism that nurtured and influenced them during the Reagan Era, more so than Boomers and their Millennial children and Gen Z grandchildren do.
Conversely, we do not concur with Douthat’s suggestion that the Black Lives Matter movement and former president, Barack Obama, are “reckless disturbers of the racial peace”. Rather, he may be attempting to say that that’s what many Xers do see and believe, and we suspect that this may be true.
However, Douthat’s argument that Xers yearn to return to the relative stability of their conservative youth belies reality. Yes, many of us are tired of Trumpism and wish for a degree of normality, which a Biden administration may provide.
But, to be totally honest and truthful to power, let us ask: Did Generation X ever live in a period marked by stability? Truth be told, most of us lived in times of chronically high levels of instability and a chilling degree of ambivalence. As such, we endure, we adapt, and we drive the culture, even if our own cultural moment as the “flavor of the month” in the early 1990s was brief. Alex Williams calls it “a blip” in his opinion article in The New York Times discussing Generation X at 50.
Mr. Williams challenges many of the clichés about this small demographic group of Americans, suggesting that most of what we think about Gen X is, well, wrong: we are smaller than originally imagined, we were never slackers, we often sold out, but were never quite as cynical and disaffected as reported, and we were much more socially conscious than previously thought.
For us, as Mr. Williams notes, “the first generation in American history to be written off before it had a chance to begin”, it appears we may not be who the Boomers and other generations originally assumed we were. Hell, we may not even be who Xers such as Douthat believe we are. We appear to reside nowhere, yet are everywhere simultaneously.
One reason for the eternal perplexity is that Generation X resides in one of the core ways we define ourselves: ambivalence. As the middle child nestled between two larger generations, we tend to shy away from attention, yet yearn to be recognized. Thus, we have set the stage for both today’s social justice warriors and capitalist super warriors.
And the contradictions keep cropping up. For some, it may be getting worse, particularly for the middle-aged adults who, just a few decades ago, spent more than a few Saturday mornings watching Super Friends cartoons and Schoolhouse Rock!
Indeed, intense conflict, unrelenting drama, if not outright despair, have been the order of the day for many, if not most, of us. Perhaps, quite a few of us wish for a semblance of stability because, actually, we never really experienced any reasonable degree of tranquility, despite what Douthat and other conservatives may say about the Reagan-dominated 1980s.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Gen Xers watched our parents divorce in large numbers, endured the isolating reality of being latchkey kids, and listened as study after study suggested that we were the worst-performing students in American history. As if these deeply ingrained, demeaning realities weren’t enough, we also bore witness to periodic upticks and downturns in a roller-coaster economy.
From a sexual standpoint, whereas previous generations had syphilis and gonorrhea to plague them occasionally, we had to contend with permanent and potentially fatal sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and the AIDS virus, which confronted segments of our generation with a demonstrably high degree of ruthlessness. Granted, we were a youthful group of young Turks at the time, but can that be the reason for our opinions on such matters to be unfairly and unjustly marginalized and largely obscured on such a frequent basis?
This sort of marginalization has always been a part of our unorthodox history. The oldest Baby Boomers turned 60 in 2006. Numerous magazines ran cover stories that both celebrated and analyzed the supposed impact of what such a distinctive milestone actually meant. Conversely, outside of some obscure, diminutive op-ed pieces, no major mainstream publications ran similar stories when Generation X hit their half-century milestone in 2015. The perception of the often overlooked, frequently neglected middle child syndrome validated itself.
While Boomers continue to influence culture and society by embracing new age philosophies, religions, and predominately left-leaning politics, Gen X has adopted a much more iconoclastic political spirit. This is evident in our diverse political views. Polls conducted over the better part of the past decade have indicated that many of the older Gen Xers lean towards conservatism, while younger members of our cohort identify with a more liberal ideology.
Thus, it is probably not a coincidence that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the most popular presidents among Gen Xers. It is probably not all that surprising that the largest percentage of votes given to Donald Trump as well as some of his most ardent opponents in 2016 was from our generation.
Several years ago, political scientist Jon Miller of the University of Michigan published a longitudinal study of Generation X in which he analyzed data from over 4,000 Gen-X respondents between 1986 and 2010. The results may be surprising considering Generation X’s reputation as gloomy, struggling, and full of despair.
Miller’s study suggests that many Gen Xers are satisfied, happy, and active. While Gen Xers tend to work more hours than other Americans, the study demonstrates that most also are engaged in their professional and neighborhood organizations, participate in outdoor activities, stay in touch with friends, and are overall satisfied with their lives. “They are active in their communities,” Miller noted, “mainly satisfied with their jobs, and able to balance work, family, and leisure.”
So, what does this ambivalence ultimately mean? We will probably be economically worse off than any previous generation, yet currently, in our 40s and 50s, we are in a position to drive the economy more adroitly than Millennials and for longer than Boomers. We are overworked and overwhelmed with raising children and taking care of elderly parents. Yet the aforementioned University of Michigan study in 2011 encouraged us to be happy and active and to pursue balanced lives.
We are a group of men and women who readily embraced a pluralistic culture, from our pre-teen years well into early adulthood and beyond, as evidenced by our dramatic movies, such as The Breakfast Club, Love Jones, St. Elmo’s Fire, Top Gun, Boomerang, Reality Bites, Poetic Justice, and, of course, the iconic Boyz in the Hood, directed by the late director, John Singleton.
We were the children of rap, new wave, alternative, and MTV. Many of us eagerly embraced and rabidly adopted diverse artists, such as Public Enemy, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, Simple Minds, Prince, The Police, Culture Club, the adult, solo Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and many others.
Admittedly, we also embraced Baby Boomer icons, such as Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, and Jefferson Starship, among others. During the mid-1990s, many of us could not turn our ears away from the elegant crooner who was a prior musical darling of the silent generation/older Boomer set, Tony Bennett. Indeed, Mr. Bennett was selling out swanky lounges and concert halls; more than a few us bought tickets to hear him belt out romantic classics that he had sung decades before we were born.
Generation X was raised in a post-Kennedy, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world. Unlike our Boomer predecessors, most of us never had idealistic dreams of changing the world, nor did we grow up in a world with an obsessive dependency on helicopter parents, unlike our Millennial successors. In short, we grew up looking at the world head-on, neither up at it idealistically, nor down on it as a larger force that should take care of us.
This is why, despite Douthat’s claim for conservative stability, whether he wants to admit it or not, right now the GOP is the party of instability, emotivism, and narcissism, and the roots for that reach all the way back to the party’s nomination of the conservative right-winger Barry Goldwater in 1964, later to be followed by Richard Nixon’s infamous “law and order” campaign theme in 1968 coupled with the Southern strategy. A dozen years later, future president Ronald Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered just 16 years prior to discussing states’ rights. Such racially coded antics continued to occur well into the early 1990s. They blossomed under Reaganism when many Xers came of political age. But now? Not so much. We just wish Douthat and other anti-Trump conservatives could see their own complicity in the failure of the GOP.
Recognizing the GOP for what it has become is a prime example of that Xer straightforwardness and ability to acclimate. If the ability to adapt, change, and play whatever sorts of curveballs the world throws our way means we are comfortable with struggling to support our aging parents and raising our children while finding time to ride our bikes and have drinks with our friends, then adjusting to new progressivism that leads us to reject the Reaganism of our youth and then see it as the reality of the world we have been thrust into should not be too much of challenge.
So, if Douthat sees Generation X as a savior of traditional conservatism, then he and others had better own up to their role in the rise of Trumpism, reject it, and offer productive ways for all of us to move forward. Because, right now, the only people who seem to be committed to doing so are on the left.
This post was originally published on Medium.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a Professor of History, African American Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies at East Tennessee State University.
Tom Pace, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English and Composition at John Carroll University.
They are the series editors of Generation X: Studies in Culture, Demographics, and Media Representation (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).
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