We are hearing a lot of generational analysis when it comes to the election, especially in regards to Millennials. This fits with broader cultural discourses that are sometimes comically maladroit in determining what Millennials are all about. We can all certainly acknowledge that generational thinking is problematic because talking about people across race, class, gender, regional, and sexual lines as if they share the same mentality because they were born around the same time is rather specious. Articles about “the millennials” are thus preferred by hack journalists who need to get something in before deadline.
At the same time, generational thinking can help explain some things, because those born around the same time grow up consuming the same popular culture, living under the same government policies, etc. I recently finally read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and although we grew up in radically different places, we are about the same age, and I noticed a definite Generation X feeling to his insights that really spoke to me. (The growth of politically conscious hip-hop and interest in Malcolm X had managed to reach me out on the Nebraska plains.)
So it is with a little trepidation that I am embarking on a little discussion on an analysis of Generation X in the current political landscape. There’s a lot of talk about how Millennials are more likely to vote third party in this election, as well as the longings by white Boomers for a past that never existed. What about my generation, stuck in the middle, the product of a historically steep drop in the birth rate?
The first thing to note is that it now looks likely that much like the Silent Generation, there will never be a Gen X president. While Barack Obama has a certain Xer quality about him, he is still a Late Boomer. (They came of age after the 60s but before the Reagan era had completely settled in.) All four candidates for president are Boomers, and there does not seem to be a Gen Xer out there able to rise to the top anytime soon. This is especially the case on the Democratic side, where the failure to win local elections means that they are not developing the next generation of politicians. On the Republican side there are many Xers, but they are the simpering contrarian Young Republican types that I encountered in college in the 90s, like Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz. Coming up at the height of Ayn Rand’s influence, they are too trollish to make it on the presidential stage, even if they’ve had some political success. They are the product of the supercharged post-Reagan conservative movement, and have succeeded within the party for that reason, but with the rise of Trumpism the days of their power might be few.
So what about the voters? Part of the problem is that pollsters don’t really use Generation X as a category, because when they organize the data they may talk about voters under thirty or voters aged 30-55, but not the parameters of Gen X (which I would define as those between roughly 35 and 50 years of age.) This is part of the larger trend of pretending that my generation doesn’t really exist as a distinct entity. I think some of this is rooted in the reality that the mentality of my generation is even more disunited than that of others, especially the generation after mine. The War on Drugs and mass incarceration raged during my coming of age, and the increase in de facto segregation means that the experiences of white and black Gen Xers are often completely foreign to each other, perhaps even more so than for other generations.
Another difference has to do with religion. My generation is less churched than our elders, but more churched than the Millennials. Lots of people my age rejected organized religion, but we were also the guinea pigs for the revival of the Religious Right, and many folks my age were subjected to extreme indoctrination. Many rejected it, but a large number also embraced it. Gen Xers seem to be more broad minded when it comes to gay marriage and transgender rights, but not as much as the younger generation.
Generation X is, in many respects, a transitional generation. The Boomers were established before the late 20th century neoliberal onslaught; that’s the world we came of age in. The middle class members of my generation were the ones to finally be able to buy their first homes at inflated prices in the bubble, and then were thrust underwater by the financial crisis. Contrast this with the Millennials, who have had our economic difficulties growing up in a time of expensive college loans and casualized labor, but even worse. They just aren't buying homes, period. We were the canaries in the coal mine, but when we were transitioning into this new economy, there weren’t any sympathetic think pieces. Things hadn’t gotten so bad that elite journalists bothered to pay attention.
Since generational thinking is so inherently troubled, I do wonder if Gen Xers aren’t part of the discourse simply because it is too difficult to cram us into an easy narrative. In my youth I remember all kinds of concern pieces about how we were a “nation at risk” in schools full of “super predators” and “slackers.” Perhaps generational political thinking then and now was just a reflection of anxieties about the younger generation, and in ten years as Millenials hit middle age they won't be invoked much anymore. Now that our youth is no longer a flashpoint of anxiety amidst moral panics (as it was in the Reagan era), “Gen X” might as well be another relic of the nineties, like grunge and MC Hammer. Perhaps journalists should drop the facile generational analysis and talk more about the broader changes -secularization, lowered economic security, etc- that are leading to the generation gap between Millennials and Boomers.