A Generational Realignment Too

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When President-Elect Barack Obama opened his candidacy on the steps of the Illinois Statehouse, he was explicit. Forty-five years old and less than 600 days being born into the Baby Boom generation1, Obama identified the 2008 election as a moment for his generation – Generation X. To contrast himself with prevailing Establishment figures and the currently frontrunning candidates, Obama pointedly declared, “Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call.” Obama employed the word generation twelve more times during the speech. Moreover, in true Gen X fashion, the declaration was eventually simplified; generational turnover simply became Change and Yes We Can. Contrast the mantra’s brevity and Gen X “just do it” vibe with Hillary Clinton’s (i.e. the Baby Boom’s) cumbersome expositions as slogans (“Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President,” “Working for Change, Working for You,” or “Ready For Change, Ready To Lead”). With the election now over and debate underway as to whether the Democratic sweep signals a new electoral alignment, attention of this generation’s ascension is merited.

In Neil Howe and William Strauss’s exceptional book, 13th Gen : Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, Generation X is defined as the eighty million individuals born between 1961 and 1981. Arriving in the wake of the vainglorious Baby Boom generation, this cohort would be denounced as apathetic, slackers, and destined to undermine the American Republic. Author Douglas Coupland provided the non-label label of “Generation X” for his contemporaries almost as an purposely ambiguous disassociation from the self-indulgent Boomers. Derided by the Boomers as unworthy heirs of American prosperity and power, Generation X was merely an updated, albeit more cynical, alienated, and violent variant of the 1920s Lost Generation. Quoting historian David Hackett Fisher (who was describing yet another disdained generation), Howe and Strauss noted Generation X had the “unhappy fate… to be young in an era when age was respected, and old in a time when youth took the palm.” More succinctly, Generation X had a PR problem.

Damned if it did (which could only entail striving to undo the damage wreaked by Boomers) and damned if it didn’t (a seemingly reasonable course after experiencing the aftermath of many ill-fated Boomer crusades), Generation Xers had to adapt, ultimately making virtues out of their ironic detachment, their flexibility, and their cunning.

Attempting to decipher the future of this 13th Generation, Howe and Strauss catalogued the circumstances that colored their youth –chaotic individualism; social and familial fragmentation; cultural permissiveness; overly complex institutions; excessive consumption mortgaging the future; and politics featuring endless debates without resolution – looking for clues. While this was not a recipe for a bright future, Howe and Strauss contended the evolution of previously disregarded generations would be a better predictor of Generation X’s future.

As such, the Lost Generation roared during the Twenties, but its political and cultural touchstones were Dwight Eisenhower and Norman Rockwell, embodiments of Fifties tranquility and conformity. In the same way, Generation X also possessed the potential for maturation and transformation.

Among Howe and Strauss’s predictions:

As mature leaders and voters, 13ers will favor investment over consumption, endowments over entitlements, the needs of the very young over the needs of the very old. (PG 224)

A whole generation has now grown up knowing the imperative of setting aside for retirement via 401K accounts as well as the burden that is massive college debt. Accordingly, Gen Xers embrace self-directed retirement account planning and easy to fund College 529 accounts for their children. The free market may be unforgiving but this generation recognizes it is the best game in town, especially in comparison to low interest Treasury yields or redistribution schemes beneficial only to preceding or succeeding generations. The proof can be found in virtually other regions of the world. While Boomers directed decades of foreign aid and condoned socialist ventures only to achieve little, the lives of hundreds of millions of Asians have been revolutionized in a single generation by foreign direct investment.

Thirteeners will make caustic, independent, yet self-effacing elders. (PG 224)

Finally supplanting Boomers, Generation Xers will similarly be quickly deposed by the succeeding Millenial Generation. Generation X bore the brunt of the 1991 Recession and then labored to build the modern Internet economy – only to crash when the dot-com boom went bust and THEN AGAIN after the scramble during the housing bubble. This important period of risk-taking and hustle will be remembered casually as mere hype, speculation, and greed, but it did provide the foundation for more successful “Web 2.0” ventures and financial and credit market modernization.

In the end, Gen X elders, readily pushed aside by the young, will be content with simply knowing their labors afforded their heirs the prosperity they are now seizing. Already the Millenials are claiming credit for Obama’s breakthrough Facebook campaign, touting lopsided majorities in their age bracket compared to others, all the while declining to acknowledge their participation rates barely exceeded previous elections and to do that, all they had to do was just show up.

For the more intriguingly prescient forecasts, consider the following:

Over the next fifteen years [1993-2008], the festering quarrel between 13ers and Boomers will grow into America’s next great “generation gap.” (PG 217)

In his 2006 memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama memorably wrote, "In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage."

More famously, Obama heralded conservative icon Ronald Reagan (the defining political figure for 13ers) for “chang[ing] the trajectory of America,” while lumping Bill Clinton with Richard Nixon in their failures to accomplish the same. The remarkable dismissal of the last Democratic president (who happened to be the husband of his biggest rival) was either coldly calculated or purely accidental – only Obama knows. But Obama did express Gen X sentiments by concluding,

I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

The contemplative respect offered for a conservative hero by the nation’s most liberal Senator is demonstrative of the 13er contrarian ethos as well as the most forthright, but probably most controversial, prediction of all:

Throughout their lives, 13ers will be America’s most politically conservative generation since the Lost. … Regardless of party or ideology, 13ers will be drawn to candidates who avoid hype, do what it takes to get the job done, and shed no tears. (Emphasis added) (PG 222)

Howe and Strauss can be forgiven for incorrectly predicting a conservative-voting generation way back in 1993, before the impeachment fiasco, before the long hard slog in Iraq, and before the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. President-elect Obama just received 66.9 million votes and a stridently liberal Democratic Party just swept both houses of Congress, so forecasts for a conservative Generation X are way off, right?

Not necessarily. Note, Howe and Strauss predicted 13ers would favor small “c” conservatism of the libertarian and laissez faire variety, not the prevailing Conservative Republican template then becoming increasingly dogmatic on social issues. Is there any evidence to show 13ers are leaning this way? Perhaps.

First, during the Republican primaries, the horse race between McCain, Huckabee, and Romney may have provided the most headlines, but the energy and fury was greatest on their libertarian flank. Ron Paul galvanized an entire generation of young libertarians ready to offer unorthodox perspectives on many issues, including current account deficits, entitlement obligations, monetary supply, and imperially-minded foreign policy. Between online “money bombs” and thousands of YouTube videos (approximately 188,000 as of 11/30/08), libertarian stalwart Ron Paul, ironically, one of the older candidates to run in 2008, captured the affection of many Generation X and Millenial voters.

Second, the most significant congressional vote of the year was the first House vote on the financial bailout. The proposed bailout was defeated 228 to 205 and subsequently, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 777 points in a single day, the largest single-day point drop ever, a loss of approximately $1.2 trillion. Conservative Republican opposition was blamed for the defeat and market swoon, even though 95 Democrats also voted against the bailout. Nonetheless, an examination of the House demographics shows that conservative 13ers came down more decisively against the bailout.

In the Democratic and Republican conferences, the percentage of Gen Xers (DATA SET 1, 2) is nearly equal2. Within the conferences, the Democratic and Republican voting percentages for and against the bailout were 59-41 and 33-67. In contrast, 64% of Gen X Democratic congressmen supported the bailout, whereas the opposition of 13er Republicans exceeded the average – 74%. As Eve Fairbanks, congressional correspondent to The New Republic, has pointed out, this contingent of opposition votes heralds the rising new guard in the Republican party – defiantly conservative, ideologically committed, and enthusiastically uncompromising.

For all the commentary of the youth vote going for Obama, there is substantial opening for a libertarian message among Generation X and the Millenials.

The Bottom Line Generation

Howe and Strauss predict 13er conservatism will be assured if remaining Boomers launch one last national crusade on liberal terms.

President-Elect Obama has signaled positive steps such as budget cutting and tax reductions, but they are paired with new government initiatives to establish universal health care, redistribute income, and mandate new directions in the energy sector. Having seen such undertakings before, Gen Xers are likely to prefer less sweeping change, preferring measures that will “simplify the complex, narrow the bloated, and eliminate the unworkable.” To borrow Michael Lind’s analytic framework3, the Hamiltonian ambitions of the Obama Administration may spur a Jeffersonian backlash among Generation Xers.

Ultimately, Generation X is as Howe and Strauss repeatedly describes them -- the bottom-line generation. 13ers will never surpass the “greatest generation” or outshine the “me generation”; the destiny of Generation X is survival, self-preservation, and handing the world off to the next generation better than it was bequeathed to them. No more symbols, no more iconography, no more hagiography, just attention to the task at hand. As Ms. Sitafa Harden, an Atlanta-based blogger, wrote,

If scarcity was a virtue, then Generation Xers would be its patron saints. We did everything we were supposed to do---we went to college, bought houses, invested in our 401Ks… The bottom line is that we are survivors, creative thinkers, mediators, translucent butterflies transforming ourselves into whatever new and, at times, frightening situations may present themselves.

Advice to President-Elect Obama, heed words from early on in your campaign when you first offered generational change:

I'm a Democrat. I'm considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody, and in that sense I'm agnostic.


1 Generation X is defined as the American population born between 1961 and 1981. (link)

2 Around 13 %, an amusing coincidence.

3 See Michael Lind’s “Obama And The Dawn Of The Fourth Republic.”

For further reading, see Neil Howe and William Strauss, 13th Gen : Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? April 1993


GenerationsMatter said...

Well-written piece, but:

1) Obama has absolutely never said he is a Generation Xer; I'll give you $10,000 cash if you can show me anywhere he has ever said that

2) The overwhelmingly dominant and most widely-used first year for Generation X is 1965; the S&H proposed 1961 start point is very much a minority view

3) Obama hinself, and many top political figures and experts, have said that Obama is a member of Generation Jones (born '54-'65) Spend a little time on search engines and wikipedia and elsewhere and you'll see that the real experts clearly view Obama as a GenJoneser, not of the Baby Boom or Gen X.

Robert Jordan Prescott said...

Thank you for visiting and appreciated your comments. I'll concede Obama has never defined himself as a Gen Xer -- in the same fashion Clinton never described himself as a Boomer. I mean why would a politician narrow his appeal in such a way?

1965 - Acknowledged, but Howe and Strauss are well respected for their generational and demographic research so I felt comfortable citing their work.

Generation Jones - this is a new one to me but I am interested in learning more. Please note there are two links to wikipedia in the essay as well as encouragement to read Howe and Strauss's very good 1993 book. Feel free to take two seconds to include such links in your comments next time around.