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The Statistics Desk

E Pluribus, Gen X

Generation X has always been able to fashion its own best outcome. Now it’s time to take that DIY attitude and fix the nation. Because you know who really won the American Revolution? That’s right: Slackers.

Alejandro Chaskielberg, El Junquero, 2007-2010. Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Generation X has always navigated a lonelier America.

This was true when we were children, born during a baby bust and raised as latch-key kids, one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in American history, not to mention one demonized in horror movies from The Omen to Rosemary’s Baby to Children of the Corn. This was true when we were teens and young adults—labeled as slackers, dismissed with our grunge or hip-hop poses, drifting through mediocre-at-best schools—and as we entered a sputtering global economy. And this is true today, with the societal malice faded but replaced by indifference.

Today Gen X is anywhere between 31 and 53, and, despite being the most highly educated generation in American history, it’s gotten screwed at every economic turn, from the recession of the early 1990s to the dot-com crash to the collapse of employer-provided pensions to the bursting of the housing bubble to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. While these relentless setbacks are part of the long-term winnowing of the middle class of all generations, what stands out for Gen X is how the challenges came at crucial turning points, when Gen Xers were just entering the job market, just entering the housing market and just entering their prime earning years, stalling the career—and salary—momentum that supposedly carries you into a non-destitute retirement.

It has been in this world devoid of certainties, otherwise known as “reality,” that millions of members of Gen X have managed to fashion art works of their lives, wandering back and forth over boundaries, into the digital and the niche, even as the treadmill speeds up and the money never really comes.

“You have traded the idealism of my generation for realism, tempered by value-oriented sensibilities,” wrote Tammy Erickson, the author of What’s Next, Gen X? in a 2009 post for Harvard Business Review. “At mid-life, you are well-prepared to serve as pragmatic managers, applying toughness and resolution to defend society while safeguarding the interests of the young.”

Guess who will be in charge while 30 years of neglect, selfishness, and destructive moralizing come home to roost?

With little guidance, Gen Xers have matured to become more independent, less likely to divorce and more driven to redefine the boundaries between work and family than older generations. This is clearly a reaction to the malaise of our childhood years—a determination, despite our ironic facades, to be more careful with the deeper bonds—and perhaps it was fated that we would reject the post-hippie, Me Decade, yuppie lifestyles of our parents. But it also wasn’t a given that so many Gen Xers would have the resources to craft such “balanced and happy” lives, as described in the 2011 “The Generation X Report” from the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth.

I turned 40 earlier this year, born in the nadir of the baby bust and smack dab in the middle years of Gen X, and while I was neither a latch-key kid nor a child of divorce, I did come of age in a Bay Area suburb emptied of children, the few of us around ranging through shut-down schools overgrown with sunburnt weeds. Many of my friends were either the youngest children in large families or single children of older parents, and mine was a childhood largely free from adults, aside from my parents. I considered this the natural state of things for many years.

In fact, it was only as I turned 40 that I almost involuntarily turned back to my youth and began to see the commonalities, not the alienation, between me and my peers. It’s only now in this mid-life reckoning that I’ve examined my own winding childhood path from Buffalo to Marin County to Philadelphia and then my adult one from a Balkan war zone to a New York exurb to a summer of paternity here in the Swedish countryside.

I see with sudden clarity how I opted out of or was failed by institutional career tracks and how I’ve done the family thing zealously right. I’ve somehow built a grown-up life of both Zen moments with my kids in the sandbox and thinking hard at work about the world’s digital future, and I can see that it’s been all good.

But what comes next?

Of course, this is not a unique life path, and this is not a unique moment in history. There have been other nomad generations of supposed losers turned tough pragmatists in middle age, raised during an awakening and coming of age during an individualistic and unraveling age.

For instance, you know who really won the American Revolution? Slackers.

Yep, many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers were part of the “Liberty Generation,” as generational historians William Strauss and Neil Howe call them. The members of the Liberty Generation were born in the wake of ecstatic social change—the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening—grew up amid the turmoil of the brutal French and Indian War, and came of age during a time of economic distress and growing bitterness toward taxes and rules meant to keep the colonies in their place. They grew up neglected by their parents and transformed into hell-raisers, with historian William Pencak describing them as “young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go.”

Sound familiar?

The Liberty Generation sparked wild rebellions and founded violent militias, like the Regulators in North Carolina, the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont, and the Sons of Liberty across the colonies, as the relationship with Mother England deteriorated, infusing the society with uncertainty and disorder.

And you know what came after the unraveling? The crisis. In this case, it was the American Revolution, and Liberty men and women were the most fervent patriots and the most infamous loyalists, including George Washington, John Adams, and Benedict Arnold, among many others. And while I think of Washington and Adams as old men and presidents, they were actually 43 and 39, respectively, when the Revolution started, while Arnold was only 34. Even considering their shorter life expectancies, these were not old men but revolutionaries in their prime, just like Gen Xers today.

And we don’t need a historical theory to see we’re also in a difficult transitional time: income inequality, looming environmental disaster, crushing debt, the financialization of the economy, huge swaths of the country falling off the grid economically. It’s unlikely this sorts itself out without some major reckoning.

And guess who will be in charge while 30 years of neglect, selfishness, and destructive moralizing come home to roost?

Gen X. :-’(

Way back in 1999, Ted Halstead, author and founder of the New America Foundation, a think tank, sketched a potential politics of Gen X in the Atlantic. He synthesized the Gen X life experience and the way it transcended party politics and concluded that Gen X politics “represents a novel hybrid of two distinct currents of economic thought that have rarely combined in the history of American politics.” He called it “balanced-budget populism,” and he pointed to “fiscal prudence, economic populism, social investment, campaign reform, shared sacrifice, and environmental conservation” as Gen X cornerstones.

The members of Gen X must find it in themselves to come together, just this once, to save a society that has paid us little heed.

The essay remains remarkably relevant today. Gen Xers still generally believe in all the things Halstead listed, but they’ve also not responded to his call for generational action. Gen Xers remain children of their age, independent thinkers and actors more likely to work toward change in their own homes, workplaces, or neighborhoods than to seek broader societal transformations by joining a union, a social organization, or a political party. And since Republicans and Democrats appeal to different core Gen X values, this means Gen Xers tend to split their vote—when they vote—and have diluted their influence on electoral politics.

And maybe the Gen X answer is to keep working on the edges, building small networks that can fight the power and slowly move the culture toward fiscal responsibility and social and environmental responsibility.

In the introduction to the 2012 research anthology Generation X Goes Global, Union College professor Christine Henseler wrote: “X’ers may have been sitting back, watching the world go by, but through it all we have been paying attention, cynically sniping about the world we were born into and slowly adopting more active roles, developing new technologies, and speaking in different tongues to protest, comment, question, and challenge the tall tales told.”

Starting about 2007, there was a minor flowering of work in this vein—in a few magazine articles and books with names like X Saves the World or Slackonomics—and it ran roughly through 2010. But since then, not much significant has been said by or about Gen X beyond surveys and marketing guides, and that’s a problem. What’s even worse is that not much has happened in the political sphere either. Gen X has not transformed politics, even if President Obama is a borderline Gen Xer. True, he’s got some pragmatic Gen X qualities and diverse life experiences—but he’s also been caught in an aging Washington culture that is built on old divides and that is becoming more polarized, not less, with no signs of short-term change, which is terrifying with a global crisis “coming, as sure as Christmas” (whether you celebrate it or not).

All the generational crises that Strauss and Howe have examined through American history have, in the end, led to war—the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. But they also acknowledge that a crisis is a possibility as well as a risk, and that there is nothing that says that there can’t be a civil reordering that transcends old divisions. So this could be a crisis of resetting expectations, of making things work, and making them work in as humane a way as possible.

And there are signs of hope, particularly on broader social issues such as gay marriage, where Generation X and Millennials share the same tolerant values and DIY aesthetic. Julian Zelzier, a professor at Princeton, recently argued these two post-Boomer generations are working in concert—not in conflict, as often portrayed—and are shifting the debate by their very presence in the electorate (though more shifting is being done, implicitly, by the aging and passing away of the Boomers and Silent generations). But political leaders have been “extremely slow to respond” to these social and electoral shifts, he writes, and that is not a good start to rebuilding the trust of millions of people who feel the political system “literally doesn’t seem to work.”

For the elders have indeed run the country too hard, and some of our problems are beyond their power to fix. Someone has to clear out the dead wood, and while much can be done from within a family or personal life, from within a school community, or by eating and shopping and driving in a considered way, in the end, I say that is not going to create the change we need.

We Gen Xers don’t know what our crisis will look like, which means we can’t lay out details for the solution. If we’re lucky, we will get the time and space to build our own DIY hack—whether it be mass action, something digital, or simply voting en masse—to whatever trouble we find ourselves in.

But we probably won’t be lucky.

In his essay, Halstead laid out a simple yet harsh truth: Collective problems require collective solutions. And this point remains just as valid today. At some point, Gen X simply must find some way to overcome its inherent resistance to the collective and institutional. We simply cannot face the coming decades independently, or in small groups of friends, or in a nuclear family. The members of Gen X must find it in themselves to come together, just this once, to save a society that has paid us little heed, but that is most definitely worth saving, if only to fulfill unfulfilled promise that we’ve heard about, if not lived.

Nathan Hegedus recently moved from Sweden to California, largely to escape the Swedish winter. His most recent essays have appeared in The Morning News. More by Nathan Hegedus