Gen X Was the Political Generation
every generation is, when they're young, which means the youth still aren't coming to save you
The campus of this elite American liberal arts college seems like it’s on fire. Student activists loudly call for the administration to accede to their demands, their rhetoric constantly escalating as they call for greater focus on racial justice, gender issues, and environmentalism. Black students argue that the college serves as a site of white domination and demand new facilities and programs for Black students as well as for formal punishment for those they see as impediments to progress. Student activists go to extremes, planning actions where they would handcuff themselves to the president of the university, and eventually organize an actual hunger strike over the administration dragging its feet. In time campus protesters rally around a set of demands:
the protestors ultimately demanded that the University upgrade the African-American Studies Program to a Department, increase the number of faculty members of color on campus, provide sensitivity training on issues of race for Public Safety officers, and complete a comprehensive study of race relations on campus.
There are more and more calls for political divestment by the university, as well as heated rhetoric about immediate change to save a dying environment. The campus is splintered into various groups and movements, all of them insisting that change can’t wait. Students of color self-segregate into dorms and off-campus housing shared only with members of their own race. Faculty and administrators who have been working at the college for decades say that they haven’t seen anything like it. This wave of passionate campus political engagement goes on to inspire books and movies.
The year, of course, is 1990. The school is Wesleyan University. These passionate student activists are members of Generation X, the political generation, that generation of bomb-throwing radicals. The excerpt and some of the details come from a bachelor’s thesis titled “An Adversarial Place: The 1989-1990 Academic Year at Wesleyan University” by the class of 2012’s Caroline Fox. But the memories come from me. I was only 8 or 9, but I was there, and I remember.
I have to stress this: back then people felt that they had never seen anything like this new generation of students, who seemed uniquely politically engaged and given to “no compromises” rhetoric. My father had become a professor in the early 1970s, and he and his faculty colleagues had seen many thousands of students pass through the quads in their time. Activism and political engagement on campus were common. But these Gen X students seemed like a different breed, thanks to the intensity of their commitments and their demands for immediate change, their antagonism to half-measures and incrementalism. Those 18-22ish year olds would come on to become the mid-to-late 20-somethings who would play such a huge role in the “Battle of Seattle,” anti-corporate, anti-sweatshop, and environmentalist protests that broke out in 1999 at the site of a World Trade Organization conference. The Battle of Seattle was no joke - they actually shut down the meetings, for a time, and in terms of sheer scale and intensity I would put it above Occupy Wall Street or any BlackLivesMatter protest. People said that this would be the generation that fulfilled the promise that the Boomers didn’t when the 1960s gave way in time to Reaganism.
Then things changed, and now I’m often told that Gen X were apolitical slackers who got religion when they hit their 30s and became just more corporate sheep.
I bring all this up for a couple reasons. First, I merely want to point out that the current stereotype of Gen X as politically apathetic do-nothings simply does not match the reality, at least in terms of their youth. Here’s a piece yelling at Gen X for going, supposedly, from disaffected slackers to being the Man. In “Toward a Labor Theory of Generation X,” Alissa G. Karl echoes the complaint, saying that “Gen X didn’t just get gloomy in the ’90s. We also got jobs,” emphasizing the sense that Gen X was both guilty of apathy when young and selling out when old. In a poll done in 2019 only 16% of respondents said that Gen Xers could be counted on to vote in every major election. Those who have become national political figures are derided for their soft-left politics and lame establishment style, such as when Elizabeth Spiers complains that Beto O’Rourke is a “walking, talking Generation X cliché.” They get it coming and going, it seems, castigated for apathy in youth and for being self-interested strivers in adulthood. And too many erase their political combinations, as in this Financial Times essay:
This is a generation that threw up no great protest movement. It delivered no big electoral shock. Pressed to join a cause, its contribution was so often the curled lip and the flippant shrug. Its view of the world was deeply jaundiced but not so hostile as to actually do anything about it.
But in fact Gen X was once full of activists and radicals, and was hugely influential in spreading political correctness, which presaged so many of our controversies over “wokeness.” (Yes, it goes round in circles.) Today’s association between progressive politics and language policing, the obsession with the individual and the symbolic, owe much to Generation X and their formative years. And this relentlessly political generational mindset was key to public conceptions of the Gen Xers, even if usually expressed in the form of parody. Zak Penn, who I think was a student of my father’s at one point, was part of Wesleyan’s class of 1990, and would go on to write PCU with fellow alum Adam Leff. The movie’s Port Chester University is a very thinly veiled stand-in for Wes. And let me tell you, as someone who was literally growing up on campus at the time - that movie barely exaggerates.
Here’s the second reason I’m writing about this: it's the eternal recurrence of believing that the youth will save us that gets to me, and the ensuing rush to nominate the new youth when the last generation fails. There’s a cyclicality people can’t quite grasp. I'm an old Millennial. A Xennial, if you prefer. Older than Britney but younger than Justin, part of the Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Chris Evans crew, too young to fully experience grunge but too old to fully enjoy the return of boy bands and teen pop in our later adolescence. Too young to legally drink on New Years ‘99, but old enough to do it anyway. Briefly Generation Ecstasy, eventually the people who dressed with the hopes of appearing in Vice’s Do’s and Don’ts section, Generation Hipster. Generation Super Nintendo. Ultimately, folded into the broader Millennial generation by the heavy hand of arbitrary cutoffs. (I supposedly share a generation with one of my nieces, who is 15 years younger than I am, but not my elder brother, who is two years older.)
And ten years ago, Millennials were the generation that was coming to save the day. We were Generation Occupy. People talked constantly about how our age group was financially fucked - dubiously true, and in fact the uniquely indebted generation has been Gen X, but that was the line - and how we were thus going to rise up and change the world. Boutique online journals popped up by the dozens to capture our disillusionment and our resistance. Lena Dunham spoke for many of us in wanting to be the voice of her generation but also in being self-defensive enough to ironize that desire. One way or another, we knew it was all fucked up and bullshit, and we were going to force change.
But nothing really happened. Occupy went nowhere, dissolving under the weight of its own addiction to structurelessness. The constant fixation on “precarity” within the intelligentsia never came to anything, largely because the whole concept existed to flatter the college-educated. As has been true of American socialism in general, there was never a particularly coherent sense of what we wanted (soft social democracy or revolutionary communism?) or how to get it (be the left wing of the Democratic party or reject it altogether?). Our most prominent political representative, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, would seem to exemplify our confusion, someone who condemns wealth and status and then parties with wealthy celebrities. Our moment will always be the Bernie campaigns, which is to say that our brand is noble failure. There was a plausible future where Bernie won either of his presidential campaigns, and I think that world would be better in many ways. But people who complain that Bernie would not be able to pass a legislative agenda are correct. (They were wrong, though, to imagine they Biden could.) Besides, Bernie did not win.
So now, what I observe is that people are moving on from the hopes that the millennials will save us and investing their hopes, however vague, in the Zoomers. Gen Z gives people hope. Gen Z is lauded for leading the charge on climate change and gun control. They’re “on a mission to build a better normal for all.” They’re here to save the world. They’re on the warpath. They might save America, but shouldn’t have to. They’re going to shake up foreign policy. They may be a revolutionary generation. (In fairness, Gen Z will not save us.)
I see the constant rhetoric of youth revolution and I say, well, you know, the hippies became the yuppies, Gen X college feminists who worshipped Andrea Dworkin are now soccer moms, Millennials spent most of our youths playing the hipster who was too ironic to be revolutionary and are now in our softening-into-middle-age years. Beatnik Jack Kerouac became a Christian conservative and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver a Republican. Undeterred, people just assert that it won’t happen this time. This time, it'll be different. For the record I've seen the research that suggests that it's a myth that people get more conservative as they age, but I think it misses the point. I don't think most hippies changed in self-identification, either. The full Port Huron statement signatory to Reaganite conversion was probably quite rare. But those ex-hippies became functionally a conservative force thanks to the structural realities of aging into financial security, without having to change their minds. That's part of why left-wing action can be so hard, because of the fundamental conservative drift that's natural to institutions. Writing in 1999, a professor said of her Gen X students
The decent souls among Generation X are, I believe, more impressive, morally, than my own Baby Boom generation. But at every turn, their best instincts are thwarted by the hegemony of the Boomers. This is especially the case when it comes to developing the capacity for moral and political judgment.
Well, we can’t yet say that it’s the Gen Xers who are holding down the younger generation. Hell, the Silent Generation is fighting like hell not to leave the stage, and the Boomers will rule for a long time. But can anyone doubt that, in time, Gen X, the Millennials, and Gen Z will be thwarting the best instincts of the younger generations? What reason would we have to believe that anything’s going to be different next time? Because the rhetoric and rage, the street protests, the idealism, the claims that this time, it’s for real - we’ve seen it all before.
I’m afraid that my fellow Millennials who have dreamed for a decade of a youth revolution are now too old to join one. But then, so too will be the youth of today, soon enough. In time we all find ourselves to be aging radicals, wondering where and how it all went wrong.