For the last couple of years accusations of class warfare have been bandied about, largely as a result of the disparity of wealth disbursement and the devastating deep recession. However, as tempting as it is to dive into this, I am more interested in the much larger trend of Gen-X verses Boomers.
This is a particularly important trend, in as much as its genesis is to be found in the differences in perception and values orientation between the two generational cohorts. It’s even more interesting since political and economic power is passing from the hands of the Boomers over to the Gen-Xers.
I think the place to start is by defining the generational cohorts beginning with the Baby Boomers.
Depending on who you follow, Boomers are defined as those born from approximately 1943 to 1964, with the high point in 1957. Over time the generation has been separated into two sub cohorts, 1943 to 1955 and 1956 to 1964. From my own research and observation, I would place the Boomer generation from 1945 to 1962 and the two sub cohorts 1945 to 1955 and 1956 to 1962, respectively. Much of my decision to separate the cohort comes from the differences between the leading edge verses the trailing edge and the significant differences within the same generation.
Needless to say, the nation was unprepared for the emergence of the Baby Boomers. Every social institution was geared to accommodate a much smaller cohort and the Boomers were challenging everything from maternity wards to school capacity and teachers. During this period the United States was reaching its industrial economic dominance and was clearly in an “economic golden age”. The threat to dominance and nation’s wellbeing was the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The Boomers grew up in a time when the chief domestic threat was the devastating disease of polio. During this same period, suburbia was born and quickly expanded, the Boomers are the first television generation and the middle class grew unabated including the accumulation of wealth by their Depression Era parents. Those parents were creating a world that truly was better for their children than what they had experienced and no one could see an end in sight.
Everything the Boomers did was chronicled by the media and the nation was slowly being transformed into a culture dominated by youth and the idea of staying young and vibrant. Whatever the Boomers did was news and social scientists were studying this group like no other before or since. By the time the boom closed in 1962/64; the Boomers totaled around 78 million.
The Boomer group has been characterized as a generation who pursued “experience”, self focus, internal searches, and rule breaking. Dominating their experiences and perception formation was the assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; the Civil Rights Movement, the unpopular war in Vietnam, the support of social causes and of course drugs. The Woodstock Generation arrogantly proclaimed they were right and the rest of the world was terribly wrong and they were going to fix it. The Boomer’s older sibling like attitudes would lay the seeds for generational conflict with the following generational cohorts, primarily the Gen-Xers.
The Gen-X cohort is the group that was born between 1963 through 1982 and is 35% smaller than the Boomer cohort, numbering approximately some 48 to 50 million. In comparison to the Boomer’s every move being chronicled by the media, the Gen-Xers have been largely ignored. It is not uncommon to see them referred to as the “forgotten generation”.
The Gen-Xers were born into a world radically different than that of the preceding generations. Their world was dominated initially by the change and chaos brought about by the Boomers’ and the end of the Vietnam War. During the decade of the 1970s; driven by Nixon’s Wage and Price Freeze, Watergate, the oil shock of OPEC’s reaction to the 1973 Israeli war, runaway inflation and finally stagnation; the Gen-Xers were constantly exposed to the doomsday rhetoric of a bleak and frightening future. Whereas the previous generations had been dominated by optimism and hope, the Gen-Xers were dominated by doom, gloom and a declining America.
This generation was the first to become “latch key kids”; the norm had been by then for two income families. Divorce rates had reached the norm of 50% and more and more children were being raised in single parent households. As this generation began to reach adolescence and their majority, the conservative tide was beginning to gain momentum. Reagan won the 1980 election and a new conservative era was at hand, with the Gen-Xers caught up in the middle of it. As the Boomers were all about change and pushing the limits of convention, the Gen-Xers were about patriotism, conservative values, concrete materialism, the pursuit of financial success and most importantly, wealth. The nuclear family took on a new importance, giving us the coming of the age of the Moral Majority, the Eagle Forum, political evangelical Christianity and a myriad of other neo-rightwing groups.
The Gen-Xers are also the most educated generation in the nation’s history, but they are dominated by a prevailing habit of blaming Boomer’s for all of the nation’s woes and are convinced that they are the ones delegated, out of necessity, to right all the wrongs of the Boomer generation’s excesses caused by their misguided liberal causes and self indulgence. Gen-Xers believe themselves to be the victims of the Boomers and as such, hold a deep abiding resentment toward the previous generation. Recounting the parable of the “Prodigal Son”, the Gen-Xers represent the faithful son and the Boomers represent the wayward son who took and squandered his inheritance.
Gen-X is followed by the Millennial Generation and as such has been cast into the shadows once again by the following generation, those born after 1982. If the Boomers represent the oldest sibling in a family, the Millennials represent the baby of the family, leaving the Gen-Xers as the middle child. This is precisely how Gen-Xers act, constantly complaining about their siblings and how it isn’t fair. We’ve already briefly discussed their complaints about the Boomers; now let’s look at their complaints against the Millennials. The Gen-Xers describe the generation as being dominated by complaining, whining, and game playing, unrealistic, lay-a-bouts. For the most part they, according to Gen-Xers, could be summarized as a goalless and spoiled generation, living in their parents’ basements sucking on the teat of their aging parents.
What has to be considered with the Gen-Xers is their behavior and how their resentments are being manifested. There is a strong desire for the Gen-Xers to punish the Boomers and the Millennials. The approach for the Gen-Xers is to use the economic and social conditions as justification to enact draconian policies. They constantly talk about terms like personal responsibility and the need to correct the mess made by the Boomers restoring the United States to its greatness. They wholeheartedly support the Supply Side Economic Models and the distribution of wealth to the top 10% of the population. Those that get left behind and don’t achieve the material success, do so because of the personal choices they made, thus society has no responsibility toward them; properly interpreted, the Gen-Xers are saying they have no responsibility other than to themselves and their families. In short, it’s everyone else’s fault but theirs.
These prevailing Gen-X attitudes are deeply disturbing since it will be their generation that are and will be charged with the task of supporting the majority of citizens. If they maintain their current attitudes, it doesn’t bode well for the Boomers and Millennials.
Just as the Boomers and Millennials have been stereotyped, so too have the Gen-Xers. Thank goodness that there are large numbers of each of the generations that don’t fit the stereotypes. Through them, bridges can and should be constructed to forge alliances to overcome the very cynicism that prevails between the generations, creating a divided nation when we should be facing the challenges of the 21st century united, creating a better life for all.