What is Generation X? Maybe our last, best hope for change.
by Sara Robinson
Americans born between 1960 and 1980 (give or take a couple years on either end) have spent their lives squeezed in between two over-hyped cohorts who have consistently hogged the spotlight, the jobs, the money, the social concern, and all the other cultural goodies that matter. To the temporal north, there are the Boomers — idealistic, moralizing, hyper-creative visionaries who still can’t entirely let go of their youthful golden years when they were so determined to Save The World. To the south, X looks down on the Millennials, the over-coddled, over-hyped, over-connected Indigo Children whose future is vanishing before their eyes — and who are now being held up at the next generation that just might Save The World.
Gen X just gets tired looking at both sets of overachievers. X doesn’t want to save the world. It just wants a decent job with benefits, some health insurance, and a reasonable place to live. Now that it’s hitting middle age, it wonders how it’s going to get its kids through college, let alone scrape together enough money to retire. Also: it’s not too keen on this whole generational thing in the first place. The Boomers may see themselves as some kind of epic history-changing wave, and the Millennials are permanently wired directly into their whole generation’s collective consciousness via their online social networks; but X has always had to go it alone. The idea that there’s some kind of coherent, unified group interest to be discerned from the arc of their lives so far is dismissed with a shrug. It’s just some Boomer marketeer’s sick way of making us look bad. Again. So what’s new?
But that dismissive attitude just might be a mistake. Because these stories that we tell about the character and fate of generations are rooted in a far larger and more complicated historical story. And in this story, time and again at history’s biggest crisis points, the generations that are most like Gen X have been the ones who’ve stepped in — quietly, competently, expertly, without much in the way of fuss or heroics, at exactly the right moment in time — and actually did save the world.
Let me explain.
Generation X In The Grand Scheme Of Things
Contrary to the suspicion of a lot of skeptical Xers, these generational identities — Boom, X, Millennial — weren’t just conjured out of some deranged marketer’s trend-addled head. They’re actually artifacts of a much broader theory of change that was laid out by historian William Strauss and economist Neil Howe. In their 1991 book, Generations, they argued that American history (and English history before that) has been governed by a recurring 80- to 100-year cycle of Renewal, Awakening, Unraveling, and transformative Crisis — and that this four-phase cycle was driven by four distinct generational archetypes, whose unique characters, choices, priorities, and interactions each exert a strong tidal influence on how history unfolds. Briefly, these four archetypes are:
> A Civic generation (for example, the Millennials, and also their GI grandparents). Civic generations are raised to play as a team, sacrifice individual rights for the greater good of the collective, and self-organize quickly into effective tribes. These generations are children during an Unraveling, and are called to remake the entire world anew when the Crisis hits in their early adulthood. They usually rise heroically to the task, branding themselves forever after as history’s golden children. After the crisis, they are the supremely confident midlife managers of the post-Crisis Renewal — a confidence that is shaken when their own Prophet children rebel against the world they made come the Awakening.
> An Artist generation (for example, the Silent retirees of today, and also the post-Millennial Homeland generation, which includes the kids now under the age of 15). Artists are the sheltered children of the Crisis, the conforming young adults of the Renewal, and the midlife enablers who open the doors to the next Awakening. They are sensitive, thoughtful, committed to justice and social improvement, and very invested in building and improving strong systems of every kind. Mad Men is, more than anything, the story of the Silent Generation in their grey-flannel-suited heyday. Bill Moyers and Martin Luther King revealed the Silents at their wonky, hopeful best; Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld showed them at their technocratic worst. The Artists put forward a powerful social critique that inspires their younger siblings to question the old order, and to affirm the rights of the individual against the smothering collectivism of the aging Civics.
> A Prophet generation (for example, the Boomers — but also the Missionary generation that produced FDR, Jane Addams, Winston Churchill; and the Transcendental Generation of Whitman, Lincoln, and Alcott before that). These generations, raised in the bright optimism of the Renewal, are visionary, idealistic, individualistic, and typically aggressively confrontational and uncompromising in their politics. In their youth, they always experiment with new religions, unconventional sexual arrangements, and drugs. More importantly: even as they begin actively dismantling the old social, political, and economic order brought about by their Civic parents — a task they will begin in young adulthood, and finish in late midlife — they also create original and compelling new visions for the world that will be shaped in the next Crisis.
> A Nomad generation (for example, Generation X, the Lost Generation of the early 20th Century, and the Gilded Generation of the mid-1800s). Nomads are the children of the Awakening — a time of huge social ferment and laissez-faire parenting. Since they (more than any other generation) pretty much raise themselves, they learn early to question big utopian visions and distrust authority (both parents and government). They enter adulthood during the Unraveling, when society’s institutions are being actively torn apart by the two generations ahead of them. Immensely practical and deeply skeptical of institutions of any kind — because they come of age never seeing any of them function properly — Nomad generations prefer real results to high-flown theory, and tend to rely most heavily on themselves and a few close friends.
Nomad generations have produced our greatest novelists (including Hawthorne, Twain, and Hemingway) and also our greatest generals (Washington, Grant, Lee, Eisenhower, and Patton). They don’t open frontiers — Prophet generations generally do that — but they’re almost always the first ones to move out onto the new territory to create permanent settlements, build communities, raise families, and establish civilization where none existed before. Whether it’s the American West or the World Wide Web, the first barns and schools and businesses in any new wilderness have historically raised by intrepid, self-sufficient Nomads.
A Coming Season of Change
In their 1997 book, The Fourth Turning (the most concise book to read if you want to understand more about this theory), Strauss and Howe explain that every 80 years or so, we come to a moment where a certain constellation of generational types stacks up in a way that’s ideally suited to massive, long-range change on a scale that’s possible at no other time. When it does, a Crisis era begins — an era in which a new order comes into being, transforming the entire world in a matter of 15 to 20 years. This moment can happen only when the generations line up just like so:
A Prophet generation — in this case, the Boomers — approaches elderhood. This cohort has spent 40 years dismantling the old system (in our case, the postwar world that rose out of the ashes of the Depression and WWII, which defined the last Crisis era), and sketching out the blueprints for what a new and better order might look like. They are are sure of their visions — and as age overtakes them, they become increasingly determined to launch one last crusade before they pass.
A Nomad generation — in this case, X — slouches into middle age. This group has lived their entire lives in a country where nothing has ever worked right — in fact, things have been breaking down year over year since they were born. Learning to survive in an environment of accelerating social and economic decay has made them intensely pragmatic realists who, more than any other generation, know how to kick ass, take names, and get things done. While the Boomers talk, Xers do. As they get older, they become increasingly determined to restore accountability, rebuild what they can, and leave something better for their kids. And to a greater degree than either of the other generations, they both understand what needs to be done, and possess the practical skills required to do it.
A Civic generation — in this case, the Millennials — arrives at adulthood. They have no allegiance to a dead past that has nothing to offer them; all their hopes lie in a future that will not come to pass unless they are willing to fight for it with everything they have. They’re not big on philosophy (and a bit too cavalier with rights and liberties, which is their dark side), and they’re too young to have much in the way of skills; but with Prophets to guide them toward the goal and Nomads to offer them solid, trustworthy management, they’ll self-organize and deliver in a way that the other two generations find absolutely incredible to watch.
This unique generational arrangement arrives only once in most people’s lifetimes. And when it does, it creates a top-to-bottom national commitment in favor of massive, rapid change. Out of decades of fragmented politics, a solid consensus forms over what the true existential threat is, and what must be done to resolve it. We must rebel against England. We must abolish slavery. We must defeat fascism. We must end the oligarchy of the 1% and stop destroying the planet. The imperative becomes all-consuming: once the generations agree on the central problem, nothing will ever be the same. And we are approaching such a moment right now.
This constellation is so potent that you can even see it spangled across our mythic literature. The old Prophet, the canny and hard-bitten veteran, and the wide-eyed young hero figure in every great story of transformation. Merlin, Uther, and Arthur. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker. Our founding myths tell of old Ben Franklin, cunning midlifers George Washington and John Adams, and young firebrand Thomas Jefferson. Even those old WWII movies showed the spirit of FDR motivating the grizzled Old Sarge, and inspiring the new recruits under his wing.
No one of these cohorts can bring us through this on their own. They all need each other if we’re going to succeed.
Why Gen X Matters
And this is why Gen X will save the world. There are things that X brings to the party in quantities that neither of the other two groups can muster — things that are absolutely non-negotiable if we’re going to pull through this dark season and move the world onto a better, more sustainable footing. We need Generation X because:
1. Gen X knows how to get things done. Neil Howe notes that Boomers love to talk — in fact, they believe so strongly in the power of words that they think that if they say things just right, to the right people, in the right way, then the change will magically just follow. But, stubborn individualists that they are, they’re not great when it comes to action — especially any action that requires teamwork on any kind of scale. Their track record bears this out: they’ve been trying to implement change for 40 years already. If they had the skills, they’d have done it by now.
The Millennials don’t have this issue. They’re already getting locked, loaded, and ready to roll. Their problem is aim. They understand the challenges and the stakes; but they’re young and untried, and lack the wisdom and perspective that come with life experience. And they’re still too young to reach the levers of power — levers that X is now finally just getting old enough to get a good, solid grip on.
As the current Crisis intensifies, X’s job will be to translate those utopian Boomer visions into something that will actually work on the ground — and to make sure it all works right the first time, because there will be no second chances. Generation X is just now beginning to provide the calm, collected management that will take us through to the next America. And to implement all of this, they’ll form an enduring partnership with the Millennials that — if the theory holds — will turn out to be the most satisfying and rewarding collaboration of their lives.
2. X understands risk. The Boomers were children and young adults during the fattest, richest season in human history. That’s why they could take all those big cultural and political flyers back in the day: the country’s stored-up layers of social and economic capital were so thick under their butts that they were virtually guaranteed a soft and easy landing, no matter what they did. The Millennials were raised in much tougher times, but have been carefully protected and sheltered by their Boomer and Xer helicopter parents (Nomad generations are, hands down, the most attentive parents of any of the four cohorts, in compensation for their own lack of parenting), who’ve done their best to keep them from taking big risks and experiencing consequences too harshly. As a result, they’re not at their best in unfamiliar situations, and don’t act without consulting endlessly with each other. And because of this, they’re prone to dither.
Gen X, on the other hand, came of age in an era of jarring and dangerous contradictions. On one hand, all that lovely social capital that had once protected the Boomers’ backsides was evaporating all around them (and their parents never were all that much help, either). On the other hand, at the same time, the personal price they paid for screw-ups just kept getting higher. Bad sexual choices meant herpes and AIDS. Drug experiments were sanctioned by increasingly draconian prohibitions. Three-strikes laws came into vogue just as they hit adulthood. Health insurance prices soared, discouraging physical risk-taking. Over the course of their lives, there have been smaller and smaller margins — and bigger and bigger penalties — for getting it wrong.
Ironically, one effect of this was to made X the biggest go-to-hell risk-takers on the scene. If everything damn thing you do is a risk, well, then, screw it — go big, or go home. Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. This is the generation that gave us first-person shooters, action movies, rap music, extreme sports, and Sid Vicious: it’s tended to embrace anything that’s loud, dangerous, and scary. But, at the same time, this experience has made them canny assessors of risk — especially as they round the bend into middle age. They know in their aging bones — far better than the other generations — that some risks really are worth taking, and some sacrifices are absolutely worth making. And they’re pretty good at figuring out which ones aren’t worth the skin, too. When an Xer says, “I wouldn’t do that…” the rest of us would do well to stop and hear her out.
3. X trusts their own ingenuity. An old sign in a hardware store in my hometown read: “We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little that we are now qualified to anything with nothing.”
This is where Generation X finds itself now. There’s a good reason that young Xers loved both MacGyver and Indiana Jones (who was a member of the Lost Generation — the previous Nomad cohort). As Indy put it: “Plan? I don’t have a plan. I’m making it up as I go along.” A lifetime of making it up, making a go, and sheer making do have made this generation preternaturally resourceful. If the car breaks down or the computer crashes, a Boomer will reflect on the existential meaning of the event. A Millennial will text her friends for suggestions. But the odds are good that the person who finally opens up the hood, grabs a flashlight, and takes a screwdriver to the problem with be an Xer. The tougher things get, the more we’re going to appreciate this about them.
4. X believes in competence and accountability. One of the things that always happens through the Awakening and Unraveling phases of the cycle is a slow erosion in institutional accountability. Both Artist and Prophet generations, each for their own reasons, aren’t really big on holding people or organizations responsible for their actions, or ensuring that there are consequences for failure. The Silents and Boomers have been letting things slide for decades (probably starting with Richard Nixon’s Watergate pardon), letting people get away with things that no functional society should tolerate — to the point where nobody in this country now seems to get what they deserve, no matter how good or bad their behavior might be.
A big piece of Generation X’s vaunted cynicism is tied up in their resentment over what looks, to them, like a massive and wretched double standard. All their lives, they’ve been subjected to harsh judgments and punishments that nobody else in society had to bear. And what they learned from this was to hold each other and everybody else responsible for their own actions — a trait that’s going to raise the overall level of accountability throughout American society as they age into more and more social control. Goldman Sachs may have gotten away with their dastardly deeds in 2008. Don’t count on it going down that way again if we see another crash in 2020, when the Xers will own Congress. Slowly, over the next decade, we’re going to see ever-greater calls for institutional competence, with real consequences for failure. Just like the Lost Generation’s Harry Truman starting the redemption of public accountability in 1937 with the Pecora Commission, Gen X will soon be the ones most loudly insisting that we get serious again about actually rewarding success and punishing failure.
5. X isn’t afraid to make the call. Boomers talk the problem to death. Millennials confer for hours. Xers weigh the risks and rewards, apply their ingenuity, and act — and don’t waste much time looking back to see if they got it wrong. It is what it is, and they did what they had to do. And they’re perfectly willing to live with the consequences, no matter what they turn out to be.
We’re going to rely on them to do a lot of that in the years ahead.
Generation X’s life so far has been rough, mean, and hard. So those of us now between 36 and 53 might be surprised to learn that, after all the crap we’ve endured, we’re only just now coming up on our truest days of glory — the moment we will be remembered for by history. The Boomers are finally start letting go of the reins. And though we find the Millennials’ willingness to trust authority frankly terrifying when we think about it, it won’t actually be so bad when we realize that the authorities they’re looking to are…us.
And for the very first time in our entire lives, we won’t be facing the challenges alone. We’ll be calling the shots, but the Boomers will be out front holding up the flag and the vision; and the Millennials will be marching solidly behind, covering our backs. It’ll be unfamiliar and strange for a generation that’s always done everything on its own. But it will also be the best time we are ever likely to know.
Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a consulting futurist and writer. She’s been a Senior Editor at Alternet.org; a Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future; and a longtime blogger covering change cycles and change resistance movements. Her work has been published by HuffPo, Alternet, Salon, The New Republic, New York Magazine, DailyKos, and many other places both online and off. She lives in Seattle, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.