If the left hopes to remain vital, it needs to attract young people. To do this, it must take stock of the political and cultural experiences of the younger generation. Today, that means the world of what has been called Generation X. I know all too well the obnoxious ring of this term. At best, it has become a cheap tag devised by corporate advertisers; at worst, it has become a prop used in arguments for gutting Social Security and Medicare. Well funded groups like Third Millennium suggest that since Gen Xers distrust the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, the programs should be abolished. So let me be clear: all I mean by Generation X is a set of young people who follow the baby boomers—people who are now in their twenties and thirties (which, for sake of disclosure, includes myself). One need not buy into all the silly speculation and over determined talk about Generation X to see that it merits careful attention—its experiences tell us a lot about the potential future of the left.
So Long 1960s!
To say that members of Generation X have grown up with radical changes in the political landscape is banal. Not only have we witnessed the end of the cold war, we have witnessed the complete crash of modern liberalism. From the heyday of the Great Society—when liberalism triumphed in the realm of social policy and leadership—to now, the course has been sliding downward fast. I recently heard a self confessed liberal say that we’d be lucky if we still had Social Security and Medicare in the near future. Liberals are hanging onto the last threads of the programs they instituted and watching as most of those threads—like welfare—unravel. This explains, I suppose, why so many liberals jump to the defense of Bill Clinton, who has done more to destroy the original liberal dream than Ronald Reagan (liberals know that there are worse things around the corner). Just as important as the decline in social programs, though, is the general mood and range of debates in America today. There’s little serious discussion about public goods. Privatization as a catch all answer to political reform dominates debate. Who would have thought that public school systems—which date back to the nineteenth century, after all—would be considered up for sale to experiments like vouchers?
Social policies tell half the story. It’s not just that young people have grown up witnessing the shattering of the New Deal/Great Society paradigm that boomers grew up with, it’s that the alternatives—libertarianism and market triumphalism—have insinuated their way into the everyday life of so many young people. The unregulated and all powerful consumer market now defines the social lives of Generation X. The average child today has been subjected to 380,000 television commercials by high school graduation. Though baby boomers might be embracing consumerism just as much as Generation X today, young people don’t have any...
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