For those of us born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, the spate of Gen X reminiscences that have appeared over the past few months may have triggered consumer nostalgia (the Sony Walkman looks so quaint!), soul-searching, or lingering irritation. One never feels older than when reading a tribute penned by a twenty-something in the New York Times exploring how profoundly strange—almost unimaginable, really—it must have been to live in that glacial-paced era before smartphones and the internet. Jason Wilson, writing in the Guardian, urges us to reclaim “irony and gloom” as features of cultural resilience, making the case for Gen X radicalism. Psychology Today has explored the “cultural psychology” of a generation that grew up with less access to the media spotlight that shone on the boomers—and that millennials now shine at each other on their social feeds.
Then there are the cheerleaders, who operate in a decidedly non–Gen X mode. “Time’s up, baby boomers—it’s Gen X’s turn now!” wrote one cheerful Washington Post columnist in April. But it’s hard to argue that the members of Generation X are taking the reins. Even in maturity, Gen X is overshadowed by demographics on either side. In the presidential race, the prototypical Gen X candidate—former indie rocker Beto O’Rourke—is trailing by every imaginable measure, eclipsed by septuagenarians Biden, Warren, and Sanders on the one side and millennial Buttigieg on the other. (The various Gen X candidates who weren’t playing punk rock in the 1990s—Harris, Booker, Castro—aren’t doing so great either.) Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose to power by knocking out Joe Crowley, a particularly uninspiring specimen.
One might be forgiven for wondering whether such generational categories are anything but a pundit’s lazy approach to thinking about historical change. The imagined subject of “the generation” tends to be middle class, white, and liberal by default, while the hypothesis of generational identification serves to obscure the ways that our society is divided, especially by class and by race. In what sense is the life experience of a white Princeton graduate in 1995 comparable to that of an African-American Detroiter who attended community college and graduated in the same year?
Even if its sociology was off, however, the idea of Generation X can still tell us something: it frames a particular way of approaching politics. To be Gen X was to be disaffected from the consumer norms of the 1980s, but to be pessimistic about any chance for social transformation. It was to be ironic, skeptical, deflating of pretension and authority, detached from social movements and political parties alike. Implicit within this pose were the seeds of a quiet radicalism, a distance from the world as it is that could, under the right conditions, blossom into an open challenge, as in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. But more often, this stance was interpreted as anomie, a withdrawal from political life.
Whether or not this sensibility was actually shared by that generation of people born between the 1960s and the 1980s—whose politics were far more varied than the stereotype suggests—matters less than the way the cultural category sought to present the problem of political life in the age after Reagan, the first years after the end of the Cold War. The idea of Generation X was, in a way, a symptom of the broader crisis of the left after the 1970s (and even more, after 1989). The disappointment intrinsic to it reflected the sense of failure following the student mobilizations of the 1960s, which had romanticized youth as the vanguard of social revolution. The children growing up in the aftershock of the collapse of those movements could not help but appear less engaged by contrast; one might say that Generation X was taking the political reality of defeat and redefining it as a cultural position. But today’s crisis of the center raises a question the trend pieces have overlooked: what remains of Generation X in an age of more radical transformations?
Although born squarely in the middle of the demographic, I have never been much of one for Gen X myself. Growing up in a household shaped by the New Left commitments of my parents, I was drawn to politics at an early age with no sense of generational irony. I discovered labor at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, writing about unions for a local newspaper, covering—among other things—the hospital workers’ union and its campaign against a dress code, an issue that spoke to me as a first-year college student who intuited that collective organizing might be the only way to ensure individual freedom. The language of class seemed a way to cut through the sentimental market utopianism of those years, the frenzied celebration of the free market that dominated public space in the early Clinton era and that seemed so distant from the real problems of the world.
Labor unions and radical politics weren’t, I guess, the typical experience of the Clinton years—though maybe they weren’t so atypical either. At least in the usual telling, the Gen X posture of mild disaffection was closely tied, at first, to the post-Reagan recession of the early 1990s. The seeming impossibility of meaningful, long-term, and secure employment helped to fuel alienation from the embrace of greed in the 1980s, the rising unemployment rate (around 7 percent) generating a restless anxiety. Not the maelstrom of a depression, but the tranquil gloom of a fine rain in Seattle. Out of economic instability came a pose of uncertainty, discomfort, and alienation, not of rage or conviction.
At a different time, these economic anxieties might have spurred a search for an alternative to such a dismal status quo. But the distinctive Gen X combination of critique and coolness wasn’t just a byproduct of the business cycle. With the Soviet Union coming apart, utopian political imagining seemed like another piece of baby-boomer kitsch. The fall of communism and the sense that capitalism might be in fact the only real way to organize social life made the intense idealism that breathes life into any effort at political change seem at once futile and dangerous.
By the end of the 1990s, cynicism had given way to hysterical encomiums to capitalism and the frenetic exuberance of the stock market. (Dow 36,000, anyone?) The constant praise of the market’s wisdom inevitably led to a hollowing out of any sense of confidence in collective action—not just in government, but any effort to act together for justice. The image of fantastic wealth generated out of investment and the general vision of society as a constant race for money and prestige that gained traction in the 1990s only strengthened in the next decade—despite the dot.com crash of the early 2000s, the more severe panic of 2008, and the disappointing recovery that followed.
Today the market obsessions of the last forty years are fading, and with them the idea of Generation X. Back in the 1990s, critics who placed the blame for poverty on the structure of the labor market—such as the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in the Harper’s article that became the basis of her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed—were outnumbered by those who focused on problems that were supposedly endemic in the welfare-addicted underclass. Despite the excitement caused by the 1999 protests in Seattle, there was little discussion of inequality as a serious problem over most of the 1990s. As historian Gabriel Winant has suggested, social critics only began to adopt the framework of a “new gilded age,” for all its pros and cons, early in the 2000s, building in part on the academic work of economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, and leading to the Occupy moment in 2011.
Both Seattle and Occupy were, notably, political mobilizations that rejected political parties, and indeed the whole electoral framework, as vehicles for social change; hostility to the Democratic Party is as Gen X a stance as they come. The first moment of possibility was quickly closed by September 11 and the beginning of the War on Terror. By the time protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park, however, the crystalline confidence in the free market that so defined politics and culture in the 1990s was crumbling. A more widespread sense of the ways that class limits and shapes experience had emerged, and there was growing awareness of the degree to which the experiences of “middle-class” and poor people overlapped. Economic security, autonomy, and independence seemed increasingly the province only of the affluent. Thanks to these changed conditions, the impact of Occupy went beyond that of Seattle. Activists targeting the 1 percent weren’t just reaching back to the campaign against globalization. They were drawing upon a much older radical anti-capitalist tradition—and pointing the way toward something new.
In the spring of 1992, the journalist Jonathan Cohn wrote an essay for the American Prospect laying out what he saw as the overlooked political idealism of Generation X. Writing off the generation as a bunch of apathetic, disengaged, and pop-culture-saturated slackers was a mistake, Cohn argued. Those born into Generation X were in fact motivated by deep commitments to a whole range of issues: economic injustice, environmental degradation, systemic racism. The problem was that they had lost faith in government, having never seen any tangible evidence of its positive capacities. Reared in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Watergate, coming to maturity under Reagan, this generation was anti-consumerist but ambivalent about politics. “We want desperately to act, to make a difference in the world in our lifetimes,” Cohn concluded. But they didn’t know where to start.
Today, the not-so-young adults of the early twenty-first century are still puzzling through that question. Even in the presidential race, the Gen X candidates are the ones most committed to tinkering at the margins. They want to reject ideology, to maintain the technocrat’s faith in the best ideas and the best people. (Kamala Harris’s proposal for a “student debt loan forgiveness program for Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities” is the most notorious example of this style.) They remain skeptical of social movements, and one can discern in their ambivalence the long shadows of the defeats of earlier mobilizations. Their cool, today, appears more like complacency. At its most appealing, the idea of Gen X stood for an antagonism toward the political establishment and a deflation of pretension of all sorts. But it also embodied a mood of resignation and uncertainty that was the result of the right’s ascendance. It’s time finally to put to rest this category forged in political loss. Generation X, may you slip peacefully into oblivion, playing air guitar all the way.
Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (Metropolitan Books, 2017).