Step Aside, Baby Boomers: It’s Gen X’s Turn
by Christopher Dale
Boomers have made disappointing leaders, and their time has passed.
In January 1961, America’s young, freshly-minted president boldly declared the dawn of a new era, one dominated by the 30- and 40-somethings now called the Greatest Generation. His contemporaries were reared during the Great Depression, fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and now braved a fragile new nuclear age amid a volatile Cold War. It was their turn to shape the future.
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.
—John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
Fifty-six Januarys later, we will hear another inaugural address, this one from the oldest president ever elected. Donald J. Trump will use this hallowed occasion to reach backward rather than forward, to a time when America was, vaguely, “great”: a malleable eyewink to the largely undereducated white voters who narrowly won him the Electoral College.
A Baby Boomer – the fourth consecutive to be president – Trump defeated fellow Boomer Hillary Clinton, whose surname says ‘90s nostalgia just as Trump’s peddles a return to the ‘80s, or ‘50s, or whatever decade his supporters deem superlative. Following the ugliest campaign in modern history, the uncouth, unqualified and (#Twitter) unfiltered Trump will likely enter the White House with the lowest approval ratings ever recorded for an incoming president.
It will surprise nobody if his presidency is an unmitigated disaster.
It will surprise everyone if the antidote is another Baby Boomer.
Boom and Doom
Using the presidency as bellwether, our last generational torch-passing was 1992, when 1920s-born George H.W. Bush lost to fresh-faced Baby Boomer Bill Clinton.
Clinton enjoyed several successes. Amid robust, peacetime economic growth, his administration passed, among others, the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), an assault weapons ban (1994), and a 20% federal minimum wage increase (1996).
But history has, rightly, judged other Clinton initiatives harshly. His 1994 Crime Bill imposed overly lengthy, functionally racist sentences for non-violent offenders, leading to the world’s highest incarceration rate. NAFTA accelerated the loss of manufacturing jobs to developing countries promising cheaper labor, and 1999’s Glass-Steagall Act repeal ended mandatory separation of commercial and investment banking, instigating the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Lastly, Clinton’s undisciplined affair helped prevent Vice President Al Gore from succeeding him and cementing his legislative legacy.
Next, the Baby Boomer Generation proudly presented George W. Bush, arguably the worst president in American history. From invading Iraq on false pretenses, to tax cuts that exploded the national debt, to an anything-but-heckuva job handling Hurricane Katrina, Bush was a linguistically-challenged laughingstock.
By contrast Barack Obama – an early-1960s cusp Boomer – has been, at times, a highly effective leader. His 2009 infrastructure spending stemmed the Great Recession’s mass hemorrhaging of jobs, and the Affordable Care Act, though imperfect, provided healthcare to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans. Osama bin Laden is dead, hopes for combatting climate change alive. The stock market has soared, the unemployment rate plummeted.
Where Obama failed – ironically, given his famed eloquence – was in communicating his successes while refuting the right-wing bile that buttressed unprecedented Congressional obstruction. He perpetually positioned himself above the fray… while the fray ate his lunch.
The prime example is his final failure: the decision to sit on evidence of Russian hacking during the 2016 election. He did so, he admitted, for fear of seeming partisan – a ridiculous reservation during the most bloody, polarizing and potentially consequential election in memory.
Obama’s fateful decision, and Hillary Clinton’s similarly over-cautious campaign, exemplify how woefully removed Boomer politicians are from 21st Century realities – and why, with the dark specter of a Trump administration looming, it’s time to fire up another torch.
The New Abnormal
Donald Trump’s victory was aided mightily by his political naiveté. While Obama hid damning evidence of foreign interference, and Clinton “went high,” Trump used fiery (albeit shameful) rhetoric and media-usurping tweets to bludgeon his way to the White House.
Far from proving his genius, Trump’s upset occurred because the norms with which polished politicians like Obama and Clinton restrained themselves were, quite simply, completely outdated. Meanwhile, the strangest candidate in American presidential history – both Baby Boomer and serious politician in name only – stumbled upon a new abnormal, and rode it to victory.
And here lies the generational rift: To Gen Xers, like me, Clinton’s refusal to engage Trump is as perplexing as George H.W. Bush’s fascination with a grocery scanner was to Baby Boomers a generation ago.
Amid crumbling civility, a desensitized populace will vote for a man who admits to sexual assault on viral video. Or mocks the disabled. Or suggests his opponent should be assassinated. Through utter incredulity at these new norms, Boomers reveal their political obsolescence.
Gen X has no such delusions. The modern-day Wild West of the Internet has shaped our adult lives; for us, the new norms are old hat. We’re not happy with this unsophisticated, bloodthirsty landscape, but we’re prepared to sling mud despite the unavoidable backsplash.
The Baby Boomers were a bust, with Trump’s ascension completing a lackluster chapter with an alarming exclamation point. Generation X must now shape the future.
Christopher Dale is a freelancer who frequently writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues. He has been published in a variety of outlets, including Salon.com, The Daily Beast, NorthJersey.com, Parents.com and The Good Men Project. He is also a contributing blogger to TheFix.com, a sober-lifestyle website.
Photo by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=247702
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