THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Smells Like Bob Dylan

Why Obama is Just Another Boomer

Barack Obama, people are saying, is the first Generation X president. Are they right? And if so–does it many any difference?

“The battle for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. presidential election,” reported Agence France Presse wire service nearly a year ago in January, “is as much about ‘Generation X’ wresting power from Baby Boomers as it is a battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton…Most significantly, analysts say, it is the first time someone from the so-called Generation X has run for the White House.”

A Gen X president is, or would be, a big deal. Xers’ major concerns–student loan debt, underemployment, age discrimination against the young, the environment–have never gotten much attention in the media or in mainstream politics. But is Obama Gen X?

Membership requirements for Gen X have long been fungible. Demographic purists say Generation X began with those born after 1964, when a sharply dropping birth rate marked the end of the postwar Baby Boom. Sociologists, who look to common cultural and economic reference points as generational signifiers, include everyone born from 1961 to 1976. If you grew up with LBJ, Nixon and Hendrix, you’re a Boomer. If your touchstones are Carter, Reagan and Molly Ringwald, you’re X.

Some analysts put Gen X as late as the 1981 birth year, but I side with Canadian author Douglas Coupland because, well, he wrote the book. When Coupland published “Generation X” in 1990, its subjects were twentysomethings. Do the math. That includes anyone born in the 1960s.

By any account, Obama’s birthdate–1961–barely admits him to Gen X. Yet Gen X won him the presidency. Sure, a higher proportion of Gen Y voters than Gen Xers supported Obama (66 to 52 percent). But twice as many Xers showed up at the polls. The One couldn’t have done it without the X factor.

Prominent Xers embraced Obama early in the process. “[Obama] attended an anti-apartheid rally in Southern California,” said “X Saves the World” author Jeff Gourdinier during the early primaries. “He writes about his doubts about the effectiveness of that form of protest…He is very honest about his skepticism. That is the Gen X sensibility.”

“Our time to lead has come,” gushed Elizabeth Blackney, a 35-year-old Republican blogger from Oregon. But she and the rest of my underemployed, underrecognized generation may have to wait. Now that Obama has our votes, he has a lot more love for Generation Y than for Generation X.

The Nation
, the Bible of liberal Baby Boomers, is atypically smart on this point. “For Obama, who is 46, and his followers, Boomer politics clearly have to go,” writes Lakshmi Chaudhry of the 1980s and 1990s “culture wars,” which constantly rehashed Vietnam and other hoary so-last-century conflicts. “What is less obvious is whom Obama represents. He often speaks to the Millennials, recently telling cheering college kids in South Carolina, ‘It’s your generation’s turn.’ But rarely mentioned is Obama’s own generation, i.e., Generation X, the Lost Generation, whose name has been virtually erased from the national conversation.”

In my 1998 Generation X manifesto “Revenge of Latchkey Kids,” I called it “generational leapfrog.” Generational leapfrog is the tendency of the good things in American life–high-paying entry-level jobs, generationally directed social programs, free love–to jump from the Baby Boomers born between ’46 and ’64 to their children, Millennial/Generation Y types born after ’77.

It happened in editorial cartooning, my chosen profession. The vast majority of political cartoonists working at daily newspapers, those who get decent salaries and actual benefits, are Boomers in their 50s and 60s. If and when a new job opens up, it goes to an artist fresh out of college–a Gen Yer. Thirtysomething and fortysomething Gen Xers need not apply.

Demographers William Howe and Neil Strauss predicted this phenomenon in their 1991 book “Generations.” They argued that Xers belong to a “reactive” generation doomed to be ignored by everyone that matters–Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Washington. Like prior “reactive” generations (the last one was Hemingway’s “Lost Generation”), they will probably not see one of their own become president.

Howe and Strauss note that members of a generation can exhibit cultural signifiers and other traits more closely related to another generation. As a self-identified Gen Xer (1963/age 45), I spent my college years attending concerts by late-period Blondie, the Dead Kennedys, Flipper and the Clash. Punk rock and New Wave defined my coming of age. Like most of my peers, I later got into post-punk and grunge bands like Nirvana. But many of my classmates were more into the Doors and Bob Dylan. Born too late to enjoy the Summer of Love, they nevertheless identified as Boomers.

By this measure, Obama is a Boomer. His favorite music? According to his Facebook page: “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites), and The Fugees.” Yech. His favorite movies? “Casablanca, Godfather I & II, Lawrence of Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Great films. I love them all. But a Gen Xer would have been more likely to namecheck “Repo Man” and “Slacker.”

Generation Xers who hope that one of their own is finally in a position to address their long ignored concerns had better believe this: Obama is paying attention to the young and the old. You in-between types, still paying off your college loans and facing discrimination in the workplace because of your age, will have to keep on keeping on the best as you can.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

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21 Responses to “THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Smells Like Bob Dylan”

  1. G. M. Palmer Says:

    Hey Ted,

    We sparred a bit about this back in ’07 when I called the election for Obama — glad you’re coming around to the fact that he’s more a boomer than an Xer.

    Demographically speaking, though, there’s always some crossover. Just like you had folks in your cohort who identified Boomer, so I (1978) and my wife (1979) identify Xer though many of our friends act like Generation Yers — I think it has a lot to do with family dynamics. My youngest sister is 9 years my senior and definately an Xer.

    It will be interesting over the next 4 years to see how Hello President deals with his family and generational dynamics.

    M

    p.s. where did we suddenly get an extra 8.5 trillion dollars? Can I have some?

  2. Thomas Daulton Says:

    Column confirms my experience. My creds: Born 1966. Solid X. “Repo Man” and “Slackers” are about my #1 and #2 movies!

    I’m with ya that the Baby Boomers have clung to power too long. (I frequently cite the example of Donald Rumsfeld — does he count as a Boomer? I’m not young, I’m 42 years old, and Rumsfeld had already been a Senator for a year before I was even born!! Yet this man was still in a major position of power just a few years ago. He probably has fond memories of the War of 1812.) And as far as I’m concerned, the Clintons also have clung to power much too long by this point.

    But after so many years of powerless, I am concluding that it’s OK that my generation’s time has passed us by. I have a lot more respect and trust for Generation Y than I do for about half my own generation, who have sold their souls in pretty much the same manner as the Clintons have. (I think you, Ted, did a column once about how Gen Y is unfairly stereotyped by the media as a bunch of criminals, when the reality is that in the aggregate they’re smart, fair-minded and politically dedicated.)

    Bring on the Gen Y leadership, is my vote. The country and the planet desperately need fresh new ideas, and Generations W and X appear to be flat out of same. Having grown up with the dread that my viewpoint and goals will never ever be reflected in the political leadership, I wouldn’t wish that on my younger brothers and sisters. I urge Gen X to take one for the team and allow Gen Y the leadership say in crafting the world they’re gonna live in after we’re gone.

  3. Jana C.H. Says:

    Thomas– Boomers have held power too long? Two administrations, Clinton and Bush? Compared to the “Greatest Generation” that’s an eyeblink. That doesn’t mean the Gen X folks shouldn’t be moving in, but it does mean they should quit whining and get on with it.

    Jana C.H.
    Seattle
    Saith Floss Forves: If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  4. Incitatus Says:

    On other news, Gov. Blagojevich is indicted for being so brave and honest on the telephone about what politics is all about.
    Oh yeah, put me down as an X’er too (’69, baby!), albeit from a different cultural millieu.

  5. Maura Says:

    The Doors? How unfortunate.

    Demographically, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in ’56. Some of that has stuck with me. I think there will never be any pop music that’s better than Motown in the 1960s. Daniel and Phillip Berrigan are still my heroes. But, as I said here recently in another comment, my generation is a constant embarrassment to me. They need to prove they’re still cool, which, of course, means they have to be disabused of the idea that they were cool in the first place. Their narcissism is astounding. They’ve deluded themselves into believing they were the first people to embarrass their parents, have sex, have kids, have a radical thought, go through menopause, lose a parent – oh my goodness, shut up. Please.

    If their time hasn’t past, they at least have to realize they need to share the power.

    Oh, we were talking Obama, weren’t we?

    As G.M. Palmer said, there’s always crossover. Obama is certainly part of that – a little too young to be a baby boomer, a little too old to be a Gen Xer. Maybe that’s part of his appeal. He doesn’t seem obsessed with himself and his greatness, but he also doesn’t seem to feel he got the short end of the late 20th century stick.

    Also, I find it bewildering that anyone who loves movies doesn’t put Casablanca on their list of Top 5 movies ever. It has everything – love, sex, betrayal, intrigue, murder and gambling.

  6. Thomas Daulton Says:

    to Jana C.H. —

    We're using two different definitions of the phrase "too long". I'm trying to say that the Boomer political leaders have had power long enough — not all the ultimate leadership roles, but enough success & privilege for enough time — that they're no longer change agents, but, like the older generations, just want to preserve their own comfy status quo at the expense of future generations. One might argue that it took the "Greatest Generation" 30 years to get to that point (1945-1975??), instead of just four Presidential terms (1992-2008). But we're splitting hairs.

    It's partly a question of character, and in my opinion the Boomers are coming up short — not that I'm touting my own generation either, that's why I'm looking to Gen Y. That was the real point of my comment.

    Also people live longer. So if 16 years is too short for the Boomers, does that mean we should have another two Boomer administrations? Gen X takes the White House for real this time, as Ted notes; our goals take primacy, in 2016? Our goals first begin to take primacy on the national scene when we’re all over 50? And then Gen Y’s goals begin to take primacy 30 years later when they’re 64+?? That’s an awful lot of time for us old codgers to lock the new generations into bad commitments. It’s just the old, who will always believe they ‘know better’ than the young whipper-snappers. With modern technology, the Boomers will probably try to download George Bush’s brain into a mainframe and run him for President again, as the ‘experienced candidate’ versus Eddie Vedder in 2024. Enough already, let’s both get off the stage.

    I’m talking about a qualitative measure, not a quantitative one. The world moves faster these days, ideas become outmoded and counterproductive faster than they used to. This situation, for example. Adapt or die. I see Gen Y as still being adaptable in a way that Gen X once was, but no longer is. And the Boomers, I don’t think, ever really were. When we need to adapt, look to the young for leadership, not the old.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    An entire column wasted on a non-issuek! This is more boring than Susan Stark’s list of ‘things to do,’ which is quite an accomplishment considering Ms. Stark zzzzzzzzzzzzz……………

  8. Jana C.H. Says:

    Thomas, I didn’t say 16 years is too short. I said it is not too long. Go ahead and grab the power, Gens X and Y, but don’t claim you’re entitled to it. You’re no more or less entitled than the Boomers or the Greatest or anyone else.

    Jana C.H.
    Seattle
    Saith Arthur Pinero: Where there is tea, there is hope.

  9. Jana C.H. Says:

    Thomas, I didn’t say 16 years is too short. I said it is not too long. Go ahead and grab the power, Gens X and Y, but don’t claim you’re entitled to it. You’re no more or less entitled than the Boomers or the Greatest or anyone else.

    Jana C.H.
    Seattle
    Saith Arthur Pinero: Where there is tea, there is hope.

  10. Always Right Says:

    I’d define Generation X as those that expect daddy government to take care of all their needs. Elections are now won by the candidate who “cares” the most.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I was born in ’62 and have considered myself neither a Boomer or an X’er.

    Being on the wrong end of the Boom meant that you were always hearing, oh things were really cool/great/groovy a couple of years ago but we had to change the rules and it is bad. And when Social Security goes down for the count just as I retire, it will be the boomers final blow.

    Being at the beginning of the Gen X I have never found that the majority of the people in the Gen X demographic feel that I am a poser if I try to come over an play. Get out of here old timer.

    So, I have dispensed with trying to label myself with any particular generation and gone on to my own drummer.

  12. Maura Says:

    Elections are now won by the candidate who “cares” the most.

    I wasn’t aware that caring was a bad thing. We’ve certainly seen what not caring can do.

    I see Gen Y as still being adaptable in a way that Gen X once was, but no longer is. And the Boomers, I don’t think, ever really were.

    Most people change, adapt, soften up, sell out – depending on your point of view – as they get older. The things they did in youth seem impetuous and unwise. So I’d say the boomers are adaptable. It’s adaptation based mainly on their bank accounts.

    I’m not sure, Thomas Daulton, what you mean when you say Gen Y is adaptable. Can you expand on that? I spend a fair amount of time with people in their mid-twenties, and they’re very strong in their beliefs. You might even say strident, but in this case, I don’t think that’s a negative. They’re young. They’re supposed to be strident.

  13. Kurt Says:

    Always… Your funny. The Boomers stole our birthright, and you have the gall to say we want a daddy gov’t? Give me a break. Gen X’ers tend to be very entrepreneurial and willing to figure out all sorts of ways to make money. We just are saddled with expenses that Boomers simply didn’t have when they were young. We have student loans.. all of us unless we are trustafarians. Boomers payed about 2% in real dollars for college compared to Gen X. Things that were free for boomers were pricey for us.

    Ted.. You realize that all the musicians you dig are Boomers, right? The music made by Gen X are really the early emo, grunge(yeah, I know you mentioned grunge) and alt. country bands like Counting Crows, Rage, Nirvana, STP, Soundgarden, Weezer, Son Volt, Old 97s, and bobby’s boy Jakob and the Wallflowers… I love it all. The NY Punk scene to country rock to Dillion. Dillon was cool. So where the Who. Dawg Grisman is one of the coolest people I have ever met. The boomer musicians were alright (outside of pop… but the pop music of my generation sucked pretty hard too). Its the boomers that listened to them that bug me!

    Kurt ’69

  14. Matt Says:

    Um, as a someone who qualifies as Gen Y (1981), I’d like to say that (1) we don’t have it any better than Gen X’ers and (2) a lot of our concerns are the same.

    High-paying entry level jobs? Gen Yers are graduating into the worst job market since the Depression.

    Student loans? Tuition has been increasing faster over the last 10 years than it did when Gen Xers were in college – the average Gen Yer will probably end up with more student debt than the average Gen Xer.

    Environment? Just as much, if not more, of a concern for us.

    Free love? Kids in the 1980s were not exactly a bunch of Puritans, at least based on my understanding from watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High about 27 times. Plus, my generation got the awesome experience of trying to wrap our heads around AIDS when were just hitting puberty.

    I think the main differnece between Gen Yers and Gen Xers is actually the Baby Boomers amazing ability to regard themselves as the most important, greatest, smartest, earth-changing generation ever. And they have projected that on their kids, the Gen Yers, which is why so many people fawn over my generation.

    After all that, I guess I’m not really sure why we’re having the X vs Y debate. Essentially, we both face the same challenge – wresting control from the Boomers before they ride the fiery carcass of the American state straight to hell.

  15. Gen Y-er Says:

    I’ll trade you my student loan debt for your student loan debt.

  16. Gen Y-er Says:

    I’ll trade you my student loan debt for your student loan debt.

  17. Thomas Daulton Says:

    I’m not sure, Thomas Daulton, what you mean when you say Gen Y is adaptable. Can you expand on that?

    Well I can’t back it up with numbers, “adaptability” is subjective and depends on P.O.V. as you point out.

    My experience with Gen-Y people is that they tend to be tolerant and understanding of other political/social viewpoints, even though they are vocal in their own beliefs. If they’re prepared to live and work alongside with other viewpoints, I call that “adaptable”, although most likely a good chunk of Gen-Y are not.

    They master new technology and, more importantly, its implications, unbelievably rapidly compared to us old farts. In a society dominated by technology, this is “adaptability” as far as I’m concerned.

    So on a related note, the example I linked to was Global Warming. The Gen-Y group, in my experience, is generally eager to jump into new carbon-free technologies and industries, and is working to change their lifestyle. By comparison, Gen-X has talked a good game about the environment and climate change, then too many of us went out and bought SUVs. Meanwhile Gen-W, the Boomers, basically run the businesses that are trying to prevent the country from addressing the issue because it threatens their profits. My parents, as an individual example, are quite specific that they don’t want to pay any money or be at all inconvenienced by measures intended to make sure their grandchildren have a habitable planet to live on a century from now.

    So it depends on your point of view, as you say: are Gen-Y a bunch of idealist losers with no history or experience; they are willing to embrace anti-Global Warming measures only because they have no money to lose from it? I call that adaptable. Are Gen-Xers, and older, adaptable because they seek new and innovative ways to preserve their existing material comforts even in the face of bankruptcy, depredation, embracing disinformation campaigns and sanctioning atrocities abroad? I call that selling out. Depends on your P.O.V.

    “Adaptability” versus “Resistance” depends on what you think the future will hold, it seems!

  18. Maura Says:

    So it depends on your point of view, as you say: are Gen-Y a bunch of idealist losers with no history or experience; they are willing to embrace anti-Global Warming measures only because they have no money to lose from it? I call that adaptable. Are Gen-Xers, and older, adaptable because they seek new and innovative ways to preserve their existing material comforts even in the face of bankruptcy, depredation, embracing disinformation campaigns and sanctioning atrocities abroad? I call that selling out. Depends on your P.O.V.

    I also call that selling out.

    Thanks T.D. Good explanation.

  19. Wayne Says:

    Good God, you people are idiots.

    Seriously. Quit arguing about some arbitrary definition of generation.

    I would like to see an article on how Social Security should be dealt with. As a Millennial (Gen Y is stupid, millennial is only less so) I realize I’m not going to have shit with the current state of affairs when I retire from the welfare state. So what should be done?

  20. confused Says:

    “student loan debt, underemployment, age discrimination against the young” — These are the generic concerns of young adults, not anything specific to Generation X, and they are not Gen X concerns any more, as Gen X no longer contains any young people.

    I have been inclined to conclude the oldest X’ers were at most 29 when “thirtysomething” went on the air in ’87, and the youngest were at least 20 when Time Magazine did its stupid cover story in ’97, which earned Ted’s righteous scorn in an article called “Marketing Madness,” if I recall correctly, and by those standards there are no longer any X’ers younger than 31. Student loans are ancient history and most of us are vulnerable to regular normal age discrimination against the old now.

    It’s odd for Ted to even unearth this rotting corpse of a young-adult stereotype and hang the “X” chain on it again.

    When Ted mentions “generational leapfrog,” and then uses as an example the benefits of a generation that started in 1946 “leapfrogging” to a generation that started in 1976, thirty years later … well wait a minute —

    Most people in our society have kids in their late 20s and early 30s. OUR REAL GENERATIONS ARE 30 YEARS LONG, but THE “GENERATIONS” IDENTIFIED IN THE MEDIA ARE ONLY HALF THAT SIZE. These numbers are not adding up.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    It could be the fact that the music from your generation was absolutely dreadful. I find the boomer generation as trying as the next person, but they at least made great contributions to popular culture. Gen-Xers are, on the whole, uninteresting and jaded people whose cynicism is tiring and unhelpful. Somewhat like the author of this blog. It often seems like your animosity towards Obama is more your reflexive opposition to being positive about anything in American public life. Get over yourself.

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