If you were paying attention to Twitter this weekend, and it was a very busy weekend, you have might have caught this image of a CBS news report inspired by the January 5 Buzzfeed story: "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation." The image showed the Silent Generation (1928- 1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Millennials (1981-1996), and post-Millennials (1997-present). Of course, there was one huge group missing in this much-reposted picture: Generation X (born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s). Whether this omission is a joke or an actual mistake, it is still meaningful, as it tells us a political truth about the current status of this group.
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At present, the battle for the future is being fought between two generations: Baby Boomers and Millennials. At one end, we can place Trump, who'd be a dictator if Baby Boomers were the only Americans allowed to vote. On the other end is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new left-wing superstar who, among other things, is calling for a tax rate that is not out-of-this-world but, in a twist of history, made the much-celebrated prosperity of the Baby Boomers (the bulk of Trump's followers) possible (more on this in a moment). These two are at war. As for Generation Xers? We are on the sidelines with our highest political expression, the Obamas.
What I want to ask is: Why are we so absent from the fray of the day? The answer will certainly elude us if we do not see the second half of the 20th century in two distinct parts. One is called the Les Trente Glorieuses (The 30 Glorious Years—I prefer this to the misleading Golden Age of Capitalism, because the period can equally be called the 'Golden Age of Social Democracy'), while the other has no name, and so we have to invent one for it. Let's call this part the 'Empire Strikes Back' (or ESB). There is a third stage that follows ESB. It flourished after 1989, and has a name that began in remote academic circles but is now in the mainstream: Neoliberalism (which means, in essence, the return to the period before Social Democracy—a capitalism supported and checked by state socialism).
What most Baby Boomers do not know, and this ignorance has been twisted into an instinctive fear of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Millennials in general, is that the moment of prosperity they were born into had the welfare state as its foundation. There would be, in other words, no huge middle class in the US and Europe if capitalism had not, in the first half of the 20th century, suffered three major blows (two world wars and a terrific stock market crash) that, alas, proved not to be fatal.
All that AOC's generation is demanding is a return to an economy that was in existence for 30 years, and saw, as the French economist Thomas Piketty showed in his masterpiece Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the massive transference of national income from the very top to a bottom that eventually swelled into a middle class: high tax rates for the ultra-rich, affordable higher education, universal health insurance, rising wages, and New Deal expenditures.
Where are Generation Xers in all of this? They are in the middle. They mark the transition from the post-war Social Democratic order to the post-Volcker Shock neoliberal one. As a consequence, Generation X still experienced the benefits of the former, and were some how spared the horrors of the latter. If you are like me, you experienced these contradictions: you never joined a union, but you didn't leave college with a ton of debt (indeed, I had none). Though income flattened after the early '70s, you could still afford a single-family home. Though we accepted and even championed urbanism (walkablity, investment in public forms of transportation, and so on), we still clung to the almighty market. Though we expanded cosmopolitanism and rejected the suburbs, we saw the adoption of these values by corporate culture as progress (the subject of the suburb book The New Spirit of Capitalism). This confusion of economics and politics resulted in a group that made little to no sense after the crash of 2008.
AOC and her generation have nothing going on but debt and more debt (a consequence of a universalizing financialization that began in 1979 with Jimmy Carter, the first truly neoliberal US president), and they can find no affordable place to live. Because this group has returned to a post-war world (the Silent Generation), it's now aggressively fighting for the opportunities of Baby Boomers, and particularly white Baby Boomers, as they were the favored race during the Les Trente Glorieuses. However, much of this Boomer generation has no idea of its socialist past and is under the impression that US capitalism back then (the Golden Years) was great because it allowed whites to work hard and it properly rewarded their hard work (this is why I described Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life as a movie not about the origin of life, but the origin of the Trump voter). This group does not blame the decline of the welfare of state for the death of American prosperity but, instead, a cosmopolitanism that, one, was eventually captured by neoliberalism and, two, displaced the supremacy of the white male. (The former happened, but the latter did not.)
As for us, Generation X? We are the froth left on the beach by the retreating sea of Social Democracy.