Worries Over Generation X

September 28, 2001 | By Michelle Koidin

To them, war was a movie or a video game or, one time, a swift, efficient military campaign they hardly felt.

World War II and Korea were before their time, and their sense of Vietnam mostly came from “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter.”

Now members of Generation X, criticized early on as slackers, recognized later as hard-working entrepreneurs and known for cynicism about government, could be facing the most formative events of their lives and their generation.

Their opinions about going to war over the terrorist attacks vary, naturally. But in the meantime, there’s evidence of a mighty response by Generation Xers—roughly those between the ages of 20 and 40, cultural observers say. “They took the most casualties. They also were the major heroes,” says William Strauss, co-author of four books examining U.S. history from a generational perspective. “They were the police and firefighters for the most part. They were the passengers on the plane who crashed the plane rather than having it go to Washington, D.C.

“This was both a tragic event and a heroic event for Generation X,” Strauss said. “Generation Xers now have a real brush with history and a real role to play.”

Coming out of school, Xers were called disappointing and selfish, unrefined in cultural taste and incapable of standing up to foreign competition, Strauss says.

But they proved their elders wrong, creating countless dot-com companies, contributing immeasurably to the ‘90s economic boom and stabilizing crime, drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases among youths that flourished with the baby boomers, he says.

Gen Xers’ prosperity led to a comfortable life in which many never thought about going to war.

“Everybody drives nice cars and they have good jobs and pretty much everybody has everything they want,” Kelly Hay, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom, said during an afternoon Starbucks run with friend Yvonne Graser.

“You have this happen and all of the sudden, I think they realize that their priorities were a little screwy,” Hay said as 13-week-old daughter Cassidy slept soundly in her baby seat at the Northwest Side cafe. “I think I did. Does it matter that my nail polish isn’t nice today? I’ve thought about that ever since the day it happened.”

Graser nodded in agreement. Now, she and her husband sit and discuss how they think the country should respond to the attacks.

“He wants to go to war—point blank,” said Graser, a 37-year-old eye-care technician. “He just wants to go to war and just blow away the country. I think he thinks technology will help to get us through those mountains over there. And I don’t agree with him.”

She worries for her son. He’s 13.

“If we go to war, that doesn’t mean it’s over like the Gulf War in a few months—it’s a done deal and we’re home,” she said. “This could go for years and years and then my son, who’s going to be 18 in five years, will have to deal with it. I don’t want him to go to war.”

Like Hay and Graser, Andrea Zeddies talks about her child. Eight months’ pregnant with her first baby, the 31-year-old is not ready to go to war.

“They’re moving a little too quickly with the war part of it,” said Zeddies, a staff psychologist at St. Mary’s University. “We need to be a little more patient and do more investigation to try to figure out who’s directly responsible before we move in and start getting all our young people ready.”

Like many in their generation, Zeddies and her 31-year-old husband, Timothy, are struggling to grasp what is happening.

“Our generation is the first video game generation,” said Timothy, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of the Incarnate Word. “At least for me, there’s this feeling of unreality of what’s going on right now. When we were growing up, they had Atari and Intelevision, which I think in a way kind of anesthetized us from appreciating the full impact of what’s going on right now.

“I think our generation is also skeptical of our government,” he said. “I mean, you had the ‘60s generation that rebelled and then five years after the Vietnam War ended, they were all wearing suits and getting jobs and their idealism kind of went out the window.

“In our generation, though, it feels like we, to an extent, have been neglected by the older generation, and I think there’s some deep-seated feelings related to that that make it hard to think about going halfway around the world and fighting a war that is to an extent about economic interests.

“It’s also about life,” he said. “When they came into New York and bombed our World Trade Center, that’s something we all felt to some extent in a very, very personal way. Our generation is so diverse. Some of our friends say, ‘I think we ought to go over there and bomb the (expletive) off the face of the earth.’ There’s other people like myself who are really trying to think of a peaceful solution.”

Rich Walsh feels the same sense of “unreality” but believes there’s only one response.

“Everything we’ve studied from history shows war was the answer,” said Walsh, a 35-year-old lawyer and father of a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. “The only one it didn’t give the answer to was Vietnam, and some people chalk that up as not our war.”

The terrorists, he said, “are never going to be satisfied until they’re defeated, and I don’t know how you do that with sanctions. They’re already starving their people. We’ve seen with Iraq that sanctions don’t work. Saddam is still there.”

Diane Elizondo doesn’t think it will come to war. Over beers with friends at La Tuna, a bar in Southtown, the 26-year-old secretary predicted that Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia will turn over terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

But many Gen Xers, known generally as realists and pessimists, are bracing for the worst, said Jane Rinzler Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based market-research and trend-forecast firm that focuses on Generations X and Y, the younger generation.

“They’ve never had to deal with something of this magnitude,” Buckingham said. “They are waiting, like many people are, for the next shoe to drop.”

They think, “Why wouldn’t this guy just unleash chemical warfare if he hates us so much?” she said.

At the same time, the Sept. 11 attacks have left some Gen Xers feeling an urgent need to make changes in their lives, Buckingham said. She knows some Xers who are considering getting out of finance and into public service and others thinking about moving home to be close to family and friends.

“Gen X has gotten so much criticism from the press for being slackers,” Buckingham said. “I think they want to prove they are resilient and they are good people.”