Tragedy, war may define Gen X the way Vietnam shaped Boomers

October 17, 2001 | Audra D.S. Burch

As America wages war on terrorism, the essence of one of the five living generations—loosely those between 20 and 40 years old and many of the foot soldiers in the military assaults—will be defined and tested.

For Generation X—whose idea of war may be the clinically untraditional Persian Gulf War or the clean, easy victories sprung from pop culture—the events leading up to the U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan bring a new reality that influenced their parents’ generations: war and its ominous consequences.

“I never thought of war as being part of my lifetime. This changes everything,” said Rodney Demas, 28, a Federal Express employee who lives in Coral Springs, Fla. “It makes you realize that we live in a country that is not untouchable and that other countries are willing to go pretty far to disrupt our way of life.” And in the end, generational scholars say, this will shape their lives, values and, possibly, public policy.

“Every generation is molded by world events that happen during their formative years. People who lived through the Great Depression are thrifty. People who lived through Vietnam may be wary of authority,” said Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing in New Orleans. “This generation is likely to be very practical, resolute and confident.”

This is a generation that grew up in relative peace and prosperity, nearly withered under the early label of “slackers” then grew up to be the nation’s most entrepreneurial though still casting a wary eye toward the government. It is this generation that largely engineered the dot-com revolution, financing a huge part of the 1990s boom. It’s also a generation that could be the most affected by the Sept. 11 attack and its horrible aftermath.

“They took the most casualties. They also were the major heroes,” William Strauss, the co-author of four books examining U.S. history from a generational perspective, said in an interview with The San Antonio Express-News. “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.”

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

And despite being largely considered cynics, they believe the United States and its allies will prevail.

“It’s a horrible thing that happened. We’re going to war to protect our future. I know it will be long and bad, but in the end, I think we will win,” said Lesley Garbutt, 25, a senior at Florida Memorial College in Miami.

Zinnia Acosta, 21, a borderline Xer and cadet with the ROTC at the University of Miami, is also cautiously optimistic.

“We have a lot to look forward to. I really didn’t think two years ago that we would be at the point that we would actually be going to war,” she said. “Sometimes I feel apprehensive and then I look around and see good people, good soldiers and a cause worth fighting for, and then I feel at ease.”

Xer Albert Garcia, a senior at the University of Miami, says his generation, though far from naive, sees victory at the end.

“I stand in support of our military action (this week). I think we are on the right track,” said Garcia, 24, who is studying media management and political science. “I think we are going to be able to cripple Osama bin Laden and his network, and eventually knock them out. But it won’t be overnight.”

Fishman says Generation X (referring to those born approximately between 1961 and 1981), is the least understood of all the groups. Its members are often products of divorce, and many were latch-key kids. They turned those perceived negatives into self-reliance and individualism.

Fishman even says that if Harry Truman were alive, he would be a leader of Generation X, because he was practical and willing to make unpopular decisions. It’s that practical attitude within the group, experts say, that makes this generation relatively ready for what will likely be a drawn-out war—despite the fact that mostly Baby Boomers will make the decisions while Xers execute them.

“They are the risk takers. But what that also means is that they are practical to the point of being cynical, but they won’t flinch when it’s time to do something. They are bottom-line people,” Fishman said. “They do what is necessary.”

She added: “They are willing to do the hard thing and feel empowered. This (the war) will ratchet up their sense of empowerment and their need to do something greater.”

Take Garcia. Just a short time after the attacks on Sept. 11, Garcia organized a town hall meeting at the University of Miami—a place where students could talk about the events and put them into perspective.

“I knew that talking and education were going to be the key to helping us get through this,” Garcia said. “That is what is going to make our generation adapt OK to this.”