Generation X Reconsidered

February 10, 2002 | By Patrick Reddy

In the late 1990s, a new “great generation” emerged—the “Baby Bust” generation of children born in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Author Douglas Coupland first called them “Generation X” (hereafter, “GenX”) in his 1991 book, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” and the name has stuck.

Against all odds, the young adults now aged between 21 and 36 have reversed every bad social trend of the last four decades, despite getting little help from either their families or the government.

The 1990s turnaround in social statistics (falling crime and welfare rates, improving college test scores, a record number of jobs created, greater racial tolerance) led by GenX is proof, once and for all, that happy endings can come from sad beginnings. For their ability to “make lemonade out of lemons,” these young Americans should finally get the recognition they deserve. As University of California at Santa Cruz Professor Mike Males wrote in the Los Angeles Times last summer, “The permissively raised, universally deplored Generation X is the true ‘great generation,’ for it has braved a hostile social climate to reverse the abysmal trends of their baby-boomer predecessors.” (The article also was published in The Buffalo News Viewpoints section.)

Derided as “slackers” 10 years ago, GenX has helped build a new information-based economy, won several wars, made equality for women and minorities a reality and helped make American society healthier in numerous ways.

Considering the problems they had to work through—broken homes, economic troubles, a political system that taxed the young to support the old (e.g., record-high Social Security payroll taxes), random violence that threatened innocent youthful lives, AIDS, mediocre schools whose budgets were cut back and vastly increased college costs—we can say that GenX has turned out to be the most technologically advanced and hardest-working group of kids the nation has seen since…well, the World War II generation, dubbed by Tom Brokaw as “The Greatest Generation.”

As a bonus, GenXers also are the most racially integrated group ever. The police officers and firefighters in their 30s who lost their lives on Sept. 11 saving others were the quintessential example of their GenX generation.

Few people would have had positive thoughts about GenX in 1990. The conventional wisdom about the kids growing up since the baby boom ended in 1965 has been disappointment. Eleven years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe published “Generations,” a study that interpreted American history through an age-based prism. According to their theory, American children alternated between “dominant” and “recessive” generations.

For example, the World War II cohort was definitely an active group, while the so-called “Silent Generation” that followed them in the ‘50s were reactive. Accordingly, Strauss and Howe classified named the boomers (civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war demonstrations galore) as dominant, while GenX kids were reacting to all the changes wrought by the 1960s and 1970s.

Critics on both the right and left castigated GenXers’ apparent cynicism and apathy. Esquire Magazine ridiculed GenXers who “laze around their parents’ split-level watching ‘House of Style’ on MTV.” Felicity Barringer in the New York Times worried about “an army of aging Bart Simpsons, possibly armed and dangerous.”

Conservatives saw foul-mouthed, abrasive, violent, poorly educated youths from broken homes with dismal family values as crime levels and the out-of-wedlock birthrate set new records every year during the 1980s.

Liberals saw greedy, career-oriented, racist reactionaries (the youth vote was Ronald Reagan’s best age group in 1984). Ralph Nader, the quintessential liberal elder, once expressed horror in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine at the thought of being governed someday by the kids of the “Greed Decade.”

Two years after their first book, Strauss and Howe published their take solely on GenX, using computer lingo to describe what they called another “lost generation.” Is it any wonder they felt that way? In 1990, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was nearly 25 percent for all Americans and about 70 percent for blacks. After nearly 35 straight years of a rising crime rate, the United States had more people in prison than any other country except South Africa. In numerous cities, the number of murders set new records. Despite a generally healthy economy, more than 35 million Americans were chronically poor and on welfare.

To almost everyone, the group of kids called “Twenty-somethings” by Time Magazine seemed like a hopeless cause. As the GenX band Nine Inch Nails once sang: “I drag you down, I use you up. Mr. Self-destruct.”

Well, to paraphrase Art Linkletter, kids do the darndest things. Against all odds and expectations, and to an extent that would have seemed astonishing a decade ago, GenXers have turned their lives around.

In fairness to Strauss and Howe, almost no one foresaw the economic gains of the ‘90s. (Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute was one notable exception.) Also, Strauss and Howe did point out that GenXers, “More than anyone…have developed a seasoned talent for getting the most out of a bad hand.”

Since moving to California a decade ago, I’ve worked as both a political consultant and teacher. Many of my colleagues in these two fields have been GenXers, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by their high energy levels and dedication to their work.

By the late 1970s, jobs in traditional manufacturing industries like autos and steel were in sharp decline. So the GenXers went out and helped create the high-tech industry that fueled the 1990s recovery. Boomer visionaries like Bill Gates may have developed the concepts, but it was GenX who executed them. Virtually all rank and file computer workers were born after 1964.

The results were outstanding, with 16 million more Americans finding jobs during the Clinton years and the lowest peacetime unemployment rate (4.5 percent) since the 1950s. This was the greatest job growth of any eight-year period in history.

These new workers also included 2 million former welfare recipients who found jobs after the Republican Congress passed welfare reform and President Clinton signed it in 1996 (leading to a 50 percent reduction in the welfare rolls). It was the hard work of GenX that drove the Internet-era economy and booming stock market that did so much to balance the federal budget by 1998.

Driving the growth of the “New Economy” has been the substantial increase in college graduates. In 1980, roughly 950,000 Americans received college degrees. By 2001, nearly 1.1 million did, an increase of more than 20 percent. College entrance scores in this time frame also went up by 26 points. Despite the above-average rise in college costs, GenXers have become the best-educated Americans yet.

And a majority of those new college graduates are now women. This year, at least 100,000 more women than men will go to college. GenX is the first generation with full equality for women and minorities (most women work out of economic necessity). Here is one area where baby boom women and minority rights activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s should receive some credit for breaking down barriers.

This current generation of young African Americans is the most successful ever. The black unemployment rate dropped from 14 percent in 1980 to a record-low 7 percent in 2001. The percentage of black families below the poverty line fell from 33 percent in 1992 to 23 percent in 1999. More than 70 percent of African-Americans have reached (at least) stable working class status, and a majority could rightly be called middle class.

There are now more than 3 million blacks with college degrees; 14 percent of all blacks over age 25 have college degrees now, compared with just 3 percent in 1960. Undeniably, they owe some of their success to the civil rights pioneers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, some of whom literally gave their lives to improve the prospects of future generations.

The improvement has been striking. In retrospect, we can now see that the critics who called GenXers violent, cynical, greedy and dumb were wrong.

This generation has reversed just about every bad social trend: divorce rates have come down from their 1981 peak, the percentage of unwed births has started to decline, infant mortality rates dropped from 20 per 1,000 births in 1970 to 6.9 in 2000, suicide rates decreased by 21 percent from 1970 to 1999, at least 20 percent fewer high school seniors use drugs than in 1980, the total number of crimes committed decreased by 5 percent from 1979 to 1999 while the population was increasing by 24 percent.

GenXers have made the U.S. Armed Forces the most integrated institution in America. In 1975, at the close of the Vietnam era, women and minorities were just 17 percent of the military. By 1999, the military was 22 percent black (compared to 14 percent in 1975), 15 percent women (up from 2 percent) and 9 percent Hispanic (up from 1.4 percent).

Prior to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, a fiftyish congressional chief of staff worried that we might lose because the soldiers consisted of “kids who couldn’t get a job during the booming ‘80s.” Yet this fighting force—with more women and minorities than ever—has repeatedly smashed opposing armies pretty much around the world: in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo and now Afghanistan.

What some elite intellectuals forgot was that kids who come up the hard way often develop traits—toughness, street smarts, adaptability—that can be quite handy in adverse situations. The GenX armed forces have proved particularly skillful with high-tech weapons—apparently all that time the kids spent playing video games wasn’t wasted.

In addition, perhaps appropriate to GenX, the spectacular victories won in the Gulf War and Afghanistan came without reports (so far) of a single atrocity like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Despite a number of ugly racial incidents in places like Howard Beach and Forsyth County, Ga., and the rise of Louis Farrakhan, GenXers have proved surprisingly tolerant. For earlier generations, racial harmony was a political statement. For kids today growing up in a time of a record number of immigrants from the Third World and a record number of blacks and Hispanics living in the suburbs, it’s simply how they live. It is no accident that the youngest group of white voters in California voted the most heavily against Propositions 187 (to cut off services for illegal immigrants) and 209 (to ban racial preferences).

Intermarriage is the ultimate proof of GenX tolerance: The 2000 Census reported that nearly 7 million Americans called themselves “multiracial.” On the West Coast, nearly half of all Asian-American women marry outside their race, as do about a fifth of Hispanics. Thirty years ago, interracial marriage was largely a black man marrying a white or Hispanic woman. In the last decade, over 1 million black women have married white, Hispanic or Asian husbands.

Maggie Linden, a West Coast political consultant with a GenX daughter, recently attended a baby shower in her daughter’s Los Angeles home and noticed that virtually every couple there was mixed-race. What was remarkable to her went unremarked-upon among the kids.

When talking about an entire generation, you have to paint in broad strokes. So, broadly speaking, it’s fair to evaluate GenX this way: Everything that should be up (work, marriage, education levels), over the past 20 years, is. Every bad social indicator (crime, divorce, suicide, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, drug use) is down.

If the kids who produced the positive social trends of the last decade can keep up the good work, we can all rest assured about the future of America.