Occupy protests trigger envy, ire in Generation X
December 18, 2011 | By Jennifer Peltz
The generation that gave the term "slacker" new meaning is looking with measures of rivalry, regret and tart bewilderment at a movement its successor mobilized in the name of "the 99 percent."
For some members of Generation X, the cohort sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and the so-called Millennial age group of many Occupy Wall Street protesters, the demonstrations represent a missed opportunity in their own youth to take up the cause of combatting economic inequality.
But for others, the Occupy movement is at best a showy rehash of similar recessionist angst they weathered with self-sufficiency and little more public display of disaffection than grunge rock and goatees — and at worst a reflection of a younger generation with a whiny, overweening idea of its own importance.
"Generation X is tired of your sense of entitlement. "Generation X also graduated during a recession ... and actually had to pay for its own music," declared Mat Honan, 39, a San Francisco-based writer for the technology blog Gizmodo.
He said by phone that he's sympathetic to the protesters' complaints about the financial system but felt a "generational disconnect" after reading a New York magazine story that portrayed the demonstrations as a response to a distinctly Millennial plight.
With its "we are the 99 percent" slogan, Occupy doesn't particularly see itself as a youth movement. People of a range of ages have joined some of the demonstrations. And plenty of 20-somethings, as well as their elders, want no part of them.
But with concern about student loans and post-graduation job opportunities a frequent theme, the protests are often seen as having a youthful face, and the limited demographic data available point to a heavy under-30 presence.
The median age was 28 in a mid-October survey of 301 people at Occupy Wall Street's former base camp in New York's Zuccotti Park, said Costas Panagopoulos, the Fordham University political science professor who conducted it. Separately, Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen surveyed 198 people at the park in mid-October and found 49 percent were under 30.
Another 38 percent were between 30 and 50 — the bookends of Generation X, in some generational researchers' view. They define it as those born between 1961 and 1981, encompassing nearly 88 million Americans; others bracket it a bit differently, often as 1965 to 1981.
Still, there's a perception among some Gen Xers themselves that they're at a generational remove from the Occupy protests.
"Our moms and dads witnessed the great advances for women and minorities born from the rebellion of the '60s. ... We learned how to blow up digital aliens with a joystick. Occupy Wall Street, can we believe in you?" recession blogger Lynn Parramore wrote, praising the protests, on the left-leaning online news service AlterNet.
A Gen X apology to the Occupy Wall Street contingent, expressing regret for conceptual hand-me-downs ranging from implying that going to college begets a good job to "taking away every reason to go outside," has gotten more than 1.7 million online views on the humor site Cracked.com.
On the other hand, Washington-based economics writer John Tamny branded the young Occupiers' mindset "an obnoxious repeat of Gen X" on the financial news site Real Clear Markets.
Some Gen Xers, after all, entered the workforce — or tried to — during recessions in the early 1980s and '90s, only to benefit from economic growth later in those decades, noted Tamny, 42.
He said he agrees with the young Occupiers' criticism of corporate bailouts and understands their career fears. But "when I hear people say, 'They'll never have a chance' — oh, come on. That was supposed to be me and my friends, and we figured it out," he said.
Dubbed Generation X after Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel about anomie and irony among a group of underemployed, wary young adults, the post-Baby Boomers garnered a reputation for alienation, political apathy and do-it-yourself individualism.
A recent report from the University of Michigan's Longitudinal Study of American Youth characterizes Gen Xers now as "active, balanced and happy." But in the public imagination, they're the latchkey kids who grew up amid the rise of divorce and working moms and became the detached young adults of films such as Richard Linklater's 1991 "Slacker" and Kevin Smith's 1994 "Clerks": autonomous, mistrustful of norms and organizations, more focused on finding individual meaning than trying to influence societal institutions.
"The big zeitgeist as Xers came of age in the '80s and '90s was: 'You're a free agent' ... so I think Xers look on at something like Occupy Wall Street with a little bit of curiosity," said historian Neil Howe, a co-author of noted books about Generation X and what he describes as its more optimistic, team-oriented, structure-loving successors in the Millennial group, also called Generation Y.
If Occupy Wall Street is reverberating in a generational rift, participant Malcolm Harris, 22, isn't surprised. To him, the generation before his grew up with rebellion being marketed to them as commoditized cool in such forms as MTV, creating a counterculture of disengagement.
"Conviction about anything becomes nearly impossible in that sort of situation," says Harris, the managing editor of The New Inquiry, a culture and criticism site. "No wonder they missed out on protest."
Not that they missed out entirely. In one particularly visible demonstration, anti-apartheid students created campus shantytowns in the 1980s to urge colleges to pull investment money out of companies that did business in South Africa. Amid those and other demonstrations, the Senate overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto in 1986 to impose sanctions against South Africa over its now-gone system of white-minority rule.
Those demonstrations faded by the time Joaquin Torrans graduated from high school in 1990. To him, "it seemed like we didn't have any causes to fight for."
"What we did all sort of miss was this issue ... of wealth inequality" and its consequences for politics, said Torrans, 40, a union stagehand living in North Richland Hills, Texas. He supports the Occupy protests.
But to Henry Rice, 41, the Occupy demonstrations are a wrongheaded outgrowth of a culture that expects too much for free. If he espouses a generational identity, it's as a child of the Regan Revolution and its conservative values.
"Educated people in my generation may have legitimate concerns about lobbyists and the power of money, but to camp in a park with a bunch of misguided people — I don't think that," said Rice, of Virginia Beach, Va. A retired Navy chief petty officer, he's now a Navy civilian public affairs specialist and studying to become a social studies teacher.
At 36, Pete Dutro is part of both Generation X and Occupy Wall Street. He's a member of its finance working group.
"Twenty-somethings really are the catalyst," he says, but "my generation paved the way for them to do this."
The tattoo artist and business student sees echoes in Occupy of the anti-consumerist, self-empowering DIY — for "do it yourself" — ethic he absorbed through the punk-rock scene of the 1980s and '90s. And he sees plenty of Gen Xers themselves among the Occupy crowd.
"There are a lot of us who have gotten tired of being apathetic," he said.