Why Obama is just another boomer
DECEMBER 17, 2008
BY TED RALL
NEW YORKBarack Obama, people are saying, is the first Generation X
president. Are they right? And if sodoes it many any difference?
"The battle for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. presidential
election," reported Agence France Presse wire service nearly a year
ago in January, "is as much about 'Generation X' wresting power from
Baby Boomers as it is a battle between Barack Obama and Hillary
Clinton ... Most significantly, analysts say, it is the first time
someone from the so-called Generation X has run for the White House."
A Gen X president is, or would be, a big deal. Xers' major
concernsstudent loan debt, underemployment, age discrimination
against the young, the environmenthave never gotten much attention
in the media or in mainstream politics. But is Obama Gen X?
Membership requirements for Gen X have long been fungible.
Demographic purists say Generation X began with those born after
1964, when a sharply dropping birth rate marked the end of the
postwar Baby Boom. Sociologists, who look to common cultural and
economic reference points as generational signifiers, include
everyone born from 1961 to 1976. If you grew up with LBJ, Nixon and
Hendrix, you're a Boomer. If your touchstones are Carter, Reagan and
Molly Ringwald, you're X.
Some analysts put Gen X as late as the 1981 birth year, but I side
with Canadian author Douglas Coupland because, well, he wrote the
book. When Coupland published Generation X in 1990, its subjects were
twentysomethings. Do the math. That includes anyone born in the 1960s.
By any account, Obama's birthdate1961barely admits him to Gen X.
Yet Gen X won him the presidency. Sure, a higher proportion of Gen Y
voters than Gen Xers supported Obama (66 to 52 percent). But twice as
many Xers showed up at the polls. The One couldn't have done it
without the X factor.
Prominent Xers embraced Obama early in the process. "[He] attended an
anti-apartheid rally in Southern California," said X Saves the World
author Jeff Gourdinier during the early primaries. "He writes about
his doubts about the effectiveness of that form of protest ... He is
very honest about his skepticism. That is the Gen X sensibility."
"Our time to lead has come," gushed Elizabeth Blackney, a 35-year-old
Republican blogger from Oregon. But she and the rest of my
underemployed, underrecognized generation may have to wait. Now that
Obama has our votes, he has a lot more love for Generation Y than for
The Nation, the Bible of liberal Baby Boomers, is atypically smart on
this point. "For Obama, who is 46, and his followers, Boomer politics
clearly have to go," writes Lakshmi Chaudhry of the 1980s and 1990s
"culture wars," which constantly rehashed Vietnam and other hoary
so-last-century conflicts. "What is less obvious is whom Obama
represents. He often speaks to the Millennials, recently telling
cheering college kids in South Carolina, 'It's your generation's
turn.' But rarely mentioned is Obama's own generation, i.e.,
Generation X, the Lost Generation, whose name has been virtually
erased from the national conversation."
In my 1998 Generation X manifesto "Revenge of Latchkey Kids," I
called it "generational leapfrog." Generational leapfrog is the
tendency of the good things in American lifehigh-paying entry-level
jobs, generationally directed social programs, free loveto jump from
the Baby Boomers born between '46 and '64 to their children,
Millennial/Generation Y types born after '77.
It happened in editorial cartooning, my chosen profession. The vast
majority of political cartoonists working at daily newspapers, those
who get decent salaries and actual benefits, are Boomers in their 50s
and 60s. If and when a new job opens up, it goes to an artist fresh
out of collegea Gen Yer. Thirtysomething and fortysomething Gen Xers
need not apply.
Demographers William Howe and Neil Strauss predicted this phenomenon
in their 1991 book Generations. They argued that Xers belong to a
"reactive" generation doomed to be ignored by everyone that
mattersHollywood, Madison Avenue and Washington, D.C. Like prior
"reactive" generations (the last one was Hemingway's "Lost
Generation"), they will probably not see one of their own become president.
Howe and Strauss note that members of a generation can exhibit
cultural signifiers and other traits more closely related to another
generation. As a self-identified Gen Xer (1963/age 45), I spent my
college years attending concerts by late-period Blondie, the Dead
Kennedys, Flipper and the Clash. Punk rock and New Wave defined my
coming of age. Like most of my peers, I later got into post-punk and
grunge bands like Nirvana. But many of my classmates were more into
the Doors and Bob Dylan. Born too late to enjoy the Summer of Love,
they nevertheless identified as Boomers.
By this measure, Obama is a Boomer. His favorite music? According to
his Facebook page: "Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie
Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites), and The Fugees." Yech.
His favorite movies? "Casablanca, Godfather I & II, Lawrence of
Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Great films. I love them
all. But a Gen Xer would have been more likely to namecheck Repo Man
Generation Xers who hope that one of their own is finally in a
position to address their long-ignored concerns had better believe
this: Obama is paying attention to the young and the old. You
in-between types, still paying off your college loans and facing
discrimination in the workplace because of your age, will have to
keep on keeping on the best as you can.
Ted Rall is the author of the seminal Generation X manifesto "Revenge
of the Latchkey Kids." He draws cartoons and writes columns for
Universal Press Syndicate.