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Are Gen Xers the New Boomers?

Gen X has always been ignored, insulted, demeaned, and blamed for everything that's wrong with the world. But is the so-called "Karen Generation" really as bad as the media would have us believe?

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Back in 2019, Generation X’s legacy as the forgotten generation was cemented by a CBS News graphic. Titled “Generation Guidelines Defined By Birth Year,” it listed “Baby Boomers (54–72 years old)” followed by “Millennials (22–37 years old)” with no acknowledgment of the yawning void where the 38-to-53–year-olds should have been. It was perhaps the most Generation X thing to ever happen.

As a small generation (65 million) sandwiched between two spotlight-hogging demographic powerhouses—Baby Boomers (76 million) and Millennials (83 million)—Gen X has had decades of experience being overlooked. Hell, our own parents had to be reminded of our existence by a televised public-service announcement that intoned “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” In the ginned-up media battles between Baby Boomers and Millennials, Gen X’s willingness to kick back and let them fight is the stuff of countless memes.

But something has changed in the past year or so. Despite decades of erasure, it seems that my generation has been remembered just in time to serve as the latest scapegoat for all the social, political, and cultural ills that younger generations feel righteously duty-bound to pin on previous ones. Online, Gen X has been dismissed as “Boomer 2.0,” “Boomer Lite,” and “The Karen Generation.” We’ve been accused of being excessively Trumpy, of having “ZERO empathy,” and of just generally sucking

We are also, as it happens, officially old. Hip-hop turned 50 this year. Adam Sandler is on the cover of AARP magazine. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter just married Tony Hawk’s son. We’re parenting our children (and sometimes our grandchildren), caring for our elderly parents, and facing the stark reality that retirement won’t be an option for many of us. We’re monitoring our cholesterol, white-knuckling through hot flashes, and fitting orthotics into our Chuck Taylors. At a recent Breeders reunion show in San Francisco, my friend Rita watched the man in front of her do some exploratory pogos as the band launched into “Cannonball” before realizing that, sadly, his knees were no longer about that life.

The aging and the scapegoating are not coincidental. In general, I tend to agree with the theory that young people can’t be bothered to differentiate among old people and therefore call anyone north of 40 a Boomer. Still, it seems fair to explore whether these charges have merit. Does Gen X suck? Are we the new Boomers? Let’s take a look at three of the boldest accusations.

Gen X is not only conservative, but wingnut conservative.

Back in October 2022, Kurt Anderson—founder of Spy, the 1980s magazine that set the template for internet snark—tweeted a snippet of a New York Times/Siena poll that showed a 45–64 age group answering the question “Which party’s candidate are you more likely to vote for in this year’s election for Congress” with a 59 percent vote for the GOP. “Why are Gen X, uniquely among age groups, so strongly Republican and weakly Democrat?” asked Anderson. 

His query was preceded a few months earlier by a Politico piece that profiled Iowa State Congress member Cherielynn Westrich, onetime keyboardist for late-’90s Weezer side project The Rentals, by way of explaining “How Gen X Became the Trumpiest Generation.” Author Ben Jacobs asserted that “there were always hints of a more right-wing inclination culturally even if they may have been camouflaged by the less politically charged atmosphere at the time.” His sole illustrative example? Michael J. Fox’s Family Ties character, Alex P. Keaton. 

Still, I was willing to take these claims at face value because honestly, it kind of makes sense that a chunk of the last Cold War kids might end up breaking MAGA. The neoliberal regime of Ronald Reagan (along with Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., the provenance of so much of our favorite music) portrayed everything from record unemployment to the crack epidemic as a failure of personal responsibility, rather than results of policy decisions, institutionalized discrimination, and purposeful slashing of social services. Laissez-faire economics decimated entire industries, and widespread deregulation let corporations prioritize shareholders rather than invest in workers. By the time Gen X reached voting age, registration drives like Choose or Lose and Rock the Vote were carefully calibrated to Xers’ characteristic distrust of dogma and groupthink. 

The polls that illustrate Gen X’s alleged MAGA heel turn aren’t clear-cut, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump concluded after crunching the numbers. The margins highlighted by Anderson and Jacobs, for instance, didn’t fully map onto the generational cohorts as outlined by the Pew Research Center (which, not for nothing, recently got fed up with this whole discourse and changed its guidelines on generational framing). Jacobs, meanwhile, draws much of his insight from a 2019 Columbia University paper that puts not just a thumb but an entire fist on the scale by referring to people born between 1956 and 1980 as neither Xers nor Boomers, but as “Reagan Conservatives.” More glaring is that those polls either don’t break down their numbers by race or, in the case of the Columbia paper, only survey white voters to begin with. These are crucial omissions in any poll, but are egregious when they erase almost a full third of the generation they claim to be surveying.

This is a fundamental snag in the narrative of Gen X conservatism: The 60 percent of us who are white have always been the face of the brand. The story that pundits want to tell must necessarily erase, for instance, Black women, who not only vote overwhelmingly Democrat, but consistently vote in numbers higher than other racial groups. As Elie Mystal noted in The Nation, “If there is a Gen X problem for Democrats, it is very likely a white Gen X problem.” More specifically, it’s a problem of a sustained white Gen X backlash to the social norms and ideals that have been part of our cultural backdrop since the needle dropped on Free to Be You and Me and the TV dial landed on Sesame Street.

Politico’s suggestion that Cherielynn Westrich’s trajectory from apolitical hipster to Trump foot soldier represents Gen X as a cohort doesn’t fully land—most notably because Westrich, by her own admission, only began paying attention to electoral politics in 2016. But a 2021 Vanity Fair story about Vice co-founder–turned–fascist agitator Gavin McInnes offers a more convincing portrait of an Xer’s far-right evolution. McInnes claims to have been, at the dawn of Vice, both a “tree-planting vegetarian” and “a self-described ‘dogmatic feminist.’” But what gave Vice traction was that it reflected neither of those things; its appeal was that it cloaked reflexive, resentful opposition to social progress in the plausible deniability of “ironic” humor

Not every Gen X man became a Proud Boy, obviously, but the ease with which McInnes was able to use white male grievance to mobilize a militia should never have come as a surprise. And the outsize political, media, and social influence of other Gen-X reactionaries—among them Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Ron DeSantis, Joe Rogan, and brand-new GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson—is still growing. The conventional wisdom that voters across the board grow more conservative with age doesn’t always hold up, but we also can’t deny the ascendance of Xers who would rather watch the world burn than share it with others.

Generation X doesn’t get criticized as much as Millennials and Gen Z do. 

Searching for “Gen X” on Reddit yielded, as expected, a goldmine of bi-directional trash talk. The threads that caught my eye, though, were ones with subject lines like “Why does it seem like Gen X is the least criticized generation?” and “Gen X doesn’t catch enough shit.” The thread authors didn’t necessarily have their own beef with Gen X; it’s more that they seemed to find it unfair that Gen X has magically escaped the criticism heaped on Millennials and Zoomers. Well, Skyler, have I got news for you.  

After the 1990 publication of Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and as many Xers were graduating college and entering the workforce, mainstream media was suddenly all over us like Tipper Gore on a pile of Prince cassettes. Unambitious, unmotivated, disaffected, cynical, drifting, and lost were the kinder adjectives used; in a 1993 piece titled “The Whiny Generation,” Newsweek christened us “pusillanimous purveyors of pseudo-angst.” Time’s 1990 survey made more of an effort to both hear from actual Xers and explore the material realities that shaped us—divorce, stagflation, the twin shadows of nuclear war and AIDS—but still led with the negative, writing, “They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.”  

The one advantage we had only became apparent in hindsight: These eviscerations happened in a pre-internet world. No 24-hour news cycle, no right-wing echo chamber, no click-driven media apparatus pinging tales of our predetermined failure around the globe. Time was eventually gracious enough to correct the record and report that we had not, all things considered, turned out to be lazy, entitled losers. But yes, kids, we got our fair share of shit. We got analog shit. We got shit on microfiche, Skyler. Look it up. 

Gen X are just as bad as Boomers because they ruined the world and aren’t trying to fix it. 

It’s tempting to go full X eye roll here, because one of the most frustrating downstream effects of generational demarcations is that collective problems end up pinned on a single group. For years, Boomers have gotten the brunt of it; now it’s our turn. Fine, I get it. But the things that Gen X is currently blamed for—including environmental destruction, extractive capitalism, resource hoarding, the death of organized labor, wage stagnation—are longstanding, systemic issues. They have been researched and debated and working-grouped for decades, and for just as long their possible solutions have been continually kicked down the road—because, with few exceptions, any solutions are economically and politically unviable to those with the money, power, and will to put them in place.

It takes a lot more time to undo damage than it does to inflict it, so the idea that any one of these entrenched problems could be repaired within a single generation is unrealistic. The suggestion that Gen X whiffed on getting them all done is simply delusional. Really, that was on us? A cohort considered so statistically insignificant that infographics and studies and respected news analysts regularly forget we’re even here? Skyler, you sweet summer child. 

Gen X’s actual history of activism is almost never acknowledged, but we were out there—in person, in marches, at rallies, at rap and punk shows, doing volunteer grunt work, wheat-pasting protest art to scaffolding as cities slept. The anti-capitalism and labor awareness of Millennials and Zoomers was preceded by the agenda-setting of Xers active in anti-globalization protests like 1999’s Battle in Seattle. We shouted down the Reagan administration’s inaction on AIDS, marched on Washington against threats to abortion access, and rallied to protest both wars in Iraq. “ACT-UP and Queer Nation, which both did so much to revitalize street protest and agit-pop art, had Gen Xs fingerprints all over it” notes writer Lily Burana, adding that, pre-internet, ‘zines and indie record labels were crucial “as vehicles for democratizing media and the dissemination of radical ideas.”

On college campuses, we initiated Earth Day celebrations, demanded divestment in South Africa and Israel, and took back the night. We kickstarted the third wave of feminism after watching in fury as Anita Hill patiently, agonizingly explained sexual harassment to an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. And, of course, we set off the first national furor over “political correctness,” with pushes for diversified reading lists, multicultural perspectives on history and literature, and greater sensitivity to language. (Or, as countless academics, pundits, and national media outlets called it, in language that they’re still using, “the New McCarthyism.”)  

But, as Dave Zirin has pointed out, we felt profoundly defeated by the fact that, in contrast to activist Boomers before us, nearly everything we hoped to change instead grew stronger, meaner, and more entrenched. And yeah, many idealists ended up leaning a little harder into Xer stereotypes of disconnection and cynicism as a result. Despite this, Gen X has staked our hopes on new generations of fired-up youth to fix what we couldn’t—which, unfortunately, almost guarantees that their members will feel just as dejected as we did. Wynter Mitchell-Rohrbaugh, who co-hosts the queer/women-of-color podcast Waiting to X-Hale, puts it bluntly when talking to younger generations about the ongoing work: “We’re trying to help you not care that much, because not much of the big stuff is going to change. It’s amongst yourselves that the change is going to happen.” And stoking generational division pays off only for those who don’t want any of us to succeed in making things better. 

Of course Gen X is the worst. Our parents were too.

One key to understanding Gen X’s current hateability is that when young people like those highlighted in a recent Daily Mail roundup (“Forget boomers! Gen Z and Millennials turn on the ‘out of touch’ Gen X with their ‘apathy,’ ‘Karens,’ and ‘terrible parenting’”) complain about Gen X, they might be using the generational term as a way to universalize complaints that are often just about the people raising them. The oldest Gen Z is 26; the youngest is 11. For them, Gen X is terrible because Gen X is their parents. Gen X is making them pause their FaceTimes to take out the garbage. Gen X won’t stop nagging them about their grades. Gen X is roasting them for wanting to spend 150 American dollars for the same JNCO jeans that Gen X’s boyfriend wore to a rave in 1993. 

“Boomers rallied around, ‘never trust anyone over 30,’ and ‘hope I die before I get old,’ so how can we, as GenXers, be surprised that generations behind us started giving us side-eye as we sailed past 40?” asks Burana. Coming of age has always meant claiming, with equal parts sincerity and inaccuracy, that you are nothing like the older people in your life; ideally, reading Zoomer statements like those in the Daily Mail (“[Gen X] follow their parents, whereas Millennials and Gen Z [have] seen how detrimental the mindset of generations before them has been and tries to incite change”) should inspire as much empathy as amusement. It’s silly to assume that every Gen X crack about young people is a wholesale writing-off of all young people, and it’s silly for younger people to assume that their elders are inherently unrelatable. Generations are shaped by their common experiences, vocabularies, and histories, but they’ve never been monoliths. 

So by all means, go ahead and blame Gen X for things we really did drop the ball on, like killing Google Reader, slut-shaming Monica Lewinsky, making fun of Whitney Houston’s struggles with cocaine, bragging on Twitter about our social-distancing skills, or that time everyone got really into swing dancing. And when it’s your generation’s time in the barrel, we’ll never say we told you so.

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