The Progressive Generation Gap

Not long ago, i attended a meeting of 20 or so progressive advocates and experts on a major policy issue. I looked around the room and realized that I was, I'm quite sure, the youngest person there. And that's happened before. But I'm 43 years old. It's fun to feel like a prodigy, but I'm not.

In other settings, such as among bloggers, I'm the oldest. But rarely, on the cusp of middle age, do I find myself in the middle of a broad range of ages, or in a room dominated by my coevals.

There's a reason for this, and it's rarely talked about publicly: the great progressive generation gap. Between the two great cohorts of progressive thinkers and activists -- those who came of age in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and those who became active in the last five or ten years -- there is an astonishing absence of those of us in our late 30s to mid-40s. We are the Michael J. Fox generation (recall his young conservative character in the '80s sitcom Family Ties). It was during our college years that the right built its army. For those of us who were in college then, there was comparatively little to inspire activism. And if you don't become politically engaged and active in your early 20s, it's unlikely you will later.

* * *

Like rings on a tree that indicate years of drought or extreme cold, that phenomenon of the 1980s is still visible in the structure and assumptions of progressive politics today.

The two great cohorts of activists on which the progressive infrastructure is built each have their own experiences and perspectives. The older group built most of the great organizations of the left -- the legal-assistance infrastructure, the great mass-membership organizations, the consumer movement, the major women's groups, and so on. Some of them held positions in the Carter or Clinton administrations, while others founded organizations that continue to thrive. Reflecting the collegiate population of the time, and the barriers to law school and other opportunities, the majority are white and from relatively middle-class backgrounds.

Then there is a much younger group that came of age in the era of Newt Gingrich, the Clinton impeachment, George W. Bush, and the Iraq War. The only model of political success they know is the lockstep army of the current Republican majority; their model of ineptitude is the institutional Democratic Party and liberal establishment. Their organizational model is Move- On.org, not Common Cause. They are as impatient with single-issue politics as with cautious establishment politicians. And, reflecting the great demographic and social changes in higher education in the last four decades, they look, shall we say, a little more like America.

* * *

The assumptions we develop in our 20s about the way things work are hard to shake. The Boomers, despite disappointments, preserve an inherent sense of hope in incremental progress -- if mainstream politics doesn't work, the courts will; if the courts don't, the media will -- that younger activists lack and that seems out of place at the moment. Younger activists, on the other hand, while not revolutionary, see much more value in grassroots organizing around fundamental change. But they don't have many models for success.

The bridge generation has something to contribute here. We've seen models of political success as well as failure, such as the early Clinton years. We have different perspectives on feminism, the role of litigation and research, and the nature of membership organizations. This generation should be serving as mentors for the younger generation, which in its turn will build a progressive movement as creative and expansive as that of Boomers. And, in the fight of our lives for the fate of the country, any movement needs more people who are in that middle zone, energetic and experienced.

Yet, apart from our sparse numbers, I worry about this middle generation. Sure, we bring a useful perspective -- chastened by failure but not cynical. But we, too, are shaped by the assumptions of our 20s, and our formative decade was a dreary, materialistic one. Both the Boomers and Gen Y have a galvanizing experience at their backs, from which both generational cohorts will continue to derive inspiration and passion. Do we have enough of that naive passion for social justice that motivated both our elders and our juniors?

But perhaps we are entering a golden moment, where the Boomers are still making important contributions, the generation that was politicized by Bush is gaining the experience to build its own movement, and those of us in the middle can help translate, mediate, and put the pieces together. It's a needed role. I'd just feel better if there were more of us.

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