State of the Debate: The Sale of a Generation

WORK DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY

Jon Cowan and Rob Nelson, Revolution X (Penguin Books, 1994)
Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (Vintage Books, 1993)
Eric Liu, ed., Next: Young American Writers on the Next Generation (W.W. Norton, 1994)
Paul Loeb, Generation at the Crossroads (Rutgers University Press, 1994)


On a blustery March day in 1993, as the worst blizzard in a hundred years descended on Washington, D.C., a small group of young people in their twenties convened at a downtown hotel, worried that something as uncontrollable as the weather might postpone their long- planned retreat. They were originally scheduled to meet at Harper's Ferry, chosen for its proximity to the capital and symbolic value as the site of John Brown's slave rebellion. But, when the snowfall closed most roads, the group made a last-minute switch to another site redolent with symbolism: Hickory Hill. The Kennedy clan's storied Virginia home--volunteered by aspiring youth politician Douglas Kennedy, the youngest son of Robert Kennedy--made a perfect backdrop with its portraits of the youthful John Kennedy hanging on the walls and an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the tiled foyer.

The meeting was the first attempt to put a political face on the hot "Generation X" concept. Fueled by Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X (which coined the phrase), films such as Slacker, and cover stories in Time and U.S. News and World Report, the media had crafted an image of a generation of 18-to-30 year-olds who were lazy, ironic, obsessed with '70s television, and distrustful of ideas and institutions. Tired of the negative rap, the participants hoped to issue a declaration that could serve as a catalyst for launching a new generational political group called Third Millennium. It would be the 1990s counterpart to the 1962 Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society--but with a different slant. Convinced that most twentysomethings were socially liberal and fiscally conservative, the group sought to forge a "post-partisan" political agenda from the fractured views of the new generation. What better way to capture the media spotlight than to turn a negative spin on its head, heralding the arrival of the anti-slackers?

"Like Wile E. Coyote waiting for a 20-ton Acme anvil to fall on his head, our generation labors in the expanding shadow of a monstrous national debt," the manifesto declared. And then while touching on issues like education, economic revitalization, and the environment, presumably to provide "post-partisan" appeal, the authors called for sweeping solutions: "change our attitude toward government; allow no new net spending; limit entitlement spending; fund programs that work; combat waste, fraud, and abuse; and streamline government."

Not surprisingly, the manifesto fizzled. "When you get past the rhetorical sound and fury," Michael Grunwald wrote in the Boston Globe, "you realize that as a political document, the declaration signifies practically nothing."

Nonetheless, many participants in the conference have forged ahead, shaping themselves into self-proclaimed leaders of the emerging Gen X culture. The primary result of this effort has been a series of books. Rob Nelson and Jon Cowan, founders of a group known as Lead or Leave, recently published a 13-point political agenda called Revolution X. Eric Liu, the editor of an underground 'zine of twentysomething politics, has edited a more insightful collection of essays called Next. Rounding out the threesome is 13th Gen, coauthored by Bill Strauss, who was lurking in the background at Hickory Hill and who--many suspected--had conceived of Third Millennium as a means of promoting his own conservative agenda and the sales of his book.

These books and one other, Paul Loeb's Generation at the Crossroads, claim to portray the politics and interests of twenty-somethings today. Unfortunately, the books say more about the political interests of their authors than about what young people in America think and feel. Set on a spotlit stage where every gesture is made with the electronic media in mind, the play unfolds: Characters spew soundbites, posture, and compete for the celebrity role of "leader." They play to the cameras, offering themselves as embodiments of fashionable caricatures. But, as would-be leaders, they do not create organizations or movements with any genuine political life.

Among the pied pipers of the right trying to lead twentysomethings into the next millennium are Neil Howe and Bill Strauss. Howe and Strauss are actually in their forties, but like many graying actors, they are not about to let age bar them from leading roles as kids. 13th Gen presents the same arguments as their previous book Generations but pitches the concepts to twentysomethings, or "13ers"--the thirteenth Amer ican generation since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

The packaging of 13th Gen is a prototype of Gen X marketing. The book has a neon-embossed cover and graphic illustrations of stereotypical twentysomethings--flipping burgers, trying to add up the change in the cash register, transporting messages on mountain bikes--plus lots of boxes with statistics and factoids assembled in user-friendly computeresque form. Even more gimmicky are the critical comments from a "crasher" intercepting the text. He responds to their thesis that generations define history: "I just can't think of it like that, all these boundaries, cut and dried relationships, weird grudges. I don't want to be part of this great big play. All the actors make me sick"--as if by deconstructing their own arguments, Howe and Strauss could make them more believable.

But look under the target-marketed cover and you'll find a set of political beliefs that have nothing to do with age. Howe and Strauss's basic thesis is simple and familiar. While seniors suck the marrow from our bones through Social Security, baby boomers have stuck the next generation with the bill from their '80s parties, and they don't understand their younger siblings to boot.

"LISTEN UP DUDES!" the authors write, attempting to be hip with their "X'er" vernacular. "Where earlier twentieth-century generations could comfortably look forward to outpacing mom and dad, you'll be lucky just to keep up. . . . What went wrong and why? It's a simple formula really. Take a generation of kids, give them crumbly families that don't allow them much time to learn skills that aren't immediately useful; give them inferior schooling to tarnish their reputation for competence; surround them with media that teach them to distrust any institutional avenue to career success. Then, when they're all ready to enter the adult labor force, push every policy lever conceivable--tax codes, entitlements, public debt, unfunded liabilities, labor laws, hiring practices--to tilt the economic playing field away from the young and toward the old."

But like many complaints that government only helps "them," this rings hollow. The tax code and labor laws are not tilted against the young. Although public spending on behalf of the elderly has expanded since the 1960s, the young distinctively benefit from spending on education and public investments intended to help them find and hold jobs. So it's hard to understand why Howe and Strauss believe that what young people need, above all else, is less government.

Howe and Strauss were preaching the same sermon before it was translated into hipster slang and repackaged as a generational manifesto. During the '80s, Howe was closely affiliated with a group called Americans for Generational Equity that lobbied for cuts in Social Security. Founded by Paul Hewitt, an aide to David Durenberger, then a Republican senator from Minnesota, AGE's membership consisted of corporations and its board included members of the business community and conservative think tanks. Money came from corporations like Exxon, American Cyanamid, and General Motors and from groups like the National Federation of Independent Business. But AGE never caught on with the boomers it aimed to rouse. The group folded in 1990.


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Enter Lead or Leave

The pivotal chapter of Revolution X, Lead or Leave's manifesto, begins with apocalyptic imagery reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner. America has been crippled by a foreign power that has invaded to "darken our skies with toxic chemicals, infect hundreds of thousands of us with a deadly disease, plunge one-third of our children into poverty and homelessness, confiscate much of our income, and hollow out our cities and schools, turning them into war zones." This all happens "by the year 2000" no less--all because of the $4.5 trillion national debt.

Provided that we survive through the year 2000, Cowan and Nelson have an even greater apocalypse in store for 2011: the Attack of the Killer Baby Boomers. That year most boomers "will stop working, many will stop paying taxes, and all will start gobbling up pensions and health care benefits." This, the authors tell us, could result in the collapse of our economic infrastructure, causing a "shock wave [that] will blast people from their homes, rapidly plummet millions into poverty, and threaten the economic security and financial stability of our entire nation."

Revolution X carries the same message of debt hysteria and generational war as 13th Gen, put forth by only slightly more authentic front men. For the first two years after founding Lead or Leave, Cowan and Nelson seemed to talk about nothing but the debt, appearing on talk shows and the covers of national magazines as the self-proclaimed "voices of a new generation." With money from Pete Peterson and Ross Perot, among other donors, the two "got in the face" of policymakers on the Hill, convincing legislators in search of the youth vote that they had better sign a pledge that they would cut the deficit in half by 1996 or leave office.

While two years of debt-bashing worked to put Cowan and Nelson in the media spotlight, it didn't seem to resonate as well with young folks outside the Beltway who didn't get or didn't buy their economic arguments about how their parents and grandparents were ripping them off. So Cowan and Nelson followed that eternal dictate of politics: give the people what they want, or at least appear to. Padding out their book is a chapter listing exactly thirteen challenges for 13ers, in yet another debt to their mentors Howe and Strauss.

Among these challenges, Cowan and Nelson list: Create Good Jobs, Protect the Planet, Control Crime, Prevent AIDS, Reinvent Social Security, Design a Post-Cold War Military, Make Education Affordable, Give Equal Rights to Gays, Help End Homelessness, Guarantee Freedom of Choice, Trim America's Budget, Win Affordable Health Care, Reform Our Politics. Many of these require activist government, which costs money. But if the number one priority is eliminating the deficit and paying off the national debt, new initiatives are inconceivable. The authors' simplistic fixation on the deficit leaves no room for any other considerations. And their larger call for generational warfare would alienate many potential allies.

Maybe this is why they remain so vague about their approaches to solving national problems. They urge twentysomethings to learn about the issues, vote, join an organization, wear a slogan on a T-shirt. These preachings ring hollow. Though they call themselves the "largest grassroots college/twentysomething organization in the country," claiming to have more than one million members and chapters at over 115 colleges and in every state, their organization has no paying membership and compiles its numbers by counting the student populations at colleges where the group has managed to win over at least one local, unelected representative. In a triumph of banality, they urge young people to "get off our butts and take a stand for our common future." If the next generation ever produces another Kennedy, these two are not going to be writing his speeches.

For those left unsatisfied by Lead or Leave's Cliff's Notes, reading Paul Rogat Loeb's Generation at the Crossroads fills in some of the gaps; it is an intelligent, thoroughly researched, historically informed analysis of recent shifts from apathy to action on American campuses. Yet while it differs from the previous two books in that it is not the blueprint for a revolution--Loeb, a journalist in his forties, has no Pied Piper aspirations--this book is no less ideological. Loeb's rhetoric is decidedly old New Left, with jabs at corporate America, consumer culture, media hegemony, and the "p.c./red-baiting" of the right.

To research the book, Loeb visited more than 100 campuses from 1987 to 1993, where he lectured on peace and justice issues, spent "time with [students] at their dorms, apartments, fraternities, sororities . . . their marches, sit-ins, and political meetings" and volunteered with them in soup kitchens. His book tells personal stories from some of the more than 5,000 students he interviewed and expounds upon his larger theories about the causes and implications of apathy and activism among the young. Loeb refuses to believe that young people have become "almost pathologically selfish, greedy, apathetic, and unconcerned with higher ideals."

Little surprise, Loeb finds that the media created and perpetuated many of these "slacker" myths. "The allegiances of this generation are complex. Distant media reporting doesn't always catch the contradictions," he writes. For example, "In November 1990 the New York Times ran a major article, '90's Teen-Agers Echo 60's Spirit,' on the resurgence of high school protests. The same week the Wall Street Journal announced the 'GOP Generation' and heralded the new conservatism of the young." As Loeb explores the complexity underlying these myths, the reader is taken on an intriguing journey--albeit with several detours and a few long, winding paths.

Loeb attributes student apathy during the 1980s not to greed or indifference, but to the fact that young people "had come of age under the sway of political, cultural, and economic currents that convinced citizens in general to seek personal well-being over a common social good." He spends several chapters exploring other obstacles to activism: the increasing cost of higher education; the need of many students to earn money for school or their family; the lack of support and encouragement from faculty and university administrations that discourage explicit political and moral judgment; a cultural climate that stereotypes and denigrates activists of the '60s; and a lack of awareness of past social movements and political history that denies students "models of sound political strategies, ways to engage communities, and effective styles of leadership."

But in the course of his research, Loeb found a critical mass of students breaking through these barriers. These leaders encouraged others to get involved and created enough momentum to sustain a growing national movement. He writes of Barb Meister, a student at the University of Nebraska who went from not voting and not caring about political issues to starting Farm Action Concerns Tomorrow's Society (FACTS) to help preserve family farming. He recounts the now near-mythic walk of Harvard graduate Wayne Meisel from campus to campus in the Northeast promoting community service, which led to the founding of the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) in the mid '80s. And Loeb details the 1987 founding of Greeks for Peace by a concerned fraternity brother and sorority sister at the University of Michigan who wanted to overcome negative images of Greeks, end conflict in Central America, and encourage others to volunteer on issues of concern.

Loeb makes a real contribution to the popular understanding of young people in America. But he refuses to address conservative activism in anything other than its most extreme forms. Though he blames the right for caricaturing the left, Loeb reduces campus conservatives to a few think tanks, college newspapers like the Dartmouth Review, and the worst of the p.c.-baiters like Dinesh D'Souza. Where were all the students who voted for Reagan and Bush and also did volunteer work through churches or religious programs?

Only in Eric Liu's book, Next, can the reader finally encounter twentysomethings themselves--unanalyzed, uncensored, unmediated, unplugged. The picture suggests a generation that is difficult to squeeze into any political niche. In the essays, 16 writers between the ages of 24 and 32 reflect on living with AIDS, courtship by fax and dating in the post-feminist '90s, the loss of heroes, nihilism, pornography, the American promise of opportunity, pop culture, and much else related in one way or another to finding one's way in a mixed-up, media-dominated, postmodern world.

Although Liu should have hit the delete key more often in editing several of the essays, the book does afford the writers a freedom to voice their own experiences and challenge stereotypes of twentysomethings. The range of essays adds a rare moment of authenticity to the debate about what it means to be twentysomething in America today.

As Liu, a former White House speechwriter who is now at Harvard Law School, reflects in his introduction, these writers do not attempt to be the "voice of a generation," even though they are "brought together by a certain sensibility" and share an "outlook--media-savvy, worldly- wise, conscious of our diversity--that derives not only from our youth but from our place in history." After all, he writes, "We were born after the baby boom--'after it all happened.' After Vietnam. After the civil rights movement. After the women's movement."

This fixation with being born in a "post" world echoes throughout the essays. Nearly all of the writers reference or address their feelings about baby boomers and the history that preceded them. "To onlookers, especially to those who are a bit older, our dinner conversation must seem like a strange melange of sarcastic jokes, misused cliches, and completely unrelated movie quotes," quips Ian Williams. "We have become masters of ironies, mockeries, and satires, unrelentingly cynical, drawn by the macabre and, of course, the absurd."

Echoing this irony, David Greenberg--one of the few liberals present at Hickory Hill and now managing editor of the New Republic--writes of the boomers: "They had the free speech movement; we get political correctness. They had 'Turn on, tune in, drop out': we get 'Just say no.' They had communes; we get Melrose Place. They had Apollo; we get the Challenger. They had the pill; we get AIDS." He goes on, "Thus our crippling paradox: We try to escape history only to find that escaping history is a trap. Forging the future is a thing of the past." Or as Williams puts it, quoting a character in the late-'80s high school film Pump up the Volume, "All the great themes have been made into theme parks."

The theme of identity resounds throughout the book. Paul Beatty writes of growing up in East Los Angeles: "We quickly learned that the world is gang related. Each of us, whether we like it or not, rolls with a multiplicity of identity posses, which leapfrog into position depending on the situation." David Bernstein reflects on being black, Jewish, and conservative. Liu, a first- generation Asian American, remembers being called a "banana" by his sister--"yellow on the outside, but white on the inside." But he also recalls, "As a kid, I could play Thomas Jefferson in the bicentennial school play one week, and the next week play the poet Li Bai at the Chinese School festival."

While some of the authors touch on politics or ideology, most of them keep returning to personal experience, as if everything "out there" had become too complicated and overwhelming, too big and abstract. All the talk of gender, race, class, and sexuality might seem to fit the mantra of the '60s, "The personal is political." But this generation seems to make the political personal; it's allergic to generalizations. Irony becomes self-defense against the pain of wounded idealism; pop culture references become metaphors for real life; self-mocking replaces consciousness-raising as the political stance of choice.

Ultimately, the subjective narratives in Liu's book come closer to telling the "truth" about twentysomethings than any thinly veiled political dogma ever could. But this retreat into subjectivity leaves many questions unanswered about the possibilities of generational politics--indeed, any politics. In his essay, Greenberg alludes to the Hickory Hill meeting: "Despite the talk of transcending ideology, a lot of the group was well aware that the 'end of ideology' was a generation-old concept. Acting anew, then, turned out to be quite old."

All the more reason that the next generation needs genuine intellectual and political leadership that can embrace complexity without succumbing to it: a leadership that does not reduce the world to simple "either/or" and "us/them" dichotomies in order to understand the right and the good. All the more reason for new stories that will inspire, sustain, and give context to young people's lives and the choices they face.

These leaders are creating themselves. Across the country, young people are waking from their TV-induced slumber. They are rediscovering moral and political commitment, giving it a new, pragmatic spin by asking: What can I do here, now, to make a difference? They are taking the first steps of activism by getting involved in community service, teaching diversity workshops, tutoring one child and seeing the impact on that child's life. Though they may be turned off to national politics, cynical about the role of government, and terribly ironic, they care about their world. And they value a new style of leadership that connects and engages people rather than divides them, that celebrates the whole rather than one identity group.

Their stories are too often excluded from the public dialogue. Even more than in the 1960s, the mainstream media, as Todd Gitlin wrote of the era, "cover the event, not the condition; the conflict, not the consensus; the fact 'that advances the story,' not the one that explains it." And so the only antidote we have to the slacker myth is a bunch of pissed-off guys who are more interested in being portrayed as generational gurus on TV than in doing the hard work, much less the clear thinking, that politics requires. But there are other stories, still half written, and those who write and live them may yet tell a different tale about the next generation and the next century.

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