Generation X, it’s time we stood for something.

In 2010 the young people of England found their voice. Caught up in the first of the protests outside Tory HQ, I found it exhilarating. At last, the slumbering beast has awakened! For the first time in a long time, the people are setting the agenda, and they’re not waiting to be told what to think about things by mass media. They’re organising themselves through new channels, exploiting new technologies and forcing the authorities onto the backfoot. Yay the kids!

It seems to me that the real anger comes from the betrayal. These young people voted – many of them for the first time – for the people who said they would protect their interests. And those interests have been sold down the river by those very people. It’s the first heartbreak.

What shames me is that this has been wrought by MY generation. The new cabal of political leaders in the UK – Clegg, Cameron and Milliband – are all bona fide Gen-Xers  (Obama, and Australia’s Gillard, fall into the disputed era of the very early 60s). So far, it’s a pretty poor showing. Clegg may never recover from rescinding his pledge to vote against tuition fees. Cameron’s continuing the Blair legacy of political spin covering regressive policy, and Milliband has said nothing of substance about anything. Is this what we want from the first Gen-X leaders? Is this good enough?

As I look back on my adult life, I say no. We did stand for something. How did the generation that made their parents stop using fluorocarbons get so rotten with climate-change sceptics? How can the Live Aid generation have done so little to advance the cause of developing nations? How can a generation that genuinely embraces diversity be so accepting of discrimination?

I left school high on idealism. It was 1986 and Girls Could Do Anything! I chose journalism (Pulitzer Prize) because the university I wanted to go to didn’t offer Cyrillic languages (interpreter at the United Nations). Not going to university never crossed my mind. That I was entitled to a free education was something I took for granted. Like healthcare.

It was a heady time. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the spectral Cold War that had us ducking and covering for nuclear bomb drills at primary school seemed consigned to the pages of history. Australia had won the America’s Cup and Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. The sort of bloke who gave you a day off work to celebrate a national sporting victory and swore like a truckie seemed like a bloke you could rely on. I was young and living in a country that believed in a fair go in a time when it really seemed like we could make the world a better place.

Fast forward a few years and me and my generation had learned a few things. For one thing, we learned we were Generation X. The slackers who rejected or mocked so many of the things their forebears – the Baby Boomers – stood for. We’d also learned those fuckers weren’t finished with ruining running the world. By the time Thatcherism was making its exit from the scene in the UK, down under we were all learning that economic rationalism meant that free education was no longer free. We’d all be making a ‘contribution’. We learned that the old divisions in politics were increasingly meaningless because politicians of every stripe were worshipping the god of Growth.

But we were busy figuring out what to do with our lives. The media decried our nihilism and our apathy but we were working hard just to stay alive. Unemployment was high, and among young people it was obscene. We’d been told all our lives if we got a good education we’d get a good job but there we were with our paradigms and our theorems being turned down for cleaning jobs because we didn’t have any experience. Interest rates were above 15% but few of us had shares, it just meant our newly acquired student debt grew faster.

A few years later still and between the debt we’d incurred getting an education and baby boomers buying up investment properties at inflated prices, the Australian Dream of a house and two kids was way out of reach, even as interest rates went into freefall. The papers (this was before the interweb really took off, remember) fretted over what might happen if a whole generation side-stepped the one thing that stopped poverty in old age but, having finally gained employment, we were happy to spend our money on other things. And by golly, weren’t there so many things to acquire! We rejected consumerism but still wanted to have lovely stuff.

By the end of the nineties, a lot of Australians looked longingly to old Blighty, where it seemed like a fresh new wind might blow all that was old and stale out of modern politics. We believed the promise of New Labour too.

But Tony Blair turned out to be just another boomer and New Labour turned out to be a lot like Old Tory. And after Al Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Centre, we all started the slow process of discovering the extent to which the boomers were prepared to conspire and lie to the general populace in order to make sure nothing interfered with their business interests. And if we were still in denial about what was really important, being forced to bail out the banks certainly sharpened our focus. And yet, what have we done? As a generation, where is our protest?

There’s a new management buzzword – middlescence. It refers to people aged 35-54 (Gen-X!) who are burned out or bored in their careers. I think it’s an apt term. In many ways Gen-X is a teenager sulking because we can’t have our way. The baby boom generation outnumbers Gen-X enormously and they have governed our lives since birth. We have been so worn down by the hegemony of their belief systems that we’ve stopped engaging. They have had the cake and left us with the crumbs and we’re so pathetically grateful that some of us have even gone all Stockholm syndrome and started supporting their policies, believing what they believe – even when it’s no good for us.

In 2011, en masse, the baby boomers are reaching retirement age and the reigns of power will pass to us. Will we take up the challenge? Or are we so worn out that we should just let the kids have it their way?

I think we have to re-discover our idealism. There’s a hoary old chestnut along the lines that if you’re not an idealist when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re an idealist when you’re old you have no brain. Bullshit. Let’s take our lead from Henry Rollins, who says cynicism is just intellectual cowardice. Let’s feed on the energy of the young people behind us and say no to the things we know are wrong. Because we can change the world, and now is our time.

Need inspiration?

There’s a great essay by Patrick Neate about the unsung achievements of Generation X. Maybe reading it will inspire you to take up the baton.

Twitter is a great source of inspiration. It’s not the empty-headed, narcissistic chatter you might imagine. Try searching for #ukuncuts or #solidarity and follow the links you find there for starters.

Need something to get angry about? Read how democracy is being hijacked by big business – with the help of the people we elected to represent our interests.

9 thoughts on “Generation X, it’s time we stood for something.

  1. Wow! Inspiring. It’s a pity I’m in “the disputed era of the very early 60s” or I might head for the streets and join you X-ers as you sort this place out. But as the world crumbles, it’s almost a relief to be already on the steep slope of decline … but it would be nice to look back through my rheumy semi-closed eyes and see that I was leaving a world that had hope, one where people thought about others and not just themselves … HEY! there’s still time. Rollins was born in ’61, after all. I’ll take my lead from him and give you youngsters something to aspire to. Let’s go!!

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  2. An interesting article. I’ll tell you what I think is the big obstacle to your generation’s lack of progress in changing the world and in wanting to change the world. It’s the hedonistic lifestyle. The alcohol, the weed and the freedom to have sex with little social restraint. Generation X is the most self indulgent and self centered generation since the decadence of ancient Rome, surpassed only by the upcoming next generation – the one to which my children belong…. what d’ya think?

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    1. I disagree that Gen X is self-indulgent. Self-centred, arguably: we’re a product of our times. Post the second world war we’ve been heavily influenced in the West by American cuoltural values which emphasise the individual and that has permeated every section of society – to the extent that products in the marketplace have to be ‘personalised’ as much as possible. But that’s not necessarily a negative: a lot of gains have been made as a result. Also, I’d argue that sexual restraint is more of a hallmark of Gen X than the baby Boomers – you guys invented free love, after all, whereas we came of age sexually post-AIDS: the infamous AIDS bowling commercial was all over the TV when I was only 14. When we all started having sex it was a deadly activity: we didn’t know you could live with HIV then.

      But the point isn’t about is one generation better or worse than others: every generation has it’s pros and cons and we are all individuals within the broad generalisation about the characteristics of the group. I do think Gen Xers have been too silent politically and I don’t think it’s to do with hedonism, I think it’s to do with powerlessness.

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  3. Sex has always been a deadly activity! hahaha – that was my first thought so just thought I’d write that…. You say much in few words, so I need some time to put my thoughts together. I’ll be back….

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  4. I must have missed this one somehow. Speaking from my own position (am I a baby boomer?) I find all this labelling quite confusing. I was born in 1952, in the so called post war boom. Well it may have been a boom but it didn’t seem to boom for my parents – or the majority of my friends parents. My parents built a house in 1958, it cost them the princely sun of $6000NZ for the house and land – my Dad was 52 at the time – so he was mortgaged up to age 77. There was never any money to spare – they lived from one pay to the next and savings were something perhaps other people had. I remember when I married in 1972, my husband was earning more than my father (who had been in his job for 40 odd years) – about $350NZ per week. My mother worked all her life – she left school and went into service at age 14 (there was never any money in her family either, lack of education in her parents generation, being born during the first world war, her father’s staunch and unwavering support of the union system ( she hated the Labour Party and Unions till the day she died) she trained as a nurse, and served during WWII, then emigrated to NZ in the hope of a better life. She was a stay at home parent (because that’s what the average woman did then) untill the early sixties, when she started working again (the family obviously needed the money!) I was 11 when I started being responsible for making sure there was dinner on the table at 6pm when my Dad got home (lucky Mum had taught me to cook in earlier years)
    So when we boomers grew up and had children, we wanted something better for them – better education, less restrictions on how they lived their lives, a better standard of living, better wages, etc, etc. We had left school in a time of plenty of jobs, and we had expected that this would continue. We could see that the landscape of what was available for our children had changed, especially for girls, and, in contrast to our times (when your future was basically leave school, work for a few years, get married) the future was getting brighter and brighter. My generation were very naive, and blinkered. We didn’t understand about politics, and the financial system. We understood earning money, and ‘paying your way’ , we didn’t have credit cards, we (mostly) didn’t have bank accounts (you got your wages in cash – which helped you get them back out into the community) and you lived from week to week. If you wanted to buy a new dress you would typically ‘put it on layby’ and pay off say $5 per week. My initial pay packet (fortnightly as a clerical cadet in a government dept) was $32 per fortnight (in 1968).
    Of course there were more well off people out there, but we were pretty much typical working class.
    As for the free love stuff – those were people on TV or in the pictures (movies) – more American and English than NZ – we were still the country cousins, looking on in awe at our more grown up cousins!

    Sorry this is very rambly, and I think I lost what I was trying to say somewhere.

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  5. Thanks for taking the time to write such a long comment! This wasn’t intended to be a dig at the baby boomers, although I’m aware it does read like that, it’s intended to be a rallying cry for the people my age that have always been a bit disengaged politically.

    On a technical point, the ‘boom’ in baby boom refers to the number of babies born and in my view that’s what’s given the baby boom generation such influence over the political landscape: there’s so many of them/you that the group has been very influential.

    There’s no doubt that your generation are more affluent that your parents but the sad thing is these days that children now are likely to earn less than their parents. As a population, we’ve squandered our riches. I think it’s time we middle-aged folk started doing something about it.

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  6. Have to laugh. What have you worthless slacker grungers done other than whine and complain? What are you “going to do” to “save the world ?”. Crickets

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