Generation X Finally Steps into the Battle
Generation X - roughly born 1965-1980 - is a small generation sandwiched between two giant ones. As someone born in 1969, I experienced first hand how Boomers culturally, and starting in the last 1980s institutionally, dominated America. Generation X witnessed how the Boomers, especially the early cohort Boomers born prior to 1955, enormously benefitted from American society while pulling the ladder up after themselves and passing along a more dysfunctional society to their descendants.
As I noted in an interview with my former colleague Matt Hennessey, Generation X is the only one of the three major adult generations alive today who own their own rap sheet. (Try criticizing Millennials to a Millennial and see what happens). We have largely gotten bypassed in society as Boomers have held on to American leadership year after year, decade after decade. But we also have to take some responsibility for that. Generation X made peace with life in the shadow of the Boomers. It never pressed its own case and asserted itself or a desire for authority. One stereotype of the Millennials was as a group of people who demanded early promotions and upward career movement without having proven themselves first. This is usually given as a criticism, but it’s also a credit to them. Had Generation X done the same, it might have gotten much more than it did.
But, today Generation X is coming out of the shadows and asserting itself on the national stage. If you look at people doing battle versus the legacy Boomer leadership, especially in the world of dissident online influencers, there is a heavy and disproportionate Generation X representation. (Joe Rogan, for example, is Generation X).
In short, Generation X seems to have found its voice and its calling to step into the battle to disrupt and limit the future damage from Boomer leadership, so that younger generations can have a shot at rebuilding.
Some of these folks are in institutional leadership, but that’s a role which has never seemed to fit Gen X well. But being a cultural critic is perfectly suited to the detached, ironic, analytical, and sometimes cynical view of Gen Xers. As Hennessey noted, one 1990s Generation X stereotype was of people afraid of “selling out.” This mentality today manifests itself in independent thought and an unwillingness to go along to get along - or feel inferior about doing so - just because major institutions and Boomer leaders say or do something.
Who are some of these people?
On the political right, it includes people like Peter Thiel, whose interview question about “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” is very Gen X. Elon Musk is another. He’s an actual business runner, but perhaps equally as famous for being a gadfly. Or Curtis Yarvin, who launched the neoreactionary movement that remains influential on dissident right thinking. Mike Cernovich is another big Gen X online influencer. The founders of the “manosphere” were also almost all Generation X, including Neil Strauss (author of The Game), Roosh Valizadeh, and Rollo Tomassi.
It’s notable that the loudest and most aggressive voice for change in institutional conservatism, the Claremont Institute, has a huge Gen X cohort. President Ryan Williams might technically be a Millennial, but if so he’s one of the oldest, and is more Gen X in mindset. Michael Anton (author of the Flight 93 Election), Matt Peterson, James Poulos, Seth Barron, and Dave Reaboi are all Gen X. (The more traditionally minded Charles Kessler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is unsurprisingly a Baby Boomer).
In the political world, it should be no surprise that the Republican governors making the most waves have been Generation X: Ron DeSantis, and more lately Glenn Youngkin.
On the left, many of the biggest and loudest dissident voices also seem to be Generation X: Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Joe Rogan, and Jonathan Chait. Many of them seem to champion many traditional liberal values, and are fierce critics of the Boomer establishment. There are younger dissidents, but they have a very different vibe (see Postscript below).
Though I’m not sure how to classify him politically, you’d also have to include the Generation X Kanye West on this list somewhere as a cultural pot-stirrer.
And it’s also somewhat true in the Christian world. The most prominent Christian Cassandra is the Generation X Rod Dreher, who has been a key voice arguing for new directions for the church and arguing hard against corruption in the church, notably in the Catholic abuse scandals. Michael Foster is also Gen X (barely). So is Anthony Bradley. Kevin DeYoung, who is starting to carve out his own unique path and voice that diverges from his Boomer predecessors, is also Generation X.
Generation X people have the right combination of traits for becoming effective cultural critics, particularly of Boomer leadership:
They are America’s last analog generation, the last to be raised largely without the Internet.
They were the last generation to be raised as “free range kids” who could just go out and play and explore with their friends.
They are the last generation to have personal memory of a largely functional and socially intact America.
They are the last to personally remember the great American common culture formed in the age of mass national media (radio, film, TV) prior to its shattering in the 1990s.
They are the last generation with memories of the Cold War.
They are the last generation who had personal relationships with people from pre-Boomer America (for many of us, our Greatest Generation grandparents)
They are the last generation to remember when traditional liberal values like free speech were dominant in society.
They don’t just see the mess the Boomers bequeathed, but got to watch them do their damage in real time all along the way.
Again, they have a long history as detached, critical observers.
In short, Generation X not only got to see what we’ve gained from things like technology, but also know what we’ve lost over the last three decades. What Millennials can only potentially learn from textbooks or social media, Gen X knows from real life. We know the lost America and the great virtues it had.
These Generation X people have in common that they are all disruptors of the existing institutions, power structures, and received truths of society. Hostility to the current order in one of their signatures. They are more revolutionary than reformist. There’s probably more than a bit of ressentiment towards the Boomers involved in this.
They are fierce critics of corruption in leaders and institutions. In fact, they often view the institutions themselves as corrupt and beyond repair. They champion some traditional values like free speech. They also tend to be more nationalist in orientation, and critical of interventionism and wars abroad.
They’ve also been burned by the lies (such as the ludicrous idea that women are attracted to “servant leaders”) they were told growing up before the Internet allowed them to check things about themselves. They were raised in the era of manufactured consent. It’s no surprise that Herman and Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent was published during the Gen X cultural heartland era of the 1980s.
As a result, they are all about dropping “red pills” on the younger generations about how Boomer dogmas are all too often false. That’s not to say that their own ideas are necessarily right, or animated by moral virtue. But they are very good at critiquing Boomer falsehoods. Once you apply even a modest skeptical lens to Boomertalk, it’s often amazing how easily it falls apart. I’ve noted before, for example, how I’ve never seen a Boomer pastors ever mention in either a book or sermon that women initiate around 70% of divorces. They are simply not serious people in all too many cases.
I read the Strauss and Howe book Generations when if first came out in 1992. If I recall correctly, they thought Generation X (which they called the “Thirteenth Generation”) was going to have to fall on a grenade to restrain the Boomers so that the Millennials could inherit the earth.
I’m no fan of their generational theory, but that does seem to be what awaits Generation X. Perhaps best and most extremely illustrated in the case of Julian Assange, now rotting in jail in England, Generation X critics are likely to pay a price, sometimes a steep one for defying the Boomers. Look at the pressure being brought to bear against Joe Rogan, for example, for his daring to entertain guests with ideas contrary to the party line.
But it’s a price worth paying for the future of the country. Perhaps Generation X isn’t itself best suited to running the show. But as the Boomers, or even pre-Boomers, continue clinging tightly to power and running the ship of state ever further onto a reef, somebody has to fight hard to create space in which Millennials and Generation Z at least have a chance to build a future for themselves and coming generations - and to make sure there’s something left of the American way of life (hopefully including free speech) for them to build with.
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Postscript: There are quite a few Millennial dissident people on the internet, but their character is different. The older groups (including some younger Gen Xers) tend to be neoliberal technocrats: Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, Reihan Salam, Noah Smith (a young Xer I think). The younger groups include some of these, particularly among the so-called “YIMBY” crowd that wants to greatly liberalize housing regulation. But they also include more people with democratic socialist rather than neoliberal orientations. Nevertheless, these people are largely “globalist” in orientation, and fundamentally reformist minded defenders of the system rather than having the hostility to the system exhibited by Gen X.
Ironically, the list of attributes that have supposedly shaped Gen X for the better (grew up before the internet, for example) almost entirely applies to the Baby Boomer generation.
It is good to know that no one younger than the Baby Boomers are driving attacks on free speech, etc. Pardon the sarcasm, but the scapegoat thinking is quite tiresome and childish.
"This mentality today manifests itself in independent thought and an unwillingness to go along to get along - or feel inferior about doing so - just because major institutions and Boomer leaders say or do something."
This certainly describes me -- I had thought it was just my personality, but perhaps I have been more shaped by my generational environment than I was aware.