Gen X: The Boomer Clean-Up Crew

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This post is part of our forum on Michael Kinsley's October cover story exploring the legacy of the Baby Boomers and what they owe the country. Follow the debate here.

Baby Boomers will not be rushing to raise taxes on themselves, as Michael Kinsley proposes they do to save America's fiscal future, but sooner or later they are going to be out of the picture and the reality of today's economy will have to be dealt with—and that reality is much more familiar to Generation X than the Boomers.

It is interesting that Kinsley tries to shift the blame for our economic woes from Boomers to the Greatest Generation because of, get this, entitlements. But really, are entitlements (like Social Security and Medicare) the problem, per se, or is it the inability of the political leadership to manage them responsibly? The last time that real tax and entitlement reforms were enacted in a bipartisan fashion was in the 1980s—before Boomers took charge. Since then the boomers have been grinding the political process to a halt as government budget disasters loom. Meanwhile boomers have remade the financial economy into a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," in the words of Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs.
Can the Boomers Save America?
Or perhaps shifting the blame is just Kinsley's tactical move to convince his fellow boomers to fulfill the promise of their generation by saving the economy for the next generation. If so, it's a commendable thought but like most Boomer ideas, totally unrealistic. It's about as likely as Jay Leno stepping aside for Conan O'Brien. Or to put it in political context, analyst Charlie Cook noted during the presidential campaign between Obama and McCain that white Boomers were the least likely to vote for Obama. Why? Cook speculated that Obama's "difficulty [is] that these are voters in their prime earnings years, when they are most sensitive to the issue of taxes."

So enough about boomers—no, really, enough about the Boomers—what about us Gen Xers, the real clean-up crew? While social upheaval and world wars marked previous generations in their formative years, the boom-and-bust economy has been defining the Gen X experience from the moment we entered the labor force. Unrelenting economic upheaval has had far-reaching consequences, changing nearly all aspects of everyday life —from how we work, where we live, how we play, when and if we marry and raise our children, to our attitudes about love, humor, friendship, happiness, and personal fulfillment.

Of course, Kinsely rightly notes that it can be folly to even discuss a generational experience in anything but the broadest terms. Is the Gen X experience like Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, the Reagan Republican of "Family Ties," or Ethan Hawke as any number of over-educated slacker characters, or maybe it's John Cusak as Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything," who said: "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

Regardless, there is no question that the overarching influence on Generation X has been enduring economic whiplash, a condition that continues unabated in this hyperactive era of "creative destruction," defined by the contradictory forces of economic insecurity on the one hand and the unleashing of human potential as a result of advanced technology on the other. The downside of this condition is that Gen Xers tend to be highly individualistic and not prone to collective action. The good news is, it's made us highly practical and not prone to ideological dogmatism. As the clean-up crew for the economy, what does this mean?

What the future will look like under Gen X leadership is just beginning to emerge under Obama but has yet to fully take root. Peter Orzsag—the brief but influential director of the Office of Management and Budget—is perhaps the best example of this generation's sensibility (although he undoubtedly would reject the Gen X moniker). Orzsag outlines a fiscally pragmatic approach in the New York Times to the current debate about the Bush tax cuts: "Despite a dire fiscal outlook, many progressives want to make the tax cuts permanent for all but the very highest earners. Many conservatives are even worse: they'd make the tax cuts permanent for the likes of Warren Buffett... Both approaches lock us into a budget scenario out of which there are few politically plausible routes of escape." His solution is to extend the tax cuts for two years, and then let them expire—on everyone, not just the wealthy. He bravely admits this is a "largely unavoidable one if we are to tackle the medium-term fiscal problem." Rumor has it that Orzsag left the Obama administration at odds with White House chief economist Lawrence Summers—who one of the primary enablers of the casino economy, and also a Boomer, of course, who just won't go away.

Now that we can create and destroy on a global scale—economically, environmentally—it's becoming ever more urgent for the Lawrences (and even the Lenos) to step aside. As Banksy, perhaps the most famous Gen X graffiti artist, put it on a piece of art where a monkey wears a sandwich board: "Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge." That day is all but upon us. Let's hope it's not too late.

The debate continues here.

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Lisa Chamberlain is the author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction. Chamberlain's work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and elsewhere.

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