My So-Called Generation

Can there be such a thing as a Generation X political agenda? Who are these Xers, anyway -- and who speaks for them? Atlantic Unbound has invited four prominent young journalists -- Tucker Carlson of The Weekly Standard and Talk; Farai Chideya of ABC News, Time, and Vibe; Andrew Shapiro of The Nation; and Scott Stossel of The American Prospect -- to join Ted Halstead, the author of The Atlantic's August cover story, for an interactive roundtable on what (if anything) "Gen X politics" really means

New! August 25, 1999 -- Round Three: Concluding Remarks

August 18, 1999 -- Round Two

August 11, 1999 -- Introduction and Round One

"Xers appear to have enshrined political apathy as a way of life," Ted Halstead writes in "A Politics for Generation X," The Atlantic's August cover story. Halstead skips over the standard explanations for this civic desertion: television, the government-bashing during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, family breakdown, and the politics of scandal. He emphasizes instead the bleak economic landscape into which most Xers were born, pointing out, for example, that recent high school graduates earned 28 percent less than the graduates of 1973. From worsening childhood poverty to a lack of health insurance to failing schools, the argument goes, Xers have experienced the failure of government, so it's no wonder they are cynical about politics. And yet, Halstead writes, "Three quarters of Generation X agree with the statement: 'Our generation has an important voice, but no one seems to hear it.'" Halstead claims he knows what that voice is saying.

On the one hand, Xers are fiscally conservative; they have been burdened with more than their fair share of debt from older generations. On the other, Xers want a proactive government that would, among other things, act to reverse the wage inequality that may make the Xers the first American generation whose standard of living isn't higher than their parents'. Halstead calls this hybrid "balanced-budget populism," and argues that it, along with family-friendly morality, social investment, campaign reform, environmental conservation, and technological innovation, could form the basis for "a new political agenda" -- one that would make politics relevant to Xers by addressing their real needs.

A few questions come to mind.

Is Halstead's portrait of Generation X credible? Or is Halstead -- the president of a new foundation dedicated to moving the public dialogue away from left-right solutions toward fusions (or are they fudges?) like "balanced-budget populism" -- projecting his own politics onto his fellow Xers?

Do a balanced budget and economic populism go together? Can you insure the more than 40 million uninsured against medical emergency, do something about wage inequality, reform the schools, and keep our foreign-policy commitments -- can you do all this and balance the budget?

Generational politics is rife with cliché. The sixties have been defined by images of flower children, anti-war protestors, and members of the civil-rights movement. Yet the political story of the sixties was the revival of conservatism from the nadir of the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Is Halstead misrepresenting the Xers in the way that the sixties have been misrepresented? Does he minimize the ethnic, class, regional, and ideological distinctions among Xers?

Political mobilizations come out of galvanic circumstances like slavery, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War. What, if anything, will galvanize Generation X? Xers have not lived through a galvanic event -- or have they?

--Jack Beatty

Go to Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- posted August 25, 1999

Go to Round Two -- posted August 18, 1999

Go to Round One -- posted August 11, 1999

Jack BeattyJack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of, most recently, The World According to Peter Drucker (1997).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.