Round One - August 11, 1999
Ted Halstead lists a number of attitudes he says unite members of Generation X. Let me add one more: contempt for the generation that preceded them. Is there a single person in America between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-four who can bear to listen to even one more Baby Boomer talk about himself? About his 401K Plan, or where he was when JFK was shot, or how Vietnam defined his generation, or how his kitchen/family room renovation is going? Is there anyone under thirty-five who hasn't beheld the awesome, reality-resistant solipsism of the Baby Boomers and felt like throwing up? Probably not. Whatever else it is, the Baby Boom is likely the most self-involved generational cohort in human history. Certainly it's the most annoying.
In a country this rich, it takes a counter-intuitive sensibility to write such a sentence, and I admire Halstead's brass. (Over the years, I've had a couple of editors who favored the counter-intuitive approach; they were always commissioning stories on how global warming will actually help the world's farmers, or how country music is cool.) But let's not even argue that point. Let's ignore the fact that Generation X has more, consumes more, and lives more opulently than any generation anywhere ever. Instead, let's assume that Halstead is right: Generation X is gripped with panic over its economic future. That still doesn't account for Generation X's actual behavior, at least as it is described by Halstead.
Consider Halstead's observation that Generation X is deeply in debt. In addition to the national debt, with which they will be saddled probably for decades, many members of Generation X have large college loans to pay off. And yet, Halstead points out, at least 60 percent of them have chosen to take on additional, high-interest credit-card debt. Is this the behavior of a group that considers itself on the brink, a late payment away from financial ruin? Of course not. People who are genuinely worried about the economic End Times avoid debt. They save as much as possible, buy insurance, eschew unnecessary purchases, and live on tight budgets. It's not the children of the Depression who are uninsured and running up the monster Visa bills. It's the children of the prosperous eighties and nineties, the ones who grew up with the expectation of affluence and under the shield of social-service programs and lenient bankruptcy laws. Generation X is in debt precisely because it isn't worried about the future.
And that's also why it doesn't vote. Halstead repeatedly bemoans Generation X's lack of involvement in politics. (Why most people ought to have political opinions, and act on them, is never explained, simply assumed.) As a solution, Halstead suggests replacing our "archaic electoral process" with "a modern multiparty system." With a few more parties, he explains, "politics might become exciting enough to draw in disenchanted Xers."
Let's hope not. Exciting politics almost always proves harmful to ordinary people. Peru has exciting politics. So does Sierra Leone. America, in 1999, does not. It's a measure of the country's current tranquillity and prosperity that the average member of Generation X can't be bothered to learn much about how the government works.
Clearly Ted Halstead can't. Throughout the piece, Halstead complains that Generation X has been duped and ignored by the political system. The Republican and Democratic Parties, Halstead writes, may seem at odds with one another, but in fact they are ideologically indistinguishable, united in an unholy pact to stymie human progress. Sound like a sinister conspiracy? According to Halstead, it is: "Democrats and Republicans, despite an appearance of perpetual partisan infighting, collude to favor upper-income constituencies and to prevent a range of issues (including campaign-finance reform) from being acted on."
Russ Feingold and Mitch McConnell secretly agree on campaign-finance reform? Their stark, long-standing ideological differences are merely a charade, a clever ruse designed to please their "upper-income" masters? It's quite a theory. Happily, most of Generation X will never hear it. They're too preoccupied.
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