Back in the day, when VH1 primarily showed music videos, it had a segment dedicated to music from the 1960s where they would show iconic images of the decade set to songs like Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears of a Clown” or The Who’s “My Generation.” Even though I was a Gen Xer, I loved the music of those who had come before me, as the sounds of the 60s spoke to all the anxieties of that time — war, assassinations, rampant violence and discrimination, and civil unrest — mixed with the new anxieties of the late 80s into the 1990s. That time brought us the AIDS crisis, the crack epidemic, the last terrifying gasps of the Cold War until the Berlin Wall fell, the looming recession and fears around war in the Middle East.
It was a turbulent time, just as it had been for those who had come before. But for some reasons, instead of seeing the similarities between what led to the Civil Rights, anti-war and anti-poverty movements of the 1960s and 70s, many publications and people were focused on shaming Gen X for being unmotivated “slackers” who only wanted their MTV and not much else.
But why the obsession with Gen X’s perceived “failures” when we were still just kids? Why were we being compared to boomers anyway? Did people even write elaborate treatises on how the the Greatest Generation’s stiff upper lip had been oh-so-much stiffer than their more sexually liberal, idol-smashing scions, or was this all more recent, tied to the advent of television and other game-changing technology that had rapidly developed post the Industrial Revolution? How did we even get started talking about generations when, in the end, they’re mostly meaningless concoctions that divide us and explain almost nothing?
If Gen X was the first generation, fueled by cynicism, to stare into the abyss, unblinking and unimpressed, then we wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be the last. Because it was never about us being the generation of disappointment compared to our successful Boomer parents. Literally most “generations” in American society had known mostly disappointment with slow, stymied progress. Boomers were the outliers, but not for the reasons they or the media told us — but because they got to benefit from something no generation before them and no generation after ever got.
The Civil War left the U.S. in shambles. WWI and isolationism took its toll. The Great Depression did no one any favors, but it did do one solid for boomers — it was so bad that a plurality of the public, government, and industry were aligned on how it couldn’t happen again, so labor unions were strengthened, laws were passed and protections were put in place after the collapse of the stock market, and those changes were in favor of…regular people with jobs. The creation of those protections continued well into Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” plan.
So if boomers were the first generation to actually benefit from any kind of social safety net, Gen X was the first generation to come out after the winners of our new, protected society and started chipping away at their own protections under the guise of “enough of all that!”
Gen X was told it was a failure to launch kind of generation. Many of us had to move back home after college as there wasn’t much viable work to be found in the recession of 1990-91, which was marked by a “jobless recovery.” We were told we’d be the first generation to do “worse” than our Boomer parents, and it was all our fault. We picked “frivolous” majors in college and were saddled with crazy student loan debt. We just didn’t have whatever “it” was that the previous generation purported to have.
Of course, that all turned out to be garbage. Gen X would go on to innovate in tech, culture and business to incredible gains once the economy started to turn around. Also, Gen X wasn’t initially struggling because they were cynical or lazy — they were struggling because our economy had only gotten more favorable to the wealthy in the 1980s under Reaganomics. Jobs were rapidly moving overseas. The “trickle down” method wasn’t even a trickle, as the wealth gap was increasing and protections for bank consumers were loosening. Prices for everything went up but wages remained stagnant, and many conservative politicians believed the only way to alleviate the pain was to lessen taxes for social programs, and get rid of any semblance of a social safety net under the guise of punishing “welfare queens” and rewarding the wealthy.
Somehow, that didn’t actually alleviate anything, leading to the rise of Democrat Bill Clinton after a fractured, three-way election for president in 1992 thanks to then-Republican President George H.W. Bush being pegged as “out of touch” on the economy. This was due to the realization that, as a wealthy man who had spent most of his adult life in either public service or the oil industry, the former president didn’t even know how to work a barcode scanner at the grocery store.
But something strange happened after Gen X ascended to the middle of the generational food chain (still behind boomers, who control half of the nation’s $140 trillion in wealth), millennials showed up, yet history seemed to be in reruns. As Gen X had proven to actually be “hard workers” who helped create our tech-savvy world, millennials were the new kids to knock for having to move back home after college, unable to find work in … you guessed it … the 2001 recession and the 2007 economic collapse, aka “The Great Recession” that lasted until 2009 and was marked by even more income inequality, the 2008 subprime loan crisis and rising costs.
Somehow, everyone was making the exact same mistake. Countless stories came out in the press railing these “whiny” and “entitled” kids who were “ruined” because they’d grown up receiving “participation trophies” and were “helicopter parented” to the point of uselessness. It was everyone else’s fault BUT the economy, which had only become more volatile as, again, the social safety net was further stripped away under Clinton and banks were allowed to run rampant with little recourse or protections for consumers under the mistaken belief that if you roll back protections, the savings will “trickle down” to the poors.
It didn’t trickle down, as wealth continued to become more concentrated at the top. Millennials, like Gen X before, watched their dreams of paying off student loans or buying homes become more and more fraught. Marriage and children also seemed off the table. Births and weddings declined because who could afford a family now?
Fast forward to today, and the generation on the media chopping block are Gen Zers. A lot is talked about how diverse Gen Zers are, and how upset they happened to be, as they are inheriting a complete and total mess. A mess of an economy (where they too cannot afford rent), a mess of the environment as storms and wildfires ravage communities in the U.S. and extreme drought plagues other parts of our planet, and social stratification that seems insurmountable as even amassing any kind of wealth seems impossible, again, Boomers holding on to all of it and only dying to pass it on to their children — meaning none of this wealth is likely to “trickle down” on anyone but those who’ve always been wealthy.
While some have decried Gen Zers as, again, lazy, whiny, entitled babies who are “triggered” by everything and are ruining all with their “wokeness” and gender fluidity, for the first time, most in the media aren’t screaming about how dysfunctional Gen Z is, but of how unobtainable success is for most young Americans due to rising inflation and stagnant wages. Americans are spending more than 30% of their household income on rent, meaning less money for savings, less money to buy homes, less money to invest in the future, less money for everything. And student loan debt is a monster, as our youth are trapped in a bind that’s been going on at least since the advent of Gen X — go into debt to get a fancy degree in hopes of landing a lucrative job and STILL be unable to pay off your loans, or don’t go into debt and face being left out of the economy altogether, as most high-wage blue-collar jobs are either nonexistent and out of reach or not realistic for a generation weaned on flat screens, cellular phones and remote work.
Of course someone, somewhere will bring up the boomers — the apparent standard all modern generations must be compared to, due to all the accomplishments, gains and wealth they amassed thanks to the GI Bill and actual social safety net meant to lift people out of poverty after WWII and the Great Depression. Everything from Social Security to welfare to Medicaid and Medicare to low tuition costs and benefits for returning soldiers, as well as public works programs and other numerous blue-collar union jobs, led to a boom unseen before in American history. For some dumb reason, we all get compared to this — as if this were the standard instead of a magical blip in time, a fluke from people actually giving a shit about the poor and putting standards and protections in place after banks had run amok and ruined everything during the economic collapse of the late 1920s.
It seems that if you actually protect people — even if it’s just some of the people, as welfare programs and Social Security originally only benefited white people until the laws of the 1960s forced companies and individuals to actually pay Black people their fair share and respect their full citizenship — it helps everyone. The economy rallies. People buy homes. People have families. People get married. People live fruitful, prosperous lives and can change the world for the better.
But our society didn’t learn that lesson. It fell for the division created by former President Ronald Reagan and other Republicans who sought to galvanize the aggrieved white voter, angry over the progress the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 70s had made. This has just been one long, expensive backlash to, essentially, birth control and integration. But rather than see this farce for what it is, some would rather blame the victims of an economy meant to keep them trapped in debt. It’s everyone’s fault — the “invisible” Gen Xers, the “greedy” boomers, the “spoiled” millennials, and the “triggered” Gen Zers — BUT our elected officials, leaders, corporations and their cheerleaders of all ages and generations who created this byzantine system meant to steal wealth from the bottom and reward it to those up top.
A wise man once said about young people: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
That wise man was Plato. He died around 347 BC.
Meaning, this con is as old as antiquity, this need to blame young people for their lot in life when they did not create the world they’re presently living in and contending with. Generations of people before them created this mess, together, over time — and they, like the generations before, were simply responding to it. Any differences that appear across generations are largely superficial. Even Pew Research has changed how it reports on generations upon realization of how reactionary and muddled this work has become.
Gen Xers, millennials, Gen Zers and Gen Alpha aren’t any more lazy than boomers are competent. Boomers merely benefited from the laws enacted by their parents and predecessors out of the incredible horror that was the Great Depression. Once all those laws started to get rolled back because politicians and their supporters incorrectly attributed their gains to “rugged individualism” instead of “a functioning social safety net,” we were all told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps despite having no strap or boot to our names.
It’s all a con. All a game to keep history in reruns so those who have always benefited will benefit and those who have been shut out will stay that way.
This is a fight for (and against) the status quo.
In order for progress to remain and for us to not continue to slide backwards we have to get beyond manufactured generational warfare, fomented by those who seek to keep us so busy fighting amongst ourselves we lose site of the true enemy — inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ignorance and discrimination all coming together to form the system brought to you by the likes of where “crass capitalism” and “white supremacy” meet. We don’t have to fall for the same “snowflake” gag over and over again.
The problem is rooted in all of us — all of us who don’t participate in our system out of cynicism. All of us who vote against our interests because the only real interest is “racism.” All of us who’d rather throw jabs at generations as if the same jabs weren’t thrown at us before when we were the rude, lazy, hot young thing on the block.
It’s time to learn our history, y’all, because I don’t know how much more we can take repeating it before we repeat our way into oldies but baddies like “widespread civil unrest,” “war,” and “economic collapse.” As someone who does study history, I can name a few things you probably wouldn’t want to relive.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to the 1992 election using the incorrect year.