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X doesn't mark the spot: As Millennials and Baby Boomers feud, a generation is left out

Generation X has largely earned a reputation for being cynical and disconnected politically.
Image: UCLA students at their graduation ceremony ca. 1990.
UCLA students at their graduation ceremony, ca. 1990.Joe Sohm / UIG via Getty Images file

It's not OK, Xer.

As millennials and baby boomers have been squaring off in a battle of ideals on and off social media, the generation sandwiched between them is simply battling to remain relevant in the political and cultural zeitgeist.

Generation X, that collection of grown-up latchkey kids and slackers born from 1965 to 1980 whose name was popularized by a cynical 1991 Douglas Coupland novel, has yet to produce a president after four straight boomers (born 1946 to 1964) have held the highest office in the country.

"It’s kind of like our generation got skipped" said Meagan Johnson, author of "Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters — Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work."

"I always compare it to the 'Brady Bunch': We’re Jan, we’re the middle child, nobody wants to go to prom with us because we’ve been forgotten. We’re caught between the cute millennial sister Cindy and the more popular boomer sister Marcia."

That is unlikely to change with the 2020 election, whether Trump continues his presidency and the run of boomer supremacy, Elizabeth Warren extends the boomer streak in the White House, or Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders marks a return to power for that even older cohort, the silent generation (born 1925 to 1945).

The Xers are squarely in the middle of the pack, with Beto O'Rourke exiting the race, Cory Booker and Julián Castro significantly trailing the front-runners in the polls, and Kamala Harris, who, being born in 1964, just missed the Xer cutoff.

Image: Beto O'Rourke comforts a volunteer after announcing he was dropping out of the presidential race in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019.
Beto O'Rourke comforts a volunteer after announcing he was dropping out of the presidential race in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019.Joshua Lott / Getty Images file

But with the strong campaign of 30-something Pete Buttgieg and the buoyancy that millennials have added to the Sanders and Warren campaigns, millennials are at least in the water-cooler conversation. On Capitol Hill, millennial politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who is 30, have mastered the art of using social media to amplify their reach.

"The Xers have never been a politically or culturally pre-eminent generation," said Paul Taylor, the author of "The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown," which noticeably has a generation missing from the title.

"It's been 26 years in a row (that) it’s been boomers only in the White House. The average age of members of the House and Senate is near as old as ever, and the average age is in the boomer category, not in the Generation X category," Taylor said. "In terms of political leadership, the record is clear: Your generation is now in their 40s and early 50s and there’s nobody in the White House in your generation yet, and there aren’t many in other elected offices either."

At least Canadian Xers can celebrate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is 47. On this side of the 49th parallel? We're still waiting.

Some of that lack of clout can be blamed on numbers: According to United States Census Bureau estimates for 2018, there are roughly 61.5 million Gen Xers in the country, compared to approximately 66.9 million millennials and 72.9 million boomers.

Johnson, the author, who was born in 1970, attributes that birth gap to "a combination of the job market opening up for women, women having more career choices right at the time that the Vietnam War occurred and also the pill became available."

For those relatively few who did manage to be born in the Generation X period, coming of age during a particular moment in time, after Watergate and Vietnam, may have had ramifications on their psyche.

"I think it’s fair to say, looking at their political attitudes, they came of age when there was a tremendous amount of skepticism about government and politics," Taylor said. "There was also the message they received from their upbringing. Xers grew up in a time of record divorce rates, so you had the most important institution to any child growing up, his or her own family, often coming apart.

"That has to mitigate against the sort of collective action and collective activity."

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism, there was also less of a sense of urgency in political activism. The generation that head-banged to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had yet to fear the existential crises of climate change and increasingly common mass shootings that now face the current teenagers of Generation Z.

Talking about generations, however, brings the risk of generalizations.

Many experts point to class, gender, race, ethnicity and religion as much bigger contributors to self-identity than the particular year a person was born.

"In terms of the percentage, it might be that the percentage of millennials that are active is greater than the percentage of generation Xers that are active, but the percentages are really small out of the total population," said David S. Meyer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the history of social activism.

"Generations are always very diverse and divided."

A majority of Generation Xers apparently agree on one thing — there's nothing particularly special about them as a demographic.

In a study conducted for the Pew Research Center in 2014, Taylor found that 49 percent of Xers polled considered themselves part of a unique generation, compared with 58 percent of boomers and 61 percent of millennials.

"I don’t think the Xers as a generation have imprinted on themselves or the country as a whole some notion or some (unique) story about themselves," Taylor said.