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Vice President Kamala Harris is the subject of a revealing generational custody battle

Both baby boomers and Generation X claim her as part of a new front in identity politics. But maybe she can unite rather than divide.
Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., wearing Chuck Taylors, walks to the stage at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 21, 2019. Charlie Neibergall / AP file

A generational custody battle is raging over Vice President Kamala Harris. Right now, it's a throwdown between the bold baby boomers and the laid-back Gen Xers, both hoping to claim her as their own.

It’s another sign that identity politics is king and that generational identity is taking its place alongside race, gender and ethnicity in defining politicians.

Harris, born in October 1964, makes the Pew Research Center's cutoff for a baby boomer by mere months. That doesn't sit well with Gen Xers, who unsurprisingly don't feel like they need to subscribe to conventions like predetermined cutoff points. They have instead decided to claim Harris as one of their own.

Just last week, The Washington Post spoke to the surge of generational pride. "The Chuck Taylors seemed like a clue. Kamala D. Harris declared the Converse sneakers her go-to kicks. So when the Biden-Harris ticket emerged victorious, millions of former Benetton shoppers could rejoice at the underlying achievement: A member of Generation X had reached the White House for the first time." Rolling Stone concurred, proclaiming that considering Harris a boomer was, "cultural speaking, horses---."

For their part, the boomers are refusing to give up their rightful claim to the newly installed VP, insisting that such boundaries must be respected or chaos will erupt. As an article in the Washingtonian pushed back: "sorry, she's a boomer. Rules are rules, slackers."

It's another sign that identity politics is king and that generational identity is taking its place alongside race, gender and ethnicity in defining politicians' relationship to the people they represent. We want to see ourselves in our leaders, and fueling this interest is a desire to know whether our leaders are in some way similar to us. When we find a candidate who identifies as the same gender, ethnicity, religion or even generation, it can give us a sense of security that our leaders will represent our values and priorities. When our leaders are perceived to be "like us," we tend to be more satisfied with them and with their performance.

This phenomenon can be explained in several different ways, including similarity bias (the more we believe people are like us, the more we think favorably of them) and the dynamics of vicarious experience (when we see others like us succeed, it builds our confidence that we can also succeed). As Shahana Hanif, a 29-year-old running for the New York City Council, described it, "Kamala Harris' victory has shown my family and community that people like us can win."

Likely in part for all these reasons, Harris' barrier-breaking as a woman who is Black and South Asian American in a pioneering White House role has loudly resonated with many. Now, the attention has turned to her generational identity.

Knowing our leaders grew up during a similar time in history gives us confidence that they share our way of seeing the world. As Vanity Fair once put it, "A generation is the creation of shared experiences, the things that happened, the things you all did and listened to and read and went through and, as important, the things that did not happen."

As a generational researcher (and a Gen Xer), I respect the established generational cutoffs — to a point. There is a bit of both art and logic to drawing generational boundaries, usually based on significant formative events that one generation will have memories of but the following generation will not. These formative experiences have an impact on our values and how we navigate the world.

IMAGE: Kamala Harris and family in 1970
Kamala Harris, left, with her sister, Maya, and her mother, Shyamala, outside their apartment in Berkeley, Calif., in 1970.Kamala Harris campaign via AP

Harris (like others who are born on the cusp of two generations) is a product of both the progressive spirit of the boomers and the cultural zeitgeist of the earliest wave of Generation X. Harris grew with her parents' taking her to protests strapped into a stroller, most certainly a foundational experience worthy of baby boomer status, as are the stories of the protests she organized against a neighbor who refused to let kids play on his lawn. In a recent article, the San Francisco Chronicle found: "Much of who Kamala Harris is today travels back to her childhood in Berkeley in the 1960s and early 1970s."

On the other hand, many of her formative experiences are shared with Gen Xers, as well: Harris was the child of divorce at age 7, a decidedly Gen X coming-of-age trend. According to The Post, "As a latchkey child of non-European immigrants who has Salt-N-Pepa, Prince and Phil Collins on her summer playlist, Harris — a Doritos-loving, Converse- and pearls-wearing collaborative leader who doesn't always seek the spotlight — is ours. Pure Gen X."

Generational or otherwise, Harris has been quick to resist any attempts to put her into neat boxes. While she has embraced and championed many issues important to race, sexual orientation and gender, Harris has been clear that she sees them as important to everyone. She has called out critics who she believes seek to "weaponize" the notion of identity politics against her, saying: "It's a pejorative. That phrase is used to divide and used to distract. Its purpose is to minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us."

This fall, Harris said she has "not spent much time dwelling on how to characterize" herself, explaining that "when I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created."

So it looks like we might need to share custody. As with many aspects of her background, Harris is in a position to unite, rather than divide. Born on the cusp of two generations, she is able to understand the experiences and perspectives of both late baby boomers and the early Gen Xers. Beyond this, with 62 percent of voters under age 35 saying they view Harris favorably, she has managed to earn the respect of millennials and Gen Z, as well.

Born on the cusp of two generations, she is able to understand the experiences and perspectives of both late baby boomers and the early Gen Xers.

To these younger generations, Harris is a long-overdue trailblazer, breaking down barriers in leadership. According to the Rolling Stone article, "she embodied a classic Gen X straddle ... navigating a path to power through a system controlled by older, whiter, more conservative politicians, and then proposed to wield the levers of that power in service of the ideals she shared with the enormous, diverse and progressive Millennial and Zoomer generations coming of age behind her."

By embracing all of the varied layers of identity that have contributed to who she is and showing how issues she champions transcend the agenda of any one group, Harris may be able to help bring together a fractured country. In doing so, she is living out the advice of her mother, who once counseled her: "Don't let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are."