Can Generation X Save the World?

Matthew Hennessey
A plea to step up to the plate.

Matthew Hennessey has written a rallying cry for his generation. In Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials, Hennessey, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, writes: “America stands anxiously on the cusp of an unknown future. Unlike the baby boomers, Generation X’s race is not yet run. Unlike the millennials, we remember what life was like before the Internet invaded and conquered nearly everything. In that memory resides the hope of our collective redemption, the seed of a renewal that could stem the rot, decay, erosion, and collapse all around us.” He talks about the book and the plea.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You write: “Nothing seems like what it was anymore. Nothing seems like it will be what we thought it would be. Everything feels like it’s on the verge of radical change, or complete collapse.” And Gen X is going to save us?

Matthew Hennessey: Yes, that’s the general idea. When I say Gen X needs to “save the world” I’m of course being dramatic for the purpose of getting people’s attention. The way we save the world is not by forming a Gen X Rapid Reaction Strikeforce with a mission to somehow make it 1985 again –although that would be cool and I would join– but by adjusting how we live in relation to the technologies that have come to dominate everything we do. Some of the changes I suggest are subtle and some are quite dramatic. My point is that Gen X will soon be the only ones who remember what life was like before these technologies came along. Someone needs to keep the flame alive. I don’t see anyone else stepping up to do it, so the job is ours.

Lopez: Who are you talking to exactly? Who are the Gen Xers? And surely you’re not talking to every single one of us?

Hennessey: Yes. That’s why I’m yelling.

Gen Xers were born between about 1965 and 1980. The definitions of all these generations are a little loose and people will often quibble with the cutoffs. I don’t pretend that these designations  are like the age cutoffs for entering kindergarten or something.

Lopez: “Do not go quietly into the good night of millennial domination, whether in your professional or personal life,” you write. “Stand up for regular order, face-to-face meetings, and systems that reward merit over all else. Celebrate experience. Find a way to promote humanistic values. Don’t let childish ignorance or the promise of a utopian future steamroll your sense of right and wrong. Give as good as you get, even as the grey hairs form on your temple, as technological change outpaces your ability—and desire to keep up, and your 20/20 vision begins to blur. Gen X may be small, but we are tough. Our specific experiences should allow us to punch over our weight.” What do you have against Millennials?

Hennessey: You assume I have something against Millennials, but I really don’t. The word is useful to me mostly as a proxy for the app-soaked, Millennial-friendly world that is still busy being born all around us. I work at the Wall Street Journal with some great Millennials, who are clever, kind, and not always staring at their phones. If they ended up running the world I’d be thrilled.

If you read Zero Hour you will see I have some contrary opinions about culture’s drift toward a utopian, semi-socialist techno-paradise premised on the idea that privacy, free speech, edgy comedy, and newspapers have outlived their usefulness. Millennials don’t appear terribly worried about where things are going. I want them to wise up. So this book is aimed as much at them as it is at Gen Xers. There’s a hunger among younger people for a more authentic way of living. You see it in the hobbying around vinyl records, vintage fashion, artisanal gin, and old-timey bikes. Some of that is posturing  , but some of it, I think, betrays a real longing for a simpler time.

Lopez: You blame Baby Boomers for “the American jungle of imperfect justice, war, sky-high debt, hyper-partisanship, and cultural decay.” You say it’s “their dream of peace and harmony gave way to the nightmare of a diseased political culture, where every election is potentially the end of the world and where it’s almost always mandatory to impugn the other guy’s motives.” Did you not get Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” message about his generation?

Hennessey: The Piano Man doth protest too much. I once started a fire in our house. The first thing I said was, “Mom, I didn’t start this fire.” She wasn’t fooled, and nobody else should be either. With their cheeks covered in ash and smoke rising from their hair, baby Boomers have the nerve to stand there and say they didn’t start the fire.

Baby Boomers got a few things right — civil rights, the Beatles, I might be able to think of something else if I had a little more time — but they got most of the big questions wrong. They went to war on American institutions, from the military to the family, and for no good reason that I can see. They are, as Paul Begala once called them, a “garbage barge” of a generation. I don’t think it’s really up for discussion.

Lopez: You describe your thesis as: “If Generation X doesn’t get its act together — and fast — we . . . will have the rug pulled out from under us just as we’re on the verge of realizing our potential.” What does it mean to realize our potential these days? Is it the same as it ever was?

Hennessey: Yes and no. I’m talking specifically here about the danger of being invisible, leaving no mark. The Baby Boomers were a huge cohort, just massive, but the Millennials are even bigger. Now the Millennials are passing through the culture like a giant ostrich egg in the digestive tract of a python: impossible to miss. Gen X is a tiny robin’s egg by comparison. We are in real danger of going down in history as a blip. I’d rather that didn’t happen.

Lopez: What’s so special about Gen Xers?

Hennessey: What’s special about us is that we don’t think we’re that special. We were repeatedly told that the world didn’t give a crap about our self-esteem. Being raised in the long shadow of the baby boom convinced us that everything fun or interesting or important had already happened. Our older cousins constructed such a towering mythology around their own heroic young lives during the ’60s and ’70s that we stopped thinking of ourselves as living in a consequential era. For most of us that changed on 9/11.

We’re special because we grew up on playgrounds made of concrete. We rode bikes without helmets on our heads or pads on our knees. We left the house for hours at a time and our parents neither knew where we were nor had any way of getting in touch with us. Our upbringing wasn’t perfect, but for the most part we developed naturally the kind of free-range resilience that parents today pay good money for. We’re special because we remember.

Lopez: What is the tyranny of the “Internet of Things” and why are you waging a jihad against it?

Hennessey: The Internet of Things is what you get when science fiction merges with reality, but nobody stops to think whether it’s a good idea. I’m simply uninterested in living in a world where the refrigerator knows that I’m running low on butter and orders more on my behalf. Or, which is more likely, Amazon decides I’m using too many plastic straws and cuts me off. We are adults. We don’t need this nonsense. Not because it won’t be convenient — it will be very convenient — but the tradeoffs in terms of privacy, ultimately, will be unbearable.

Lopez: Why do you invoke William F. Buckley in your cause?

Hennessey: That might be slightly overstating it. In the book, I allude to the famous line about standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” Enough on the right and left will appreciate the reference — at least I hope so. I never met Mr. Buckley, though, based on what I’ve heard, I suspect he would share my antipathy to the Amazon Echo (though maybe he would have enjoyed a driverless car that allowed him to type out his column in the back seat while hurtling up to Stamford on the Merritt Parkway).

Lopez: You and I care very much about the Catholic Church. Especially as a new season of scandals has opened, what must Gen X Catholics do? Including Gen X priests?

Hennessey: What an interesting question. Zero Hour isn’t a religious book, and I can imagine a certain type of critic saying, “Hey, Hennessey, you sound like you’re arguing for a Benedict Option — don’t you have the guts to come out and say it?” But I’m a big fan of doing one thing at a time. Maybe there will be a second volume that specifically addresses the faith component of my little thesis.

For now, I think it’s enough to say that Gen X priests — and the Gen Xers who are raising faithful families — can make use of the same advantages in their parishes and local communities that I describe in these other contexts. Parents need to put down the phone and pick up the Catechism (I don’t pretend to be great at this). A good social-media priest can be enjoyable, but priests ought not to be striving for blue check marks. Some prominent priests on Twitter seem better at stoking division and riling people up than they are at bringing people into closer communion with Jesus Christ. Come drink at our parties and barbecues. Play basketball with our sons. All this will do far more to fill the pews with young people than your bad priest jokes on Facebook.

Also, please, pastors, principals, and Catholic educators, stop this awful march to outfit our Catholic schools with whiteboards, iPads, and all other enemies of concentration and reflection that public schools have so eagerly embraced. Let’s make Catholic schools different. You know, how they used to be.

Lopez: How did your father show you “what it means to be a good man”?

Hennessey: By being a good man himself, day in and day out. He’s 83 and he’s still a good man. A great man, in fact. He helped a lot of people during his life — I mean a lot of people — but he never advertised his good deeds. He had, and has, strong political views, but he never held it against others if they didn’t see the world his way. He’s fair, compassionate, strong, reliable, and funny. If I end up half the man he is, I’ll consider my life a success.

Lopez: How do you write a book on a train while commuting?

Hennessey: With a laptop.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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