Most of us, by the time we turn 30, have seen the world change. One of the hardest things to accept about middle age is not change — it’s that change itself doesn’t stop changing.
There’s been a good deal of chatter about America’s generational divides over the past few years, with “OK, Boomer” becoming the online term of abuse for anyone over the age of the person doing the abusing — a deeply ironic insult, aimed as it is at the generation that coined “don’t trust anyone over 30.” It’s enough to bring to mind the words of Abe Simpson: “I used to be with ‘it,’ but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!”
Then again, maybe even Grandpa Simpson is a dated reference. The Simpsons has been on the air for 31 years. The show’s origins are now as far in the past as I Love Lucy was in the 1980s.
Our natural instinct as young people is to see the world as fixed and unchanging, and to rebel against that. The hard part is accepting that the world doesn’t stay changed. Consider the political world of the Baby Boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964). The Boomers, being such a large and self-conscious age cohort, grew up in the age of the creation of American suburbia and the shift from urban, rural, and small-town extended families to the atomized nuclear family in which Dad came home each night to Mom and the kids. To the oldest Boomers in particular (born in the late ’40s and early ’50s), the world of the 1950s and early 1960s was How It Had Always Been. That meant an age of domestic tranquility in white America, which contrasted sharply with the stark injustice of Jim Crow as it edged into the consciousness of the rest of the nation. It meant an age of mostly bipartisan consensus on self-confident hawkish internationalism. It meant an institutionalized military draft, which brought with it a social expectation that every American man would serve — a reality that would have shocked any American between 1776 and 1941. It meant a political scene that combined big-government liberalism with cultural complacency, marginalizing both the Right and the Left. It meant the swaggering certainty that Americans could do anything — a national self-image that had been very much in question in the 1930s, but seemed like it had always been there.
Then the world changed. Jim Crow started cracking open in 1954, and the whole legal edifice shattered between 1963 and 1968. The Vietnam antiwar movement, between 1965 and 1973, killed both the draft and the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. The feminist movement and the Sexual Revolution toppled the family model of the 1950s. Nixon, once the young avatar of the ascendant Eisenhower-Kennedy era, self-destructed spectacularly in 1973–74. The “youth vote” had been rebel outsiders against the monolith in 1968 (with “Clean for Gene” McCarthy) and 1972. In the 1976 election, the Boomers for the first time elected a president: Until Barack Obama in 2012, Jimmy Carter would be the only candidate in the history of exit polling to win election while losing voters age 30 or over. The Left came back into the political mainstream, and even the Right returned after Goldwater. All of that had happened by the time the oldest Boomers hit their early 30s, and the youngest were in their mid-teens. How It Had Always Been was gone; things had changed.
But the world didn’t stay changed. The Reagan Revolution changed the terms of the debate, bringing back something old (an assertive foreign policy) and questioning the big-government ethos that had survived both the 1950s and the 1960s. I’m 48, so too young to remember Doonesbury when it was funny or insightful, but it always struck me that Garry Trudeau’s strip captured the permanent perplexed fury of a man whose political point of view had evolved from scrappy insurgency to ascendant expectation of permanent dominance by his late 20s, and could never accept that a turn away from that was legitimately allowed to intrude into the plot.
Watching the World Wake Up From History
That brings us to my generation, Gen X (1965 to 1979 or 80, depending whom you ask). We grew up with a different How It Had Always Been. The Cold War and the Soviet Empire had been the norm for four decades, with no end in sight. American politics held a predictable shape. Republicans presumptively held the White House: Twelve years straight from 1981 to 1992, 28 years out of 40 by 1992, six national popular majorities since 1946 to the Democrats’ two, and those were after Watergate and the JFK assassination (this would expand to 7–2 after 2004). The Democrats seemed to have an even firmer hammerlock on Congress, having held the House continuously for 40 consecutive years by 1994.
Suddenly, the world changed. I was born in 1971; the Berlin Wall fell when I was 18, the Soviet Union ceased to exist two years later. Communism was discredited everywhere, ushering in a decade of free trade, democratization, and market-based reforms even in the Third World. The end of the Cold War swept away all manner of other pathologies with it, from apartheid in South Africa to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At home, Republicans took the House, an unthinkable thing before. A Democratic president declared in the State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over.” Even the urban crime wave that had seemed only to rise and rise for decades was brought under control; the long-“ungovernable” New York City was cleaned up. How It Had Always Been was gone. Even the day that changed everything — September 11 — seemed to revive the old certainties. Americans rallied around the flag. A Republican president turned to the Cold War generation of national-security thinkers and their mental frameworks in confronting an ideological adversary and pursued a two-pronged strategy of hawkish internationalism and promotion of freedom and American ideals. The usual voices on the center-left and Left made the usual arguments in response.
But the world didn’t stay changed. The turn against the Iraq War marked the beginnings of a broader backlash against internationalism, not only on the left side of the political spectrum, but on the right side as well this time. The 2008 credit crisis and the arrival of a new generation revived old, seemingly dead challenges to free-market economics from the socialist left and even, again, on the right. The 2010 elections ushered in a decade in which Republicans ran stronger in Congress and the states than in the White House. Much of American politics was consumed by issues such as same-sex marriage and transgenderism that had scarcely been on the radar in earlier decades, and on which public sentiment shifted with startling speed. Even on network television, itself a shrinking presence in a fractured media landscape, the few survivors of the 9/11 era — The Simpsons, Law & Order: SVU, American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy — seem like callbacks to a distant land.
And just as the Boomers, who have held the White House since 1993, seem to be nearing the end of their long dominance of American popular culture and politics, the Democrats are about to nominate a presidential candidate from . . . the generation before them (whose cultural and political obituary I was writing at this time four years ago).
By now, both the Baby Boomers and Gen X understand on an intellectual level that the changed world has changed again, but both still struggle to internalize all the implications. And, as the Millennial generation starts to hit 40 in a world where Right populism, Left populism, and nationalism challenge the apparent certainties of the Obama era, we can only warn them: It’ll happen to you!