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The Cultural Psychology of Generation X

Sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials

For the first time in years, three distinctly different generations are active in American cultural life.

As the presidential campaign warms up for 2020, young millennials (born in the 1980s and 1990s) are a major voting bloc; the baby boomers (born in the late 1940s into the early 1960s) are older and still voting; and Generation X (born in the mid-1960s into the 1970s), which is smaller than the other two, is in between. For members of Generation X, like me, a certain cultural and political psychology has begun to emerge.

The “sandwich” generation has been described from an individual perspective as caring for one’s parents and one’s children at the same time. But there’s also a cultural sandwich generation, with similar ambivalence.

When I grew up as a child in McLean, Virginia, in the 1970s, the young baby boomers were some of my teachers: people like my childhood favorite teacher, Thomas Bott, who taught 5th and 6th grade in the public schools. When he heard that my family had recently immigrated from Iran, he related to us based on his Peace Corps experiences in Afghanistan. (Back then, we sent Peace Corps volunteers, not soldiers, to Afghanistan. But then Cold War tensions led to U.S. support for autocrats like the Shah of Iran, followed by the Iranian revolution, then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and U.S. support for the Taliban and Bin Laden against the Soviets, and for Saddam Hussein against the Iranians; we know where all that ended). I liked the hippie-types: They were cool; they opposed Vietnam; they smoked pot; and they were open-minded. As they came into their prime, many of the baby boomers traded their bell bottoms for suits and, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, took over American politics. They’re still in control: Donald Trump is firmly from that era.

Another generation that I knew as a child was the so-called "Greatest Generation," the parents of the baby boomers, the adults who had grown up in a different America during the Great Depression, and who had fought and won World War II. I remember teachers like Ted Davenport, who had served in the Navy in World War II and was in his 60s when he taught biology to me in high school. He would pause in the middle of class and go into a half-hour lecture/harangue about how we, the new generation, had begun to lose our way. He recited what would become received opinion about us when later we were christened Generation X: Coming after the hippies, we rejected their rejection of the status quo, but we had lost our faith in it too. We were unmotivated, unmoored, and unconcerned. The Cold War chugged along, and we had lost the passion to keep fighting it, but we had no better alternative. Mr. Davenport urged us to appreciate all that had been given to us: economic prosperity, world power, freedom. He and his generation had fought for all those goals, and we had received them without lifting a finger. Would we value those goals and keep them alive for future generations?

That question has been the curse and the benefit of my generation. We never had to fight for our freedom and wealth, like the Depression and World War II generation; we didn’t have to resist an unjust war and push the world forward toward racial and sexual justice, like the baby boomers. We lived out the tail end of the Cold War and the beginning of the 21st century, punctuated by the 9/11 attacks. And all along, we remained on the sidelines, watching prior generations mess things up, as we saw it, but never empowered to fix it ourselves.

And in the last two decades, we’ve seen the millennial generation come along, rushing forward in a digital age obsessed with social media and smartphones. Their central idea is that there’s an app for everything, and each new app is going to change the world, and coincidentally make the app creators rich. They’re experts in the digital world, having become fluent in that language from childhood, while we learned it as adults and fumble along more slowly and awkwardly.

An interesting cultural process has occurred, whereby the older baby boomers and the younger millennials have become allies. The best example might be the topic of drug abuse. Legalizing marijuana now is a majority viewpoint, driven by massive acceptance among young millennials and longtime support among aging baby boomers. The hesitant group is in the middle. We saw how drugs ruined American society in the 1980s and 1990s, with the cocaine and heroin booms, following on the marijuana high of prior decades. We now have an opioid crisis, yet few people are making the connection to marijuana, despite recent research that shows, contrary to the repeated claims of marijuana proponents, higher rates of opiate abuse among those who initially use marijuana. Nor is there much awareness among younger adults about the dangers of nicotine vaping, and the link from there to marijuana vaping and further drug use.

Another generational disconnect has to do with digital technology. The invention of the smartphone in 2007 and the rise of social media in the past decade have produced a major social change. Like the automobile, which is essential to daily living but is a major cause of death, this new digital technology has become influential and dangerous at the same time. Along with all its benefits, including blog posts and websites such as this one, there are serious harms, including a major rise in depression, anxiety, and suicidality among adolescents and young adults, as well as harmful changes in sexual behavior, influenced by online pornography leading to a “hook-up” culture that often is demeaning to women in particular. The older generation doesn’t know what's happening, and the younger generation doesn’t understand it.

Another example from politics: I remember when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Millennial college students in Boston and other cities took to the streets to celebrate. I wrote a post in this blog criticizing them, saying that their glee was misplaced. They were too young to have experienced 9/11 as adults; their fantasy that killing the leader would kill the movement was mistaken. Islamic extremism had much deeper roots. The rise of ISIS a few years later would prove me right. I was in my early 40s at the time, but I had recently finished graduate school, so I still identified with the students. But when an online comment criticized me as being older than the students’ generation, the generational change became clear to me.

Unlike the millennials, Generation X members saw and learned from the Depression and World War generation, and also were influenced by the baby boomers when the latter were young and hip. Our teachers are unknown to history: They had no celebrity and are not found on the internet; they were simple unassuming people who embodied the best of their generations. From our Ted Davenports, we learned to value our freedoms and respect the sacrifices needed for them. And from our Tom Botts, we learned the importance of being open-minded to other cultures and of valuing peace and human rights. The millennials never knew those generations. And the baby boomers were too busy rejecting their parents to learn from them.

I share these thoughts not to provide a solution, nor to lay blame, but to state a problem. Perhaps in that sense, too, Generation X was pegged correctly: We don’t have a program or strategy for the world. At least not yet. But perhaps we have another advantage: We see the problems more clearly than our predecessors and our successors. We may not have a treatment, but at least we can diagnose. If we can find a way to articulate our insights, the only question left would be whether the generations around us are willing to listen.

Tom Bott died in 1986, not yet 40 years old. I don't know why. I visited Ted Davenport around the same time when I had entered college, and he had just retired from the public schools in his late 60s. We had a long discussion about politics: The world was struggling with a war in Central America, Cold War tensions, Reagan's Star Wars program, the crack epidemic, AIDS. I sensed we weren't on the same end of the political spectrum, so I was circumspect, but he was ebullient, eventually turning the conversation to immigration. It sounded a little corny at the time, but in retrospect, as immigration has become a source of political conflict again, it seems to me now that he described a viewpoint that's simple, but can't be taken for granted. He talked about how his ancestors had immigrated from the British Isles, how all Americans came from somewhere else, how my Middle Eastern family also was strengthening America by bringing our talents and our passions to it. This was the strength of America, he said—all these people coming from other lands who want to create a better life for themselves and for others. He ended with a phrase I've never forgotten: "Don't worry about the Republic, Nassir," he said. "It'll survive."

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