What is the point of Generation X?

As a genXer, I have often reflected on this question and come up with rather unflattering conclusions. Generation X seems rather pointless. Anyone born in the 1970s or early 80s has been part of a profoundly disappointing generation. And yet, watching Dunkirk last weekend, I may have finally worked out the point of this generation now in its late 30s and 40s.

Let’s look at the scorecard. Generation X followed two revolutionary generations. The greatest generation, rightly termed, grew up in the depression, took on Fascism, and created a new society based on an egalitarian social contract. There’s no way of competing with that; more than any other that generation put in place the foundations of much of what is civilised about the modern world.

Then came the Baby Boomers with a rather more more mixed scorecard. To their credit they took on societal moralistic traditionalism and released people as a result: an unlocking of human freedom and creativity. This mattered if you were a woman, an ethnic minority, gay or just saw the world differently to the ‘moral’ minority – a moralism that largely consisted of telling people what to do and how to live their lives. Unlike Red Tories or Blue Labourites, I see nothing to regret in this social revolution and everything to applaud.

But then it went horribly wrong. Rather than using this new found freedom to renew and build a better, more empowering social contract, the Baby Boomers, in the UK and US at least, dismantled it for everyone else but reinforced it for themselves. They took tax cuts, increased their pensions, developed their asset base, introduced student loans and weakened the welfare state for those of working age.

They made up for it somewhat in the Blair-Clinton years but only somewhat. And then they went for Brexit and voted Trump. So thanks for the social revolution but you can keep the rest if it’s all the same. The strange thing about this generation is that they both acted in reaction to the wartime generation and learned all the wrong lessons from it: a strange intermingling of freedom and conceited pride. This is how the swinging sixties degenerated into Brexit Britain. Much damage has been done.

And where was Generation X while all this was going on? Well, nowhere really. As they grew up deindustrialisation was taking hold. The social contract was being dismantled. The terms of political trade was being turned against them (us). And, well, we partied. It’s not by chance that the iconic book and film for Generation X is Trainspotting. The Berlin Wall was down and Mandela was free – why worry?

The only real political moment for this generation was the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 and that was because it placed limits on parties. The anti-Iraq movement was fairly half-hearted, there were laudable anti-third world debt movements but they were largely Baby Boomer driven. Student loans were fought sotte voce – they were handy for a quick trip to Ibiza after all. Generation X was largely happy to consume away and leave the politics to mommy and daddy. No wonder there are few Generation Xers in power – President Macron is an intriguing first.

This assessment seems rather harsh. But I’m afraid it’s true. And yet, I can’t help feeling that this generation might end up being like the Baby Boomers in reverse. It’s positive political moment might come late on as it has missed an early entry onto the political stage. If that is the case, the answer might partly lie in Dunkirk.

On my Facebook timeline last week, a video popped up titled ‘if you recognise these things you grew up in the 1980s’. After photos of Roland Rat, clips from Aha’s Take on Me, and footage from Tomorrow’s World, up popped a photo of a BBC Micro computer. It occurred to me that this is the key, alongside Dunkirk, to understanding the potential political contribution of Generation X. For this is the generation that can touch Dunkirk with one finger through time and the coming machine learning age with the index finger of the other hand.

One of the reasons I found Dunkirk the film so deeply moving is that my existence depends on it. I don’t mean this in some dispassionately analytical way. I mean it in a deeply visceral way, connected as we are directly, through grandparentage, to the boys on that beach. Moreover, we knew them, admired them, listened to them. Their values are real to us. This was a worldly, humanistic, powerful generation and we grew up knowing them without feeling the need to react to them. Their values are something that if we look deeply enough within us, despite all the partying, we can find.

And we can see what’s coming. We are the last generation to grow up without access to unlimited power of global connected computers. Yet, we have a glimpse of potential futures. The millennials grew up with the internet and are native to it. It tends to hide their political limitations. When Generation Xers talked a load a political nonsense in their early 20s they would be plied with alcohol by kindly relatives and left to mumble away in the corner. Now millennials talking similar nonsense get a blog on a national platform and 50k Twitter followers. It won’t end well.

But Generation X has the chance to be the bridging generation. It can hold on to the values of the wartime generation, seeing now in a BrexTrump world what happens when those values get lost and forgotten. There is also the opportunity to take those values into the next age, to do as the wartime generation did: build a new social contract.

Generation X can shed the conservatism of the later years of the Baby Boomers, become radical in a highly resonant way.

An alliance with millennials will be required and this alliance started to appear in Labour’s electoral coalition in the 2017 election. The new platform will be a mess if left to the raw blogging millennials to develop. Generation X is going to have to get its hands dirty and their thinking caps on. Brexit can be stopped or at least mitigated but that should only be the start. A new settlement is sorely needed to apply values of solidarity in a freedom loving digital age. That is what it means to a bridging generation; to feel Dunkirk and imagine AI in the same generational span.

Will Generation X rise to the occasion? Who knows, maybe the early decades of apathy are weighing too heavy. But maybe the deep inequality of power, assets and opportunity that is emerging between generations will wake Xers from their slumber? One thing is clear: if Generation X doesn’t wake up to its opportunity to be a bridging generation soon then it will go down as the pointless generation. It still has a quarter of a century of possible political power left.

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