By Jaron Barney
I listen to Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ bout a Revolution because I enjoy her musical style. But lyrically the song gives voice to who I am as I approach my mid-forties. The song represents how my generation felt and still feels about the American Dream.
When I first heard Chapman sing, I was just out of high school and I didn’t know shit about the real world. She sings, Poor people gonna rise up and get what’s theirs’ and after spending too much time locked in a conservative bubble, I now understand her message. And she’s right. Her message is hopeful and optimistic for real change, just like music our parents once found inspiring and powerful — representing their own rally for social change.
I grew up white, middle-class, and Mormon — as sheltered, narrow-minded upbringing as one could have.
If you spoke to me of white privilege, I probably came up with some half-witted response.
In reality, I had no idea what you were saying.
I didn’t see poverty and homelessness. Racism was something in U.S. History books when I studied the sixties. Rape culture? Forget about it — never came up. This is why I voted in November of 1988 for G.H.W. Bush — that’s the world I was raised in — white, conservative, Mormon. (My dad is a life-long Democrat, but he never talked politics.) So Chapman’s Revolution, while I liked the song in 1988, held no significant meaning for me.
The study of history is powerful, but only in so far as answering the question, Whose history? For me, it has been hugely transforming. I can’t say when I learned the truth about slavery in our country, but it changed my understanding of our country’s foundation.
Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal.” He was talking about white, land-owning men. Anyone else? Not in the club. I began, in my thirties, to understand America in a fuller context: slavery, the genocide of native people, the subjugation of women, the exploitation of the Chinese building the transcontinental railroad — all so that white, male capitalists turned greater profit. For these people, there was no American Dream because, in truth, that dream never existed.
The whole of our nation’s history simply boils down to oppression. He who has the gold makes the rules.
There’s a song on my playlist right now that triggers my thoughts on what Generation X realizes about today’s reality of the American Dream.
It’s amusing to hear Baby Boomers’ genuine puzzlement, their dismissal of today’s movements for change that don’t fit their Randian view of the world, such as Occupy. I’ve really only been an Angry Liberal — I prefer the term progressive — since my mid-thirties. I took off the blinders of my late teens and twenties, thought for myself, saw the reality all around me.
Historically much has been made — and continues to be made — of the size of the Baby Boomers; but at 88.5 million, Generation X is actually the largest segment of the American population, eclipsing Boomers by some 23 million, according to the 2010 census.
Boomers take note; our social narrative is no longer about you.
A rogue’s gallery of the Baby Boomer’s legacy: the energy crisis of the seventies, Watergate, Nixon, Iran Contra, trickle-down economics — one of Reagan’s greatest hits — nuclear disasters — Three-Mile Island, Silkwood/Kerr McGee, Union Carbide and Chernobyl — the Challenger disaster, widespread layoffs of the eighties, Jim and Tammy Faye, climate change, corporate greed, the bogus Iraq War(s), Bush/Cheney, government sanctioned and sponsored torture.
Gen X experienced this legacy from a front-row seat: the dotcom boom/bust, Great Recession, housing crash, Tea Party, Paul Ryan, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, so-called legitimate rape, Wall Street bailout, Corporations are People, student loan debt, Dub-ya, Romney. Shall I continue?
We were the first latch-key kids — the children of divorce, of working moms and absent fathers. Our Boomer parents who fought for peace and social justice? Now the Me Generation, sell-outs for a good time and financial gain.
As we came of age, these same sell-outs called us slackers and apathetic, provoking some of us — including me — to buy into the promise of college education.
Guess what? Bloomberg.com’s Jeanna Smialek asserts: “While 82 percent of Generation X Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree earn more than their parents did, just 30 percent have greater wealth. A smaller share of workers without college education — 70 percent — have surpassed their parents’ incomes yet almost half had higher wealth, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report released today.”
Student loans? Even though we make monthly payments, my wife and I will never pay off our higher education.
We will be the first generation to do worse financially than the previous.
I laugh when I hear Baby Boomers talking about looking forward to retirement. Most of our Generation already plan to never retire. Sorry Millenials, it’s true of us and will be of you.
So yeah, Gen X is cynical. We’re pissed off. We see the truth behind the lies. We realize that the American Dream is dead — that it was never really there at all.
Jaron Barney is a teacher, a husband, and a father living in the
Pacific Northwest who’s sorted Gen X fact from fiction since a
180 degree turnabout from his Boomer world view. His story
is inspired by Are you there Dad? It’s me, Generation X.