Paul Ryan and Generation X: It's Complicated

Paul Ryan emits a certain Gen-X persona, but does he represent its politics?

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Not long after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Wisconsin congressman was hailed for his status as the first Generation X candidate on a presidential ticket. Though Generation X is often associated with skepticism and alienation, Ryan's Gen-X credentials were generally spun as a positive trait. Washington Times's Kerry Picket marveled, "As a Gen X'er, Ryan brings optimism, energy, and pride to the Romney campaign among other qualities. ... Hopefully, the Wisconsin Republican can bring a new image as opposed to the 'slacker' and 'skeptical' images Generation X has been stamped with for too long." Republican strategist Alex Castellanos raved:

"Ryan, the first generation-X candidate on any presidential ticket, wants to turn that outdated process upside down. ... Ryan may be the first of a new generation of GOPers who can compete and win, not only when battling old liberals, but 'New Democrats.' On this Saturday morning in Virginia, with Romney as a father, the 'New Republican' may have been born."

[See pictures of Paul Ryan.]

Ryan was born in 1970, putting him solidly in Generation X—depending on who you ask, the start date of those born in Generation X ranges from early to mid '60s, and covers those born as late as the early '80s.

Ryan has displayed his generation's cultural colors—indulging the media in stories about his love of alt-rock bands like Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and Nirvana. However the admiration was not mutual for Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who wrote a scathing op-ed for Rolling Stone calling Ryan "the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades."

In Ryan's defense, he did say that he like Rage's sound, but not their lyrics (something Morello too acknowledged). Nevertheless, the incident illustrates the problem of trying to define oneself by one's generation. Can Ryan wear the cool, smart, cynical Gen-X crown? Should he try to?

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Generational theory supposes that people who were born in roughly the same point in history grow up with common experiences that shape their outlook in certain ways. Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe were champions of generational study. Their books Generations and The Fourth Turning break the last couple hundred years of American history into four recurring generation periods, or "turnings": High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis. Generation X falls in the "Unraveling" turning.

According to Howe, Generation X exhibits traits of those born into a society as its sacred institutions were falling apart. Gen-Xers saw the family unit crumble as the divorce rate soared (it's worth noting that divorce rates have not necessarily fallen since Gen-X, but that divorce has become somewhat of a norm that the later Millennial generation could accept in a way that Xers could not).

Named the "Latchkey" kids, Xers were subject to hands-off child rearing. Pop culture also took a less than embracing look at children, portraying them as after thoughts as in 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, or worse, demonic, in horror films like 1973's The Exorcist. The school system was falling apart on a national level. And Xers' political consciousness was born in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis, shaped by a government that had failed its citizens.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Gen-Xers emerged from this environment skeptical of the world around them. In the early '90s, cynical 20-somethings reacted against the consumer culture, listening to grunge music that expressed a sense of alienation and embracing a "do it yourself" attitude towards life. Gen-Xers flooded business schools and treated colleges and employers as the parental influences they never had. They disregarded the hippie-collectivism of their parents, a generational conflict perhaps best exemplified by Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox's tie-wearing, Wall Street Journal-carrying young Xer on the television show Family Ties.