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"Ryan, the first generation-X candidate on any presidential ticket, wants to turn that outdated process upside down.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."
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?
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.
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.
"On a whole this is not a generation to be thought of as slackers," explains Jon Miller, who heads the University of Michigan's Longitudinal Study of American Youth. "That is just statistically wrong."
Now adults, Miller notes Xers have defied the disengaged, slacker stereotype to become the best-educated, hardest-working generation America has seen yet—Miller surmises Xers were only thought to be slackers because they stayed in school much longer racking up various graduate degrees. Now they work longer hours than their parents—70 percent spend 40 plus hours a week working and commuting, 40 percent spend 50 plus hours—and they aren't adverse to keeping up that pace.
"A great majority will still be working when they are 70," says Miller.
Xers have also become very involved in parenting—often described as "helicopter parents"—with three-quarters of parents helping their elementary school-aged kids with their homework. Gen-Xers bring a DYI spin to their home lives, with men at greater numbers than previous generations embracing food shopping and cooking. Nearly half express some preference to organic foods, which could explain the rise of organic grocery chains like Whole Foods. They are also very active, showing interest in sports and other outdoor activities in high levels.
Politically, the generation represents the growing partisan gulf of the country at large. Those born on the early side of the generation came of age during the Reagan revolution and are more likely to be conservative, with a libertarian slant. Those who grew up later, in the Clinton years, tend to be liberal, though not nearly as idealistic as Clinton, a Baby Boomer president.
In general, they prefer a more pragmatic, realist approach to government. On foreign policy, they reject the nation-building approach of neoconservatives, typically associated with the Boomer and the preceding "Silent" generations, says historian Neil Howe. They are split as to whether they want larger or smaller government, but have a preference for individual choice on issues like education. (Prominent education reform activists Michelle Rhee, former D.C. school chancellor, and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America are both Xers).
They tend to be liberal on social issues, and voted for Barack Obama 52 percent to McCain's 46 percent in 2008, according to a Pew Research report. However, their support of Obama, especially where the economy is concerned, is slipping—only 22 percent say his economic policies have made things better, and 37 percent say he's made them worse.
Additionally, they have been reluctant to get involved in government. Howe notes that the average age in Congress is trending upwards. Rather, they have brought their entrepreneurial influence to the private sector. And when they do opt for public service, they tend to run on a fiscal conservative, if not libertarian, platform that would cut back government's involvement in its citizens' lives, as seen with rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 elections.
How does Paul Ryan fit in with this Gen-X model? In some ways he lives up to the findings of Miller's Generation X Report. Ryan is in excellent shape, an apostle of the grueling P90X workout program. He worked doggedly on the Hill to rise in the ranks from Jack Kemp's legislative staffer to House Budget Committee chairman. He also shows off his academic side, regarded as intellectual and knowledgeable, if not wonky. He radiates the individual, independent attitude of Generation X; a recent New York Times article meditated the "self reliance" Ryan exhibited from his first job, through college, and finally on the Hill. In the Generation X DIY spirit, he hunts and fishes, and makes his own bratwurst out of his prey.
However, in as many ways, he defies his Generation X roots. It's easy to see a Gen-X skepticism of the institutions in Ryan's opposition to Medicare and other entitlement programs in their current forms. But he has wholeheartedly embraced other institutions typically disregarded by Xers—from working for the government immediately after graduating college to upholding strict Catholic beliefs. On social issues, he is relentlessly conservative, sponsoring numerous bills that outlawed or limited abortion, opposing gay marriage, and voting against the repeal of "don't ask don't tell." Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens dubbed a foreign speech made by Ryan last summer a "Neocon Manifesto," putting him at odds with a generation wary of such an internationalist approach.
In his governing style, Ryan also abstains from the pragmatic nature of his fellow Gen-Xers. He opposed the deficit-reduction proposals of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles committee—one of Ryan's co-members on the panel said his "heart wasn't in it"—and the proposals of the Senate's Gang of Six. He also is reported to have pushed congressional leaders to not agree to last summer's "grand bargain" deal with President Obama, leading the ideologically-rigid Tea Party charge to bring the country to the fiscal brink.
By selecting Ryan over a more conventional VP choice ("boring white guys" Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman topped the short list), Romney has refashioned his campaign from running as Mr. Fix-it business ace who could reboot the economy to an elevated, ideological debate about the size and nature of the government.
"Romney and Ryan end up with same beliefs for different reasons" explains Doug Rushkoff, author, media theorist, and editor of the GenX Reader. Romey's supply-side approach reflects his belief in the power of business, he says, Ryan is fueled by a dogmatic promotion of individual self-interest.
With this campaign "game change," after 2008's disastrous "game changing" VP pick of Sarah Palin, it's not surprising GOP strategists are pushing the narrative of "Paul Ryan and the Gen-X GOP."
"[The Gen-X narrative] would be good for the campaign. It would help people feel hip and 'with it' when voting Republican," says Rushkoff. "The image of a P90X DVD workout guy who like, many of us, no longer believes there is going to be Social Security checks for us."
Many of the Generation Xers interviewed for this article said they considered President Obama to be the first Gen-X candidate—born in 1961, Obama falls right on the cusp, depending on how you define Generation X (Palin, born in 1964, could also count). The president is known, for better or for worse, for being cool to the point of detached, and pragmatic in his governing style. He is often contrasted with his Democratic predecessor President Bill Clinton and his former primary rival Hillary Clinton—the couple's charisma and idealistic interpretation of liberalism make them the epitome of Boomer politicians.
But generational associations can go only so far.
"Just because Paul Ryan is my age doesn't mean he is going to get my vote," says Neal Pollack, an author and "card carrying member" of Generation X. "I saw Reservoir Dogs in college, big deal. But that doesn't make him presidential."
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