When the baby boom generation swept into power in the early 1990s, hopes ran high that it would bring a fresh vigor to American public life. These men and women cut their teeth in the 1960s and '70s in the civil rights revolution, the struggles for women's rights, the environmental movement. Surely, they would create a nation that was not only prosperous but just.
But those hopes lie broken these days. Instead, most Americans think we are bogged down, paralyzed by deep divisions at home, and out of step with much of the world. We can't even clean up and rebuild New Orleans, much less Iraq. So far, the leaders of the baby boom generation--taken together--are falling sorely below expectations.
To be fair, there are outstanding leaders in the current generation. A special issue of U.S. News spotlighted 25 of them this fall, and future issues of the magazine will profile others. Still, a survey by U.S. News and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that most Americans are disappointed in the general quality of leadership in many arenas today, including politics and business.
The future. Perhaps the baby boom generation will mature. For now, however, eyes also turn for help to those just behind the boomers, the leaders on the rise. Will they be better? Is help on the way?
Like Helen Greiner, featured in this issue, nearly all of the rising leaders are in their 30s and early 40s. It is hazardous to describe any generation in a few adjectives, yet a number of adjectives have stuck with generation X since they were teenagers--almost all unflattering. When young, they were the slackers, low on achievement and high on drugs, tuned out to public affairs. Growing up after the idealism of the '60s, they were " 'post' everything": One observer called them "post-political, post-feminist, post-Modernist, post-consumer." Idealism gave way to irony, realism, and pragmatism. Little was expected of them.
But a striking feature of gen X-ers in their young adulthood is how often they have shattered expectations. They made the most of growing up with computers and video games, becoming a generation of entrepreneurs and fueling an economic boom in the 1990s. They created the first great new brands, Google and eBay, of the 21st century. The United States has more billionaires under 40 than at any other time in history, and author Bruce Tulgan estimates that gen X-ers create 4 out of every 5 new enterprises.
Unexpectedly, generation X is bringing that same entrepreneurial, pragmatic spirit to social ills, creating an array of nonprofit and for-profit organizations to tackle problems. So these past years have brought forth a cadre of new, gen X leaders who have founded promising new ventures.
Whether enough of these gen X-ers will also become political leaders is not yet clear. Certainly, some are trying. Republicans point to Bobby Jindal, 34, a congressman from Louisiana who promises to be a healthcare innovator. Democrats cite Rep. Harold Ford, 35, who could become the first black senator from Tennessee. His plan to provide every child a $500 savings account at birth has fans among conservatives and liberals alike.
One of the most arresting of the political newcomers is Cory Booker, a Rhodes Scholar who lives in the projects in Newark, N.J., lost a squeaker in a race for mayor in 2002, and, despite being fined for improper financial reporting in that campaign, is now again trying to win the mayor's office. Giving voice to the nascent politics of his generation, he told the New York Times last year, "I'm a pragmatist. Show me something that works, and I'll embrace it."
Gen X is ready to embrace "ideas that don't fit comfortably in the old boxes of left and right," says Ted Halstead, 37, founder of the New America Foundation. "Both gen X and gen Y," he says, "are going to have to be the fix-it generation, in particular when it comes to entitlements, the environment, and increasingly when it comes to world affairs." Are they up to it? Is help on the way? Adds Halstead, "What hasn't been tested is the willingness of this generation to sacrifice for the common good."
This story appears in the December 19, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.