“I just want to show society what people born after 1960 think about things,” said novelist Douglas Coupland, “We're sick of stupid labels, we're sick of being marginalized in lousy jobs, and we're tired of hearing about ourselves from others.”
The Canadian writer’s attempt to show what his peers thought became the popular novel, first published in 1991, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. While Coupland didn’t invent the label and even later denied that there was any such thing as a “Generation X,” the term soon became synonymous with the demographic cohort born between the mid-1960s and 1981. I'm a Gen-Xer, born near the middle of this generation, on August 18, 1969—the last day of Woodstock.
Generations are too broad and diverse to be constricted by such labels as the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, or the Nintendo Generation. Still, the terms do convey the obvious truth that a group of people born in a specific era will have much in common.
Like our forebears, Gen-Xers grew up in a time of rapid cultural, social, and technological change. We witnessed the rise and fall of disco, grunge, punk, and hair metal and the rise—and rise and rise—of hip-hop. Music was our life because everything else was too scary. Rock and roll was relatively safe compared to sex (AIDS) and drugs (crack cocaine).
We were born convinced that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. We feared nuclear fallout from Russia and yet cheered the falling down of the Berlin Wall, never quite understanding how the change happened so quickly. We weren't exactly natural pessimist, but we were comfortable with crisis. Our climacteric childhoods were lived during a seemingly endless string of economic calamities—the oil crisis (1973), the energy crisis (1979), the savings and loan crisis (1980), Black Monday (1987). We learned not to expect a prosperous future and were written off as slackers. And yet we have become one of the most technologically innovative generations of all time.
In other words, we were just like the twelve American generations that preceded us—only slightly different.
One difference is is that unlike the Baby Boomers, we haven't had every segment of our generation analyzed and examined. Take, for instance, those of us who grew up to be culturally and politically conservative. You don't hear much about what you could call, if we weren’t weary of labels, X-Cons.
What shaped our thinking? What formed our beliefs? What does the mind of an X-Con look like?
Although this is intended only as a preliminary sketch, I want to try to provide a brief answer to these questions. My hope is that this will be a recognizable portrait and not a mere caricature. Being a composite, it won't reflect any particular individual, though it should vaguely resemble X-Cons as a culture. I have no doubt that I will need to erase some lines, draw in others, and color in the details. But I think it's worth an attempt. Ours is a generation of political conservatives that is all too often underappreciated.
• X-Cons do not have a broad grasp of history. If we have an interest in history, we are likely to have a read a few books which we hold in high esteem and consider authoritative (Paul Johnson's Modern Times is among our favorites). At best, we may have done in-depth study on a particular historical era (the American founding, the Civil War, World War II) but we lack a deep understanding of general history. We have almost no comprehension of the intellectual history of conservatism.
• Talk radio has had a profound influence in shaping our political sensibilities. Just as William F. Buckley, Jr. provided the cast for conservatism in the 1950s, Rush Limbaugh shaped the conservatism of X-Cons in the 1980s and 1990s. Limbaugh provided not only the content but the style in which we conservatives would engage in political discourse: assured, confrontational, snarky. Talk radio taught us X-Cons to appreciate confirmation of our political views. Arguments needn't be persuasive when you are certain not only that we are right and our opponents are wrong, but also that we are right and they are wrong-headed.
• With confirmation came a sense of (virtual) community and a realization that a Ph.D in Political Science wasn't required in order to express a valid opinion on politics. Imbued with a sense of confidence from a young age, we X-Cons grew comfortable expressing ourselves in a conversational style that imitated our talk radio mentors. Blogging was (and remains) a natural outlet for our mode of expression.
• Having grown-up either in a broken home or surrounded by friends who did, we X-Cons recognize the value of traditional family structures. We may not always be successful in building permanent relationships ourselves, but we value the bonds of family more than the previous generation.
• Our pro-life convictions stem from knowing that we could have been legally killed in womb—and recognizing that we are missing brothers, sisters, and cousins because of abortion.
• Irony is one of the most pervasive traits in Gen X culture. Not surprisingly, this has affected the outlook of X-Cons. For example, we tend to be ambivalent about heroes. While we have an intuitive understanding of the need for virtue and heroism, we are too realistic, and perhaps cynical, to place complete trust in politicians or statesmen. We prefer to champion ideas and principles over reliance on very real, very fallible leaders.
• In theory, X-Cons have a preference for federalism and states' rights. In actuality, our attention and focus is almost exclusively on the national level rather than on local and state politics.
• X-Cons are often apathetic about flag burning and displays of the Ten Commandments. We don’t remember when prayer was in schools and never paid much attention to the words “under God” in the pledge. Although we express an ironic detachment from the standard symbols of civil religion, we remain fiercely patriotic. Curiously, though we don't get goose bumps upon hearing “The Star Spangled Banner,” we are often stirred by patriotic kitsch like Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the USA.”
• Unlike previous generations, X-Cons do not necessarily associate conservatism with either the East Coast, the preppie-class, or Republicanism. William F. Buckley, Jr. and George Will may still command respect, but they are considered eccentric curiosities rather than exemplary models of conservative intelligentsia. X-Cons associate such elitism with liberalism and consider the GOP, rather than the Democrats, to be the party of the “little guy.”
• When we were young we read The American Spectator rather than National Review. Now that we're older we read National Review Online rather than National Review.
• X-Cons tend to be extremely religious in a “mere Christianity” sort of way. Although our political views are often shaped by our theology, we are willing to cross theological lines to forge political alliances. We’re the children of the Moral Majority; we tend to be either Catholic-friendly evangelicals or evangelical-influenced Catholics. We can’t understand why conservative Protestants and Catholics fought each other rather than with the true enemy: godless liberalism.
• We have an ambivalent attitude toward pop culture. We recognize the corrosive impact that race-to-the-bottom media can have on society. Yet we are as likely to be consumers of popular media as the rest of society. Although we may rail against the worst trash our culture has to offer, we will be intimately familiar with the rubbish we are criticizing.
• X-Cons considered it axiomatic that that “mainstream media” have always had a liberal bias, which should be subverted rather than reformed. We truly believed that Fox News was the fair and balanced alternative to every new channel every on television.
• On matters of economics, X-Cons believe we stand on a firmly rooted foundation. We grew up in an era when socialism and communism where discredited as economic models, leading us to believe that free-market capitalism is not just preferred, but is the only route to freedom and prosperity. X-Cons believe that if liberals would only take a class on economics they would see the light and repent of their collectivist ways.
• Like others from their generation, X-Cons are not “joiners” in the typical sense. We are often more motivated to align in opposition than join in agreement. X-Cons vote for Republicans not because we agree with the GOP's platform (a document we've never read) but because we have a deep disdain for the views and values of Democrats.
• X-Cons are often Goldwater-style conservatives, holding views that are more individualistic than aligned with historical conservatism. We also tend to have many cafeteria libertarians, those who pick and choose from the buffet of libertarian ideology. X-Cons may, for example, be in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana while opposing the legalization of prostitution. The libertarians in our cohort tend to be less pure than those that came before or after.
• X-Cons are pragmatic idealists. We have strong faith in religion, small government, and the free market. Yet we are not Utopian and have no illusions that politics will make life much better (though we believe government can make it much worse).
• X-Cons will soon be replacing the Boomers as the dominant cohort within the movement. We’ll be fielding presidential candidates in 2016 and dominating elections in 2020. We are, for better and for worse, the future of the movement. And of America.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.