If the 21st century’s opening decade has revealed anything about American life, it’s this: We’re a nation that’s much better at breaking things than fixing them. We opened the epoch by thrashing about the globe, looking for something to smash in reaction to 9/11. We’ve closed it by wallowing in the inevitable wreckage of our winner-takes-all economic culture. As a nation, we’ve become a big, overgrown toddler, gleefully knocking the building blocks over, then growing quickly frustrated when asked to stack them back up.
Progressives would blame the 21st century’s destructive zeitgeist on George W. Bush and his band of belligerents. Conservatives would dub it the legacy of Bill Clinton and his permissive pals. But Bush and Clinton are peas in a pod. They indulged the same reckless impulses; Clinton just channeled his into sexual conquest rather than jihad.
Which is not to say that Democrats and Republicans share equal blame for today’s problems. Surely, Bush’s policy choices did far more structural damage than Clinton’s, and the broader political left has tried, failingly, to promote sustainable governance for decades. Rather, something larger than presidential politics is at play. Today’s mess is more aptly understood as the legacy of the Baby Boom generation as a whole. And ironically, it’s the Boomers’ successors — those of us in the supposedly slacker Generation X — who must clean it up.
My parents’ generation started with a revolutionary, liberating break from the past. They demanded sexual freedom. They fought to liberate women from the stifling straitjacket of sexist family structures. They rejected war. And, of course, they drove the final nails in Jim Crow’s coffin. But after striking all of these dramatic blows to the old order, they never quite got around to building a new one.
Instead, the feel-good generation morphed into one defined by greed, selfishness and bursts of anger. By the 1980s, Jerry Garcia was out and Gordon Gekko was in. The Cold War ended and a hot one soon replaced it. The sexual revolution gave way to a sexually transmitted plague that everyone chose to ignore rather than confront. They stopped worrying about Mother Earth and started fetishizing ex-urban McMansions and SUVs.
It’s as if the roller coaster ride of the late 1960s and early 1970s left the Boomers emotionally depleted, and they spent the next 30 years refusing to create anything, stuck competing with one another over who could be the most orthodox. Even the left hunched down into a permanently reactionary posture, constantly defending the gains of the civil rights era rather than working to adapt and build upon them. Perhaps nothing revealed this so much as the spectacle of old-line black politicians, who had cut their teeth on revolution, failing to understand the uprising that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represented.
The disastrous first decade of the 21st century is the predictable outcome of this Boomer stagnation and self-destruction. A country can export only so much strife and war-making before it blows back. A survival-of-the-fittest economy will eventually destroy itself.
So here we are, at the end of a decade in which our national rot has finally shown through, with Generation X rising to political and cultural leadership. As we Gen X-ers made our first entrance into the culture, we were widely maligned as disengaged, unambitious couch potatoes. We dropped out of school, played video games and blasted anti-establishment hip-hop and grunge music — or so went the caricature. The question is, however, what kind of generation we have become. Will we be the generation that makes the promise of the Obama revolution real?
Obama sold himself to America as the answer to all of the Boomers’ shortcomings. He said he would break us free from their calcified debates. Thus far, he’s instead operated as a split-the-difference referee. We need a new conversation altogether.
Gen X’s challenge, then, is to unlearn the one-shot version of political participation we’ve been taught. The most troubling part of the Obama era has been the reflexive deference shown by the millions of revolutionaries who put him in office. But if we want change, we’ll have to do more than turn out during campaign season. We have to continually hold everyone in power accountable, our heroes included.
And here, just maybe, we can tap into what should have been the Boomers’ legacy: a healthy distrust of establishment power, in whatever form it comes. Gen X’s contribution to history can and should be re-imagining the spirit of reform the Boomers abandoned. This time, rather than stopping with tearing down the old, broken order, we can build a new, viable one.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.