A year ago, when I saw Obama speak on the Durham campus of the University of New Hampshire, he did not sound the way he does now. Yes, his signs read HOPE and CHANGE, but off the cuff he spoke like a pragmatist, answering questions with references to commissions and Senate floor-vote procedures. It was not what the audience — screaming, sign-waving Millennials and hopeful anti-war Baby Boomers — wanted to hear. They fell silent for long stretches.
Obama is a fast learner. Today, his every sentence, his cadence and rhythm, are perfectly attuned to his audience. He radiates hope, optimism, and idealism. But it did not come naturally to him. And why would it? He is one of my own: the cynical, pessimistic, ironic, pragmatic slackers sometimes known as Gen-X.
Barack Obama, born in 1961, is six years my elder and the first potential president from my generation. When I graduated from Tufts in 1989, he was two T stops away, studying at Harvard Law School.
We are the kids outside the Boomers — squeezed between the self-indulgent post-war demographic bulge and their pampered offspring, the Millennials. We were born, roughly speaking, between 1960 and 1973. Our parents date to the Great Depression and World War II — mine were children of the ’30s; Obama’s mother, who raised him, was born in 1942.
Lost in the shadow of that multitudinous sea of Boomers, my generation long ago turned away from the public sphere built by and for our predecessors.
Strange for us, then, to see our first successful leader embody hope, change, optimism, idealism, and belief. On the campaign trail, Obama seems to reject every attitude that my friends and I ever adopted. But I’ve come to believe that Obama is more like the rest of our generation than he looks.
What he has done, perhaps, is discover a sneaky way to get Boomers and Millennials — whose votes decide elections — to put their faith in a Gen-Xer.
Like once-moderate Mitt Romney adopting the rhetoric of social conservatives, Obama is going where the votes are. But when you look closely, I think you’ll find he’s really a Gen-Xer at heart.
Pessimistic, but happy
This presidential election was shaping up as one in which the Millennials — who, some estimate, already double my generation in voting strength — would tip an election among prospective candidates who defined themselves 40 years ago. In 1968, Hillary Clinton shifted from Republican to activist Democrat by joining Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign; John McCain entered solitary confinement in Hanoi’s Hoa Loa Prison; Ralph Nader organized young lawyers into “Nader’s Raiders”; and Michael Bloomberg took his Harvard MBA to Wall Street.
Obama, who was in a first-grade classroom in Jakarta in 1968, has crashed that party by offering Boomer and Millennial rhetoric, while avoiding their baggage.
Consider the words that define Obama’s campaign: “change” and “hope.” Baby Boomers are all about change: they see themselves as the agents of change, shaping the world to their liking — and then, when they reproduced, to the benefit of their children. Those Millennial kids have thus learned to expect and welcome change as something that constantly improves their lives. To them, change is a hopeful quantity.
My generation, however, views change differently: as inevitable, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and very often negative. Many of our parents — pre-Boomers already raising families during the Summer of Love — were bewildered, if not outright resentful, of the social changes happening around them. Even more obvious were the economic changes that shut down the industries that employed many of them. They could hardly prepare us, their children, for the constantly changing new world.
Everything we ever planned or prepared for was obsolete by the time we were ready. I can well remember sitting in my dorm room, pecking out papers about Soviet political systems on my electric typewriter; both the tool and the topic would be obsolete by the time I finished school. In 1989 alone, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Ayatollah Khomeini died, and apartheid’s hold on South Africa was broken.
Closer to home, the Greed Is Good ’80s already had run aground when the stock market collapsed in 1987. That and the crack epidemic were turning American cities into scary, gang-ruled dystopias. We knew global warming was on its way — and that the Exxon Valdez was spewing oil into the North Pacific. Even sex had become a risky confrontation with the plague of AIDS.
So needless to say, optimism is an Obama trait that my generation doesn’t generally share. A 2006 New Politics Institute study found that, among my age group, “only fairly small minorities of them believe that they will have fulfilling careers, good jobs, be financially well off, and able to afford homes, health care, and retire comfortably.”
This is not to say we are unhappy. My friends and I are pessimistic, but, in my experience, generally more content than those younger and older than us. Perhaps our pessimism has freed us.