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Issue No. 42 (March 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor
diffidence and passionate
Just as middle-age generals tend to fight the last war, so do middle-age journalists and foundation heads tend to look for social movements that remind them of their own storied pasts.
In the 1990s, Time Magazine (Time Magazine!) ran a cover story famously attacking Generation X for failing to carry placards and stage protests. Now the media is falling all over itself trying to tease something generationally significant out of the mayhem in Seattle, Philly, L.A., and D.C. Meanwhile, wannabe hip foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, and Threshold are spending millions of dollars trying to jump-start groups and magazines that sound vaguely like the Sixties.
All of which causes many people age 21-35 to shake their heads sadly but knowingly, and give an ironic smile.
“When the self-declared Original Youth Movement grew up, they saw themselves as entrusted to discover the next one,” smiles Michele Mitchell, 27, a former Congressional staffer (in her book A New Kind of Party Animal, 1998). “But what they were looking for was, subconsciously, themselves.”
So far, we’ve been given two media-blessed views of the generation of people age 21-35: They’re apathetic slackers (anti-Boomers, so to speak), or they’re just as alienated and angry as Boomers ever were (Seattle! Quebec City! Genoa!).
You can see why Boomers would find either view delicious. One small problem: Most young adults disdain both views.
“I don’t think we’re represented fairly in the media,” Shami Feinglass, 33, a doctor in Seattle (and the daughter of “hippie parents”), told Radical Middle, in her characteristically diplomatic tone of voice. “There’s the whole issue of our age group being very apathetic, or interested in doing things that make no sense. . . .”
In the introduction to their short story collection, Voices of the Xiled: A Generation Speaks for Itself (1994), Michael Wexler and John Hulme put it this way: “[W]e weren’t connecting with any of the images that the new, self-appointed ‘twentysomething’ authorities had been creating. We’re not in Seattle . . . not ‘slackers’ . . . . It’s disconcerting when you realize that Douglas Coupland’s [relentlessly hyped book] Generation X has no connection to your life. . . .”
Talk with a broad cross-section of young adults, read their books, or live in a graduate student dorm with them (for three years) -- all of which I’ve done -- and you’ll come to share their view that the Boomer-driven media is clueless about them.
You might even come to agree with twentysomething CNN financial news analyst Meredith Bagby when she says, “If our parents’ generation was about dismantling the status quo, our generation [is] about building new institutions, moral codes, families, churches, corporations. . . . If our parents were the revolutionaries, [we’re] the rebuilders.”
But don’t do what I kept doing at first (in that dorm), and conjure up a raucous, I-wanna-join-a-movement, Boomer sentiment behind such words.
In Bagby’s book, from which those words were taken, she casts a wary eye at the chaos Boomers wrought. And she titled her book, pointedly, RATIONAL Exuberance (1998).
The Rising Generation isn’t made up of incipient revolutionaries. It’s a generation of thoughtful, sensitive, creative, and highly responsible pragmatists. It’s a generation at the radical middle.
Conceived in liberty
By the “Rising Generation” I mean people conceived during the long hot summer of post-World War II American political idealism -- between SDS’s first big anti-war march on Washington (1965) and the death throes of the Jimmy Carter presidency (1979).
Other authors who’ve tried to identify the next coherent generation after the Baby Boom have chosen vaguely similar time parameters: Ron Zemke (below), 1960-80; Mitchell (above), 1961-80; Bruce Tulgan (below), 1963-77; Ted Halstead (below), 1965-78; Bagby (above), 1965-82; Neil Howe & William Strauss (13th Gen, 1993), 1965-85.
It would be clean and convenient to say that the Rising Generation begins at the precise point where the Boomers end. But I think you’ll find that people conceived between 1961-64 (i.e., during the spring of postwar American idealism) are irremediably ‘Tweeners, with one foot more or less solidly in each camp.
WHY YOUNG PEOPLE BLOW BOOMERS OFF
The hardest thing for us Boomers to accept about the Rising Generation is that, for the most part -- with standard-issue exceptions for parents and the occasional friend -- they really don’t think much of us.
Imagine that! We thought we were changing the course of the world forever, and we assumed our kids would not only be grateful, they’d model themselves after us and continue “our” work.
We never thought they’d see us as Part of the Problem!
But they do.
In her book on the politics of the Rising Generation (cited above), former Capitol Hill operative Michele Mitchell constantly rags on Boomers’ “dreamy idealism, obsession with values, and irritating self-absorption.” When she isn’t criticizing us, she’s laughing at us -- and it’s hard not to share in her laughter!
Another sore spot is our technophobia. “Idealistic” Boomers routinely denounce computers (Theodore Roszak), genetic engineering (Jeremy Rifkin), high tech in general (Stephanie Mills), and even the existence of television (Jerry Mander). The Rising Generation, at ease with technology, doesn’t find such denunciations endearing. It sees them as evidence that Boomers resent a world and a generation that’s passing them by.
“Nothing raises the ire of Xers more than technophobic Boomers,” says intergenerational workplace consultant Ron Zemke in his book Generations at Work (2000). “That many Boomers are both clueless [about technology] and in charge rankles like nothing else.”
Then there’s our self-righteousness, our closed-mindedness. Shami Feinglass, the young doctor quoted above, clearly loves her Sixties-style parents. But when we asked her to say how she differs from them, she didn’t hesitate: “I think there are always two sides to each [question] and you can’t really make a decision until you’ve heard both.”
All such differences are alienating enough. But it’s what we’ve bequeathed to the Rising Generation, politically, socially, and economically, that drives the deepest wedge between them and us.
Politically, we’ve bequeathed what 32-year-old investment banker Mark Marmer calls “hypocrisy” and I’d call a penchant for pompous and outmoded ideological battle.
“People lie to us!” Marmer told Radical Middle from his high-rise office in midtown Manhattan. “We get things like, you know, Bush is going to Kill Social Security, and he’s Against the Poor! And Republicans do it the same way, you know -- vote against harsher sentences, all of a sudden you’re Pro-Crime.
“We don’t have discussions, we’re just yelling at each other. But [my generation knows] we’ve got real problems and we need to solve them.”
Socially, the Rising Generation feels condemned to clean up after the Boom- ers’ two-decades-long house party.
“One generation’s gain was another’s loss,” mutters 29-year-old religious instructor Tom Beaudoin in his book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998). “[M]y generation inherited not free love but AIDS, . . . not free teach-ins but colleges priced for the aristocracy.” Adds Meredith Bagby (cited above): “Our job is to make order out of the chaos.”
Economically, the Rising Generation may never forgive us for the astronomical debts we’ve run up since the mid-Sixties. One Gen-X advocacy organization, Third Millennium (www.thirdmil.org), loses its usual cool on this matter:
“Just as King George III levied stiff duties with little regard to the effects they’d have on American colonists, our democratically elected leaders are forcing unrepresented future generations to shoulder the burden of trillions of dollars in debt. . . .
“We are no longer challenging ourselves to commit great acts of national heroics; instead, we are robbing our children in order to indulge ourselves in . . . luxuries.”
Not the legacy most of us Boomers imagined we’d be leaving our kids (blush, cough).
WHAT MAKES THESE KIDS DIFFERENT?
The Rising Generation is different from you and me, and not just because it’s younger. Its defining experiences are different. . . .
Divorce. When we Boomers grew up, our parents were likely together, and so were the parents of the vast majority of our friends and classmates. The Rising Generation has had a very different experience. Even if their own biological parents are together, many of their friends’ and classmates’ parents are not.
And don’t think it doesn’t sear them. Three years ago, Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a major survey of Americans age 18 to 30 (www.publicallies.org/poll.htm). “When we ask them to identify the experience that shaped their generation the most,” Hart reported, “nearly one in three cite the ‘increase in divorce and single-parent families.’
“This phenomenon is particularly poignant among young whites -- 36% identify it as the defining experience of their generation.”
Parents-as-friends. Many Boomer parents were overly strict. Often our parents -- especially our fathers -- came across as cold and judgmental. Not surprisingly, many of us were primed to rebel against the System our parents appeared to represent.
The Rising Generation is blessed, or cursed, with the opposite phenomenon. Often the parents -- if the kids are lucky enough to have them around -- come across more as friends than authority figures. “[My parents] are my best friends, they’ve always been there [for me],” Sylys, 26, a computer software writer, told Radical Middle. All we could do was sigh.
Several Gen-Xers we interviewed laughed benignly -- if a bit condescendingly -- when describing their parents’ habits or personal histories. The Rising Generation doesn’t see its parents as larger than life, that’s for sure.
Hard drugs. When we Boomers took drugs, it was often to “explore our consciousness” or feel good with others. It was our own private thing. But drugs have turned into a social scourge, as any member of the Rising Generation who attended public school knows all too well.
“Overwhelmingly,” reports pollster Peter D. Hart, “blacks age 18 to 30 identify the spread of drugs . . . as the most important influence on people their age. . . . Hispanics age 18 to 30 are divided, identifying either divorce or drugs as [the] defining generational influence.” Many young whites identify the drug scourge as the defining influence.
Technology. As indicated above, Boomers were often skeptical of technology. “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” was one of our earliest rallying cries. We certainly didn’t want to define ourselves in terms of technology.
But Hart found that nearly 20% of young Americans cited the revolution in technology as the most important influence on their generation.
It’s a revolution they by and large approve of and identify with. “Xers learned to operate the microwave, program the VCR, and play video games when they were little tykes,” says Ron Zemke, the intergenerational workplace consultant mentioned above.
“Computer skills were every bit as fundamental to their elementary education as the three Rs were to generations before them. . . . Older generations may learn computer skills and become quite adept, but they will never have the natural affinity for technology that Generation Xers simply have ‘in their bones.’”
What Abbie Hoffman and Ben & Jerry’s were to us Boomers, Bill Gates and Celera Genomics are to the Rising Generation.
Political stability. We Boomers grew up at a time of maximum political instability -- riots, assassinations, war, etc. In the process, many of us concluded that turmoil was a necessary precursor to significant change and that authority was not to be trusted. We even have a hard time deciding among ourselves about anything. “Whatever” is not in our vocabularies.
In complete contrast, the Rising Generation grew up under conditions of maximum political stability. “You had Vietnam and civil rights,” 30-year-old bankruptcy lawyer Jane Leamy reminded Radical Middle from her well-kept office in Wilmington, Delaware. “But for us it’s been pretty smooth sailing.”
As a result, the Rising Generation has no soft spot for political turmoil and no visceral suspicion or resentment of properly constituted authority.
“[Even our] individualism . . . has little to do with rebelling against authority,” explains Bruce Tulgan, a young Connecticut consultant-entrepreneur who cut his teeth running a political campaign for an insurgent Xer candidate. “[O]ur self-assuredness comes from a powerful sense that we have been able largely to fend for ourselves” (see Tulgan’s book Managing Generation X, rev. 2000).
OUTLOOK OF THE RISING GENERATION
Puree the defining experiences, above, and you get a generation with its own unique outlook on politics -- and life.
They are pragmatic
“If Xers have any ideology, it is surely pragmatism,” says New America Foundation’s Ted Halstead.
Make that passionately pragmatic, passionately realistic. “There is not an emphasis on creed, rather the premium is on results,” says 26-year-old historian Jeff Shesol (in Bagby, cited above). “The attitude is: Show us what you can do.”
Says the magnificent Meredith Bagby, “We are after what produces the greatest good for the most people, not doctrine, rhetoric, dogma. We are not worried about staying within the guidelines of any particular system; rather, we seek the avenue that produces the greatest results. . . .
“Economic thinking provides the clearinghouse of our hopes and desires. That is because economics is a solution-seeking social science. . . . The philosopher worries about the right questions; politicians, their constituencies. Economists worry about results, about finding the most suitable answer in a world that is rarely simple. This is the skill our society hungers for at our time in history. . . .
“We want a government that W-O-R-K-S -- that . . . protects the environment, fosters business, secures our future by deficit control, makes our streets safe, and stays out of our way as much as possible while doing it. We don’t care whether the state or the federal government administers the welfare program, just so it works. . . .
“Our political-speak is about action, restructuring. saving money. It is not about ideology. It is about practicality.”
They are diffident
You don’t need Doug Coupland to tell you that the Rising Generation is -- with regard to the outside world -- ironic, reserved, and slow to commit to anything. The question is why.
“Gen-Xers grew up with lip service -- from advertisers and marketers, from their parents, from corporations and national leadership -- that often didn’t seem to be supported by action,” says Ron Zemke. “They have learned not to put their faith in others, to be very careful with their loyalty and commitments, for fear of getting burned.”
Meredith Bagby also fingers hypocrisy: “Nearly every institution . . . was under siege [in the Nineties]. Callused by scandal after scandal, we lost faith in our government” and in much else as well.
It’s important not to confuse the Rising Generation’s cool diffidence with defeatism, amorality, or indifference. The more I’ve gotten to know 21-to-35-year-olds, the more I’ve come to see their diffidence as an aspect of their intelligence.
Bruce Tulgan, the young consultant-entrepreneur cited above, puts it nicely when he says, “[D]o not mistake our irony for cynicism. Irony -- like healthy skepticism -- is a tool for responding to the outside world. . . . It is our surest way of processing the lightning-fast complexity of modern life.”
In Michele Mitchell’s Party Animal, cited above, irony is what keeps Congressional interns and young staffers afloat as they endure the -- to them -- bizarrely partisan bickering of their self-important Boomer bosses.
They are self-reliant
Self-reliance is second nature to the Rising Generation. “I was definitely encouraged to go off and do my own thing and not become dependent on someone else,” young bankruptcy lawyer Jane Leamy (cited above) told us. But Xers came by their self-reliance in subtler ways, too.
“After school,” says Bruce Tulgan, “[with their parents often absent,] Xers took care of other Xers, watched TV, played computer games, . . . made frozen dinners in the microwave, watched some more TV. . . . Whatever we did, [we] spent a lot of time alone.
“That is one reason why Xers actually believe in the self. Personal responsibility is more than a slogan to Xers because the concept resonates powerfully with our childhood experience of solitude.”
Ron Zemke offers a very similar analysis: “For [Boomer] parents, [the late 20th century] was . . . a time to focus on and develop themselves. . . . For their children, it was another matter; it was parent-free childhood, a time to figure it out for yourself.
“[Plus] nearly half of their parents’ marriages ended in divorce. . . .
“[Xers] became accustomed to being alone, yet feelings of abandonment shaped their psyches. They wanted more attention from their parents; at the same time, they were used to a certain freedom.”
They are entrepreneurial
By and large, Boomers loathed business (when they were young), but the Rising Generation may be the most entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history.
According to a poll conducted by the prestigious Opinion Research Corporation (www.opinionresearch.com), a whopping 54% of Americans age 18 to 24 are “highly interested” in starting their own businesses. Business schools offered 16 courses on entrepreneurship in 1970; they offer over 400 today.
When we asked Gen-Xer Mark Marmer (cited above) whether he liked working for a bank, the first words out of his mouth were, “It’s real entrepreneurial here!”
Why is entrepreneurialism hot today? Meredith Bagby thinks it has to do with Xers’ desire to lead a more balanced or interesting or creative life than the 9 to 5 grind allows. (They watched their parents go off to work day after day and recoiled.) Bruce Tulgan thinks it has to do with how Xers were raised:
“Xers think like latchkey kids. We are used to taking care of ourselves and we are used to finding original solutions to intractable problems. What looks to [corporate] managers like arrogance is, in fact, a natural entrepreneurialism that was self-nurtured during a childhood marked by less than optimal parental supervision.”
They like small groups
The Rising Generation may be self-reliant and entrepreneurial, but it’s also team-oriented. It likes to work in groups and play in groups.
“Dine out or see a movie on Saturday night,” says Ron Zemke, “and you will see twentysomethings in small groups, in sharp contrast with the one-on-one dating situation standard just a decade earlier. . . . On the job, managers tell us they see similar tight-knit groups of young workers who socialize both during work and after hours.”
What’s going on here? Zemke says they’re “seeking a sense of family. In the absence of parents [as traditionally understood], this generation has learned to create its own surrogate families. [Their] quest for a sense of family draws them to teams [at work], although they prefer team members of their own choosing. . . .”
Even Xers from incorrigibly stable and traditional families have had it rub- bed in their faces that many biological families and most romantic ties are fragile and imperfect. Hence, even they are look- ing for additional or fall-back families.
When Mark Marmer was describing his first job to us, he said, “The real estate group there was a great group of people. And it was a small group. I like working in small groups where you really become, like, family, kind of thing. That’s what we were.”
They like diversity
Despite their unctuous public statements, many Boomers feel uneasy about our ever-increasing racial and ethnic diversity.
Not the Rising Generation. According to Peter D. Hart, “80% [of Americans age 18-30] rate ‘appreciating and respecting the racial and ethnic differences in our country’ as an eight or higher on a 10-point scale, and 74% give the same rating to ‘developing meaningful relationships with people different from yourself.’”
According to several recent surveys, most U.S. secondary school students now report having at least one friend of a different race.
Concludes Hart: “The diversity of American society is so accepted by and normal to many young adults that it increasingly is looked upon as a fact of life, rather than a cause for concern.”
They aren't spooked by authority
The so-called Greatest Generation forever deferred to authority, even against its own best impulses (the real message of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, 1999); Boomers frequently rebelled against authority. The Rising Generation has no problem with legitimate authority, and no exaggerated reverence for it, either.
“Gen-Xers . . . aren’t so much against authority as simply unimpressed by it,” says Ron Zemke.
“They saw authority figures -- [politicians, reverends], and often even their own parents -- step off the pillar and into the gutter. Their tendency, therefore, is to treat the company president just the way they would the receptionist. . . .
“[A]lthough many [Boomers] distrust authority, they’ve lusted after leadership roles, seeking to prove their status, prestige, and general worthiness by climbing the ladder.
“Gen-Xers don’t equate magic and leadership. Those in leadership roles tend to choose them, and be chosen for them, because they are competent and have good leadership skills. It’s a job, just a job.”
Why are Rising Generationists blessed with such a clean relationship to authority? “They had an egalitarian rather than a hierarchical relationship with their parents,” Zemke says. “[T]hey went to school in a system that encouraged diverse viewpoints[. A]nd in their first jobs, they usually worked for Boomer bosses, who espoused participation and involvement, although they often didn’t practice what they preached.”
They like balance
Boomers talked a lot about living balanced lives, but the reality in most Boomer households was -- and is -- very different. The Rising Generation watched all this with jaundiced eye.
“Distrustful of corporations that downsized our parents and more desirous of giving our children family time, which we never really had, we are reevaluating the ‘work ethic,’” says Meredith Bagby. “[Primarily] there is a desire to have a balanced life.”
Zemke couldn’t agree more: “In the eyes of Gen-X, their parents devoted their lives to the religion of work. [Xers] are distressed by the high prices their parents paid for success: stress and health problems, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse. . . . So it is that Gen-X is committed to more balance in their own lives.
“[Plus t]hey don’t buy the Supermom and Superdad theory that you can have it all. They won’t try to juggle all those roles -- parent, employee, spouse -- or if they do, it won’t be with the same unrealistic expectations. They know something has to give.”
Jane Leamy has one of the best jobs a lawyer her age can have; but she’s not necessarily committed to becoming a law firm partner. “I like my job,” she told us, a bit laconically, “but I’d like to eventually do something in the legal field that’s a little less stressful.
“I enjoy the work I do [here], but it’s really very consuming. I think later -- if I end up having a family -- I don’t think I can devote all this time and personal effort [to work] as much as I am right now.”
She didn’t sound cheated one whit. She sounded like, That’s life.
They are post-partisan
While the media focuses on the tiny numbers of hard-left Gen-Xers who support the riots against globalization and capitalism -- and the equally tiny numbers of hard-right Gen-Xers who involve themselves in entities like Young America’s Foundation -- an unprecedented thing is happening at ground level.
The fiery old political positions are losing their appeal . . . first and foremost among the Rising Generation.
According to Meredith Bagby, 40% of young Americans now call themselves independents, the highest percentage of any age group. According to Michele Mitchell, fewer than one-fourth of 18-35s vote straight party lines now.
Both authors regale their readers with “insider” tales of the breakdown of partisanship among young Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill. Here’s a quick take from Mitchell:
“‘What the hell is going on?’ Joe Morgan [a well-known Democratic operative] demanded, stomping down the hall after seeing a Republican staffer laughing with a Democrat. ‘Haven’t these [kids] ever heard: us, them, us, them. That’s how it works!’”
Meredith Bagby provides the perfect answer to Joe Morgan’s what’s-goin’-on question when she says, “[Today’s] young adults reflect a fusion of political impulses, conservative in some areas, liberal in others, and all points in between and beyond” [emphasis added - ed.].
They welcome change
The Rising Generation, 50 million strong, is not only post-partisan. It is uniquely constituted to welcome change.
“Xers aren’t afraid of change,” says Bruce Tulgan simply. “[I]t’s what we know best. . . .
“Underlying Xers’ seeming restlessness or disloyalty is a unique ability to adapt to change. . . . In an era where technological change is a constant there is a premium on quick mastery[, and] Xers are voracious learners who love to sort through and digest massive quantities of information at a very fast pace.”
Shami Feinglass nicely captured the open spirit of her generation when she said, “I think we’re much more flexible [than our parents]. We don’t feel boxed in! I think we’re one of the first groups to feel that we really have so many more choices than our parents did. . . .”
“[Xers] thrive on change,” says Ron Zemke. “[M]any learned as kids to adapt to a new bedroom, home, and neighborhood on weekends.
“[And t]hey are used to challenging and being challenged. Whereas the little Boomers were graded for ‘works well with others,’ little Xers were graded for their ability to challenge others’ thinking [and to a]lways ask, ‘Why?’”
Lately they’ve been coming up with some answers of their own. . . .
POLITICS OF THE RISING GENERATION
The politics of the Rising Generation flows from the outlook described above. Thus, that politics is not marinated in bitterness or fear. It is as thoughtful, creative, future-focused, integrative, and realistic as the Rising Generation itself.
One of the hardest things for Boomers to “get” about Rising Generation politics is that it’s not about standing on the sidelines and throwing brickbats at the Establishment. It’s about shouldering responsibility in the world and acting in ways that are ethical, useful, and wise.
Ethical. When we asked Mark Marmer, the young banking executive, whether it embarrassed him to be seen as part of the Establishment, his response was swift and unequivocal:
“It doesn’t bother me at all! I don’t see the world in terms of the Establishment versus the Non-Establishment. If I felt I was selling out my own particular ideals, or who I wanted to be, then I would feel awful -- I’d feel sick to my stomach, I think. . . . But I don’t feel I’m doing that.”
Useful. When we asked Jane Leamy whether she thought her work as a bankruptcy lawyer really benefits society, she responded as crisply as Marmer:
“I do! . . . I know a lot of people think bankruptcy is [just] a way for people to get out of their debts and leave a lot of other people in the lurch. But I think it’s very important for people that lose their job, you know, or are sick for some reason, to be able to make a fresh start. And I don’t think there’d be as many new businesses if [business owners] had to take the hit themselves. . . .”
Wise. When we asked Shami Feinglass, M.D., why she wasn’t challenging the medical Establishment by calling for socialized (“single-payer”) health insurance, her response was pure Rising Generation:
“It’s a huge thing to revamp the health care system -- so you need to be sure that the idea you have is a good one. And I don’t think any of us are at that point yet. I don’t think there’s any great model out there.
“While [the Canadian system offers] pretty good access to care, it’s having real financial trouble. . . . And right now, I can work the system we have. I mean, I can be at a local level and figure out how to find the funding for, you know, the homeless mother of three who has no health care. . . . So whereas I think my parents would have been running out with pickets saying ‘SINGLE PAYER!,’ I think we may be a little more cautious.
“The issue isn’t [so simple as supporting or opposing the Establishment]. Most of us want to see change; but certain things need a little more thought than they’ve gotten [from you guys]. . . .”
"Our issues, ourselves"
The Rising Generation hardly speaks with one voice, but what follows are some policy positions I’ve found to be widespread. Many are developed more fully in:
-- Marian Chertow and Daniel Esty, eds., Thinking Ecologically: The Next Generation of Environmental Policy (1997). Chertow and Esty are young professors of environmental studies at Yale, and their book draws on seminars involving over 200 innovative thinkers and activists from across the U.S.;
-- Ted Halstead, “A Politics for Generation X” (Atlantic Monthly, August 1999, available free at www.theatlantic.com/issues/99aug/9908genx.htm). Halstead is president of the New America Foundation, which is committed to bringing “new voices and new ideas” into the public policy debate (www.newamerica.net);
-- the Third Millennium website (www.thirdmil.org). Third Millennium, founded in 1993 at an Au Bon Pain restaurant in Manhattan and initially run out of Executive Director Richard Thau’s bedroom, has become the most prominent Gen-X advocacy group in the U.S.
So, to begin:
Don’t give back OR immediately spend the projected budget surplus! “When realistic assumptions are used, the projected non-Social Security surplus over the next decade shrinks [from $4.6 trillion to, at most,] $700 billion” (Third Millennium).
Keep the government’s share of national income roughly constant! “New programs may be necessary, but they [should] be offset by equal reductions in spending programs” (Third Millennium). Instead of spending more, “focus . . . on a far more profound set of questions: What should be taxed? Who should be taxed? What should we invest in? Who should get the benefits?” (Halstead).
Prepare a long-term budget plan! “[None of] our pandering political leaders [has] offered a fiscally responsible long-term budget plan [but we need one] today more than ever” (Third Millennium).
Stop subsidizing well-off retirees! “Social Security benefits should be based on need. We recognize the promise made to previous generations[; thus,] everyone should get back everything they personally put into the Social Security system -- plus interest. Beyond that, benefits must go only to the needy” (Third Millennium).
Alternately, set up a truly independent commission to study Social Security! Before rushing ahead with some grand solution, “there needs to be some independent commission that sits down and figures out” the possibilities (Jane Leamy). A commission infinitely more, um, intergenerational, and with fewer political partisans, than the current Moynihan commission.
Broaden the definition of national security! “The most important issue facing America is national defense -- and I mean that broadly. I mean energy independence. . . . And I mean immigration. [And] I think the environment is a matter of national defense, too” (Mark Marmer).
Value our natural resources! “We currently subsidize the use of . . . the oil and coal in the ground, the trees in our national forests, the airwaves . . . and the rights to pollute our air. . . . [R]eversing this trend by charging fair market value for the use of common assets . . . could raise trillions of dollars in new public revenues” (Halstead).
Guarantee fairness among economic actors! There is no economic need for the “hidden welfare state, composed of corporate subsidies and tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit the well-to-do” (Halstead).
Improve public education! Use the monies raised or saved above to “make a topnotch education affordable and accessible to all” (Halstead).
Guarantee every young person a fair shot in life! Alternately, or additionally, use the monies raised or saved above to “make every American child a ‘trust-fund’ baby from birth” (Halstead; & see RAM #13).
Promote mental as well as physical health! “Medical health encompasses both [traditional] ‘health care’ and mental health, so there should be mental health parity both in how our system is funded and how people get services” (Shami Feinglass; & see RAM #14).
Promote environmental education! Promote it until it “transform[s] attitudes” completely (Chertow & Esty).
Promote solar, revisit nuclear! “It’s pathetic that over the last 20 years we haven’t spent a ton of money on solar energy. . . . I’d also consider nuclear energy” (Mark Marmer). “From an environmental perspective, nuclear power has both advantages and drawbacks” (Chertow & Esty).
Adopt global environmental standards! Fold environmental provisions into international trade agreements “to ensure that companies do not compete for private capital on the basis of environmental degradation.” But, n.b., make sure that all environmental standards are “set to reflect differences in [economic] development” (Chertow & Esty). In other words, don’t let the anti-globalists use the environment as an excuse to exclude foreign investment -- often their real goal.
Rediscover community expertise and wisdom! “Many [federal] programs can be administered more effectively at the local . . . level” (Third Millennium).
Promote real campaign and political reform! Institute “reforms far more [fundamental] than any currently under consideration,” including reforms that challenge the monopoly of the two-party system (Halstead; & see RAM #15).
Use computers in elections! Make it possible to register and vote online (Halstead).
Introduce electronic democracy! Promote “electronic town-hall meetings and various forms of deliberative democracy, in which individuals are provided with a full range of information on a particular issue and can register their opinions with a push of a button” (Halstead).
Promote problem-solving partnerships! A significant proportion of young people “cite partnerships among government, private businesses, and nonprofit organizations as important . . . in solving communities’ problems.” Governmental or nonprofit organizations acting alone “are met with far less enthusiasm and confidence from today’s young people” (Peter D. Hart survey; & see RAM #16).
Facilitate a new values consensus! Show love to those who are “struggling to find a new values consensus . . . somewhere between the secular permissiveness of the left and the cultural intolerance of the right” (Halstead).
"We'll do it our way"
Besides having a unique policy agenda (at once innovative, thoroughgoing and pragmatic), the Rising Generation has a unique political style.
It’s more oriented to local than national activism -- at this point, anyway. “The [Boomer-dominated] press . . . never skim[s] below the shiny surface of national politics,” says Michele Mitchell. “So [it misses] the real action, which [is] happening in the less-glamorous depths of the local levels.”
Gen-Xers aren’t much for demonstrations, either. “We’re pretty skeptical about . . . government,” one young person told Meredith Bagby. “That’s why [we deliver] food to cancer patients instead of demonstrating in front of the White House.”
Demonstrations are also seen as child’s play in a grown-up’s world. “I’ve often felt and many of my peers feel that . . . you really can’t throw stones till you’ve actually tried to work [at responsible jobs in the system],” Shami Feinglass told us.
“And remember, we haven’t had anything as polarizing [as the Vietnam war], so we have a feeling that -- the government doesn’t DO anything, maybe -- but we don’t have a feeling that it’s our adversary.”
All these factors have helped induce the Rising Generation to focus its efforts on volunteerism -- solving concrete problems (and, in the process, modeling positive solutions) -- rather than protest.
“Young people [now volunteer] more than any other age group,” Mitchell reports. And Peter D. Hart found that 54% of Americans age 18-30 do community volunteer work at least once a month -- “a remarkable [number g]iven the mobility of this age group.”
Jane Leamy’s experience is not untypical: “I found that a lot of political organizations [consisted of] people that were there for the power, essentially. So I shied away from that.
“[Now] I try to do pro bono work. I’ve worked for a program called Volunteers for the Indigent [and] there’s a Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Program where people don’t have to pay for the attorney. I enjoy doing those things.”
Shami Feinglass was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. in her early 20s -- until she figured she “might be able to effect change more deeply with a medical degree.” She hasn’t looked back.
It’s pretty predictable that, as they age, some members of the Rising Generation will translate their volunteer and professional experiences -- which is to say, people skills, organizing skills, community contacts -- into electoral politics. Michele Mitchell’s book is full of Xers who’ve begun that journey.
Mark Marmer will almost surely be among them. He’s been thinking about it for some time. But he doesn’t want to be just another standard-issue politician . . . a Greatest Generation-style hero-politician or a Boomer-style all-things-to-all-men politician.
“As a politician, I want to be a teacher,” he explains.
“I want to say to people, Look! Here’s the story. Here’s what we need to do and why.
“George W. Bush [is] terrible at explaining why he’s for things. I say, Let’s all put our arguments on the table and see which ones convince more people.”
Let’s have a deliberative democracy. . . .
To sum up
Sorry, wistful journalists and militant anti-globalists: The Rising Generation is not a revolutionary generation just waiting for the right spark. It is an admirably thoughtful and realistic generation at the radical middle, and its members are patiently waiting for us self-absorbed, ideologically obsessed Boomers to just f-f-f-fade away.
Why don’t we reach out to them instead?
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE GROUPS AND BLOGS:
SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:
SOME RADICAL MIDDLE LESSONS:
SOME PRIOR WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:
NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE: