Zero Hour for Gen X

How “the last adult generation” can save us.

“America stands anxiously on the cusp of an unknown future,” writes Matthew Hennessey in a new book titled _Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America From Millennials_. “We are about to get swamped by a millennial wave that has already started crashing hard into the worlds of business, politics, entertainment, religion, dating, medicine, and education.” Considering that millennials are the generation that seems eager to embrace socialism, limits on freedom of speech, and Amazon’s “Big Brother” Alexa in every home, this generational passing of the torch will have dramatic and adverse implications for the future of America as we know it. Matthew Hennessey’s thesis is that Generation X – which emerged between the baby boomers and millennials – must get its act together swiftly if there is to be any hope of a collective national redemption from baby boomer destruction and to avert the Brave New World into which millennials will usher us.

The author defines the parameters of the three relevant generations for the purposes of his book: “Baby boomers are those born roughly between 1946 and 1964. Generation Xers are those born roughly between 1965 and 1980. The millennials are those born roughly between 1981 and 1997… [They] are already the largest American generation, and they’re still growing due to immigration.” They are tech-obsessed, coddled by political correctness, and indifferent to the advance of corporate and government intrusion into every aspect of our increasingly digital lives.

Hennessey is the Associate Editor of Editorial Features at The Wall Street Journal and former Associate Editor at City Journal and Managing Editor at the Manhattan Institute. I connected with him to ask a few questions about the book, which I’ve read and strongly recommend.

Mark Tapson:             In what ways has the baby boom generation “nearly destroyed America,” as you put it? You mention that baby boomers and millennials are “cut from the same cloth,” so what fresh hell, as Dorothy Parker would say, are we facing with the ascendancy of the millennial generation?

Matthew Hennessey:            Not to be glib, but take a look around. I don’t hear too many people expressing the view that America is in hale civic health. One side thinks things have declined to the point that the country needs to be made great again and other side is convinced that it’s time to take to the barricades because we are descending into fascism. Everyone’s at each other’s bloody throats. You hear people asking whether a second civil war is in the offing.

How did we get to such a crazy place? Well, ask yourself: Who has been running the show these last 50 years? The baby boom smashed into American history like a category 5 hurricane, leveling just about everything in its path – and the full extent of the damage is not yet known because the baby boomers are still hacking away at the institutions of American life. Their attitude has always been: tradition be damned; wisdom of the ages be damned. One drop of injustice or imperfection in an institution was enough to justify burning the whole thing down. They did some good, don’t get me wrong, but on the whole the baby boom has been a social, cultural and political disaster. If you walk around saying “question everything” long enough you are going to end up with a society that feels like it’s built on not very much that’s firm. 

The millennials and the baby boomers have a lot in common. They are both incredibly large cohorts – the millennials will ultimately be bigger, so expect them to be even more disruptive as they mature into adulthood (if they ever do). And, because they will be making their mark on a landscape that’s already been destabilized by 50 years of the baby boom, expect millennials ultimately to inflict even more damage.

MT:      What have we gained and lost intellectually and culturally as we transitioned from the “analog age” to the “digital age”?

MH:     We’ve certainly gained a great deal from the digital age. I don’t deny that it has made our lives easier and in many cases more enjoyable. But the cost has been severe. We’ve lost our ability to concentrate. That’s been documented by researchers, but you can probably see it in your own life. I know I can. Part of the reason I wrote this book was that I could feel my brain changing in real time. I was becoming addicted to social media and technology in a way that I didn’t like and wanted to reverse. We are so conditioned at this point to having everything delivered instantly to our front doors or to our phones that waiting for something – even if it’s just the answer to a trivia question – becomes almost intolerable.

Culturally I think the tradeoffs have been just as severe. Some say we are living in a golden age of television thanks to the infinite stream of binge-worthy offerings on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the rest. But newspapers and magazines are going extinct at the same time and people are watching movies made for the big screen on their teeny-tiny phones. Is there a concert or a ballgame anywhere in America where at least half the audience isn’t holding up their phones and filming? It’s almost as if people are more interested in curating their social media than they are in living in the real world. I’m not so sure we’ve thought through the consequences of these shifts.

MT:      How have our submission to the internet and addiction to social media erased the boundary between the public and private spheres and created a culture of surveillance and censorship at the hands of Silicon Valley elites?

MH:     When I talk to millennials I don’t get the sense that they are all that concerned with the privacy issue. To them, it seems, the benefits of putting everything online far outweigh the costs. But at this point no one can plead ignorance about the Silicon Valley business model. Every time you go online you are being tracked and, increasingly, we do everything online. Let me put it to you this way: If someone was following you on the street, would it make you nervous? If a stranger followed you into a store and appeared to be making notes as you browsed the shelves, would you want to know who they were and what they were up to? Of course you would. But the same thing is happening when we go online and for some reason we just accept it.

I find it slightly vexing how eager we’ve been to give these big corporations so much incredibly personal information. I’m baffled by the popularity of things like the Amazon Echo. Why would you let one of the biggest companies in the world plant a bug in your living room? So you can get some toothpaste delivered without having to turn on the computer and click a button? What is going on with us? There was a time not that long ago when it wasn’t necessary to explain the virtues of privacy. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the wired-up devices of the so-called internet of things could one day be exploited by malevolent actors, either in Silicon Valley or Washington, DC. I mean, if really you think we are headed toward fascism, you might consider keeping Big Brother at bay rather than letting him set up shop on your coffee table.

MT:      You write that “the 1990s revealed to Gen X that something deep and essential about politics, crime, punishment, and justice was a mirage.” Could you elaborate on that?

MH:     Gen X was just as idealistic as any young generation when it firsts hits the river. In fact, we may have been more idealistic than most because we witnessed the end of communism. Extraordinary stuff. The wall fell. The Iron Curtain came down before our eyes. The good guys had won. It was the end of history. But a bunch of things happened that slowly robbed us of our idealism. The Rodney King riots helped us realize that the racial divisions in this country hadn’t all been patched up during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, contrary to the self-mythologizing of the baby boomers. The O.J. Simpson trial showed us that the justice system didn’t always live up to its name. And the tawdry finish to the Bill Clinton presidency taught us not to expect salvation through politics. Leaders let you down, so don’t put your faith in them.

All of that stuff added up to make us sort of melancholy, but also sort of practical. We don’t ask for more than our share. We’re willing to wait our turn. We’re not looking to cut the line. You can count on us.

MT:      Why do you consider Generation X to be “the last adult generation” and how can they lead the way to cultural renewal?

MH:     I call us that because we were the last generation to have what are now referred to as “free-range” childhoods. Our parents didn’t view it as their responsibility to entertain us all day long. We rode bikes without helmets and spent hours at a time fending for ourselves. We came home to empty houses. If we were bad at something, the adults in our lives didn’t keep it from us. They gave it to us straight. It made us resilient. It made us adaptable. Somehow that way of raising kids has gone nearly extinct. Parents hire coaches these days to try to instill grit in their kids. We developed it naturally, but we were the last to have that experience. We were the last generation to graduate high school without the aid of Google. Soon we will be the last living Americans to remember the way things were before the internet came along.

If America is to find its way back to a time when people zealously guarded their privacy, when trust meant looking someone in the eye, when people signed their names to their insults or else kept their mouths shut, and when patience was considered a virtue, it will be Gen Xers who show the way.