The Great Gen X vs. Boomer Debate Comes for Kamala
Boomers have dominated American politics for more than three decades, and that’s not about to change
Kamala Harris, who is running for vice president alongside Democratic nominee Joe Biden, feels like a breath of fresh air. She’s crisp, dynamic, and charismatic, a youthful counter to Biden, who, if he wins this election, will turn 80 while in office. Put her smiling face next to the stale, curdled visage of Donald Trump, and the president looks all the sourer.
She’s also a baby boomer’s idea of a young person — in a country where 80% of U.S. senators are over the age of 55, and not a single one is under 40, Harris (55 herself) is practically aglow with youthful vitality. You’d barely know that Harris is a boomer. And don’t expect her to own it.
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Boomers have dominated American politics for more than three decades. Dan Quayle became the first baby boomer in the White House in 1989 when he began his term as George H.W. Bush’s vice president. Bill Clinton was the first baby boomer president when he took office in 1993; his vice president, Al Gore, was a boomer too. And ever since, the Oval Office has been boomer-occupied, from George W. Bush through Barack Obama through Donald Trump (fun fact: Clinton, Bush, and Trump were all born within the same three-month period in the summer of 1946, the first year of the baby boom). If Joe Biden wins, 2021 will be the first time in nearly 30 years that the president won’t be a baby boomer — he’ll be even older, a member of the silent generation born during the Great Depression but raised in post-war prosperity.
His vice president, though, will continue the tradition of boomer dominance. Harris was born in 1964, the last year of the baby boom.
In the midst of an anti-boomer backlash, this is inconvenient and already met with strong denial. On Tuesday night, Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler tweeted, “Who is going to write the definitive essay on whether Kamala Harris, born in 1964, reps the Boomers or Gen X because I will read the shit out of that.” Having just interviewed and surveyed several hundred boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials for my book on generation divides and boomer political influence, I’m pretty sure I know the answer: No one born on the cusp of the boomer/Gen X generations identifies as a boomer. While the baby boom ran from 1946 to 1964, even people born in the late 1950s told me over and over, “I’m not really a baby boomer.” Not even boomers want to be boomers.
This is particularly true for the younger half of the boomer generation, some of whom have adopted their own moniker, “Generation Jones.” The theory is that “late boomers have more in common with the jaded Generation X that followed,” as Richard Pérez-Peña put it in a New York Times op-ed titled “I May Be 50, but Don’t Call Me a Boomer.” Pérez-Peña made up his own terminology, dividing the boomer generation into the “boomer classic,” born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and “boomer reboot,” born from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Jennifer Finney Boylan, a late boomer who identifies as Generation Jones, also makes her cohort sound more like the pessimistic flannel-wearers of Reality Bites than the wide-eyed watchers of Leave It to Beaver. “If the zeitgeist of the boomers was optimism and revolution, the vibe of Gen Jones was cynicism and disappointment,” she writes. “The fact that most people have never even heard of Generation Jones is the most Generation Jones thing about Generation Jones.”
This, too, is a Gen X-ism — grumbling about being the forgotten middle child between the dominant baby boomers and the shiny young millennials. Gen Xers were the original latchkey kids and the Jan Brady of the generations. Now Generation Jones is elbowing in, claiming to be so neglected they forgot themselves.
The youngest boomers, those born in the 1960s, often forgo the Generation Jones title and just flat-out claim that they’re Gen Xers. The man who wrote the book “Generation X,” a cohort of which he considered himself a part, was born in 1961. And anecdotally, many of the people I spoke with who were born in the ’60s claimed Gen X identity as well.
No one wants to be a boomer any more, and it’s easy to see why.
Of course, all generational groupings are imperfect, after-the-fact constructs, and their edges are necessarily always fuzzy. There’s no doubt that someone born in October of 1964, as Harris was, shared many more common experiences with a Gen Xer born in February of 1965 than a fellow boomer born, as Trump was, in June of 1946. But that’s going to be true no matter where you draw a generational line. And what’s telling is that you don’t see this same dynamic of one-way denial between Gen Xers and millennials. Young Gen Xers and older millennials also share overlapping cultural and political experiences. But what I found is that instead of hewing strongly to one generation over another, those born roughly between 1978 and 1982 claimed both generations. Some identified as “Xennials”; others thought they were more Gen X or more millennial, but there was not the same clear preference for one generation over another — and no millennial or Gen Xer distanced themselves from their generation quite as aggressively and consistently as baby boomers did from theirs.
No one wants to be a boomer any more, and it’s easy to see why. Gen X is still kind of cool. Boomers are not. And boomers, who have dominated American politics for millennials’ entire lives, have done a lot of damage. They brought us Ronald Reagan, a ripped-up social safety net, mass incarceration, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, exploding college costs, Trump, and now a radically irresponsible and broadly deadly response to a pandemic that all of our peer nations have gotten under control. Americans are currently trapped within our own borders because our boomer president and his largely boomer base made us a global health hazard; they’ve created conditions so dangerous that they’ve imperiled our very ability to vote them out.
And there are real differences between growing up in the 1950s and growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, from the television you watched to the most pressing political issues of the time to the music you thought was definitional. That said, one thing absolutely unites boomers and distinguishes them from other generations: They all think their music is the best music. For some, that’s Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, or maybe it’s The Beatles vs. The Stones; others claim The Clash and Led Zeppelin or the early hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang. If nothing else defines baby boomers, their musical chauvinism certainly does.
These cultural differences, though, are true of millennials, too — those of us born in the early 1980s have few shared touchstones with those born a decade later and certainly came of age in very different political and economic universes (as the Great Recession was hitting older millennials harder than any other generation, the youngest millennials didn’t yet have driver’s licenses). And yet you don’t hear younger millennials wholesale rejecting the millennial moniker — at least not yet.
The rejection of boomer identity seems to be fundamentally more about politics than culture or even the usual uncoolness of aging. As one then-36-year-old Reagan-voting boomer told the New York Times in 1984, “I’ve started having a vested interest in the status quo, because I am the status quo.” Do we really buy that Harris is culturally more aligned with the disaffected, cynical political dropouts of Generation X than she is with baby boomers, whose youthful optimism gave way to more conservative politics of the Reagan ’80s and the “third way” moderate liberalism of the Clinton ’90s? Does Harris seem like a Nirvana-listening pessimistic eye-roller to you?
When someone born from 1946 and 1964 says they aren’t really a baby boomer, what they’re actually saying is “I’m not like those baby boomers” — you know, the racist, sexist old white people who ruined the country, destroyed the planet, and decided to give the world one last fat middle finger by voting for Trump. I wouldn’t want to associate with them either.
What’s underappreciated, though, is that baby boomers are America’s most politically polarized generation, split down the middle between liberals and conservatives. (Millennials, by contrast, are much more progressive.) Conservative white boomers have been politically dominant at the polls. Progressive boomers, though, have largely won the culture, including the hearts and minds of young people. And while boomers overwhelmingly did not lead the social movements for which their generation gets credit, progressive boomers remain some of our most dynamic and influential leaders and thinkers, including lawyer and criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson, women’s rights advocate Loretta Ross (who helped to develop the concept of “reproductive justice”), and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (who coined the millennial-beloved term “intersectionality”). Conservative boomers have done a lot of harm. But liberal ones have fought back mightily, if largely unsuccessfully. They should own it.
Harris, I’m sorry to say, is a baby boomer. Don’t get mad at me; I don’t make the rules. As a millennial, I follow them.