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  • Brendan Shaw

Here we are now, entertain us: the Gen X factor in intergenerational politics

Updated: Feb 15

Brendan Shaw



 

“With the lights out, it's less dangerous

Here we are now, entertain us

I feel stupid and contagious

Here we are now, entertain us.”

 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana, 1991

 


As Generation Xers now entering middle age, we might want to be entertained, but it just ain't going to happen.


Today, I am a member of Generation X in middle age. Looking back, the late 20th century seemed so much simpler.


My teenage years in the 1980s included thin leather ties, Live Aid, the Berlin Wall falling, Space Invaders, Olivia Newton John in leg warmers, and the 1987 stock market crash.


By contrast, my 20s were a period when Indie music became mainstream, environmental protection and climate change became a thing, and we entered the workforce during the early 1990s recession with unemployment at more than 10% and interest rates above 17%.


We got a good dose of moody realism and independence that has been labelled as quintessentially ‘Generation X’.


 

Generation X – in the middle of the intergenerational sandwich


Fast forward to today and Generation X finds itself sandwiched between the Baby Boomers on one side and Millennials and Generation Z on the other, just as the generations seem as far apart as ever.


In the last decade or so, we’ve seen older people criticising Millennials as lazy and spending too much money on avocado toast, Millennials openly criticising older generations with ‘Okay Boomerdenunciations, and everyone condemning Gen Z's for being 'snowflakes'.


And now, we are going through a ‘Millennial Moment’ where major demographic shifts mean that Millennials are already the largest population cohort worldwide, and, if not already, will soon be the largest population cohort in many individual countries such as Australia, Canada, China, and the US. The world is changing fast.


This demographic transition is politically charged right now because there are many intergenerational justice issues afflicting the world. These include financial equity, housing affordability, climate change, cultural clashes in the workplace, fiscal sustainability, youth disillusionment with politics and democracy, and disagreements about family and cultural bonds. Millennials and Gen Zs are looking into the future and aren't impressed by what they see.


In the middle of this intergenerational warfare, is Generation X.


People of my generation, Gen X, have spent their lives following in the wake of the Baby Boomer generation.


I could talk about intergenerational equity from the Gen X point of view, but I'll brush that demographic chip off my shoulder and instead talk about what sort of leadership Gen X can provide in today.


Fundamentally, it's about leading, inspiring and engaging from a minority position.


Unlike the Boomers or the Millennials, we can't dominate the world by sheer weight of numbers.


We have to lead by people wanting to listen to us, not because they have to.


Why?


Because Gen Xers don't have the same political clout as the Boomers or the Millennials. We just don't have as many votes compared to other generations.


It all starts with the post-World War II baby boom. When you look at surveys from a variety of countries, population demographics mean that those Generation X people born in the period 1965 to 1980 are outnumbered on either side of the age profile by the post-war, retiree Baby Boomers on one side and the family and career building Millennials on the other.


We just don’t have the numbers.



Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics "Snapshot of Australia" https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/snapshot-australia/latest-release; Statistics Canada, "A generational portrait of Canada’s aging population from the 2021 Census", https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2021/as-sa/98-200-X/2021003/98-200-X2021003-eng.cfm; Statista, "Population distribution in the United States in 2022, by generation", https://www.statista.com/statistics/296974/us-population-share-by-generation/; Statista, "Population of the United Kingdom from 1990 to 2021, by generation", https://www.statista.com/statistics/528577/uk-population-by-generation/#statisticContainer; accessed 15/2/2024. UK data is for 2020 because 2021 data not complete.



It’s already been noted that 2024 is the year where half of the world’s adult population will be voting in elections.


Moreover, politics this year is likely to be turned on its head in many countries as Millennial voters are increasingly outnumbering Baby Boomer voters. Political parties are going after these Millennial voters, be it the United States, Australia, the UK, Canada, and Germany. There's also political upheaval within generations, with divisions between Gen Y/Millennial women and men in South Korea a case in point.


Meanwhile, Gen Xers will be watching from the middle, sandwiched between the Boomers and Gen Y/Millennial voting blocs.


Unlike the Boomers and Millennials, it's easier to ignore Gen Xers.


There's even debate around the upcoming US elections later this year about Generation X’s role in Congress and the Presidency and whether there will ever be a Gen X President of the United States.




 

Inheriting a changing world


To make it more complicated, as well as being outnumbered, Gen Xers are reaching seniority and taking leadership positions just as the whole notion of leadership is changing. We're taking over at a time when the idea of who should be making decisions in society is undergoing a fundamental reassessment.


There are many global issues affecting notions of leadership in the 21st century. The #Me-too movement, climate change, the unwinding of European/Western colonialism, the shift in economic power to the East, the growth of emerging markets, risks to the global environment and biodiversity, the future of work, the development of artificial intelligence, LGTBQIA+ rights, and ESG are all challenging traditional decision-making processes in societies. Rapid change is … well … everywhere.


This list of challenging issues means that the traditional path of leadership that previous generations have experienced has been turned on its head just as Gen Xers are reaching that point in their careers.


Think about it. When the war babies of the Quiet Generation and the Baby Boomers reached senior management in times past, leaders in many countries were usually white, middle-aged men. Whether it was in business, politics, sport, the media, religion, or the legal system, in previous generations it was often grumpy, old white men who had the leadership positions.


But today many of the world’s problems need more diversity in leadership and decision making. This is critical because it will help ensure humanity is better at managing global issues and that the views of different social groups and generations are taken seriously.


Various surveys have shown that younger generations today feel disempowered from the political system and have lost faith in democracy, in part because they feel political leaders no longer address their needs.


 

The leadership challenge for Generation X


After decades of having to follow in the wake of the Boomers, growing up as ‘latchkey’ kids and developing our independence, it might be up to us Gen Xers to lead the way in changing how society works and how the different generations work together.


The quiet, indie, perhaps slightly sullen generation that grew up in the mosh pit dancing to Nirvana is going to have to find a way to lead in the 21st century that chills out and mediates the political and social schism between the older and younger generations around us.


We're entering senior leadership positions just as we reach the first time in human history that five generations have to work together in the office.


Go figure. How did we get ourselves into this?


Just as we reach the stage in life where previous generations inherited the spoils of leadership, wealth, decision making and authority … we may have to give it all up for the good of humanity.


Kind of sucks, doesn’t it.


Yes, we want to be entertained, but let's face it, we don't have the votes anyway. Situation normal.


That slightly disengaged, non-conformist and non-judgmental attitude Generation X nurtured in the 80s and 90s might offer something when the rest of the world today is so polarised and at each other's throats.


Generation X's time may have come.










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