Back to the Future? Generation X and Occupy Wall Street
The following is an excerpt from AlterNet's forthcoming book, The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement is Changing America, which tells the gripping story of the emergence, expansion and influence of a phenomenon poised to transform our ideological landscape and unleash our potential to reinvent our society.
The year was 1974. My family was gathered around the shrine of the living room television. I was four years old, aware only that something momentous must be happening to draw such rapt attention. A jowly, vaguely menacing-looking man with dark hair was reading a speech.
"What is it, Daddy?"
"The president is getting kicked out on his butt."
My introduction to the world of politics was learning that the leader of my country was a no-good crook. Welcome to Generation X.
People wonder why those born between 1965 and 1980 tend to be nihilistic and wary of commitment. Why many of us keep an ironic distance between ourselves and just about everything. That's because so many aspects of the culture we inherited were a form of lie told to us daily. And unlike previous generations, we never really got a hero. No FDR. No Camelot. Just one jerk after another trying to sell us snakeoil with a smile. The only president who even made an attempt to do things honestly, Jimmy Carter, was branded a fool.
Plenty of us rolled the dice as entrepreneurs because we didn't trust the suit-and-tie corporate scene any more than we trusted politicians with comb-overs. Left alone as latchkey kids, we turned away from all that, creating our own worlds (the Internet) and cocooning ourselves in shallow pop culture, our very own Land of the Lost. As we reached adulthood, many of us sat alone at our computers, accepting all too often Reagan'sinvitation to disconnect from our government and get on with the business of accumulating and consuming to fill the great emptiness.
For a moment, it looked like Barack Obama might finally give us something to believe in. But we weren't terribly surprised when that didn't work out, either. Among progressives, Gen-Xers may have been the least trusting of the sweet-talking pol from Chicago. Baby Boomers were stirred by the lingering hopes of their youth. Millennials had not yet faced betrayal by a politician they looked up to. But Gen-Xers suffered no such delusions. We never really looked up to anybody. We've tended to travel pretty lightly in this world.
Our grandparents saw ordinary people rise up in the '30s and '40s to demand -- and receive -- fair wages, Social Security and equitable growth over the next 40 years. Our moms and dads witnessed the great advances for women and minorities born from the rebellion of the '60s. Those generations before us saw with their own eyes that the people could join together and fight back to gain something powerful for themselves. They understood that entrenched systems could be challenged, and even conquered.
Gen-Xers never got to learn this. We learned how to blow up digital alienswith a joystick.
Occupy Wall Street, can we believe in you? Can you help us break through the recesses of memory and connect with those earlier triumphs in our country's history? Can you take us on a cross-generational back-to-the-future ride and inspire us with your passion and your startling energy? Can you remind us that we don't have to wait for the next politician, the next charismatic leader to get things done? That we can actually do it ourselves?
Be patient with us. We tend to be individualistic, and we need to learn how to form the sustained bonds needed for long-term activism. Lots of us don't do so well sitting through meetings that last hours discussing laundry and trash. In the face of crackdowns and violent attempts to kill this movement, we need to know that you're not going away. We have been manipulated in too many ways, by too many systems. We have scars.
Truthfully, you need us. Smaller than other generations, we are still 50 million souls. We are well-educated, technically adept and ethnically diverse, more so than those who came before us. And we are hungry, so hungry for a better world.
We need you, too. We've seen that look in the eyes of the '60s children when they told us stories of joining protests in their youth. The era-envy we felt! We wanted to taste possibility so badly that tens of thousands of us flocked to Prague in the '90s after the Velvet Revolution, just to see what history-in-the-making looked like. We saw the poet-president guiding a new society and wistfully thought, "Why can't this happen at home?"
The first time I went down to Liberty Plaza, I didn't trust what I was seeing. "Just another wasted effort," I thought. But I came back, and in the first general assembly that I joined (and admittedly made it only halfway through), my eyes began to tear as I listen to the amplified voices of the people's mic. When I shouted along, I was a part of this. Other generations may not easily understand just how difficult that is for Gen X -- feeling part of something. A long-jaded heart opens up slowly and painfully.
But that's what you've done. You've taken us somewhere we have never traveled.
Let's do this thing together. It's not like Gen-Xers don't have a lot to be pissed off about. In fact, we excel in being pissed off. The years of our birth marked the beginning of so many declines in American life, real wages, worker's rights, manufacturing, etc. We are sick of downgrading the future. We don't have pensions; they're chipping away at our Social Security; our houses (if we have them) are underwater; our healthcare sucks; and the last time we worked a 40-hour week was -- never. Frankly, we never lost the fear that we'd end up flipping burgers like the slackers they told us we were. In fact, in a world of chronically high unemployment, we often fear we won't be able to do even that.
You, with your fresh thoughts, can you teach us to close our in-boxes and march with you? To get off the treadmill of endless work and consumption, to slow down and keep pace with you? To stand firm in the face of violent assaults and propaganda and a global financial monster bent on strangling us?
Yes, let's do this thing together. Let's link arms with every generation to oppose the demonic force of unfettered capitalism, a system of such appalling evil that it must deny basic human values in order to justify itself. Let's get the Baby Boomers who remember how to organize. And let's call in the children of the Depression who know how to fight labor battles. Let's talk to the college students who are trembling right now to inherit a world that has been so desperately screwed up. Let's bring in the trade unions and the churches and the community groups and the university professors and even the Silicon Valley guys who think that a high-speed connection beats a human connection.
Let's grow this thing together, no matter what happens. Let's learn from one another and prove that the 99 percent will not be silenced. Maybe we can figure out how to divide the 1 percent. Or conjure strategies the established media won't expect. Or make sure the politicians choke on every lie they tell us. Or just continue to talk and think about what kind of society we actually want to live in.
Let's channel this elemental energy into something that lasts. For then Generation X will no longer be popcorn venders at the intermission of history.
We will be making it. With you.