The Gen X Jungle
April 26, 2000
Welcome To The Jungle: The Why Behind Generation X; by Geoffrey T. Holtz; St. Martin's PressThere is certainly no shortage of labels pasted to the collective forehead of the generation born between 1960 and 1980: slackers, twentynothings, boomerangers, babybusters, and the most ubiquitous, Generation X. But for someone who tries, and mostly succeeds, at getting behind these oversimplifications, Geoffrey T. Holtz couldn't resist licking the back of yet another contrived label and affixing it to his own forehead: The Free Generation. The author presents a forced definition of this term at the onset of his book. "The Free ... have grown up in a world that offers more choices than have ever before been available.... [But] opportunities to exercise these newfound freedoms are drying up. Higher education is being priced out of reach for a growing number. Job and income prospects are dismal. And the dream of owning a home is slipping away." But this is not just "ironic," it is a contradiction; if you can't exercise a choice, it's not a choice at all. Where Holtz succeeds -- the majority of the book -- is in presenting in a readable way the social, cultural and economic circumstances in which this generation has come of age. We all know that the cost of higher education has risen beyond many families' reach. But Holtz points out a little noted result of rising tuition: that the majority of undergraduates now need more than six years to earn a degree, and consequently the average college career actually costs 50 percent more than many of the sky-high figures imply. And this in-depth research is applied to a host of subjects: the effects on the Free Generation of the S&L crisis, the consequences of the high divorce rate, the decline of education, the scarcity of good jobs, the anticipated Social Security debacle, etc. Only occasionally does he rely on dubious sources: he quotes Dinesh D'Souza, whose book, Illiberal Education, was later discredited by the same positive reviewer who said he'd accepted as truth "some serious and irresponsible factual errors." But in explaining the circumstances of this generation, he neglects to apply the same level of analysis to the Boomers. For example, he takes Boomer parents, particularly women, to task for their "self-centered" approach to child-rearing by returning to work sooner than he thinks healthy. He then relegates to a footnote the fact that "80 percent of women would quit their jobs or reduce their work hours if they didn't need the money." Or, on one page he makes the argument that parents insouciantly divorced in the '70s, but on the very next page he says couples agonized over their decision to divorce. Regardless of a few contradictions, he uses considerable research to support the conclusion that the ills suffered by the 75 million people he calls the Free are not mere happenstance. He correctly points out that this generation has, and will continue to deal with the predictable results of specific policies, such as cutbacks in educational funding. And this point is easily overlooked when blithe labels such as "slacker" become so commonplace, they become common knowledge despite their lack of foundation in common sense.