As Capitol Hill groans under the weight of panicking Democrats, there is one sign of hope for those caught in the disarray: once regarded as a political impossibility, Joe Biden’s decline has cleared the way for a replacement candidate — who could make good on the President’s 2020 promise to be merely a “transitional candidate” who would bridge the generations in the party.

Looking at the names being floated over the past week, there are two possible successor generations: Generation X and millennial. Yet of those being touted — Vice President Kamala Harris, Governors Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, J.B. Pritzker and Andy Beshear, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — only one, Buttigieg, does not belong to Gen X (while Harris, born in 1964, straddles the line). This is a shame. For while there is little doubt that the United States is overdue for generational change, it is not at all clear that Gen X embodies the kind of change that America needs.

Both these generations have been known to chafe under the suffocating domination of their Boomer predecessors; and both have gone through phases of rebellion against the same. Yet there are also crucial differences: one generation came of age in the heyday of globalisation, before Y2K and the other reached adulthood at the tail end of it around the 2008 crash. This has resulted in two distinct forms of political consciousness. As a consequence, beneath the question of which geriatric party establishment shall hold the keys to power in the next four years, a more important one looms: which generational value set will prevail over the next 40? For the present era is a one of paradigmatic transition: the days of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush are at a close, but what will replace it is still far from certain.

To answer this, we must return to the Boomers. Born after the war, this cohort grew up amid the greatest expansion of middle-class wealth ever recorded — the product of the dynamic industrial economy left behind by the G.I. generation. By the Seventies, however, it began to stagnate, and their response was to build a new economy based largely on financialisation, real estate and tech. As a result, between 1983 and 2023, average house prices rose by 500% and the value of stocks as measured by the S&P 500 benchmark index grew by 2,800%. Cheap credit, free trade, and a tech-driven productivity boom in the Nineties combined with these trends to give the impression of an economy growing in leaps and bounds. And it paid dividends, mainly for the Boomers, who got to keep the lion’s share of the gains, amounting to half the nation’s assets ($78.3 trillion in 2023), even as later events, such as the Great Recession and the reckoning over “the China Shock” exposed the growth of this era as illusory and unsustainable.

By the 2020s, as Boomer retirements accelerate, Gen Xers and millennials are set to inherit this wealth, in what’s been dubbed “the Great Wealth Transfer“. To what end this wealth is deployed will be the defining question of the next paradigm. And it is here where the divide between the Gen X and millennial political value sets come into play.

The romantic self-image of the Gen Xers is grounded in traits such as independence and stoicism: they were the “latchkey kids”, or as Rich Cohen put it in Vanity Fair, “the last Americans schooled in the old manner [who] know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds”. In their youth, anti-political cynicism formed the basis of their own counter-counterculture against the passé idealism of the Boomers.

Yet in its maturity, around the turn of the millennium, this cohort failed to produce a properly political expression that was practically distinct from the post-Reagan status quo, which they could only assent to, notwithstanding the directionless anti-corporate currents of the Clinton years or the anti-war movement of the Bush years. After all, these were peak “End of History” decades and the free market appeared to be humming just fine. Though not as socially mobile as the Boomers and despite having had to deal with recession in the early Nineties, Gen Xers still benefited from the boom times that followed; they had an overall easier time starting careers, forming households, and joining the middle class than the later post-2008 millennial cohorts. The same individualist ethos extolled by the likes of Cohen or Bret Easton Ellis worked well within the parameters of the highly atomised post-industrial paradigm that existed before the big crash: Gen X could afford to retain the apathy and detachment of their youth because, structurally speaking, there were little to no stakes.

“This cohort failed to produce a properly political expression that was practically distinct from the post-Reagan status quo.”

Of course, Gen Xers were, like everyone else, affected by the Great Recession. But by this point, their institutional conservatism had arguably been baked into their generational character; and it would, in any event, have been unlikely for them to develop revolutionary aspirations in middle age (something left to the millennials). In the contest for a Biden replacement, this conservatism is discernible, albeit very subtly concealed, in the stances and rhetoric of the Gen Xer candidates.

In a recent New York Times interview, for instance, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, born in 1971, made her case for generational change: “We recognise that our parents’ generation has had a lot of excess. So I’m hopeful that we can really move the needle, whether it’s bringing down our nation’s debt or ensuring that we are active when it comes to climate and solidifying and protecting individual rights.” Here, strikingly, Whitmer’s unit of analysis remains “individual”. She also lists the debt as her leading issue, reflecting a scale of priorities unchanged from Boomer liberalism’s high noon in the Nineties, when fiscal rectitude, environmentalism, and social progressivism were the orders of the day.

Listening to Newsom, Pritzker or Harris, one also struggles to find awareness of political horizons outside this paradigm. Indeed, it may very well be that the whole idea of thinking in terms of material economic structures is anathema to the Gen X as well as the Boomer mindset, having been conditioned against that possibility by the “post-materialist” abundance of their formative years.

Contrast this with Buttigieg’s words when he was last a presidential contender in 2019: “A lot of this is the consequence of what you might call the Reagan consensus… The empirical collapse of that supply side consensus, I think, is one of the defining moments of this period… It turns out a rising tide does not lift all boats. Not on its own.” Where Whitmer has “the individual”, the unit of analysis here is “the paradigm” — that is, the web of structures, norms and rules which set the range of possibilities for most Americans.

In recognising the passage of paradigms, Buttigieg is arguably closer to fellow millennials on the progressive, post-Occupy Left and the heterodox “New Right” than he is to his ostensible fellow centrist liberals from the Gen X cohort. While late Boomers like Barack Obama and Gen Xers like Jake Sullivan might have also acknowledged the need to transcend Reaganism-Clintonism, they have often had to come to their conclusions through reflection. But what is merely theoretical to them is all too real to most politically conscious millennials, who grew up in the wreckage of the old order. Unlike the Gen Xers, their youthful rebellions were explicitly political on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

In particular, there is a compelling parallel between Buttigieg and fellow millennial rising star (and prospective Trump VP candidate) J.D. Vance. Both hail from de-industrialised hinterlands, are veterans of Bush-era forever wars, and have expressed desires to break from their parties’ Boomer-era orthodoxies on political economy, even as they continue to hold opposing views on social issues. It recalls the dynamic between Clinton and Bush: they might have disagreed on abortion or gay rights, but the common denominator between them — support for financialisaton and globalisation — nonetheless underpinned the last consensus.

And today, so too might the common denominator between the millennial Right and Left give rise to a new consensus based on de-financialisation and national re-industrialisation, a worthy goal to which the flow of American capital and investment may be directed, as “the Great Wealth Transfer” begins to unfold. Unlike the Boomers, who sucked the world dry, or the Gen Xers, who failed to do anything about it, the millennials may yet leave a better and fairer country to those that follow in Generations Z, Alpha, and beyond. The elevation of a president from this generation, from either party, would likely hasten the realisation of this hopeful future.

view comments


Some of the posts we share are controversial and we do not necessarily agree with them in the whole extend. Sometimes we agree with the content or part of it but we do not agree with the narration or language. Nevertheless we find them somehow interesting, valuable and/or informative or we share them, because we strongly believe in freedom of speech, free press and journalism. We strongly encourage you to have a critical approach to all the content, do your own research and analysis to build your own opinion.

We would be glad to have your feedback.

Buy Me A Coffee

Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: