Matthew Hennessey joins Aaron Renn to discuss the fading of the baby boom generation, the rise of tech-savvy millennials, and the challenge for those in-between, known as Generation X. This 10 Blocks episode is based on Matt’s essay from the Summer 2017 issue of City Journal, “Zero Hour for Generation X.”

While the baby boomers are finally preparing to depart the scene, “millennials could conceivably jump the queue, crowding out the more traditional priorities and preferences of the intervening generation—Generation X,” Matt writes. “If GenXers don’t assert themselves soon, they risk losing their ability to influence the direction of the country.”

Matthew Hennessey is associate op-ed editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of Right Here, Right Now, to be published in 2018 by Encounter Books. 

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Audio Transcript

Aaron Renn: Hello.  This is Aaron Renn, contributing editor at City Journal, and I am here with Matt Hennessey, someone you remember well as the former associate editor of City Journal and my next-door neighbor in the office who is now with the Wall Street Journal.  He is here to discuss his article in the summer 2017 edition of City Journal, “Zero Hour for Generation X.”  So, Matt, thanks for coming back and joining us to talk about your piece.

Matthew Hennessey: It is my pleasure, Aaron.

Aaron Renn: Everybody has different years and systems they use to talk about generations, demarcate generations.  What is the generational framework that you use and how do you define Generation X?

Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, it’s fuzzy.  A lot of people don’t even like to use this kind of lens to look at the world.  They think it is bogus.  I have gotten a lot of reaction like that since the piece was published.  Roughly speaking, I think the demographers and survey artists like Pew would call Generation X anyone born between about 1965 and about 1980.  That works fine.  Of course, as I said, you know, it gets blurry around the edges.  If you were born in 1964 of course you are probably in the Generation X.  And if you were born in 1981 you are probably in Generation X, but someone born in 1981 or 1964 may, by virtue of circumstance or personality, exhibit characteristics that we would more closely identify with millennials or baby boomers.  It is not an exact science.  My rough, my preferred, rough sort of rule of thumb on this is that if you got through high school without Google, you are Generation X.  And if you got through college without Google, presuming you went to college right after high school, then you are certainly Generation X.  That is sort of the cutoff for me.

Aaron Renn: Right.

Matthew Hennessey: I find that useful, you know, let’s say I got my first email account, I’m going to guess, around ’94.  So, how old was I?  I was 21 or 22.  It didn’t really – it will always be a new experience for me.  It was not a part of my childhood.  And that’s really the sort of, the point I’m trying to make in the articles.  That if you grew up, like the millennials did, and I don’t want to get ahead of our conversation here, with all of that kind of technology baked into your everyday life, you had a different childhood than I did.

Aaron Renn: Right.  So, you are kind of giving your age away a little bit here.

Matthew Hennessey: Oh, I’m sorry.

Aaron Renn: Do you mind telling us when you were born?

Matthew Hennessey: I do mind, Aaron.  No, I’m just kidding.  I’m 43.  I’ll be 44 in a couple months.  I was born in 1973.  That was the year of Roe vs. Wade and the year of, you know, that was the hot center of the Watergate deal.  I don’t remember 1973 terribly well, but I do remember the bicentennial, oddly enough, a couple years later.  Rocky, Star Wars, you know, all that stuff, good stuff.  Jimmy Carter, gas lines.

Aaron Renn: Right.  I was born in 1969 and my memories start right about 1976 in terms of…

Matthew Hennessey: Okay.

Aaron Renn: …current events.  I think the first song I remember on the radio when it was popular at the time was Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which I believe was in 1976.  And I remember…

Matthew Hennessey: You are a baby boomer!

Aaron Renn: …yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Matthew Hennessey: Well that proves my…

Aaron Renn: Well, my point to that – I’ve got a couple data points.  You know when Bret Easton Ellis was born?

Matthew Hennessey: I think he’s probably years older than me, so I’m going to say ’68.

Aaron Renn: ’64.  1964.

Matthew Hennessey: Oh, really?  Wow, okay.

Aaron Renn: 1964.  Douglas Coupland, who wrote the book Generation X, was born…

Matthew Hennessey: Well, he’s Canadian, so I’m not even sure if he should be a part of this conversation – sorry, that’s a joke.  He wrote that book in about ’91 or ’92, so I’ll say he was born in ’63.

Aaron Renn: Yeah, he was born in ’61.

Matthew Hennessey: Okay.  I want to say something about Douglas Coupland and Generation X, the idea.  So, he wrote a book.  It was a novel and it was published during the early 90s, called Generation X, which, I think, took its name from the band that Billy Idol started in the 70s, kind of a second-wave punk band.  Prior to my generation getting, having this label hung around our necks, Generation X, we were actually called by demographers the baby bust, a very interesting little interregnum there before the name got established.  Because we were the sort of falling off the demographic cliff after the baby boom, which ended, I think, around ’65.  I mean it was trailing off, but, you know, they market that it was a big, big drop-off in the number of babies born in this country in 1964 and 1965.  There’s a bunch of reasons for that.  Changing attitudes about sexuality and women’s roles, and the introduction of the birth control pill, and the natural sort of cresting of the wave of the baby boom.  The generation that preceded the baby boomers, the silent generation – not the greatest generation, but the silent generation – was itself a very small cohort.  So, there was a kind of a natural arc to this thing.  So, the baby boom falls off, they called us the baby bust.  That’s the interesting point.  A lot of people don’t know that.  My research has shown it…

Aaron Renn: Right.

Matthew Hennessey: …to be true.

Aaron Renn: Right.  So, one of your worries in the article is that America is going to flip straight from sort of boomer domination to millennial domination, and skip over Generation X.  You write that, “This skipping of a generation, if it happens, will be a special sort of injustice.”  Given the smaller cohort size you just pointed out, why do you think this would be an injustice?

Matthew Hennessey: I’ll tell you why.  It’s a lot like what is going to happen in England when Queen Elizabeth II dies.  Her son, Prince Charles, is 70 years old.  The guy has been second in line for his entire life.  It is the way it is supposed to be.  The rules are the rules.  And there’s a lot of people who say no, when she dies why don’t we skip him?  Let’s just go right to the younger generation.  They are cooler, they are telegenic, they are really plugged in.  It’s a great image for our country to have these young, handsome, savvy people to be the region of empire, whatever they call it.  Well, I think that’s not the way things ought to run.  Is it an injustice?  Like I said at the beginning, that’s a bit of a rhetorical device.  We are talking about very fuzzy concepts here.  There’s no one making the decision that we are going to simply skip Generation X, sorry kids, you are finished, you don’t get a chance at the table.  But I do sense in the culture a not-so-subtle shift from boomer dominance and boomer influence to millennial dominance and millennial influence.  Part of the reason, or perhaps the main reason, is because millennial generation is gigantic.  This is a tsunami wave bigger than the baby boom coming along.  And they are totally sucking all the oxygen out of the public space, from the business world, which is bending over backwards to accommodate their needs in the office, to even the military, which is looking at the way it trains soldiers and hardens up their recruits, to the dating world, to marketing and advertising, everything is being geared toward millennials.  Again, there are a bunch of reasons for that, including the fact that Generation X is right now in its prime family formation years, so you have a tendency to pull back from the culture during that period in your life and sort of take a lower profile, just put your nose to the grindstone and get on with the business of getting on.  I sense a little something different here.  Silicon Valley plays a big, has a big role to play in terms of the technology that is being introduced and the way millennials are adopting and adapting to it, that Generation X is not taking as much of a shine to.  We can talk about that in a second if you want to.  Is it an injustice?  I mean, perhaps in the strict definition…

Aaron Renn: Right.

Matthew Hennessey: …of the term justice, no.

Aaron Renn: Okay.  So, you are actually worried about what this might mean, though, practically, especially some of the risks from the millennials and what they might do to America.  And kind of the cliché is that, you know, everybody hates the millennials, right, which you go into in your piece.  What is your kind of like worry, or beef, with the millennials?

Matthew Hennessey: I want to, of course, state that I’m not talking about all millennials.  And when I shake my fist from my front porch and say hey, kids, get off my lawn, I am shaking at the millennials, yes, but I am also shaking it at the technology.  Because I really do think that the technology – the problems the millennials have is they came along right at the same time as the internet, and we call them digital natives.  People use that term as if it is some sort of a great thing to be.  In fact, as I sort of go into brief detail in the article about the journalist Nicholas Carr’s wonderful work on what the internet is doing to our brains, it is not a secret that total immersion – the more time spent in virtual spaces, you know, parents, we call it screen time, the habits that give rise to this idea of digital nativity are changing the neural pathways in people’s brains very rapidly and in an identifiable way.  It looks to researchers very much like the same thing that happens to your brain when you are addicted to a drug.  We can, you and I can probably testify to this.  We all know what it is like to be supposedly concentrating on a particular task and you are thinking about what is going on on your phone, or with your social media, you might want to check your email.  This is a change that I have noticed in my life and I don’t like it.  I suspect that most millennials don’t view it as a change.  They view it as the natural order of things.  It is the world they were born into, it is the world they were raised in, and so we call them digital natives.  It might be just as accurate to call them digital junkies.  And if you were to throw that label on them you might think twice about giving a kid an iPad in kindergarten.

Aaron Renn: I do find it interesting that the Silicon Valley kind of tech leaders strictly control their own personal children’s access to…

Matthew Hennessey: Yeah, so that’s very common.  Steve Jobs, before he died, said I would never give my kid an iPhone.

Aaron Renn: Right.  What I would say about the millennials, I find them having a lot in common with boomers in a couple respects.  One, not only they are big, their sort of self-regard, but also in their stance towards sort of the institutions and structures of society.  You know, the baby boomers inherited America at its peak and effectively went to war against the institutions of America and then ultimately took them over and reshaped them.  And today, as everyone bemoans the fact that nobody trusts our institutions anymore, that our politics have been degraded, that religion no longer has any respect, the press isn’t respected anymore, frankly that’s a product of the baby boomers who, you know, eviscerated, deliberately eviscerated American institutions.  And I say that the millennials have a very similar attitude towards disruption.  All disruption is good, there is no reason to ever hold back on innovation or disruption.  They, again, inherited a prosperous country, a free country, and seem to have very little concept of the fact that there may be supporting infrastructure that keeps that going and they think they can just replace the entire structure, kind of rewrite society from the ground up around, maybe anything from universal basic income to transhumanism, to all these things, consequence free.  It is interesting to me that Generation X, largely viewed as the most cynical generation, has actually taken at least a neutral stance towards institutions, not deliberately attacked institutions.

Matthew Hennessey: Well…

Aaron Renn: How do you feel about that?  You’ve got some of that in the article but I mean how do you feel about that thesis I just laid out?

Matthew Hennessey: Well, I love that thesis, Aaron Renn, of Generation X.  I get into a lot of that stuff a little more in detail in my book, which is going to be published next year on this topic by Encounter.  As I say, sometimes, well, you hit the nail on the head with regard to the boomers.  We shouldn’t actually get too deep into that because the story has been so well told.  My favorite joke at the moment is that Billy Joel says we didn’t start the fire, but it sounds very defensive to me when he does.  This is a generation that was basically dealt a straight flush, and they blew it.  And they blew it over, and over, and over again.  They’re still blowing it and they won’t leave.  They just won’t leave.  Look at the last election, was between two baby boomers.

Aaron Renn: 70 is the new 50.

Matthew Hennessey: As a young person who is sitting not very far from us now, at the moment, I believe told me recently, oh, your book is about Generation X – oh, yeah, that’s the generation that’s not going to get a president, right?  And she was dead serious.  It was not a joke.  Here’s – you got at a lot of the things that concern me in the remarks you just made.  I will limit my comment on that to one thing that frightens the pants off me, and which I hear very few people speaking against, and that is the internet of things, or as I prefer to call it, the internet of everything.  So, this is the notion, you know, the Amazon Echo is like the perfect product encapsulation of this idea of bringing products into your home, or into your car, or into your pocket, into your office, that are wired up into the internet and which are recording information about you all day long and sending it to a database run by a giant corporation invented and staffed by millennial utopians.  It strikes me as a very unusual place for a country like this to end up, where we voluntarily shoveling our personal, most personal data, including you know, what’s that little machine that vacuums your house?  The Roomba?

Aaron Renn: The Roomba.

Matthew Hennessey: There was a story about that a couple weeks ago, about how even that thing is…

Aaron Renn: Spying on you.

Matthew Hennessey: …is spying on you.

Aaron Renn: Sending maps of your home up to the internet.

Matthew Hennessey: It is a voluntary surveillance state.  And we love it.  We want more of it.  Nobody ever says hey, wait a minute, maybe the convenience of being able to order some toilet paper and a box of peanut M&Ms from your bathtub is not worth trading your privacy for.  I mean when I was a kid, and I’m not that old, as we discussed in the beginning, the thought of someone being able to track your movements all day long would have been like, people would have said why would you do that?  Why would you want a giant corporation to know where you are?  But if you carry a smartphone in your pocket and I’ll get to this in a second – I do carry a smartphone in my pocket, I don’t know that I have a choice – that’s exactly what is happening.  That is exactly what is happening.  With the Amazon Echo there was a case in Arkansas, I think, where the data recorded by the voice recorder was subpoenaed by the cops to, you know, help solve the commission of a crime.  I find millennials to be very trusting about this, about all of this data that is being collected.  They think well, come on, you know, no big company wants to pay to store all that data on their servers, that’s really expensive.  They’re not reading my emails.  They’re chucking all that stuff, they’re burning it.  It’s very unusual.  I hear it more and more.  Okay, so I do have these devices, I do have email, of course.  I have social media.  I hope that you all follow me at Twitter, @MattHennessey.  I have an iPhone.  I also have children, and as I mentioned a second ago, Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids have these things.  It was a sort of a – Steve Jobs is a good baby boomer.  My general attitude is that we need to take a second.  This headlong rush into this wired up, digital internet of everything is happening with entirely too little conversation and debate.  It is all being presented as the salvation of the country, the salvation of our economy, the salvation of our youth, the future, it is glorious, Silicon Valley can do no wrong.  My whole thing is let’s take a minute.

Aaron Renn: Well, Matt, I share a lot of your concerns about the implications of new technology, but I remember when I was a kid and you were a kid, they used to talk about television having the same effect.  In fact, it was back in the 60s, I believe, that Newt Minow famously called television a vast wasteland.  I remember that kids used to sit around for hours, and hours, and hours just in front of the TV, which has been in decline, I believe, is this technology – aren’t we really talking about technology substitution, in a sense?  And isn’t there this perennial concern about the corruption of the youth going back to Socrates?

Matthew Hennessey: There is.  You are right about that.  And I’m not going to sit here and lie.  I definitely remember being told as a kid that television was going to melt my brain, and I seem to remember also hearing that you know, back in the 80s, that because sitcoms were so popular and they were in a particular time format, that teachers or educators were lamenting that kids couldn’t concentrate for more than 24 minutes, or something like that.  To which I was like wouldn’t you love to have a 24-minute attention span now?  Like, if you think the problem was bad then, you should talk to a high school teacher now about kids being able to concentrate.  But here’s the big difference.  The technology has changed, and this is why I take your point, it is a good point, and it is worth having this element of the conversation, but the technology today is totally different, and here’s why.  So, television, as bad as it was, was a tool.  You used it and a corollary to that was it wasn’t always on and it wasn’t always accessible.  If you wanted to watch the news, for instance, you had to be in front of the TV at 6:30.  You couldn’t take it with you, you couldn’t check it whenever you wanted.  It couldn’t do this thing that I am talking about where it gets inside your mind and you can’t stop thinking about it because you need a hit like a junkie.  Okay.  Number two, technology today is not a tool.  We are the tool.  The technology is using us.  The technology is following us around.  The technology is checking on whether we still like green sweaters.  The technology is asking us hey, are you still thinking about taking a vacation in three weeks, and if so, are you still thinking about taking the whole family to a hotel in London, right?  That kind of thing never happened when you were on TV.  You know, we were overexposed to advertising and that sort of had an effect on us, but we, in a sense, control the terms of that interaction.  We no longer control the terms of that interaction.  So, that’s what I have to say about the differences between technology in the 80s, say, and the technology today.

Aaron Renn: Right.  Well, Matt, we could talk about this all day.  I’ve got like a long list of questions I could still ask, but I think I actually even ran too long as it is, so we are going to have to wrap this up for now.  Again, the article is “Zero Hour for Generation X,” in the summer edition of City Journal.  Check it out and, I guess, with Matt’s book, be sure to check that out when it is released on Encounter.

Photo: vgajic/iStock

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