News & Politics

The Washington Post Is Unclear on the Concept of Generation X

Generation X “looks like Paul Ryan,” Lavanya Ramanathan states in the Washington Post. The speaker of the US House of Representatives is but one politician who exemplifies America’s least-obsessed-over generation, Ramanathan writes:

Consider the conservatives who barnstormed the last election cycle: There is the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who’s 45; Sen. Ted Cruz, 46; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 49.

This is true: Some people born in the late 1960s and early 1970s enjoy political power at this moment. At least in 2012, a slightly higher percentage of Americans born in the years commonly defined as Generation X tended to vote conservative.  They’re also less likely than millennials to have taken a selfie or believe their generation is unique.

It’s a sensible belief, because a generation is such a broad way of viewing a group of people as to be almost indistinguishable from astrology. Ryan, Haley, Cruz, and Walker are Gen X’ers; so are Gabrielle GiffordsBeto O’RourkeCory Booker, and Julián Castro. In a Bizarro America where the political winds blew differently last November, Ramanathan’s essay would have to make exactly the opposite point with different people.

Anyone who’s sat through a marketer’s description of millennials as people who “crave authenticity” (there are people who don’t?) or who value experiences more than objects understands the poverty of the Post quoting Neil Howe as saying Gen X is “just naturally Republican.” Generations are too broad a group to sort that neatly; geography, class, education, even the kind of music you listened to while growing up mean just as much as birth year. (Ryan is a classic rock guy; O’Rourke was in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala–which one is more Gen X-y? If you were a frat boy who loved Hootie you were just as much a Gen X’er as a record-collecting maggot who still prizes his copy of the three-LP version of Sub Pop 200*.)

But Ramanathan’s essay really grates because while the art is on point–a Raymond Pettibon nod! Nice!–it’s surprisingly sloppy about identifying Gen X. Kellyanne Conway, 50, is “on the very fringes of Xer-dom.” Yet Kurt Cobain is one of Gen X’s “unwashed icons,” she notes, and he was born one month later than Conway. If Kurt Cobain, of all people, isn’t solidly in the bull’s-eye of Gen X, who is?

The vast differences between the life paths of those individuals is a most instructive illustration of why you shouldn’t characterize generations beyond shared experiences like knowing where you were when Challenger exploded. It makes very little sense to generalize about Generation X, just like it makes very little sense to generalize about any generation. Except millennials, who we all know are terrible.



*Full Disclosure: I am describing myself.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.