I keep reading about your disillusionment with the political process, about your lack of enthusiasm for the candidates you have to choose from.
I get it.
Try, if you will, to cast you mind back to the 80s. We were a generation that came of age at the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis. We were living under a thinly veiled threat of nuclear fallout. The Berlin Wall was still standing. Nancy Regan was consulting her astrologist and pleading with us to “JUST SAY NO!”
1988 was the first year I was eligible to vote. My choices for president? George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. I can already hear you asking, Michael Who-what-is?? Yeah, I wasn’t very excited either. Neither was the rest of the country. Bush won handily.
I thought the whole country was going to hell during the first Bush administration. I worried the draft would be reinstated, I worried my male friends would be shipped off to the Middle East to fight a war none of us believed in. I was convinced of a lot of things.
Many of us were disgusted with the government. We protested the war. We marched on Washington for reproductive rights. We marched in NYC to take back the night.
It didn’t do any good. No one was listening. And so we started to distrust the system. The same way the flower children started to distrust the system during Vietnam. The same way some of you do now.
I get it.
For all our quaint John Hughes movies and bad hairstyles, all our James Spader rich boy sneering, we were you once upon thirty years ago. Faced with political choices that fell flat. Trust me. It was really hard get excited about Dukakis.
Gen X wasn’t all Duran Duran and parachute pants. There was a momentum. There were movements. LGBTQ rights were on the horizon, women in shoulder pads were, if not busting into boardrooms, then knocking at the door. There was fire and crackle and sizzle. Rage at the fuddy-duddy process. Demands for faster progress.
So what happened? In the most boring predictable of clichés, we grew up. The economy boomed. We fell in love. Got jobs. September 11 came along and upended the way we viewed the world. Kids were born, parents died. We got divorced, remarried. Lost jobs. Battled cancer. You know, life.
Life happened. And on that spectrum of life you realize things aren’t always as cut and dry as they seem.
I read about the fire in your belly paired with a sense of helplessness, the feeling no one is listening to your (mostly spot-on, legitimate) demands. Here’s the thing: That feeling’s not new. I think the folks who write these articles forget what it’s like to be in that 18-25 year-old age bracket. Or perhaps they just haven’t left the bracket yet themselves.
But, damn you guys! You have ushered in an era where it is not only easier for LGBTQ youth to come out, but one which supports them, both socially and legally. Don’t think that’s big deal? Go check out those John Hughes movies Generation X are so fond of. There aren’t any gay characters in them. That is a seismic cultural shift. You showed the country there was room in The Breakfast Club for the “gay one” as well.
You did that.
You live in a world where you don’t understand why it’s such a big deal that a woman is on the top of the Presidential ticket. The year some of you were born I sat in stunned silence as Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. And then watched as Congress approved him for the Supreme Court of the United States anyway. Yeah, we’ve still got a long way to go on that one, but we need your help.
Your detractors call you lazy, entitled, apathetic. I think you haven’t had time to live yet.
Life is experience and experience is nuance. You get older and you live longer and you realize, quite clearly, there are terrible things out there in the world. As a young adult there is love. There is war. There is right. There is wrong. There are clear lines in the sand. And that is as it should be. You need that clarity, that focus. If at eighteen you realized how many different ways you could be truly fucked, you’d never get out of bed. We’d lose an entire generation.
You may look at us, slightly pudgy and graying, comfortable shoes reminiscing about our youth and think the fire’s gone out. But the thing about fire is that if you can’t control it, it burns the whole place down, the good with the bad. The trick is learning how to tame the flames enough to make them useful.
I guess what I am saying is don’t give up. You have the elasticity to bounce back. We may be living life with our slightly less radical and slightly more centrist ideas, with our boring policy talk, doing things the only way we know how. But you? You have the opportunity to live the lives never offered us. Use that gift to tame the flames in a way to make them work for you.
I know you won’t listen. I know because I wouldn’t have when I was eighteen, nineteen. I would have looked at the middle-aged person trying to give me advice as a relic of the past. A pudgy fossil on their way to Shady Pines.
I’ll say it anyway. Don’t throw a bucket of cold water on your fire because it’s not burning in the direction you hoped.
You can’t fake experience. You have to live it. So sure, we may seem stodgy and middle-aged now. It may look like we sold out, became complacent, gave up. But really we’re just getting ready to pass the baton.
It’s up to you to run with it. Don’t sit down on the track before you even start.