Mar 1 1997

The Generation Gambit

The Right's Imaginary Rift Between Young and Old

What have the media taught us about Generation X? We know that the age of first marriage is higher than ever before. (True.) Wages are down more than 20 percent from the early 1970s. (True.) Young people see old people as the enemy.


The media have been duped by a clever campaign whose intention is to get rid of those nasty Social Security programs. Perhaps the idea of “generational warfare” was too good a story to question. Whatever the reason, the media have turned an ideological assertion into conventional wisdom—and in the process have distorted the political voice of an entire generation..

Marketing Generational Conflict

The story of “generational conflict” begins with a handful of strategists and their organizations, the media sources for the myth of Generation X. The first of these was Americans for Generational Equity, or AGE, an organization that demonstrates that with proper funding, it’s possible to launch an unsubstantiated idea and see it turn into the standard media view.

AGE had three adept founders and leaders: executive director Paul Hewitt, who continues to direct campaigns to privatize Social Security from his base at the right-wing National Taxpayers Union; research director Philip Longman, who recently published an anti-entitlement tome called The Return of Thrift; and Sen. Dave Durenberger (R.-Minn.), who later pled guilty to theft of public funds.

AGE was the first organization to put political muscle and public relations clout into promoting the notion of “future intergenerational conflict.” Their thesis was two-fold: resources devoted to the elderly come at the expense of children; and young people will eventually mobilize against the elderly to reclaim their share of the pie. They immediately found media willing to cover these claims (e.g., Wall Street Journal, 1/13/86).

AGE solicited funding from special interests who could profit financially from redefining the axis of social justice from economic security to “generational equity,” a narrow measure of how our government entitlement programs affect different generations. (The irony of groups like AGE, which claim to take on the old on behalf of the young, is that their proposals—gradual cuts in benefits, recalculations in cost of living adjustments, increased retirement ages, tax hikes to pay for reckless privatization schemes—are invariably far more costly to those who have many more years of work ahead of them than to those who are already retired.)

As Common Cause reported in 1987 (3-4/87), “About 75 percent of [the $260,000] budget comes from corporate sponsors, including the major defense contractors…and manufacturers…all apparently eager to help shift the deficit debate toward Social Security—and away from issues like defense spending and corporate tax breaks. Also on AGE’s support list are many major banks and insurance companies.”

The idea was born and successfully marketed. The Nexis database turns up more than a thousand references to “generational equity” and its partner “generational conflict” in the years since the creation of AGE. Although the organization, unable to create any meaningful movement beyond public relations, folded in 1990, AGE demonstrated to corporate interests how easily the media could be manipulated with the story of impending generational warfare.

Major media outlets, it seemed, were eager to lend credibility to the thesis that as the baby boomers age, generation will replace class as a basic division in American politics. By now, the idea is the media’s conventional, and misguided, wisdom.

Generating X

Hewitt and Longman focused on entitlement issues, not realizing how broadly the concept of generational division could be expanded to the media image of an entire generation. It took two other writers, with the continuing support of the same special interests that backed AGE’s campaigns, to develop and accomplish this task: Bill Strauss and Neil Howe.

Strauss and Howe, both baby boomers each, wrote Generations and 13th Gen, the books that defined Generation X for the media. Their broad definition of Gen X did not derive from any exposure to the ideas and activities of young people, but rather from the authors’ own ideological agenda. As Heather McLeod, a founding editor of the youth service magazine Who Cares?, wrote in The American Prospect (Spring/95): “Look under the target-marketed cover and you’ll find a set of political beliefs that have nothing to do with age. Howe and Strauss’ basic thesis is simple and familiar…. Seniors suck the marrow from our bones through Social Security… [and] baby boomers have stuck the next generation with the bill from their ’80s parties.”

Despite the authors’ thinly veiled agenda, the books launched Generation X as we know it. Recognizing the potency of the issue and sensing a receptive media, a group of Xers closely affiliated with Strauss and Howe translated this caricature of young people, and its accompanying ideology, into political organizations that would advocate the agenda on behalf of young people. The subsequent presence of these youth groups legitimated Strauss and Howe’s original thesis.

U.S. News & World Report‘s schizophrenic catalogue of Generation X activism, “Just Fix It” (2/22/93) is an example of this media strategy at work. The article’s premise is that twentysomethings have a “battle plan” for a generational war: “to repair the damage their elders wrought and chart a new course.” A great story—but one entirely derived from Strauss and Howe, whom the reporter cited for the claim that young people will rebel against “selfish baby boomers and greedy seniors” who poisoned the future.

U.S. News‘ other primary sources for Gen X political views, Robert Lukefahr, John Cowan and Rob Nelson, also advanced this thesis. Not surprisingly, all three worked closely with Strauss and Howe. Lukefahr was a staffer of the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, an organization that promotes right-wing campus newspapers. He also founded Third Millennium. Cowan and Nelson founded the media’s other favorite Gen X group, Lead…or Leave.

The Gen X advocates are less a generational movement than a small circle of friends. Strauss joined Third Millennium’s founding “manifesto” meeting. Howe writes not only about Generation X but also about Social Security for the five-star general of this generational war, Pete Peterson, an investment banker and president of the Concord Coalition. Peterson, in turn, funded both Lead…or Leave (which is now defunct) and Third Millennium. Thirteen of Third Millennium’s 40 founders were affiliated with the Madison Center (EXTRA!, 3-4/94), including Third Millennium board member Jonathan Karl, who is now resident Gen X political analyst at CNN.

Third Millennium’s executive director, Richard Thau, put it best, saying that 13th Gen. was “a kind of script that the organization is trying to live up to.” (Newsday, 7/14/93)

“Post-Partisans” from Partisan Posts

One of the great successes of Third Millennium is that, with years of groundwork by AGE, Strauss and Howe, and Lead…or Leave, their agenda has been accepted as “post-partisan.” But despite the much-touted involvement of Douglas Kennedy, a certified member of the Kennedy clan, Third Millennium is still almost exclusively funded by right-wing individuals and foundations, and by corporations like Merrill Lynch (who would reap a large share of the literally hundreds of billions of dollars in fees that Social Security privatization would generate) and the “Coalition for Change,” a consortium of more than 200 multinational companies.

Among Third Millennium’s foundation supporters are the J.M. Kaplan Fund, which has funded several groups to work on Social Security privatization (American Prospect, 5-6/ 96), and the conservative JM Foundation, whose grant-making practices are detailed in a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report (2/97), “Moving a Right-Wing Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations.” Despite its precarious basis in fact, don’t look for the “generational conflict” myth to fade soon. Generational conflict and the Generation X political voice has increasingly become the province of an entire class of elite, young Washingtonians, who have discovered that attacking Social Security and the elderly is an excellent vehicle for their ambitions and/or an excellent cover for their right-wing agendas.

This past year has wrought a flowering of youth organizations in Washington and their ensuing campaigns to privatize Social Security: The Project for a New Generation, run by Adam Dubitsky, one of Arianna Huffington’s press agents who also used to work for GOP pollster Frank Luntz; the Generation X Coalition; X-PAC; PAC 20/20; the National Association of Twentysomethings; even the U.S. Jaycees.

After years of labeling conservative ideas as “generational” ideas, without any serious media scrutiny, repetition has bred legitimacy. The right wing can now invoke younger generations in support of a cause, dismantling social insurance, for which conservatives have hungered since before we were even a twinkle in their eyes.

The January 1997 issue of Swing (“The Magazine About Life in Your Twenties”) names the “most powerful people in their twenties.” Among them is another Luntz protégée, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the talented young “spokeswoman for the Republican Revolution” and CNN commentator who runs her own conservative polling company. Says Swing:

Fitzpatrick is now planning to form what she calls a “Gen X think tank,” to study the issues facing her generation, such as the future of Social Security. In spite of her own strong ideological leanings, she envisions a nonpartisan, generational approach.

It does not take much imagination to predict that Fitzpatrick will advocate replacing Social Security with individual investment accounts. What is surprising is that Swing and nearly the entire media establishment should accept this as the “interest” of a generation.

Old Problems, New Scapegoats

Many media are trying to recharacterize old problems in a new framework, “generational division.” In discussing child poverty, American Demographics‘ editor (8/95) writes that the AARP should be slammed for advocating a “myth” that the elderly are more impoverished than the young. It’s not clear that the AARP has ever made this argument; all the same, American Demographics‘ implicit claim is that the elderly are to blame for the poverty of the young.

This myth is one of the most pernicious of our time. In reality, the reason that so many of our nation’s children are impoverished has nothing to do with the elderly and everything to do with the traditional problems of racism and the intransigence of government economic policy in the face of the economic dislocations of the past 25 years. In fact, the combination of federal, state and local government budgets actually shows a slight skew towards the young (Census Bureau, Government Finances).

This is not to say that additional resources are not needed to invest in the future and combat child poverty—but the money is already available in our budget to combat child poverty and invest in the future. Much of that money is simply being siphoned off by the same corporate interests who fund groups like AGE and Third Millennium. Media coverage has focused on the generational conflict myth, encouraging people to turn upon one another, rather than the monied interests gorging from the public trough.

From the business press (“Consuming Our Children?,” Forbes, 11/14/88) to the New York Times Magazine to the steady roll of op-eds (e.g., “The Coming Conflict As We Soak the Young to Enrich the Old,” Washington Post, 1/5/86, or Tabitha Soren’s “The Cost of Taking Care of Gramps Leaves Zilch for Generation X,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9/21/95), the media have given more than ample space to the advocates of generational conflict. After years of the journalistic drumbeat, however, the public is largely unswayed.

The Bait Not Taken

A few journalists have occasionally questioned the reality of this “conflict.” The New York Times recently reported (12/31/95) that in the recent and furious debate over Medicare and Medicaid, “The Generational Push Has Not Come To Shove.” Even American Demographics (7/96) admits that there is no evidence of a generational divide in viewpoints toward elderly programs. There has not yet been a single shred of evidence that generational conflict is impending: On issues from the Balanced Budget Amendment and Social Security to Medicare reform, there are no measurable divisions between the generations in their support for entitlement programs. The only divide that does exist is one of confidence in the programs’ future (see sidebar); while significant, this cannot be interpreted as a meaningful indicator of antagonism or conflict. To jump from the fact that young people lack confidence in government and the future to the notion that they resent their own grandparents is a staggering leap—yet mainstream media have taken it.

If this frequently predicted conflict has not materialized, the media has a responsibility to explain how this figment has become entrenched in the conventional wisdom—and to document that generational conflict is the strategic creation of special interests who are using the voice of Generation X to advocate their own agenda.

If journalists reached out to a broad group of young people, they would find a generation that is not just trying to get a bigger share of the pie, or growing resentful of their grandparents. They would also find a generation whose prospects have been steadily undermined by negative wage growth, declining economic security, and diminishing investment in the future.

They would also find a generation trying to promote positive political change. Young activists have already changed our future with diversity, divestment, environmental and service movements. Underlying each is a profound concern for improving the lives of all people, young and old.

Cowan and Nelson once predicted that Social Security would be our generation’s Vietnam. They may be correct—but for the wrong reasons. As in the early years of the Vietnam war, young people face a press that dismisses our views and participates in a propaganda campaign promoted by special interests.

The good news is that young people have not taken the bait. We may be skeptical about the future of social insurance programs—which is hardly a terrible “generational conflict”—but we have resisted the calls to division.

Hans Riemer and Christopher Cuomo are founding members of the 2030 Center, an Washington, D.C.-based organization created by concerned young people to promote long-term policies that will invest in the future and move all Americans forward together.