Monday, September 08, 2008

The age of Obama and Palin: The generational significance of the 2008 election

Something that has been emphasized throughout this campaign is Barack Obama's youth, and likewise Sarah Palin has been described repeatedly as "young." Obama is 47, Palin is 44. The fact that they are identified as "young" is heartening to me, now that I'm closer to 40 than 30. Heck, I'm not getting old - I'm still just a kid compared to them!

All this talk of the candidates' youth reminds me of when the baby boomers first emerged as presidential candidates. The baby boom generation is usually defined as birthyears from 1946 to 1964. In 1988 Dan Quayle (b. 1947) was the first baby boomer to be elected vice president, and in 1992 Bill Clinton (b. 1946) became the first boomer president. In the 1992 election, Clinton was tagged as very young for the presidency, and his candidacy contrasted sharply with his much older opponent, the WWII-generation George H. W. Bush (b. 1924). In 1996 Bob Dole (b. 1923) was the last of the WWII generation candidates. Since then, the major candidates have mostly been boomers or slightly older: George W. Bush (b. 1946), Dick Cheney (b. 1941), Al Gore (b. 1948), Joe Lieberman (b. 1942), John Kerry (b. 1943), John Edwards (b. 1953), Hillary Clinton (b. 1947), Rudy Giuliani (b. 1944), Mitt Romney (b. 1947), Bill Richardson (b. 1947), Mike Huckabee (b. 1955). John McCain (b. 1936) and Joe Biden (b. 1942) are part of the "silent generation" born between 1925 and 1945, and will likely be the last major candidates from that era.

We've had sixteen years now of boomer presidencies, and it looks like this election may well mark the tail end of that era. Obama was born in 1961. Palin was born in 1964. Both were born in those early '60s years where the baby boom was ending and the baby bust was beginning. In fact, some demographers define Generation X as birthyears from 1961 to 1981. So by this definition, Obama could be our first Gen X president, or Palin could be our first Gen X vice president.

It seems to me that Obama and Palin's historic candidacies have much to do with the generational shifts that have led up to this cultural moment. America had already moved past the height of the civil rights era by the time Obama came of age. He had more opportunities than African Americans of earlier generations, and his biracial/multiethnic identity transcends older black/white divides. Likewise, Palin grew up as the beneficiary of earlier women's movements. While she probably still faced glass ceilings, they likely were different than the ones that women of Hillary's age encountered. It has become far more normal that women like Palin could be in positions of leadership and prominence.

I am encouraged that Gen X, maligned for so long as a bunch of cynical slackers, may well be the historic generation that finally puts an African American or a woman in the White House!

What's even weirder - if the next president serves for two terms, then it's entirely possible that the candidates for the 2016 election will be Xers who were born in the '70s, like me. Yikes. What will America look like when it is governed by those of us who came of age in the '80s? The principal in The Breakfast Club said something like, "Someday these kids are gonna be running the country. This is the thought that wakes me up every night."

When I turned 35, I officially declared my non-candidacy on my Facebook status. But I'm not ruling out my run for 2016 just yet. In fact, I'll go ahead and work on my stump speech:
My fellow Americans, it's a long, long way to the capital city. Previous generations of civic leaders were inspired by the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy. But my inspiration to public service was the classic anthem "I'm Just a Bill." Thanks to Saturday morning Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, I know the preamble of the Constitution inside and out. Join me in singing: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility-eee-ee . . ."

I grew up in the era of big hair, so I know how to deal with big problems. I learned to solve the Rubik's cube in 3rd grade. Balancing the federal budget should be a snap in comparison. I am a member of that pioneering first generation to grow up on Atari and Nintendo, and our minds were trained to make quick decisions. You can trust that my foreign policy has been well-honed by countless scenarios of Missile Command and Contra.

I am guided by those great philosophers who told us that there's always more than meets the eye, and that knowing is half the battle. Our country's problems may look huge, but remember, size matters not.

We have had some growing pains. But I will strengthen our family ties. I know this economy is tough. Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA. But I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour.

I pledge to you that I will build bipartisan and multilateral coalitions at home and abroad. After all, if an athlete, a brain, a princess, a criminal and a basketcase can find common ground in just one day of detention, surely we can overcome our differences. We are, truly, the world.

My fellow Americans, this is not a time for fear. Fear is the path to the dark side. Instead, look back to the future. Always in motion is the future. Because life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

So this election, seize the day. When you're in that voting booth, don't you forget about me. Don't, don't, don't, don't you. Forget about me. God bless you, and God bless America.


elderj said...

pretty funny (and scary) to think that our generation will soon be running the country. Thanks for the flashback; I'll be there at your inauguration to lead the schoolhouse rock song.

Anonymous said...

Interesting posting; you should know about Generation Jones---the heretofore lost generation between the Boomers and Xers. Jonesers were born 1954-1965, which includes both Obama and Palin. Numerous top media venues, like Newsweek and CNN, have recently made the case that these candidates are specifically Jonesers, fundamentally different than Boomers and Xers.

Friar Tuck said...

Part of the interesting thing about Obama's racial makeup is that he identifies himself as African-American, but he does not have the same historical upbringing as the

Friar Tuck said...

mainstream population of African-Americans who have their personal histories tied to slavery and Jim Crow. Not only did he not experience that--like the older generation--but his progenitors did not either, because his father was African and not African-American.

Friar Tuck said...

Do you know where to find the statistics about how many African-Americans have decended from post-slavery African descent, and how many have pre-civil war African descent. I think this would be interesting. And since you are the puslishing guy you might know...

Al Hsu said...

Politico - I hadn't been aware of Generation Jones. That's a helpful distinction. I've heard people distinguish between older boomers and younger ones, but hadn't heard the Jones name.

Friar Tuck - I'm afraid I don't know offhand any data/statistics on different categories of African Americans. Sorry! Maybe you can find stuff via Google and Wikipedia.

Helen said...

You had me laughing so hard! Loved all the pop culture references!! You should have a contest to see who can catch the most. I think I would definitely score high. =)

You're also such a prodigy. I didn't solve the Cube until 7th grade! (Although I did use that skill in college when I did it in front of my church congregation for a children's sermon. Very nervewracking to perform that skill under pressure with an audience!)

I think you also need to accept nominations for your VP. I have little executive experience aside from a failed dot-com start-up and I only have three kids but I did email throughout the labor of my last son so that ought to count for something. =)

Amy said...

Very funny Al! So moving forward in your career, will you run for President and quote The Breakfast Club, or will you work on the "remake" you discussed earlier on facebook??

Dianne said...

Loved the speech . . . hilarious!

preacherman said...

I don't think anything is going to change. It is going to remain the same. It is sad. I don't think we can really find any encouragement and real change change taking place. I think it is all talk and no action. I know the political parties promise but never deliver. God help our country and leaders.

elderj said...

Friar - the number of African Americans descended from post-Civil War African descent is minuscule as there was (and still is) very little immigration from Africa. The roots of most Black Americans in this country go back past the Revolution as the slave trade was specifically banned in the early 1800's (I think 1808) although there was, of course, some illicit slave trade going on. An interesting thought given the ongoing politics of race and immigration in our country.

Also interesting is the fact that the vast majority of Black Americans have significant White ancestry, and many might even be more "White" than "Black" by degree of "blood." (these things get stranger and stranger the further you delve into them)

andy crouch said...

Excellently funny. But here's a really funny parallel to your Breakfast Club allusions: the newly installed president of the Rhode Island School of Design (John Maeda, whom I called attention to at the other day) just blogged about the fact that he's the 16th president there and it reminded him of the movie Sixteen Candles!

Fact check me here.