My generation, however, views change differently: as inevitable, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and very often negative. Many of our parents — pre-Boomers already raising families during the Summer of Love — were bewildered, if not outright resentful, of the social changes happening around them. Even more obvious were the economic changes that shut down the industries that employed many of them. They could hardly prepare us, their children, for the constantly changing new world.
Everything we ever planned or prepared for was obsolete by the time we were ready. I can well remember sitting in my dorm room, pecking out papers about Soviet political systems on my electric typewriter; both the tool and the topic would be obsolete by the time I finished school. In 1989 alone, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Ayatollah Khomeini died, and apartheid’s hold on South Africa was broken.
Closer to home, the Greed Is Good ’80s already had run aground when the stock market collapsed in 1987. That and the crack epidemic were turning American cities into scary, gang-ruled dystopias. We knew global warming was on its way — and that the Exxon Valdez was spewing oil into the North Pacific. Even sex had become a risky confrontation with the plague of AIDS.
So needless to say, optimism is an Obama trait that my generation doesn’t generally share. A 2006 New Politics Institute study found that, among my age group, “only fairly small minorities of them believe that they will have fulfilling careers, good jobs, be financially well off, and able to afford homes, health care, and retire comfortably.”
This is not to say we are unhappy. My friends and I are pessimistic, but, in my experience, generally more content than those younger and older than us. Perhaps our pessimism has freed us.
And we are not, as we have often been described, apathetic. Our absence at Obama’s rallies doesn’t mean we don’t care. We do. We just don’t show it the way Boomers and Millennials do. We prefer “issues, action, power, self-interest . . . a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion.” So did Obama, when he used those words to describe his approach in his 1995 book, Dreams from My Father.
Apathetic? As if.
Obama’s rallies today, however, are quite the opposite of that description: they are about words, not actions; self-sacrifice, not self-interest; cooperation, not power; vision, not worldliness.
You don’t see many people my age at those rallies. But that doesn’t mean he has no appeal to my generation — polls show we have been coming around to him over time. It’s just that we aren’t really into this whole public-display-of-affiliation thing. We don’t do movements. We don’t put faith in individuals.
Despite the background of the target-rich Reagan administration, activism was practically nonexistent on the college campuses of the 1980s. A few protester wannabes, spurred on by Boomer professors, tried to badger Tufts into divesting from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa; their tiny efforts were mocked from windows overlooking the Quad — regardless of the importance of the issue, few cared enough either to join or counter-protest.