Gen X is late to the leadership table in US politics, prompting the question: Will it ever produce a president?
- By historical standards, Gen X should be in charge of the US by now.
- Boomers (and the Silent Generation) still hold prime positions of power, including the presidency.
- Gen X has yet to secure a majority of seats in Congress and the Supreme Court.
Generation X's tardiness on the biggest of political stages explains a good deal about why the United States is mired in gerontocracy.
By historical standards, today's middle-agers should be right there, right now, in the most important positions of power — like the presidency.
But the best they have to show so far are a handful of consolation prizes: Paul Ryan's tumultuous three-year run as House speaker, four seats on a divisive US Supreme Court, and a spirited debate over whether Barack Obama even is a Gen Xer (he's not, but we'll get to that later).
A big part of Gen X's leadership impediment: finding the winning message in a country that for most of the past 30 years has been led by baby boomers. President Joe Biden represents an even earlier cohort — he's a member of the Silent Generation, born less than a year after the country he now leads entered World War II under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"I thought that the country wanted, you know, a generational candidate," Rep. Eric Swalwell, the 41-year old California Democrat who barely made it onto the 2020 presidential-primary debate stage because of low polling numbers, told me earlier this summer.
"But what I found when I actually talked to people in Iowa, and New Hampshire, and South Carolina, was that the voters, especially with Trump as president, were so risk-averse to a younger candidate that they saw in Biden a seasoned hand, someone who kind of just, could like, restore sanity in governing," Swalwell said.
Moving aside any blame toward Donald Trump and Biden, Gen Xers are making some inroads.
Should things break their way in November's 2022 midterms, the group born between the start of 1965 and the end of 1980 could finally make up the majority of members in the US House.
It's taken way longer than many thought, with nearly a decade of prognostications that this important torch-passing moment in history was just about to happen with each coming election cycle. If Republicans score a majority in 2023, Rep. Kevin McCarthy is also next in line to be the country's second Gen X speaker following Ryan's brief tenure that got consumed in the chaos of the Trump presidency.
And should Biden and Trump opt against running again in 2024, the presidential field for both parties is expected to be packed with Gen X governors and members of Congress.
They won't be shoo-ins. But Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, as just one example, would be the fourth-youngest president in US history, at age 46, behind Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, and Theodore Roosevelt, were he to run for and win the White House.
As they make their calculations about seeking the most powerful job on the planet, some Gen Xers are eager to shed their reputation as the "Slacker Generation." They say the US needs a new approach to politics and policy.
"Look, we've seen a whole series of presidential leaders who were baby boomers, and they had a particular set of policies and a style of governing," said Sen. Ted Cruz, the 51-year old Texas Republican, during a chat this summer while walking through the US Capitol.
Echoing a line I heard often from Republicans about the septuagenarian president who was in office when many Gen Xers came of age, Cruz continued, "I do think the country would benefit from leadership that embodies what I described as the children of Reagan, that embodies a commitment to being happy warriors and to appealing to our better angels."
But the Gen Xers also know they are late.
The oldest members of their group could have first been running for president back in 2000, when the dot-com bubble had yet to burst and September 11 was just a date on the calendar. The boomers George W. Bush and Al Gore had something to say about that, and there's hardly been much of a serious peep from Gen X in the five ensuing presidential races. The nation isn't in the final two years of the Martin O'Malley administration. President Beto O'Rourke isn't about to launch his White House reelection campaign.
But "it's inevitable that it's going to happen," Sen. Cory Booker, a 53-year old who made his own ill-fated 2020 presidential bid, told me in a conversation about when he thought a fellow Gen Xer might finally make it to the White House.
"Unless, of course," the New Jersey Democrat added, with a reference to the 40-year-old transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, "we get a millennial president."
Biden made generational history — very late
Insider's "Red, White, and Gray" series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation's youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed.
Gen Xers — now roughly 41 to 57 years old — are ripe to be president considering the ages of those who have held the job.
Of the 45 people who have served as US president, almost three in four fit smack in that age range upon taking office, including George Washington (57), Abraham Lincoln (52), and John F. Kennedy (43).
Of course, no generation can automatically stake a claim to the presidency. But the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley argues it is also uncommon and unhealthy for the country's growth if one age group does get skipped.
"Each generation deserves to have a president from their ranks," he said. "It shows the maturation of life in America. There's a semblance of one generation passing it on to the next. That's the seamless quality of the United States."
A missing generation in the White House is nearly what happened before Biden finally won in 2020 — after unsuccessful bids in 1988 and 2008.
By the time he did make it, at age 78, Biden was the oldest president in US history to be sworn into office and the first member of the Silent Generation to get there. His senior citizenry is apparent not just in the ever-present question of whether he'll run for a second term, but also in the number of funerals he's attended as president where he grieves and often eulogizes friends and political contemporaries who helped shape his career.
Obama, 'Generation Jones'
One important thing we are going to dispense with: Obama doesn't really count as a Gen Xer.
We know this is subject to intense debate. And yes, his personal background has some common characteristics with Generation X, like being the mixed-race son of divorced parents who embraced technology to win the presidency. He was also born in 1961, the same year as Douglas Coupland, the author of the book responsible for coining the phrase "Generation X."
But have we all seen the future president in those dad jeans?
The social commentator Jonathan Pontell said Obama told him back in 2007 that he identified with what's known as "Generation Jones," a micro generation consisting of people born between 1954 and 1965 who don't quite fit as the archetypal boomer or Gen Xer. Think of them as the godparents of the "Xennials" — those born in the late 1970s or early 1980s who aren't fully Gen X or millennial.
"I remember reading his original autobiography, 'Dreams from My Father,' and thinking this guy is Generation Jones through and through," Pontell, who invented the term, told me in recounting his brief conversation with Obama during a Los Angeles fundraiser emceed by Cedric the Entertainer.
Please just don't call me Gen X
Generational boundaries are also anything but an exact science or official. There's plenty of debate and competing visions about when one cohort ends and another begins.
Swalwell, for instance, wants nothing to do with Gen Xers even though he was born on November 16, 1980 — six weeks away from what many demographic experts say is the dawn of millennials.
"I'll humor you with your questions. I want it reflected in the story that I don't accept your premise," he told me in an interview in which he described himself as "a pioneer of the millennials."
No matter whether you deny the 61-year-old Obama is a boomer, Gen X is starting to get up there in age.
Sen. Tim Scott, as just one example, is the Senate's oldest Gen Xer and someone who's been mentioned as a possible 2024 White House candidate. He'd be the country's 13th-oldest president if he were to win the next election and get sworn in — at age 59 — in January 2025.
Whether Scott or any other Gen Xer gets to make a serious run in 2024 will depend largely on the decisions of a late-vintage Silent and early-blooming boomer. Both Biden and Trump are sending strong signals they intend to run for their respective parties' nominations and force a 2020 rematch. And even if they forgo runs, Gen Xers will be competing with boomers such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Vice President Kamala Harris — and perhaps millennials such as Buttigieg and even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It's a crowded-enough field that some political operatives say Gen Xers should brace for an even longer wait to take their most serious shot winning the White House.
"I think the '28 cycle would be very much more likely," one longtime Gen X GOP aide from Trumpworld predicted, noting the challenge long-shot candidates will face in finding donors willing to shift horses at this early stage of the 2024 race. "That's where the window opens up."
What's the US missing without a Gen X president?
Several of the US's closest allies — the United Kingdom, France, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden — are led by Gen Xers.
Gen Xers in politics and people who study the issue told me the US was missing out on plenty by not following suit in electing a president and other government leaders who were born in the mid- to late 1960s and through the 1970s.
Generally speaking, Gen Xers bring a sense of individualism and pragmatism to politics that comes with growing up in an era when divorce rates spiked and parents seemed to care less about maintaining more traditional families, as evidenced by the popular culture hits from their childhood such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "Home Alone."
As adults, many of the older members of Gen X carry an independent, bordering-on-libertarian streak that's distrustful of politics and institutions — some of the same traits that Trump relied on to win the White House in 2016.
"When you think about what populism draws upon, if there was ever a generation that thought of itself as 'the deplorables,' it's the 'We're not worthy!' generation," said Neil Howe, a demographics expert who helped come up with the term "millennial."
Gen Xers also came of age during a time that straddled extraordinary changes in geopolitics, including the end of the Cold War and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Most also made it through the bulk of their schooling without worrying about their high-school pictures spreading via Facebook or Instagram, their online experiences formed largely on now-archaic platforms such as AOL, Hotmail, and Ask Jeeves.
"It's the one generation that has sort of had formative experiences in both the Old World and the new one," said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Gen Xer who first won a seat in the Florida House in 2000 at age 28 and, by age 34, became speaker of the state chamber.
Spencer Cox, the 47-year-old first-term Republican governor of Utah, told me in a recent interview that he hoped the next president would come from Gen X.
"I'm biased because I am one, but I do believe that that's really what the nation is searching for but hasn't been able to find yet," he said.
Asked what Americans would get should they elect one of his peers, Cox mentioned the World Wide Web.
"I think what we're missing out is someone who kind of has a leg in both the pre-internet era, and the post-internet era," he said. "I think there's value in understanding what it was like before knowing how to use it, what it's like after, and how to bridge those gaps and in healthy ways."
Thanks to their boomer parents' low birth rates, Gen Xers have always been a smaller group than boomers or millennials.
"Which I always think is interesting," Booker said. "It's like we're this relatively tiny group of public servants."
But that will soon change as boomers — the oldest are pushing 80 — die. Gen Xers are finally projected to outnumber their parents' generation by 2028, according to Pew.
Dunking on Ted Cruz, even if he's a Gen Xer
Gore set the standard for youthful presidential campaigns. In 1988, he ran for the Democratic nomination at 39 years old. Had he won, he'd have been the youngest president in US history. That didn't happen, though Gore four years later did win the vice presidency as part of the first all-boomer ticket with Bill Clinton. He also nearly won the White House in 2000 against Bush.
But in subsequent presidential races, Gen Xers failed to follow Gore's youthful path to the campaign trail. Not in 2000, and not in 2004. Even the 2008 presidential election was bereft of Gen Xers: Yes, the eventual Republican nominee John McCain's comparatively youthful running mate, Sarah Palin, falls within the boomer bracket.
And while Ryan did make history in 2012 as the first Gen Xer on a major-party ticket, that happened only when the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney opted for a fresh face that would contrast with then-Vice President Biden.
Not until the 2016 and 2020 campaigns did the presidential field take on the veneer of a race driven by Generation X.
But even then, candidates such as O'Malley, O'Rourke, Booker, Rubio, and Cruz were competing on debate stages packed with boomers and Silents — Trump, Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
For one reason or another, all the Gen Xers flamed out.
"For me, this is about who the people are," Warren, the 73-year-old Massachusetts Democrat who also came up short against Biden in 2020, said in an interview while speed-walking through the underground Senate tunnels. "I'm not a big fan of Ted Cruz just because he's 30 years younger than somebody else. He's still Ted Cruz."
Gen Xers on boomers: Necessary, or necessary evil?
Gen Xers aren't just behind in winning the White House. It's a similar phenomenon in other parts of government, too.
Entering the 2022 midterm elections, only 14 of 50 governor slots are in the hands of Gen Xers. And while the four most recent Supreme Court appointees are children of the mid-'60s and '70s, they still remain a seat shy of being their own majority bloc.
On Capitol Hill, Gen Xers' numbers have been slowly building but are still nowhere near the size of their elders. The 435-member US House opened the current session with 144 Gen Xers compared with 230 boomers and 27 Silent Generation members (the numbers have since changed slightly because of six deaths since January 2021, as well as nine resignations).
The breakdown is much starker in the US Senate, which opened the current session with 11 members of the Silent Generation and 68 boomers, compared with just 20 Gen Xers.
While those numbers are in flux even now as senators retire or resign from office early, historical trends suggest the Senate won't reach a plurality of Gen Xers until somewhere in the 2030s, if not later. By then, millennials will be entering their political primes, with Gen Zers not far behind.
"Yeah, I won't be here at that point," said GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, an early-era Gen Xer at 54.
Many Gen Xers insist that it's a-OK to still have so many Silent Generation and boomer senators hanging around, even if it means they need to wait for their own opportunities.
"I respect a lot of the people in our leadership. I've learned a lot from them. And I think they continue to make a huge difference," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who in 2009 became the nation's first Gen X senator.
Donna Brazile, the longtime party operative who served as Gore's 2000 presidential campaign manager, said she'd recently been trying to think up ways to get Generation X politicians to step up "without asking anyone to step aside."
"Remember, there is no such thing as entitlement in politics or public service. You have to get in the game and follow a path or wait for a lucky break," she said in an email. "There's too much at stake and much more to be done. What are they waiting for?"
When we talked again a few days later, Brazile, who in 2016 chaired the Democratic National Committee, quickly rattled off the names of several Gen X leaders who did currently hold office in Congress, as governors and in state and local government.
Anyone from Gen X who wants to contribute at the top, she said, needs to get off their duffs and stop fretting so much about the boomers and any others who will step aside when they're darn good and ready.
"No generation can replace another generation," she said. "I can't replace my parents' generation. But I can be an extension of the vision they had for my generation and future generations."
With America in a gerontocracy, she acknowledged "there's a vacuum" for future leaders that shouldn't prevent them from getting involved now.
"It's like seeing a ghost that doesn't appear," she said of any expectation the presidency would just suddenly open up for Gen X. "There's nothing stopping them from leading."
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