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Generation X faces a bleak, impoverished old age

Ted Rall on

In 1991, demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss published their awkwardly titled tome "13th Gen," about Generation X -- the Americans born between 1961 and 1981. If Xers had paid attention, they would have committed suicide.

"Child poverty, employment, wages, home ownership, arrest records -- in every category, this generation, the 13th since the American Revolution, is doing worse than the generation that came before," New York Times book critic Andrew Leonard wrote at the time. "Indeed, for the first time since the Civil War, the authors of '13th Gen' keep reminding us, young people are unlikely to surpass the affluence of their parents."

Tellingly, the Times titled Leonard's review "The Boomers' Babies," as though their relationship to The Only Generation That Mattered at the time was their status as offspring. Which, equally tellingly, was incorrect. Most Xers' parents belong to the silent generation, which came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, not the boom.

As Gen Xers passed through each stage of life, Messrs. Howe and Strauss predicted, they would find themselves living through the worst possible time to be whatever age they happened to be. They attended secondary schools turned threadbare by budget cuts. As they entered young adulthood, the government restored draft registration and abolished financial aid grants for college. When "13th Gen" came out, the oldest Xers were in their late 20s, in the middle of a deep recession that decimated their job prospects and made it impossible for them to pay off their student loans or save for retirement.

The trend continued. The oldest Xers are in their late 50s, but 47% have nothing saved for retirement; only 13% have more than $100,000.

Though frequently mocked by corporate journalists, Howe and Strauss have proven prescient, not least because they coined the word "millennials." If anything, demographic fate has become even unkinder to Gen X, now ages 36 to 56. Under "normal" circumstances, these Americans would be dominating businesses and cultural institutions.

 

Instead, political power and cultural influence have neatly leapfrogged from the ubiquitous baby boomers to their actual children, the millennials.

Silicon Valley is one barometer. Tech is the nation's most dynamic sector. The Valley wields influence disproportionate to its quarter of a million employees. Tech is militantly, brutally, cartoon-villainously ageist. People over 35 -- the "olds," millennials call us -- need not apply.

Five years ago, I wrote: "The median American worker is age 42. The median age at Facebook, Google, AOL and Zynga, on the other hand, is 30 or younger. Twitter, which recently got hosed in an age discrimination lawsuit, has a median age of 28." Silicon Valley hasn't done anything to reverse this dismal record.

Google just settled another age discrimination lawsuit. But they haven't learned anything.

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