Richard Ben Kramer’s seminal work on running for the presidency, What It Takes, introduced the idea of the ‘looking in the mirror’ moment. It was the second when an individual awoke, looked themselves in the eye, and decided that running the rigorous gauntlet of a campaign was worth it. I believe we as a country, and more specifically those of us in the Gen X cohort, are looking in the mirror today. The question facing us is essentially the same: do we have what it takes?
Folks should be forgiven for asking, “For God’s sake, what’s next?” For any number of reasons we can’t seem to buy a break. And for entirely too many of us, we’re looking for someone to come help us fix our problems, either those we share as a people, those thrust upon us, or those of our own making. To return to my semi-Texas roots, it’s bootstrap time. To the extent each of us have the ability to solve our problems, now is the time to get after it. One thing is clear: the cavalry isn’t coming; they sold the horses and sent the rifles to Mexico.
More than a small amount of time is spent blaming ”the system.” It’s the system’s fault Washington can’t get its act together. It’s the system’s fault bankers make too much money. It’s the system’s fault the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. What the system has created the most of though, is apathy. Worse than apathy is antipathy. We are a hair’s breadth away from "the system" being seen as not just unfair but illegitimate. When 17% of voters claim in a recent survey that the Federal government is no longer qualified to tell them what to do, antipathy is taking hold of the populace generally and the electorate specifically.
And why shouldn’t we feel this way? If, as average Americans, we called our congressman or legislator and asked to speak directly to them, we’d be shuffled off to a junior squirrel trained by his elders to handle the riff raff. I’m one of half a million people my representative is answerable to. Ignoring me doesn’t matter. There are maybe 50 residents in the whole district representatitives really listen to - and there’s usually a check at the other end of that call. Let’s not confuse that last statement with whining about money in politics, it’s here to stay and God Bless the 1st Amendment for it.
Two recent developments worry me greatly about my generation. The first is that one in five men in this country – 20% - are out of work. The second is that employers have stopped hiring workers in the 35-55 age group. This makes perfect business sense. We’re either approaching, sitting on, or just past the top of the bell curve of our career earning potential. Why hire me with my wife, daughter and mortgage when you can hire the bright 20-something who’s happy for the job, any job, and costs a third what I do? If you want a little gray hair, hire the guy who planned to retire at 60 but is hanging on a few more years. He’ll gladly take the gig and maybe learn a new skill to do it, if that’s what it takes.
As my generation is actuarially responsible for the safety nets of our elders, we should double-down on the assumption that we’re on our own. Not much more complaining needed on that front: We made a promise to look after them the day we joined the workforce; maybe even the day we first showed up in our parents’ arms.
I hope, like me, most of my generation doesn’t plan to sit around and worry about what "the system" has done, or might do to them. The days of thinking about how things were, or how things should be are gone. Everyday we go out and try to make the best life we can for ourselves and our families, and ask "the system" to just leave us alone. If the Beltway politicians want to screw around with debt ceilings and Super Committees that will do little other than raise our cost of living, have at it. But there are a lot more out here like us than they think - and they ignore us at their peril.