One of the more bizarre and pathetic aspects of capitalism is the self-congratulatory coverage of free meals given to the homeless and poor on holidays like Christmas, presented as though people don’t need to eat, or live inside, 365 days out of the year. Meanwhile, millions of homes are abandoned, wasted vacation homes or warehoused as investments.
Democratic and many Republican voters share the same priorities in their lives. They want to live in a safer world. They want a real healthcare system, a cleaner planet, jobs that pay well, less poverty all around. So why is the Democratic Party singularly focused on impeaching President Trump over his attempt to influence the president of Ukraine?
Members of Generation X have almost no retirement savings whatsoever. They don’t have defined benefit retirement packages. 401(k) savings programs are a joke. If they’re counting on Social Security, forget it. Political pressure to get rid of the program will certainly screw them before they get to collect it. And anyway, Social Security itself claims that it will be bankrupt in less than 20 years.
In 1991 the 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 that came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, not the Boom.
As Gen Xers passed through each stage of life, Mssrs. 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.
Brazen ageism sticks out even more in a PC culture where discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQA people and others prompts horror, as it should. Young people who don’t tolerate ethnic slurs call older folks slow, out-of-touch and stupid—remarks all the more baseless since they increasingly segregate themselves into dorm-like apartment complexes and hipster bars where they don’t encounter anyone older than 40.
“Google in 2014 began publishing diversity statistics and vowed to hire more women, minorities, and LGBTQ workers. But Google didn’t include diversity statistics for age in its diversity report, or even reference age. Incredibly, age remains invisible in Google’s 2019 diversity report,” marvels employment discrimination attorney Patricia Barnes.
Meanwhile, coverage of generational issues in mainstream media has deteriorated beyond the Howe-Strauss model of consistent discrimination to downright Orwellian: being “disappeared.” In articles and broadcasts conflicts between age groups lists the combatants as Boomers versus Millennials, or more broadly, between Boomers and Millennials and the generation after, Generation Z. Generation Xers aren’t mentioned. They—we—no longer exist. Which, considering why Gen Z is called that—first came X, Millennials were Y, then Z—is really weird.
True to “13th Gen” the book, America’s invisible generation is heading into its final chapter, old age, at yet another awful time to be that age.
The Boomers will shuffle off into the sunset, Social Security and Medicare benefits intact. Gen Xers stare into the abyss, bleakly contemplating starvation and dying of diseases for which they can’t afford medical treatment as the political system moves closer to granting corporate conservatives one of the dearest items on their agenda: abolishing or privatizing—which, if you’re poor, is jargon for eliminating—Social Security.
“Out With the Old, In With the Young,” an opinion essay by 40-year-old Gen Astra Taylor in the New York Times, provides a glimpse at how the ruling classes plan to take away government entitlement programs from Generation X: by disempowering them politically.
Taylor makes some good points. “From age limits on voting and eligibility for office, to the way House districts are drawn, to the problem of money in politics, our modern political system is stacked against the young,” she writes. Unlike adults, teenagers are forced to learn about the politics and history in school. They should be allowed to vote. Why should someone be able to drive, vote and join the military at age 18 but have to be 30 or older to serve in the Senate?
But Taylor’s piece is riddled with ageist assumptions such as the notion that younger people care more about climate change than older ones. She promulgates the disappearing of Generation X: “The boomers who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s benefited from boom times while Millennials and Generation Z have been dogged by the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown, an underwhelming recovery and Gilded Age levels of inequality.” “Generation X” does not appear in her piece—yet we’re the post-Boomers who got screwed first.
“Age-based inequities “and “the geographic biases of the American electoral system,” Taylor complains, hasten “the coming gerontocracy.” What she fails to see is that the gerontocracy is already here. The “olds” control power over big business and its pet politicians now—not because they’re elderly but because they’re Boomers.
The fortunes of an age group ebb and flow as different generations pass through it. When I was a kid in the 1970s, many older people were so poor they ate pet food. Now they are Boomers. Boomers are many, so they have power, thus they are rich. As throughout human history, the rich and powerful make things work for themselves.
The corollary is, Taylor doesn’t understand that as Boomers die and Xers replace them in nursing homes—or not, since they won’t be able to afford them—the elderly will become a dispossessed, disadvantaged, consistently screwed-over age group, just as Xers were as kids, young adults and during middle age. Taylor and her Millennial allies will be killing a gerontocracy that will already be dead.
As Millennials ascend and age into their 40s, they’ll join the call to get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid so they can save on their taxes. Propaganda like Taylor’s will support the movement to disenfranchise the elderly.
Used to be, the olds voted in vast numbers to protect their political interests. Xers will be wandering the streets, dumpster-diving and dying a dog’s death, with no address to enter on a voter registration card.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Americans often downplay the long-term effects of traumatic experiences, expecting victims to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move on after a disaster. But as my mother’s experience as an elderly French-American shows, often the negative effects never go completely away.
For most of the 20th century left-of-center politics was defined by class struggle between the rich and the poor. Now the left has been completely subsumed by identity politics, the struggles for historically disadvantaged demographic groups for equality. Unfortunately the class struggle (which largely drove the oppression of women and minorities) has been all but forgotten by mainstream liberal politicians and political parties.
Apologists for militarism, particularly liberal Democrats, justify those who enlist in America’s murderous military by saying that many soldiers come from parts of the country where good jobs are hard to come by. It’s time to point out that the real act of heroism is personal sacrifice rather than killing innocent people overseas for a slightly better paycheck and benefits.
I think it was over Thanksgiving dinner. My mother’s best friend, a dear woman who has never been other than good to me and my mom, decided to poke some gentle fun, Dayton Ohio-style, at me.
Actually, let me be more specific. It wasn’t Dayton. The conversation took place in Kettering. It’s a suburb of Dayton. A small suburb called Oakwood separates Dayton and Kettering.
“Ted,” my mom’s friend began, “what’s with these terrible descriptions of our city? The way you write, you’d think this was some bleak post-industrial wasteland.” She motioned out the window to her manicured lawn, punctuated by a set of perfect flowers. As were those of her neighbors. As if to drive home her point, a bird chirped.
I held my ground. “What about down by Route 4? Rusted-out factories, meth houses. It’s like a war zone.”
“But that’s” — she searched for the word — “downtown. That’s not here.”
“It’s five or six miles, at most,” I pointed out. “You can walk there!”
And you can, if you don’t much care about personal safety.
Dayton is a mess. Once a booming manufacturing city, its population is plunging, having shrunk by half in 50 years. Its housing stock, including historical buildings, have been gutted. After decades of factory and corporate closures accelerated by free trade deals like NAFTA, the local economy sucks. Crime, driven by my hometown’s status as Ground Zero of the national opiod epidemic that has turned so many young men into corpses that the morgue ran out of room, has made Dayton even more dangerous than Chicago. The 2008-09 housing crisis left countless homes abandoned (but cheap! you can buy one for four figures). Fearing eviction in 2009 but receiving no help from a government who instead gave $7.77 trillion to the banks with no strings attached, one poor guy hanged himself; a kid found his mummified body five years later. He should have stuck around. The banksters never bothered to foreclose on his modest house.
So much misery, so little help from the government. Four out of five Ohioans who lost their jobs receive zero unemployment benefits.
Downtown Dayton, and its citizens, were dead to my mom’s friend. But not to me. I used to take the bus there to look at record stores and attend meetings at Democratic Headquarters. Sometimes, yes, I walked. After I left Dayton for New York, the road from the Dayton airport to my mom’s house sometimes took me through downtown. Downtown was real. Downtown existed.
If downtown Dayton was less than afterthought to suburbanites a hop, skip and jump away, it was a black hole as far as the national media and the political strategists were concerned. Daytonians didn’t donate to presidential campaigns. (They couldn’t afford to.) More than 40% black as the result of postwar “white flight” to suburbs like Kettering and Oakwood, downtown was reliably Democratic. Republicans didn’t bother; Democrats took Dayton for granted.
You’ve probably already figured out that this essay is a parable about the Rise of Trump. Downtown Dayton was far from unique. There were downtown Daytons all over the post-industrial Midwest: ignored, forgotten, taken for granted. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — states Hillary Clinton ought to have won, and was so sure she was going to win that she hardly showed up, but went Republican in 2016.
Dayton Congressman Tony Hall (disclosure: I worked for one of his campaigns) watched the growing chasm between his working-class — and unemployed poor — constituents and the national Democratic Party, in thrall to the Clintons, free trade, and Wall Street contributors. “A lot of Democrats in the Midwest feel that they didn’t leave the Democratic Party — they feel like the Democratic Party left them,” Hall says. That was me, for sure. “As long as we had our 10 or 12 auto plants, we were pretty good, but we felt that the NAFTA deal made it a lot easier for companies to go to Mexico — and they did. They shut down our factories,” remembers Hall. Young adult voters “saw their moms and dads lose their jobs and they didn’t think anyone did anything for them.”
Day after day, the citizens of Dayton and Flint and Milwaukee opened their newspapers and flipped the cable news channels. Never, ever was there anyone talking about, much less interested in solving, their problems. As far as the elites — and that included Democratic politicians like Hillary — were considered, victims of rapacious global capitalism didn’t exist and didn’t matter.
Trump didn’t offer credible solutions. He hasn’t lifted a finger to help Rust Belters as president. What he did do was acknowledge their existence.
Writing about the French election, Édouard Louis wrote that a similar cri de Coeur motivated many Marine Le Pen voters. Louis grew up poor: “In the minds of the bourgeoisie…our existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.” That was the message of many Trump voters to the op-ed writers of The New York Times: we know he isn’t perfect, but at least he knows we exist.
Despite Bernie (and Trump), the Hillary Clinton Democrats still don’t get it. When Trump mentioned “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” in his inaugural address, my liberal New York friends shook their heads. Like my mom’s friend, they had no idea what Trump was talking about.
The misery is real.
They exist — sometimes they exist five or six miles away.
“They” are us.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)