Monday, May 21, 2012

This game for ages 48 and up

I’m spending much of this week in Washington, D.C., camped out at a hotel that includes Capitol Hill as scenery. Our nation’s capital is packed with venerable institutions and tributes to history. What isn’t in abundance is a pack of young leaders.

Minimum age limits on elected offices vary depending on state or locale. At the federal level, the Constitution mandates that presidents must be 35, senators must be 30 and representatives at least 25. Locally, a student at my university became mayor pro tem of his hometown when he was just 19. I admit that I’ve never thought too hard about these age limits until now; after all, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to expect a certain maturity and experience with the most powerful offices.

But as I creep ever closer to presidential age (I’ll be eligible next cycle ... let’s get those bumper stickers rolling), I’m wondering exactly what impact, if any, my generation* is likely to have in D.C.

Yes, I said, “if any.” The baby boomers are likely to shadow us for a very long time. Why?

1) Sheer numbers. Just like the name implies, baby boomers are the product of the post-WWII rise in hot reproduction that lasted roughly from 1946 to 1964. And while the oldest boomers are already gray and AARPing it up, the youngest turn 48 this year. Boomer Barack Obama was 47 when he took the oath of office, and we consider him young and breezy. And that actuarial wizardry is why the boomers are likely to stay relevant deep into our generation’s peak years.

Technically, our elders.
2) Boomers are the coolest, hippest, smartest, most culturally important and best-at-sports generation ever. If you ask them. Every generation thinks to some degree that they’re the best, and every one does have its contributions to history. The only reason baby boomers accept their moniker is because “Greatest Generation” was already taken by the people who halted Hitler. Then the boomers named us X, because they thought that much of us. And yes, the music is awesome, and the ’60s will always be synonymous with cultural shift. The problem was that not only did the boomers never relinquish the cool-youth trope, but they completely switched attitudes over time. By the 1980s, they were yuppies, gobbling up money, electing Reagan, dismantling the cooling rods of the economy — all while convinced they were still the peace-loving, defiant dodgers of The Man. Those of us born in the 1980s and later saw only the yuppie aspect firsthand, and are now living with the effects of decades of greed and arrogance. But it’s still going strong, and those of us in X/Millennial Land wonder if we’ll ever get our shot to address the mess. Fortunately for the boomers and older generations,

3) We’re broke. Running for office takes so much money that even thinking about it costs $25,000. (Oops.) What was already a costly endeavor has been made worse in recent years as the entrenched interests aim to hold on to their bounty. Even (especially?) the most civic-minded 20- or 30-somethings are usually just trying to get by in life, period. I, for one, am not about to challenge anyone for any office. As much as I dismiss most tea party talk about “real people” running for office, it’s true that politics attracts certain moneyed types. And those types tend to be older and from a select few professions where income matters first and relevance matters second.

4) We’re on Facebook. We’re the first generation in history to document, in real time, every insignificant thing about ourselves. It’s a positive development in many ways, but the pitfall is that all of our worst moments are there too. Concurrent to this phenomenon is the birth of a collective tsk-tsk mentality that kills the careers of anyone so tactless as to hold a plastic cup in a picture. Social networking would have devastated the baby boomers, but somehow they got by and produced some decent leaders. Our generation may not have the same luxury, even though we’re arguably less experimental than they were.

As a kid, I spent most of my time between my boomer parents and my WWII-era grandparents. One major difference I noted between them was that my grandparents would never waste anything and recycled, while my parents were looser on those matters. When I asked my grandparents why, they’d say, “We were in the Depression. We know what it’s like to have nothing.” That used to annoy me. It doesn’t anymore.

I think my generation will ultimately adopt the best aspects of both generations, since we’ve seen both boom and bust. And that’s why I hope that, in spite of all the obstacles we face, my generation will make a major impact in D.C. someday. Not when we’re too old. And I’d like to see political demographics skew younger in general. Because we’re the young generation. And we’ve got something to say.

*-Being born in 1980, I’m lumped with either X or Millennial, depending on who you ask. I claim an overlap, which is how I see the generations ultimately being remembered.

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