Talk About My Generation

There's something fishy about the self-appointed leaders of `Gen X.'

by Ruth Conniff

It's been weird, since I graduated from college, to read all the stories about my generation, heaping us alternately with insults and praise, as ``The Ostrich Generation,'' ``The Loser Generation,'' even, perversely, according to a story in Fortune magazine on the lousy job prospects for recent college grads, ``The Upbeat Generation.''

Even more disturbing, for me, is the fact that a particular classmate of mine, a conservative-looking Asian guy with a crew cut and glasses, has started popping up everywhere as my generation's spokesman.

Shortly after I started my job at The Progressive, I got a call from this guy, Eric Liu. I knew him vaguely as the editor of a foreign policy magazine at Yale. He was working for a senator in Washington, D.C., and he had an idea to start a magazine for ``twentysomethings.'' It sounded pretty harebrained to me.

Liu explained that it would be a political magazine, but neither liberal nor conservative; rather, it would be ``post-ideological'' - whatever that meant.

I told him I didn't have time to write anything, but he could reprint a story I'd already written for The Progressive. I sent him the story and forgot about it.

Imagine my surprise when the magazine showed up in the mail, with my name emblazoned on the masthead of volume 1, issue 1 of The Next Progressive.

I hid it under a pile of stuff on my desk while I thought about how to tell my editors. Finally, I produced the thing, sheepishly, to face the inevitable merciless ribbing from co-workers, who began calling me the ``twentysomething editor'' and accused me of fomenting a revolution.

No one was seriously concerned, though, mainly because it wasn't much of a revolt. The Next Progressive's mission statement, printed in the first issue, was ``to prove that the `twentysomething' generation...does in fact have insightful, dynamic ideas for America's future.'' Liu's lead editorial contained rousing demands for ``balanced re-regulation of many industries, including airlines and banking,'' and ``a return to the progressive income tax.'' My 63-year-old editor wrote a letter, calling the issue ``tired'' and old ``old'' and suggesting Liu and company ``try to think radically.''

Anyway, it didn't matter, I thought. The whole magazine was such a transparent vehicle for self-promotion, who would pay any attention?

A few weeks later, I opened the Washington Post to see, on the front page of the Style section, an enormous photograph of Eric Liu and an accompanying story about this leader of the next generation.

I was flabbergasted. But that was just the beginning.

While I was visiting a friend in New York , she pulled out a copy of Newsweek with Eric Liu on the cover. Then I read in The New York Times Book Review a reference to young American writers shaping the current zeitgeist, among them Bret Easton Ellis, Naomi Wolf and Eric Liu.

When Maureen Dowd, The New York Times' Washington reported, did a story on Bill Clinton's trip to Oxford, she mentioned another former Rhodes scholar on the president's staff, who had published a book about his generation.

Sure enough, I received a review copy at work of Next: Young American Writers of the Next Generation, a collection of essays edited by Eric Liu. I learned from the notes on the dust jacket, underneath a mug shot of the smiling, bespectacled Liu, that he was exercising his dynamic ideas for America's future as a foreign-policy speech-writer for President Clinton.

Liu's essay in Next began, ``A lot of people my age seem to think the American Dream is dead. I think they're dead wrong.... Or at least only partly right.''

The lesson, I suppose, is that, as Eric Liu explained when he first called me, the whole generational theme is ``a great way to network.''

The upside is, there's interesting stuff happening among members of my generation on the fringes. Much of it is invisible in the mainstream media, but you can check it out in funky little independent 'zines.

One of these, Temp Slave!, was started by a temporary worker, Jeff Kelly, a.k.a. Keffo. It's full of rantings about the exploitative temporary-worker economy, acid graphics and anecdotes about temps who use workplace sabotage to help people in financial trouble get a break on their mortgage payments or avoid defaulting on their loans.

Little did Keffo suspect that his subversive little 'zine would attract the attention of National Public Radio and The Wall Street Journal. In his third issue, he printed letter from reporters who wanted to know more about Temp Slave!, along with his undazzled replies. (He refuses to send The Wall Street Journal free copies.) He also ran a ream of correspondence with temp workers and other people around the nation who are excited about the 'zine's refreshingly defiant tone and its humane advocacy for the little guy. Lately, Keffo has become involved in an effort to build a temporary-workers' union.

It's a relief to see young people being genuinely iconoclastic, ignoring fashion, being creative, and trying to make the world a better place.

As it happens, I finally ran across a really good analysis of the whole ``twentysomething'' media phenomenon in an obscure 'zine for young people called As We Are, started by a guy named Jason Pramas.

Pramas wonders why a bunch of rich, conservative college grads are getting so much media play as the new rebels. By following the money trail, he discovers that much of the generational-rebellion hoopla has been funded and promoted by a group called Americans for Generational Equity (AGE), a lobbying group that wants to do away with employer pay-outs for Social Security.

AGE sponsored the supposedly grassroots youth group Lead or Leave, and its members include the authors of a trendy ``youth movement'' book called 13th Gen. Some of the corporations on AGE's board are Exxon, BF Goodrich, General Dynamics, American Cyanide [sic; spell-checker's mistake for Cyanamid?], US Steel, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, all of whom are interested in promoted the idea that young people are fed up with paying for Social Security and other social programs.

Eric Liu, as far as I know, is not on AGE's payroll. But he is a rider on the corporate-media-concocted generational bandwagon. The insidious thing about this whole phony generational struggle is that it is a stand-in for real grassroots activism.

After Pramas wrote his magazine story ``Smoke and Mirrors: Why Corporate America Wants a War Between the Generations,'' the Gray Panthers made him their youngest member. Sounds like the birth of a whole new movement.