"Let the word go forth from this time and place ... that the torch has been passed to a new generation." -- John F. Kennedy.
"Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American." -- Bill Clinton
Throughout our history we have matched great challenges with great achievements. Whether faced with civil war, the depression or world war, "each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more -- and it is time for our generation to answer that call." --Barack Obama.
These words from John Kennedy's and Bill Clinton's inaugural and Barack Obama's announcement speech, all invoke the same theme of generational change and acknowledgment that it is their time. Kennedy was from the "Greatest Generation" "born in [the last] century, tempered by war [and] disciplined by a hard and bitter peace." Clinton is from the "Baby Boom Generation" "raised in the shadows of unrivaled prosperity" and the Cold War. Obama is from Generation Jones, born in the shadow of fallen heroes, tempered by Watergate and disciplined by economic uncertainty.
Generation Jones? Generation Jones, a term coined by social commentator Jonathan Pontell to convey both their anonymity and unfulfilled expectations, covers those of us who were born between 1954 and 1965. The group is often lumped in with Baby Boomers or Generation X, since statistically the Baby Boom runs through 1964 while the characters in Douglas Copeland's novel Generation X would have been born the year after Senator Obama (although Copeland agrees that Jonesers are distinct from both Boomers and Xers).
Each generation is defined by completely different experiences as reflected in their cultural touchstones. Boomers grew up with Beaver Cleaver, cheered Willie Mays, reveled in Woodstock and voted for Richard Nixon; Jonesers had the Brady Bunch, Muhammad Ali, Live Aid and Ronald Reagan, while Xers had Doogie Howser, Michael Jordan, Lollapalooza and Bill Clinton. Each a distinct era.
Jonesers did not have a Vietnam abroad or anything resembling Selma's Bloody Sunday at home, instead we had Grenada and détente and the bridges we crossed were in high school cafeterias and playgrounds without narration by Walter Cronkite. The war that divided our generation occurred not in the jungles of Vietnam but in our homes as the divorce rate doubled.
Jonesers' formative years instead were defined by watching a nation that stood tall as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, stagger through the 1970s amidst Watergate, the fall of Saigon, oil shocks, hyper-inflation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, a dramatic increase in violent crime; and the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis which led to the transition from malaise to "Morning in America".
The world greeted Boomers with open arms and they were even Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1965; Jonesers, however, had a different experience. As they worked through high school and college to help pay for soaring tuitions and then struggled to find jobs in an unwelcoming marketplace, Jonesers quickly realized life offered few guarantees and that they had to be adaptable and pragmatic. Instead of "We Shall Overcome," Jonesers sang "I Will Survive".
Jonesers, unlike Xers, embrace the 1960s' idealism and beatified its heroes, while both generations view of government is colored by Watergate and Washington gridlock. As a result, Jonesers adopted a less ideological and more nuanced approach to politics than Boomers and this has made them key swing voters in the last few elections. In general, Jonesers have rewarded candidates exuding confidence and decisiveness but have punished the timid.
Senator Obama is the first Joneser to emerge as a serious candidate at the national level and just as Senator Clinton represents the Baby Boom era and Senator McCain the Ice Age, Obama's campaign embodies the Generation Jones zeitgeist. Obama exudes the same idealism, confidence and decisiveness they admired in Presidents Kennedy and Reagan.
Obama also recognizes that voters do not just want change -- they want a new type of politics (a theme he has emphasized since ABC's tabloid debate). This is why Obama has tried to steer away from the confrontational politics of the Clinton-Bush era, but has not dodged the taboos that the prior generation assiduously avoided from the death penalty to Social Security. Unlike his opponents, Obama understands that the method is part of the message -- change.
Historically, "the torch has passed" to a new generation when an energetic challenger faced a ruling generation that had simply lost its steam (although this spirited campaign has demonstrated Boomers still have plenty of steam) or one whose governing paradigm was repudiated by the voters as with Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 landslide rejecting the disastrous laissez-faire policies of that era.
There are tremors indicating such a shift is occurring today. Polls portray a huge wave of voter discontent with 83 percent of Americans believing the country is on the wrong track, confidence in Congress and the White House dropping 63 and 70 percent respectively since just after 9/11 and voters talking of "Bush-Clinton fatigue" (i.e., "Boomer fatigue"). Obama's success comes from harnessing the power of this extreme voter disaffection which may ultimately enable him to build a new majority coalition, just as Roosevelt built a new majority that held the White House for 24 of the next 32 years.
Boomers are increasingly aware of the advancing Jonesers who have ascended into power in countries such as Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany and Mexico. President Bush has acknowledged that "Generation Jones is undeniably an important group. If we Baby Boomers don't lead, they're right behind us ready to." With Senator Obama, the Jonesers have found the moment and candidate to do just that.
Adapted from a column originally published in the Santa Monica Daily Press.