The most accurate historical reference point for our chaotic cultural moment is also the most unlikely: the autumn of 1991. That day’s leading lights, most of them Baby Boomers, have suddenly resurfaced as objects of animus, scorn, pity, or admiration. Unforeseen developments—from criminality to public disgrace—have hastened the demise of many household names, while other careers have proven more resilient. The nation’s cultural canvas isn’t aging well.
Just look at the leading TV stars of that long-ago season. “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby, sits in a state prison cell. Candice Bergen, returning as Murphy Brown, joins a tired cast indulging their post-2016 grievances. Roseanne Barr’s namesake show, rechristened The Conners, reaches for its ’90s-era ratings despite its star’s Twitter implosion. Tim Allen, whose hit Home Improvement made its debut in September 1991, has been given a second life on Fox’s most-watched comedy in almost a decade.
Nightly cable news viewers are also in a rendezvous with 1991. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, like Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas 27 years before, will forever be associated with this period. Joe Biden, who controversially presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee then, is weighing yet another presidential run—this time to challenge Donald Trump in 2020. In 1991, Trump was a struggling mogul whose Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City had filed for bankruptcy protection. Now in the White House, he captivates every waking moment of Americans’ media consumption.
The recurrent nature of our culture has induced a generational hangover—one that is not going away. Since the 1960s, Baby Boomers have presided over decades of social dysfunction and economic flux, yet they continue to enjoy recurring roles. Members of Generation X—those born between 1965 and 1980—cannot escape the cultural and political shadow of the Boomers. And as Matthew Hennessey shows in his new book, Zero Hour for Gen X, this middle-aged cohort—precariously positioned between the older Boomers and younger Millennials—is eager for its turn.
Hennessey, deputy op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal, argues that Generation X is the country’s greatest check on a dystopian technological future. It is Gen Xers who can recall life before Big Tech’s omniscience, restore values extinguished by modern norms, and bridge the gap between Boomers’ lingering hubris and Millennials’ infectious callowness. Theirs is a generation victimized by timing—too young for the halcyon ’90s, profoundly traumatized by 9/11 and the Great Recession, and immobilized by the present turbulent age.
Hennessey has written an engaging and page-turning book. His thesis is that Gen X can restore hope even as Silicon Valley erases what we once cherished. Zero Hour for Gen X should be issued in the ubiquitous First-Year Experience programs embraced by colleges to remind students that there once existed a far calmer and more rational world than the one they are entering. “Nothing seems like what it was anymore. Nothing seems like it will be what we thought it would be,” writes Hennessey. “Everything feels like it’s on the verge of radical change, or complete collapse.”
The book offers a sweeping excursion through 35 years, reminding readers of the botched opportunities, discouraging trends, and polarizing flash points that led to this broken moment. Gen Xers were born into an America in or hung over from Vietnam, a stagnant economy, collapsing cities, and a cultural milieu that reflected its downcast mood. The ’80s proved an optimistic recalibration, and Gen Xers grew up in a society that was prosperous, content, and enjoying just the right dose of technology. As Hennessey writes:
It was a time when childhood was still a little bit risky. No one dreamed of wearing a helmet while riding a bike. Seat belts were optional. Pizza parlors had cigarette machines in the corner, and no adult would ever take time out of the day to wag a finger at a bunch of high school kids as they puffed away, cursing loudly, drinking soda and carrying on. Parenting then was a hands-off job. So was being a neighbor. Kids as young as I was left the house on summer mornings, only coming back to be fed at midday and dinnertime. We all were gullible enough to believe that mixing Pop Rocks and soda could kill you.
The fall of the Berlin Wall deceptively promised even happier times. Economic statistics supported the country’s cheerful disposition. Hennessey reminds us that the gross domestic product of the United States increased 81 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 1983 and 2001. This booming economy, however, failed to suppress signs of disorder, whether it was the L.A. riots in 1992, O.J. Simpson’s gripping trial in 1995, or the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s. Gen Xers digested this brewing pandemonium and in the interim attempted to create their own cultural reference points. But grunge music, flannel shirts, and MTV remained overshadowed by Baby Boomers. The preceding generation enjoyed an unrelenting monopoly, from classic rock on FM radio to films that revisited their idyllic youth and unruly college years. Was their lock on culture symptomatic of self-absorption? Try watching The Big Chill in 2018.
Hennessey compellingly makes the case for Gen X, calling them “the last adult generation.” They can recall a simpler, analog life—unpolluted by technology, understanding of the present, and uninterrupted by privacy intrusions. They are the last generation to remember solitude as an inalienable right rather than a scheduled perk or dreaded outcome. From a demographic perspective, they are America’s best hope to challenge our present surveillance economy and its platforms, which incentivize outrage, instigate the masses, and provoke constant agitation. Baby Boomers, now seniors, seem unconcerned with Big Tech’s grip on society. After all, passively scrolling on an iPad is a leisure, not a burden. Millennials, meanwhile, have surrendered themselves to a pixelated existence. Life has become digital, told in short stories and filtered photos for hidden, dopamine-feeding advertisers.
The technology responsible for the world’s communications disruption remains just over a decade old. In response to this rapid change, Hennessey believes Generation X must remind society of forgotten behaviors, products, and standards. “Given the eager technological acquiescence of the digital natives,” he writes, “the members of Generation X have an awesome responsibility to keep faith with reality.” They must challenge the Internet of Things, the revolutionary tools that incorporate voice or facial recognition, create an imagined dependence, and transform how we live. Hennessey argues that Gen Xers can turn from our disturbing path by demonstrating how to reacquaint ourselves with the physical world. We can put down the smartphones, pay for the entertainment that we consume, support brick-and-mortar stores, and subscribe to newspapers or magazines.
Physical shops and print publications now represent another time, one that prompts a sense of yearning. There is a reason for television’s successful streaming of shows set in the 1980s. It is the same reason that networks are resurrecting sitcoms from that period. Netflix captivates viewers with Stranger Things, ABC pays homage with The Goldbergs, and Amazon features Red Oaks, a charming coming-of-age series that ran for three seasons. The shows hearken back to an era when mix tapes created musical moods, TV entertainment followed a set schedule, photos marked occasions, communication was less urgent, and romance happened without algorithms. Sears, now bankrupt, remained a suburban shopping destination.
While Hennessey notes Baby Boomers’ apathy, even they undoubtedly, and even fondly, remember their non-digital existences in the ’80s. Millennials, meanwhile, absorb the decade’s atmospherics—tablet screens, cordless phones, and stainless steel appliances. Older Millennials were born into this physical existence, one that gradually disappeared with the internet’s ascendance in the 1990s. Now digital platforms are lucratively feeding our nostalgia and amusement. We binge watch a happier, more tranquil past.
Hennessey warns us to reevaluate our Huxleyan reality. Writing in a lively, conversational style, he conveys why Big Tech’s dominance will not deliver a favorable outcome. For now, we remain perpetually distracted at our own peril. We cannot help ourselves. And so we return our gazes to glass screens, streaming music at a frantic pace, swiping romantic prospects and scrolling through friends’ emotional posts, pressing pause on a new favorite show and compulsively opening Twitter or Facebook, forgetting how wonderful life was when privacy was a virtue, not a vice. Zero Hour for Gen X shows us a better way forward.
Charles F. McElwee III is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. He’s written for The American Conservative, City Journal, The Atlantic, National Review, and The Weekly Standard, among others.