The Puget Sound Business Journal recently posted a story with this headline: "Gen Z Organizes." According to the writer, Hilary Burns, new "data [finds] that Gen Z is the most pro-union generation when compared with Millennials, Gen Xers, and even Baby Boomers, despite their all-time high support for unions in 1972."
What this description reveals is how Millennials never left the shadow of Gen Xers; and how Gen Zers are closer to the Silent Generation, the generation that saw its middle-class expanded by strong unions (the Treaty of Detroit), high taxes on top income earners (the Kuznet curve), and massive government spending (GI Bill, Federal Housing Administration loans, and so on). This was the Keynesian generation from which the boomers emerged feeling America's greatness. But as the late-20th-century American economist Hyman Minsky pointed out in reference to financial markets: "Stability is destabilizing."
It's Boomers II, return of the Boomer. pic.twitter.com/pamN3flu77— BHOOOny (Muny) for all — 👻🏚️abundant housing🎃🦴 (@john102414) October 18, 2022
Boomer satisfaction, the source of which (worker struggles that exploded in and spread from the middle of the 19th century) was completely forgotten, eventually led to the collapse of union power and, by the end of the 1970s, the return of a social order that, too, collapsed after the second great capitalist war of the 20th century. This was the world that Gen X entered in the 1980s. Unions were under attack or enervated or gone altogether. In the West, Keynesianism, the state capitalist form that even Nixon appreciated as a fact of American economic life, was rapidly replaced by monetarism, and, in the East, state socialism was headed to the fall of the wall. But what succeeded the ideology of unionism? A belief in technological progress that the world had not powerfully felt since the height of the Victorians. This is why the dot-com crash is the key Gen X event.
Before exploring the aim of this post, it's important that we appreciate Fredric Jameson's maxim that “we cannot not periodize.” The generational units that help track definite changes in a given capitalist society, in this case the US's, are not only useful but historically specific—meaning, the concept of generations may not exist outside the historically constituted (therefore not universal) economic system we wake up in, work in, go to sleep in. The reason for this is the conatus of a market-driven society (growth with no end) posits mass existence (or mass temporality) in its development from mass production (a stage that capital accomplished by the Victorians without its necessary complement, mass consumption—this is where socialism in its Keynesianism form steps in after the Red Decade).
Let's turn to Gen X. What happened here?
As stated above, what must be understood is that by the time this generation entered the job market, it had weakened to no unions. This was not the same kind of labor condition experienced by Boomers or the Silent Generation. But one known by the Lost Generation. And what displaced union ideology in the 1980s? The widespread idea that they represented a social order that had run its course. Unions were old hat. The new capitalism was not like the one experienced by every generation until the silent one. It, it claimed, directly provided powerful, productive tools to the masses.
The means of capital formation and realization were no longer, so the promise went, concentrated in a few hands. With increasingly affordable information technologies, they were available to anyone who wanted to just work. With this new myth, success was not a matter of what in Adam Smith's time was called "combination," but the initiative of the individual.
Every technology that's dominant today was first exposed to Gen X (personal computers, video games, cordless phones, email/fax machines, satellite communication and entertainment distribution). This was the information revolution of the 1980s, the Eden of smartphones, social networking, the gig economy. Couple this development with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the forms of socialism it represented, which were not that different from the social democracies of the West, and you have a generation that powerfully felt it had really entered a new world, one that made obsolete worker combinations. But we were all fooled.
By the 1990s—the key Gen X moment—hiphop sampling was captured and punished by the courts, file sharing (Napster) was shut down, and Nasdaq was in a bubble of historic proportions. The technological utopia, which even cyberpunk promoted in an urban world that had somehow survived the climate catastrophe Gen X anticipated (acid rain, ozone depletion, greenhouse effect), did not materialize. It instead repeated a pattern of class domination that stretched back to the Victorians, even to the Dutch, a country that, in the 17th century, initiated the state form of capital accumulation that presently has China as its center.
Millennials fell into the same hole as the Gen X, a fact made clear by the rise of the gig economy. But Gen X had the benefit of accessing affordable housing in the suburbs and, especially, the inner city. This generation also did not leave college with crushing debts. They enjoyed the twilight of Keynesian programs and demand-directed economics that was ultimately rejected by a generation, Boomers, whose white population was largely fooled by the myth of stagflation into blaming US economic decline not on financialization and globalization but on unchecked union power—or, put another way, high wages.
After the crash of 2008, which hit Millennials much harder than Gen Xers, the ground was cleared for a generation that was not easily tricked by stories about progress and technological individualism. This generation sobered up and saw that even in a 21st century capitalist order, there really remained only two class camps: workers and bosses. Marx could be exhumed intact. Even if your livelihood depended on an app, you were in a situation that was not, in essence, that different from that of a Victorian factory worker. Gen X, on the other hand, will go to the grave believing in electric cars.
What is wrong with Gen X? pic.twitter.com/RD5iAulJgx— Andrea Chalupa 🇺🇲 (@AndreaChalupa) October 17, 2022