The disillusionment of Generation X
While individual views of leadership are shaped by deeply personal experiences, the events common to a generation also subtly contribute. In thinking more recently about the themes common to Generation X, we've started examining the ideals and values of our youth that have yielded to a harsher reality as we aged. We've "creatively" labeled this the Gen-X Disillusionment, and to follow are four examples of unrealized social campaigns that have played out through our lifetime, leaving us to wonder about their impact on leadership decisions, desires and methods.
1. Give peace a chance
Although we came of age during the vague but ever-present threat of nuclear fallout brought on by the Cold War, we were raised in a remarkably peaceful time. We learned from the echoes of the baby boomer's call for peace, understanding their collective recoil from Vietnam. We grew up in a world that avoided confrontation, recognizing the Cold War as an effort by two super powers to avoid conflict. But then, shortly after we entered adulthood, Iraq invaded Kuwait City in the summer of 1990 and our generation experienced its first war, one that could easily be justified because we were protecting tiny Kuwait from its neighboring bully, Iraq. Ten years later, the September 11 attacks occurred, and we rightfully sent our military into Afghanistan.
But a subtle shift soon followed--one where a main tenet of Just War Theory, where military action is a last resort, was rationalized away. We invaded Iraq in 2003 and have been mired in conflict ever since, even redoubling our efforts in Afghanistan in 2009.
By no means were these wars black-and-white issues from a moral standpoint, as President Obama acknowledged. But the fact is that our country has been at war for the past decade, and the values that we embraced throughout our youth--peace, cooperation, diplomacy and understanding--have been replaced by more aggressive means.
2. To drug or not to drug
For Generation X, one of the most memorable wars fought during our lifetime may very well be the War on Drugs. Brought on, in part, by GI heroin abuse during the Vietnam War, Nixon declared that, "America's Public Enemy No. 1 is drug abuse." Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 to extend the United States' reach and precision in combating the use and sale of drugs nationally and abroad. Shortly thereafter, efforts were heightened and the National Institute on Drug Abuse was founded in 1974, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy was set up in 1988.
Growing up in the '70's and '80s we were soldiers, combating the insidious pushers and fiends who threatened our futures with dope and smack. We wore t-shirts reminding us that drugs are whack, slapped five with D.A.R.E. officers, cheered on Tubs, Crockett and the 21 Jump Street crew, and even watched Nancy Reagan walk into our prime-time lineup--welcoming the reminders that we should "Just say no." While the messages were clear and efforts sincere, where did they take us?
For the now grown Xer gang, there is an irony in all these anti-drug efforts. In spite of the slogans, we've lived through a war where the enemy may be stronger now than it was when we started. According to a 2008 World Health Organization survey of 17 countries, the United States ranked No. 1 among marijuana and cocaine use, drug use appears to be escalating over time, and the likelihood of drug use increases with personal wealth. Similarly, in 1960 an estimated 4 million people had tried drugs, whereas in 2005 112 million Americans reported using an illegal drug at least once and 35 million used in the past year.
Sadly, while we can point to many tactical wins in the war on drugs (Noriega, Escobar, etc.), we may be no better off than we were when Nixon first threw the gauntlet. With the legalization of marijuana looming, hit shows like Weeds now entertaining the masses, and drug use seemingly on the rise, what should we think? According to one Gallup poll, when asked about the United States' progress in the battle against drugs, only 35 percent said Made Much/Some Progress in 1972, while--stunningly--an even-fewer 33 percent answered the same way in 2009. For all the money, time and effort, the war seems like a treadmill rather than a cause with any definable end.
3. We'll learn ya
What happened to education in our lifetime is a project that could fuel volumes of research and thousands of studies. It doesn't seem like the United States has been satisfied with its educational efforts for decades, and perhaps for good reason. But, the experience of Generation X is particularly disenchanting given the unique circumstances in which we grew up. For the first time in world history, there was a coordinated, targeted and sophisticated effort to educate children through mass media, but the results of this grand experiment seem inconclusive. Through Mister Rodgers, Captain Kangaroo, Children's Television Workshop and others, every Gen Xer with access to a television had the most remedial of opportunities to learn in their living rooms at the same time and same place every day.
Sesame Street first aired in 1969 and, in the words of co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney, "Our original goal was simple: to create a successful television program that would make a difference in the lives of children, in particular, poor inner-city children, and help prepare them for school." A 1973 assessment report of Children's Television Workshop published by Rand included a survey suggesting that after airing for only one year (1969-1970) Sesame Street had become the program most frequently mentioned by parents as being the best for their children. However, with such a fervent focus on education at the mass level, what happened?
On the heels of getting schooled on Sesame Street, many Gen-Xers began to exit the secondary-school system at the time of a curious government-spending shift. In 1993 national education spendingtopped federal defense spending and hasn't been overtaken since. Only in the past couple of years has education been surpassed by spending on health care and pensions, yet the reports keep piling up that the United States is losing ground in the scholarly ranks.
According to the 2007 OECD briefing note for the United States, the U.S. measured below the mean score when tested against 30 other nations in science, finishing with a ranking of 21. The same report opens with a picture of how the United States has lost its grip on high-school completion rates, dropping to 21 out of 27 countries in 2005, and slipping from 2nd to 14th in college graduation between 1995 to 2005. Similarly, the U. S. ranks 25th in math and spends more money per student than No. 1, Finland.
4. American Exceptionalism
Throughout our childhood, Gen-Xers were taught that the U.S. was the greatest country. Period. End of story. And in many ways, it was an easy assertion to support. The compelling birth of our nation, our role as the sleeping giant that finally awoke to help defeat the Axis powers in World War II, the major leaps made for women's rights and civil rights, landing on the moon in 1969...We continually proved to the world that we could do anything. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. was the lone superpower representing freedom and democracy, the major force opposing communism. Culturally, classic movies like Rocky IV and Red Dawn symbolically highlighted our battle against the Soviet Union, embodying America's never-give-in philosophy. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 bolstered the idea that our way was the right way, and gave further proof that American Exceptionalism may be a core element of our DNA.
But today, we have slipped to 18th in secondary education, 26th in overall education, have a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, the largest budget deficits since the end of World War II, and have fallen to 6th in global competitiveness.
Additionally, new technologies that allow for effortless interaction (for example, Facebook) with other countries have drastically reduced the perceived size of our world--exposing other methods and ideas that are equally, if not more, effective than our own (Finland's educational system). While some have opined that the unstable leadership in America will lead to long-term stagnation, and others have flat-out refuted the idea of American Exceptionalism, many of our leaders are still insisting in shrill tones that we're the best. But to what extent is this unquestioning attitude obstructing honest self-reflection and progress? After all, if we continue to insist upon the reflection we want to see, we will never come to terms with what's clearly staring back at us.
We're quick to acknowledge that we've barely scratched the surface of each of these topics. But if leadership is about values and direction, the Gen-X Disillusionment may contribute to the broader sentiment that our country might be stuck, in need of emerging leaders to align values with action. We're eager to hear your thoughts about how to move forward, the themes we missed, and what other generations think.
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