How will the voters of Generation X mark their presidential ballots? If the baby boomers never trusted anyone over 30, the Gen Xers are said to never trust themselves. They've been stereotyped as slackers, cynics and whiners. They've also been described as confident, pragmatic and engaged.
The conflicting descriptions are curiously logical for the generation born between 1965 and 1980. While their parents were living it up in an indulgent culture that celebrated rebellion and doing their own thing -- "if it feels good, do it" -- the Xers came of age when the economy was not forgiving. Their identity was not always clear. There was not much to be smug about.
Now one of them is running for vice president, and getting to know him means getting a better sense of the generation he was born into. Analysis swells with contradictions. Paul Ryan is either atypical, iconic or a little bit of both.
Unlike those who decry low-paying fast-food jobs as not worth the money earned, he first worked as a teenager flipping quarter-pounders at McDonalds. Baby Busters, as his cohort is also called, are supposed to be unsentimental, dealing in irony rather than feeling, but Ryan is straightforward and passionate. If he doesn't feel our pain, he knows it's there and thinks he can fix what's causing it.
In his television appearances since Mitt Romney tapped him for second banana, including his powerful speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president in Tampa, Fla., Ryan looks wise beyond his years, showing glimpses of the small-town boy who takes pride in his Wisconsin roots. Norman Rockwell could have used him as a model for his Four Freedoms covers for the old Saturday Evening Post.
He looks like a man who trusts himself, a man who knows what he's talking about and still with the boyish innocence of a man who lost his father when he was 16. He learned to love the study of economics, not as a stepping stone into politics so much as a quest to understand how markets work. As a congressman and now vice presidential candidate, he uses what he knows to craft policy.
He has been described as the kind of man Romney hired at Bain Capital. He's the age of the eldest Romney son, Tagg. The five Romney sons were kept to a lower profile in their father's 2008 campaign because they were perceived as too clean cut, too much from "Leave It to Beaver," too "normal" for the contemporary American family to identify with. Ryan changes perceptions. This time, the sons suggest the can-do spirit their father prescribes to get the country moving again.