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.
Generation Xers didn't grow up with the expectations of the fading baby boomers, to enjoy the promise of Social Security and Medicare as they knew it. They grew up knowing that their numbers, around 50 million, make their group too small to pay for the all the entitlements and too large to get the benefits they were paying for. They want leaders who understand that.
Jeff Gordiner in Details magazine describes them as a generation that peaked at birth. By the time they graduated from college, they saw job opportunities on a downward spiral. They look at a world with a shrinking middle class. Now that Ryan is the first among them to attain presidential-ticket prominence, they can take themselves seriously. They know they have to debate the Romney-Ryan message, like it or not.
Ryan is identified with an institution whose approval ratings are lower than the president's, and he is out to change that with a tax policy that's "transparent." Not for him Nancy Pelosi's method of writing health care legislation: "We have to pass the bill so we can find out what's in it."
Generation Xers, like Matthew May, a conservative writing in American Thinker magazine, want to reprise John F. Kennedy to urge Americans to "ask not what your government can do for you, but recognize what your government cannot do."
After voting for Barack Obama over John McCain by six percentage points in 2008, they, like everybody else, were disappointed by what they got for their votes; 37 percent of them tell pollsters that his economic policies have made things worse. They want more independence and less nanny government. When Romney and Ryan stand together, they look like a father and son who have discovered as adults that they have something to learn from each other. Maybe the rest of us can, too.