VP-elect Kamala Harris gives Gen X slackers a taste of success

November 21, 2020 

Kamala Harris isn't just historic because she's the first woman, and first woman of color, to be elected vice president. She's historic because she represents the first time a middle-aged Gen Xer has ever won anything.

Though the Pew Research Center says Xers were born from 1965 to 1980, other researchers claim this cohort originated as early as 1964 -- and I'm going with that. Born in 1964, Harris was a latchkey kid with divorced parents who -- checkmate -- wears Converse sneakers. A Gen Xer all the way.

And Boomers, even if you could take her on a technicality, please give us this; we have so little. In the words of Pew, Generation X is "America's neglected 'middle child' ... a low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy behemoths." A CBS News report on the generations in 2019 left out Gen X entirely. A "Saturday Night Live" game-show skit pitting millennials against Boomers gave Keenan Thompson this line: "I'm Gen X. I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn."

Our generation saw Geraldine Ferraro run for vice president on Walter Mondale's doomed 1984 ticket. They lost in a landslide to Reagan-Bush, shaping a generation's belief that we might not see a viable female candidate in our lifetime. Then came Sarah Palin (who was born eight months before Harris) -- and another landslide defeat.

After Biden and Harris' win, the streets flooded with women celebrating the first time a middle-aged Gen Xer has ever won anything.Getty Images

Entrenched Boomers have been running the show for as long as we can remember. Headline-grabbing millennials have laid claim to the future. Meanwhile, Gen X candidates for the presidency and vice presidency are a wacky bunch of also-rans: Paul Ryan, Andrew Yang, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand -- and the Gen X-iest of all: hardcore guitarist Beto O'Rourke. They did what Gen X always does: They lost.

As a generation we've been down so long that we don't quite trust up. We come by our trademark wariness honestly. The divorce rate peaked when we were young. Gen X women were the first generation of girls assured that we could easily "bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan," as if getting to do all the work at the office and at home was some sort of prize.

But our generation has learned that having it all -- or even some of it -- isn't easy. In middle age we find ourselves tending to both children and aging parents while being told to lean in at work. According to AARP, the average caregiver now is a 49-year-old woman who works at least part-time. And thanks to the Gen X baby bust, we don't have a lot of siblings to help out.

"Gen Xers are in 'the prime of their lives' at a particularly divisive and dangerous moment," marketing expert Faith Popcorn told me. "They have been hit hard financially and dismissed culturally. They have tons of debt. They're squeezed on both sides by children and aging parents. The grim state of adulthood is hitting them hard. If they're exhausted and bewildered, they have every reason to feel that way." That makes Harris a perfect avatar for us. She's in a two-income household (her husband, Doug, is a lawyer), and she's a devoted aunt and stepmother to two children now in their twenties who call her "Momala."

In her acceptance speech on Nov. 7, Harris talked about being a role model. Cameras cut to young girls sitting on shoulders, soberly absorbing her message. But, in that crowd in Wilmington, the cameras also caught a middle-aged woman overcome with emotion -- ugly-crying, mask and glasses askew.

That sobbing woman represents Gen X today: Those who as children were told we could do anything but then as adults careened from recession to crash to pandemic, job instability, wage stagnation, rising costs of living, caregiving with no support. Those who struck out on paths as ambitious as Harris' but ended up unemployed in their forties and fifties, called to protect their parents from COVID while home-schooling their children and gazing for hours into the void that is Zoom.

Growing up a latchkey kid, Harris hits all the marks with Gen Xers.Alamy

"I'm a little worried my bubble is going to burst and my heart's gonna be broken," my cousin Mary Ann, 54, who lives in upstate New York, told me after Harris gave her speech. She said a Gen X woman finally reaching high office "feels like a guilty pleasure that I haven't been allowed for so long." Excitement and doubt, hope and fear: For those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s, it might forever be a tangle.

As if anticipating our lack of familiarity with optimism, Harris chose for her acceptance-speech walk-up music Gen Xer Mary J. Blige's "Work That." It's not one of those pie-in-the-sky Boomer anthems like "Don't Stop" or "Dancing in the Street." It's a song about going through hard times and being counted out and then prospering.

As Blige sings, "It's okay, show yourself some love ... It's gonna be fine." That's the radical message Kamala Harris has for our generation. Dare we believe her?

Ada Calhoun is the author of the 2020 New York Times bestseller "Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis," out in paperback January 19, 2021.

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