Thursday, January 10, 2008

Generational Change: The Undiscussed Identity-Politics of the 2008 Election?

Happy New Year, everyone! Given the interesting twists and turns of the poilitical campaign, I thought I want to focus this post on how generational matters are playing out in the election. Please note that this post is not partisan and does not endorse any candidate.

Politicians from three of the four living generations are battling it out for the White House.

  • Senator John McCain joked that he is far from being a kid. Perhaps he fits more closely in the mold of the Greatest Generation.
  • Senator Hillary Clinton encapsulates the Baby Boomer political activist, and Governor Mike Hukabee plays light '60s tunes with his rock band.
  • Senator Barack Obama, who just made it into Generation X, is pulling on the energy of his generation and the Millennials (Generation Y) who are now students.His website even includes a group called Generation Obama.
The campaign fought between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in '92 -- followed by the contest between Bob Dole and Mr. Clinton in 1996 -- signified the struggle of Baby Boomers to take ultimate political power from the hands of the Greatest Generation. Today, the challenge Obama has mounted against Mrs. Clinton symbolizes Generation X making a play for further generational change in the White House.

One must wonder, as with all things generational: How much is the "inexperience" argument about Obama, being used by the Clinton campaign, a veiled generational jab? Will Baby Boomers never trust anyone under 60?

In a political blog piece dubbed Escape from Camelot, Matt Bai notes that some Baby Boomers have compared Obama to one or another Kennedy. Granted, it is human nature to look for comparison of today's leaders with those from the past. Yet Bai describes something less healthy beneath these analogies:
I was born about three months after Robert Kennedy’s death, so I’ll probably never understand what it is about the Kennedy legend that seems to have suspended Democrats of a certain generation in a specific moment in time, as stuck in their frame of reference as an insect in amber. Every four years, it seems, since I first became aware of politics, Democrats have been trying to transform someone into a Kennedy, almost always with disappointing results...

There’s something unhealthy about all this Baby-Boomer reminiscing, because it forces Democrats always to look backward, to serve some unrealized ideal of government rather than a more modern and relevant vision of what government might become. There is a faint line between nostalgia and delusion, and with each passing year, those liberals who long for the reincarnation of their heroes seem ever closer to obliterating it.
Perhaps many political battles today witness liberals and progressives trying to complete the unfulfilled social change agenda(s) of the 1960s, and conservatives working diligently to roll-back these changes to return to the more traditional ways of the 1950s. The past ideological battles and bruises of the Baby Boomers remain their reference point for current goals and strategies.

This battle is waged within the philanthropy community as well. Individual donors and program officers, foundations, and associations have staked-out "political" positions (with a lower-case "p"), utilizing means such as grants, conferences and research publications to advocate for politically-loaded agendas such as funding the school vouchers movement on the right, or supporting community organizing in marginalized communities on the left, as examples.

In politics, philanthropy, and other spheres, Boomer politics leave emerging generations with the intertwined challenges of forming responses to the Baby Boomers (such sharing in or rejecting their nostalgia), and creating their own visions, strategies and approaches to improving society. There is much talk today about how emerging leaders bring technological savvy to political campaigns and to the philanthropic workplace. Online communities and cell phone communications didnt exist when Baby Boomers hashed out their original battles, so htese become a realm that Generation X and Y can claim as their own to some extent.

Yet a narrow focus on technology leaves two important questions unaddressed:
  • How do the emerging generations define their own visions and strategies for society?
  • And how do these new generations create a healthy relationship with the generations on whose shoulders we stand, rather than remaining in unhealthily relations with them (choosing to either defer to, or rebel from, theBaby Boomers and Greatest Generation)?
Given EPIP's mission of advancing social justice philanthropy, a third question comes to mind, borrowing from Bai's critique of Boomer politics:
  • How do we craft 'a more modern and relevant vision' of what social justice philanthropy might become, rather than serve a backward-looking, 'unrealized ideal'?
In the political arena, perhaps politicians such as Barack Obama (there are numerous Gen Xers running for political office at the local, state and federal levels) offer us a clue. He seems to be able to attract an inter-generational base of supporters. And his campaign has utilized the more holistic approach of Generation X and Y in its efforts to create something more holistic that crosses ideological, racial, and geographic barriers.

I believe it is still difficult to answer the questions I have posed. It seems to me that Generation X is still in a state of reaction to the Baby Boomer. Perhaps our Millennial friends are less "in the shadow" of the Boom, and are more able to define a new path. Or perhaps Generation X can be the bridge that brings the best legacies of previous generations to the needed innovations ahead. And who knows what the generations yet-to-come will add to the mix. Only time can tell.

I simply hope that as leaders from these diffenrent generations battle it out for control -- whether it's in politics, philanthropy, nonprofits, or elsewhere -- that we maintain healthy respect for our differences.

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