42) The Despair of White American Gen-X and the 2016 Election
(Revised and Edited for better accuracy on 08 Apr 2018)
You are a dying breed… It’s the angry white guy. Total number of white guys over the age of 35 now in the United States… 19 percent. That’s all we are guys… that whether cheery our demise, our extinction, that’s what’s going on you know… we know it’s over for us. We had a good run. 10,000 years wasn’t bad. – Michael Moore Trumpland
As a single, white, college educated, middle-aged Gen-X woman, I know despair so well, ‘I’m in love with my sadness’ as the song goes. It is not because I am trying to be dramatic; it’s part of my generational landscape. I am one of the average Americans who suffer from depression living in a world I have never been able to fit into the general societal mold.
I’ve always been ambitious, not in the way that success means to people like Donald Trump. I’m not interested in money or things, with the exception of books and archival boxes. My income is just below poverty level and I am lucky to live with a family member, despite my education and coastal elite zip code.
My despair is more existential. It has nothing to do with a desire to preserve whiteness or bring back anything from the 1950s, with the exception of Chuck Berry. In my opinion, the planet needs color in humanity and if this is part of our evolution, then I am all for it. But, for many in my generation, there is a primal fear coated in thick nihilism that has grown into a populist movement the country has witnessed, but not quite the same as present day. There is a deep isolation and palpable anger that is festering from years of societal deterioration, often of their own making.
Two angry white men, Gen-X rappers Kid Rock and Eminem, represent a small cross-section of Middle America in the Trump era.
According to the Huffington Post, “Kid Rock’s rural hometown of Romeo, located in 82-percent white Macomb County, voted Trump in the election; Eminem’s home base of Wayne Country, the 55-percent white area where the city of Detroit is located, voted for Clinton.”
Fans of both musicians may listen to one or the other and not share the strong political views of the musicians themselves, but it is clear that this tearing apart of country is further pulling apart rural whites and urban whites. White families across the country are engaged in heated political debates at the dinner table or in my case, stopped talking altogether.
According to a Washington Post article in late 2015, “The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, the researchers concluded. Before then, death rates for that group dropped steadily, and at a faster pace.”
Growing up in a white middle-class mountain community, I never lacked food, clothing and shelter, but my family was not a close one and rarely made the effort to connect beyond my father’s sister’s family and my mother’s older brother’s family. I have attended more family funerals than weddings and as each elder passed on, we became further isolated.
Most of my cousins on my mom’s side are spread out geographically and we saw each other a handful of times growing up. When my grandfather died, all of us breathed a sigh of relief, not because we didn’t love him, but because the world was more peaceful without him.
My older brother had three marriages and 4 children, all who live in different states. I never had the opportunity to truly bond with them as their parents went through bitter divorce, custody battles and moved far away.
I’ve often witnessed many white families are less unified than non-white families, at least from my perspective. My Armenian friend has 3 children with a large extended family who all live in the same city. My Hispanic co-worker has 4 grown up children and posts photos of beach outings and parties and dinners with her siblings and many aunts and uncles. My African-American co-worker has several children and runs a barbecue grill restaurant with his extended family. They are all in my generation and are devoted to family despite our shared struggles in the economy and current political environment.
Whether we like it or not, the future is not predominately white, and that is okay and all those jobs in the past are not good for our future. In my life, I won’t be having children. I’m content to see my non-white friends raising their children and I hope that one day, our future leaders will work harder to ensure that no one is left behind, that no one is forgotten or dying of despair and that we all rise together.
How Eminem And Kid Rock Represent The White Political Divide
A group of middle-aged whites in the U.S. is dying at a startling rate
A new divide in American death
As an economist, I’ve observed that this narrative is more of an exercise in fantasy fiction then rigorous analysis. It only serves to affirm preconceived beliefs rather than an honest extrapolation of facts:
“Middle Americans knew they once had it all and want it back. This is the source of the despair and dates back to the civil war.”
In all honesty, it was “Middle Americans” that gave “it all away”. The first give away was the pension via adoption of the 401k. The 401k was never meant as a retirement plan instrument but a tax tool for stock options and broader deferred compensation for non-union management employees. (Period Political Environment: Democratic Congress and Democratic President)
Because “Middle Americans” saw management get such illustrious deferred compensation packages with the respective tax breaks, they bought the line that they too could have the same package (the pull effect) and with the anti-union attitudes of the era (push effect), unions would be out of flavor on both on the demand and supply side. However, the laws of supply and demand would dictate the true value of said compensation packages as time passed: as more people wanted management jobs, the respective compensation package values were pushed down.
The biggest give away was NAFTA. (Period Political Environment: Huge Support from both parties).
Click to access StudPaper_Animesh_Singh_Internationaltrade_2011.pdf
And that is why:
“Nowhere is this white despair more obvious than in the pop culture world with two angry white men, Gen-X rappers Kid Rock and Eminem. Both were raised in Michigan, both reflect the divisional nature of white despair in the socioeconomic environment they came from.”
Is a falsehood.
But when “Middle Americans” left the union environment to get those much sought after white collar jobs, international trade became very real again:
Then again, with the changes that came with the America Invents Act (Political Environment: Democratic President and Republican Congress)
“This is the age group of those white kids we watched in Reality Bites working McJobs with newly acquired college degrees, fairing slightly better than their lesser-educated peers in Middle America at the time. Today, white rural Americans wake up every day to little job prospects and the decaying ruins of what once was a thriving post-world war II boom in industry…I am saddened to see many in my generation most brutally hit by opioid addiction…”
Again, this is misinformation. It has nothing to do with race but with the Great Recession and that more men than women were losing their jobs and thus their medical benefits:
And during the recovery, men have been having a harder time gaining employment than women:
Because men have been separated from medical benefits, this has led to self-medicating and in the end, addiction:
“In the 1980s, the Hispanic and Black communities had higher death rates, but began to lessen in 1995”
For Hispanics, the decrease is due to the fact that non-native Hispanics, which is a high-risk health group, have been leaving the US:
Therefore, this net retraction will have a positive effect on the mortality rates since native Hispanics will have better access to health care, while simultaneously, non-native leave the statistics pool.
In conclusion, the author’s lackadaisical attempt to explain soci-economic states by race is as at best, misguided and at worst, fraudulent. Such economic outcomes can be explained by political/economic policies then race. Such views of race and the respective outcomes are better explained by the Central Limit Theorem and the Laws of Large Numbers, rather then the limited armchair view that this article presents. The detriment of said demographic is self-inflicted via international economic policies that are hardly free-market, where the benefits are highly concentrated and the costs are externalized on that same demographic, enacted by politicians elected by said demographics throughout the decades! This blog entry is more heat than light, born by the author’s own internalized conflicts and micro environment, rather than theorems established by time-tested empirics.
I appreciate your valuable critical analysis on my article. I do not want to misguide anyone in my writing nor do anything that is perceived as fraudulent. I do not have the editorial resources in place to fact-check my own biases or expertise in fields that I only briefly studied in college. The most authentic parts of this article is my personal experiences and I have edited out any claims that I mistakenly have made, inferences I unknowingly suggested and I thank you for your vehement observances. I will take extra precautions in future posts.
I think you did a good job with this article. I enjoyed reading it and have often had similar thoughts myself.
It’s interesting and very telling that you cited your identity as an economist right up front in your response to this article. It’s interesting because economists don’t usually wade into purely sociological discussions so blithely, and it’s telling because you believed that your standing as an economist granted you a level of expertise that was somehow relevant to the author’s discussion.
If you read the post carefully, you’ll observe that the author grazed the topic of economics only obliquely and not at all in a rigorous sense (as you so *keenly* pointed out). I can see in your response that you believed this to be an oversight of some sort. But the fact is that economics is a highly flawed means of explaining the societal changes the author discusses. Financial success has found that the money–happiness link is variable and highly context-dependent, and thus a very poor predictor of happiness.
If economic success and wealth accumulation were actual drivers of familial cohesion and connectedness, we would expect that previous generations of white Americans (they being the vast majority until recent decades) that suffered far greater economic privation (i.e. almost all of them) than Generation X would exhibit lower degrees of these traits. But as the author pointed out, we see a regression in overall happiness and life satisfaction among white members of Generation X, which is plainly observable in its rapidly growing suicide rate.
Many economists have claimed that the loss of the much-discussed manufacturing jobs was no real loss at all because they provided low job satisfaction and no real means of upward mobility for workers without a college degree. The American factory of 1950 was a dangerous place characterized by drudgery and angst. The white-collar employment coveted by Boomers, we were told, represented a greater path to satisfaction that a lifetime on the line.
But that didn’t turn out to be exactly the case. Those white-collar Boomer aspirants invented the concept of “midlife crisis” to try to explain their discontent with the careers they had previously believed would help them achieve happiness to a degree their parents never imagined. And the Gen X kids who followed in their footsteps were almost preternaturally skeptical of corporate life for the divorce and family dissolution (relocation being almost a necessity of advancement).
It turned out, after all, that financial success at the cost of a shattered family was a bad trade-off. As it turned out, those GI and Silent Generation families that scraped by on a factory-workers’ wage were actually happier in spite of their modest means, perhaps even *because* of them. It is no accident that family cohesion has decreased as average home sizes have increased over the past 70 years. The changes in the social contract between corporate America and workers has made this trade-off even more odious. American workers didn’t “give away” pensions for 401ks. Pensions were taken away by cost-conscious companies in the name of “competition,” much to the chagrin of those workers. The fact that you believe this to have been a willing handover by white-collar workers illustrates how disconnected you have been on this issue.
It is interesting that you would attempt a purely economic discussion of the author’s post, given that economics as a field of study is at something of a low point in its history. So many of its greatest theorists and theories have been so thoroughly discredited that they hold scant grip on the national discussion. After all, Donald Trump was elected *because* he largely rejected neoliberalism, not in spite of it. Economists are almost entirely absent from the upper ranks of the ruling class, whereas giants like Friedman and Greenspan once sat at the right hand of presidents. Even the UK as a nation shoved aside the demands of its economists in electing to leave the EU.
More than all that, it’s unwise to try to frame a discussion of such multivariable topics as society and generation solely through the lens of economics. Money always matters, but as Joe Biden has repeated many times, a job is about more than a paycheck. The loss of jobs from all those hollowed-out Ohio factory towns is about more than economics. It’s about dignity, as Biden reminds us. Despair isn’t solely in the move from $28 an hour to $10, it’s also in the move from making goods to sacking them.
The angst of Generation X isn’t so much about money as it is about what has become of our social structures, as the author points out, and as Strauss and Howe have predicted. This is the unraveling of society their theory presaged, and it is hitting Gen X right in the ass of middle age.
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I thought this was a really interesting article – especially the issue of the way white families are much more divided/fractured/geographically separated from each other in the US than families of other ethnic backgrounds. I spent much of my life observing larger, more connected extended families wishing I had what they have. If you ever decide to write a piece where you go into this issue in more depth it would be compelling, because many of us have always wondered why white families are like this. Thank you for your contributions to the Gen X narrative – there are so few of us doing it, which means you are especially appreciated. And yes, may we all rise together.
Thank you, Chloe. I will certainly be revisiting this subject on the familial level. In my life, the isolation and disconnect is real. Family connection or lack thereof is so important and impacts all ethnic groups.
Love the article. I have witnessed the same forces at work in my family for years now. The big, extended, proximate families of the previous three generations have dissolved into the satellite outposts of relatives scattered around the country. Some have chased success on in Boston, some have sought happiness in Boulder or on the West Coast, and a few remain in Texas, though we’re most isolated from one another. The family visits my elders speak about never happen any more. I’ve asked why they stopped, and shrugged shoulders and groans of incomprehension are usually the responses I get.
What I have witnessed more than anything else is that the Boomer members of the family have tried to hold on to their roles as the youngsters far past time. They still look to their elders, even as those elders have all but died out. They look to their elders for guidance and family leadership–not realizing that they themselves *are* now the family elders. More than a few times I’ve heard my parents lamenting the loss of the previous generations, sighing that it will never be the same. What is missing is that recognition on their part that it is now their turn in the cycle of generations to step forward as patriarchs and matriarchs. My grandfather once held the role of organizing and ramrodding family functions. Since his passing, no one has taken up the mantle.
The result of this is that we as Gen Xers are having to do what we were forced to do in our youths–guide and shepherd ourselves. The latchkey kids have grown up to become our own elders. How many of us have spent holidays and family functions refereeing between warring parents? There’s at least one episode of Friends that centers on that phenomenon! They certainly aren’t playing the role of trusted elders the way the GI Generation did for them.
Anyhow, great blog, and hope to read more of it in the future.
Thank you, Michael for sharing your story and observations. This is a subject that continuously comes back in my life, especially on holidays when the sting of memory meets empty chairs of loved ones passed on.