"Zero Hour for Gen X" by Matthew Hennessey

Brian Gongol


Here's an interesting proposition: Generational differences are frequently overblown -- but they still matter quite a lot.

Here's another interesting proposition: Baby Boomers have done a variety of good and bad things, but they've created an unusually large number of problems with inter-generational consequences.

Here's one more interesting proposition: Millennials and those younger than them have received inadequate preparation for grappling with big real-world problems, especially if the problems aren't Google-friendly.

Put those three propositions together, and you can understand why Matthew Hennessey has concluded that it's up to Generation X -- squeezed between the Boomers and the Millennials, much smaller in size than either, long familiar with big economic and political problems, and generally fluent with technology but comfortable living without it -- to develop and implement the solutions to those big Boomer problems before they strand the Millennials.

It's a big claim, and not without a touch of hubris -- a sort of generational noblesse oblige -- but Hennessey mounts a large pile of evidence that there may be no alternative. He documents the disturbing lack of faith in bedrock principles of free speech, market capitalism, and fundamental personal liberty among those younger than Generation X.

But he also sees grave danger in the confluence of a digital-heavy economy with the brick-and-mortar problems of problems ranging from public and private debts to the many unfinished tasks of the Civil Rights era.

The case for Generation X as both the translators between these worlds and the only ones properly equipped to handle their troubles is a strong one.

The book has its quirks -- the first third or so is a deep dive into Gen X nostalgia, and Hennessey has a particularly severe concern with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos (calling them "technodaddies"), but even these quirks are justifiable: There's a lot of great cultural material leftover from the 1980s and 1990s, and the techno-utopians are a dangerous lot, to be sure.

"Zero Hour for Gen X" is a quick read, and even if its proposition is a grand and sweeping one, there is no harm in telling a generation that it has a duty to step up and do some hard work. We probably won't know whether it's actually "zero hour" for some time to come -- but by the time we would know for sure, the clock most surely would have run out.

Verdict: A short and timely book if you're a Gen X'er who believes "If not us, who? If not now, when?"