“Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.” — Bill Clinton
Throughout our history we have matched great challenges with great achievements. Whether faced with civil war, the depression or world war, “each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call.” — Barack Obama.
These words from John Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s inaugural and Barack Obama’s announcement speech, all invoke the same theme of generational change and acknowledgment that it is our time. Kennedy was from the “Greatest Generation” “born in century, tempered by war disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” Clinton is from the “Baby Boom Generation” “raised in the shadows of unrivaled prosperity” and the Cold War. Obama is from Generation Jones, born in the shadow of fallen heroes, tempered by Watergate and disciplined by economic uncertainty.
Generation Jones? Generation Jones, a term coined by social commentator Jonathan Pontell, covers those of us who were born between 1954 and 1965. The group is often lumped in with Baby Boomers or Generation X, since statistically the Baby Boom runs through 1964 while the characters in Douglas Copeland’s novel “Generation X” would have been born the year after Senator Obama (although Copeland agrees that Jonesers are distinct from both Boomers and GenXers). Each generation, however, is defined by completely different experiences. Bill Clinton first voted in 1968, Obama in 1980, while GenXers’ first vote likely would have been in 1992 – three distinct eras.
The fault lines of the 1960s that still divide Boomers (but which are alien to GenXers) were part of the societal changes that defined the Jonesers’ formative years. Jonesers went to integrated schools and dealt with the conflict between the ideal of a non-racial society passed to them by the Boomers and a society that still believed it mattered. At home they weathered a doubling of the divorce rate and their mothers returning to work (often out of necessity). Outside their home, Jonesers saw a nation that stood tall as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, stagger through the 1970s amidst Watergate, the fall of Saigon, oil shocks, hyper-inflation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, a dramatic increase in violent crime and 444 days of national humiliation as Americans were held captive in Iran.
Unlike GenXers, Jonesers embraced the 1960s’ idealism and beatified its heroes but for them the seemingly black and white world of that era devolved to varying shades of grey. Jonesers had to be adaptable and pragmatic, since as they struggled with soaring tuition and then struggled to find jobs in an unwelcoming marketplace they quickly realized life offered few guarantees. Instead of “We Shall Overcome,” Jonesers sang “I Will Survive”.
This has made Jonesers less ideological and more nuanced in their approach to politics; which may explain why Jonesers have been the decisive but volatile swing voters in the last few elections.
In addition, the contrast between the “malaise” of the Carter-era, with the proud optimism of Ronald Reagan made a huge impression on Jonesers who were raised on the optimism of Camelot. While they may disagree with Reagan politically, Obama and others Jonesers generally respect Reagan as a leader and for restoring American pride. The flip-side is that, from Walter Mondale to John Kerry, Jonesers have been suspect of Democrats who failed to exude the same sense of confidence and hope. John Kerry would be president today had he dented Bush’s double digit margin with Jonesers in the key battleground states of Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio.
Senator Obama is the first Jonesers to emerge as a serious candidate at the national level and his campaign embodies the Generation Jones zeitgeist. He has tried to steer away from the confrontational politics of the Clinton-Gingrich era and instead has stressed reaching beyond party lines. This is consistent with Jonesers’ pragmatism as well as a desire for reconciliation they developed from their homes and in bridging the chasms that defined the 1960s.
Just as Senator Clinton represents the Baby Boom era and Senator McCain the Ice Age, Obama is the archetype of the Jonesers’ President since he exudes the same idealism, confidence and decisiveness they admired in Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. That is why Obama scares his opponents so much, since Democrats see him as Kennedy-esque while Republicans know a Ronald Reagan when they see one.
President Bush noted that “Generation Jones is undeniably an important group. If we Baby Boomers don't lead, they're right behind us ready to.” With Senator Obama, the Jonesers have found the moment and candidate to do just that.