Saving Practical Ryan

Paul Ryan’s election as Speaker of the House is a major moment in American history for one surprising reason. Ryan who is a Gen Xer represents the passing of the baton from the clinched fists of idealistic Baby Boomers (1943-1960) to the eager-and-willing hands of pragmatic Generation X (1961-1981). Boomers, by their overwhelming numbers, have controlled the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of America since shortly after World War II. The times, they are a-changin’!


Each one of America’s six living generations has been shaped by the history of its formative years. These historic events create unique characteristics which in turn form a generation’s values, attitudes, and lifestyles. It’s not that everyone in a generation is alike, but people whose formative years were during the Great Depression tend to be thrifty. Those whose formative years were during the Viet Nam and Nixon years tend to question authority. So it is with each generation. Generational characteristics remain with members of a generation throughout their lives, only to be tempered by age and current events.


Gen Xers are different. They are the 9/11 firefighters, police, and emergency personnel. They are the heroic young men who brought down the plane in Pennsylvania to keep terrorists from doing unknown harm. They are the ones who make tough decisions. They are a modern-day version of Harry Truman’s generation.


Here are some unexpected Generation X characteristics.


  1. Generation X is a practical generation.  During their formative years, society let them down. The traditional family unit broke apart. Often, both parents worked or, one-parent families were commonplace. After-school programs didn’t exist. Family members were often scattered here and there, so the term “latchkey children” was born. Religion was exemplified in Time magazine’s cover story “Is God Dead?” Public schools were beginning to deteriorate. As a result, Xers learned early to be self-reliant.


Xer Ryan’s record reflects his philosophy of a practical approach to immigration. He voted against the “Dream Act”, but supported proposals that legalize immigrant farm workers and allow undocumented students to get in-state tuition benefits.


  1. Generation X is a cynical generation. They were the first generation that checked Halloween trick-or-treat bags for razor blades or drugs. They were exposed to violence on TV, violence in the streets, and violence in their schools. They saw the aftermath of free love and a drug culture. They know that government entitlement programs will probably not provide for their old age but it will give them sky-high taxes in the meantime. Gen X is the first American generation that will not live a better life than their parents lived. Their cynicism has been reinforced by corporate scandals, the misuse of donations by major charities, and the lack of credibility in the media. Xers feel older generations, particularly Boomers, have made a mess of things. So, Xers examine everything they are handed, keeping what is good, pitching what doesn’t make sense – not to be anti-establishment, but rather to develop a life that works. This is where Ryan is coming from. He wants Congress change its ways and start with a clean slate.


He set the tone in a hard-edged fashion. Xer Ryan insisted on certain conditions to be a basic part of the job of Speaker of the House, such as support from three major GOP caucuses, and raising the number of votes needed from members to oust a sitting Speaker.


  1. Gen X is a generation that values family and home. They want a balance between their home life and professional life.


At first glance, Ryan’s life seems atypical. His religious upbringing and strong family ties are at odds with many Xers. At 16, he discovered his 55-year-old father dead from a heart attack. He helped care for a grandmother with Alzheimer’s while his mother commuted to college. Not exactly a traditional childhood. Today, one of the conditions set by Ryan regarding the job of Speaker is that he not spend his week-ends raising money for the party. This 45-year-old married father of three children plans to spend his time with family, not fundraising.


Ryan’s leadership style is as much generational as it is political. He is a forerunner of his generation’s way of doing things, both parties included. The possibilities are fascinating. Things will change and things might really get done.