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Generation O

After the novelist Michael Chabon spoke last week at the Vegas Valley Book Festival, I waited in line to have him sign a book.

In his speech, Chabon lamented that childhood isn’t as free as it used to be. When he was a kid, he said, he could ride his bike all over his suburban Maryland neighborhood, exploring whatever caught his fancy. Today, many parents won’t let their kids play in their own yard without strict supervision. Chabon worries that a highly programmed childhood inhibits creativity.

When I stepped up to the table where Chabon was signing books, I mentioned that he and I are roughly the same age and that his comments about childhood had resonated with me. Chabon then said something that struck a chord: “Isn’t it interesting,” he said, “that the new president is our age?”

Well, yes, it is interesting. I thought about it all the way home.

Several days later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s equal parts exciting (finally we get to rule the world!) and terrifying (uh oh, now we rule the world).

Every generation gets a president to claim as its own. The baby boomers got two: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

At age 47, Barack Obama straddles the line between baby boomer and Generation X. Some have already called him the first Gen X president. But politically and socially, Obama seems closer to the traits of the younger Millennial generation.

Obama’s campaign themes of hope, unity and change appeal to multiple generations. As I look at the election results, Obama’s strongest support came from voters ages 18 to 44.

A new term has been coined for this broad constituency: Generation O. New York Times reporter Damien Cave wrote last week: “The post-baby boomer era seems to have begun. The endless ‘us vs. them’ battles of the ’60s, over Vietnam, abortion, race and gender, at least for a moment last week, seemed as out of touch as a rotary phone.”

So, what does Generation O believe in? Start with the three T’s: tolerance, teamwork and technology.

Generation O is multiracial. Obama did very well with black, Latino and Asian voters, as well as with young voters, who are more likely to be of mixed racial and ethnic background. This is a group that doesn’t get worked up over skin color or ethnicity.

Generation O is more interested in group achievement than individual glory. The thousands who volunteered for Obama’s campaign represented an unprecedented outpouring of support for a presidential campaign. And their success at the polls reinforced the notion that by working together for a common cause, we can change the world. It’s a movement that seems capable of holding together beyond Election Day.

Generation O embraces the power of technology to bring people together and to solve problems. It also sees technology as a means to make governance more interactive and transparent. Speaking to this desire, Obama has promised to put all kinds of government documents online for public review.

Writing in Las Vegas CityLife this week, Mike Prevatt effectively summarized the relationship between Obama and his supporters: “He is like them and they are like him: post-racial, post-boomer, post-globalization, ‘post-everything.’ “

So, who’s left out of Generation O? Old white men. John McCain ran away with the old white man vote. His Cold War rhetoric no doubt helped him with this group, as did his supporters’ vile appeals to bigotry. McCain also probably snagged a few sympathy votes when he admitted he didn’t know how to use the Internet.

Generation O is a new deal in Washington. But for Obama and his supporters to accomplish their goals, they will have to work with the boomers and, yes, old white men who still dominate Capitol Hill. Enthusiasm and idealism could run into the buzzsaw of Beltway politics.

As a Generation Xer raised in a world ravaged by divorce, drugs and AIDS, Obama is equipped to deal with compromise and disappointment. But what about his Millennial supporters?

Cave notes that Millennials “have been trained to trust teams and systems” and so they “often struggle when things do not go according to plan.” This reminded me of Chabon’s discussion of modern-day childhood. He told the book festival audience that he and his wife took their kids to a house in Maine for the summer. Presented with acres of wild, wooded lands to explore, the kids stood in the doorway wondering what to do.

Obama, by contrast with that image, might have the right mix of Gen X worldly skepticism and Millennial idealism to successfully navigate the choppy waters of Washington. Or he could be beaten and battered by the wily political veterans who don’t want to let go of the status quo.

No matter what, Obama’s election signals the emergence of Generation X in the nation’s corridors of power. How they will fare is unknown, but I’m pretty sure they can’t do worse than the baby boomers.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Friday.

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