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Don’t Call us Boomers!
By Jennifer Finney Boylan
Contributing Opinion Writer New York Times
Keepin’ Up with the Jonesers
We might be grouped with the baby boomers, but our formative experiences were profoundly different. If the zeitgeist of the boomers was optimism and revolution, the vibe of Gen Jones was cynicism and disappointment. Our formative years came in the wake of the 1973 oil shock, Watergate, the malaise of the Carter years and the Reagan recession of 1982. Above all, we resented the older boomers themselves — who we were convinced had things so much easier, and in whose shadow we’d been forced to spend our entire lives.
The fact that most people have never even heard of Generation Jones is the most Generation Jones thing about Generation Jones.
But if you identify more with punk, funk or disco than, say, Elvis, Buddy Holly or the Beatles, you’re a Joneser.
Is “Leave It to Beaver” kind of a hazy memory, while “The Brady Bunch” is crystal clear? You’re a Joneser.
Were you too young for the draft (which ended in 1973) but too old to have to register for it (starting in 1979)? Was there a time when you cared more about CB radio than Twitter? Did you wear Earth Shoes? Were you less likely to protest the war than to streak? Hello, Mr. Jones.
“Older boomers may have wanted to change the world,” Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in these pages in 2014; “most of my peers just wanted to change the channel.”
The term was coined in 1999 by Jonathan Pontell, a cultural critic, who likes the double meaning of “Jones”: not only the anonymity of it, but also the sense of yearning. And in an interview last week, Mr. Pontell told me he thinks that Generation Jones may play a crucial role in the 2020 election.
Unlike older boomers, members of this generation are reliably conservative, perhaps because the traumas of the 1970s led us to distrust government. But Mr. Pontell thinks that Jonesers are now tipping to the left, for two reasons. First, Mr. Trump’s fumbling response to the Covid-19 crisis has hurt him with Jonesers, who are part of the demographic most at risk from the disease. And then there is Mr. Trump’s cruel mocking of Joe Biden’s senior moments. “There are lots of seniors out there that also have senior moments,” Mr. Pontell says. “They don’t really like the president mocking those one bit.”
Donald Trump (who is, it should be noted, an older boomer) has been a fraud on so many levels, but if there’s anything authentic about him, it’s his air of grievance. It may have been this, Mr. Pontell says, that made Jonesers vote for him in 2016. Hillary Clinton, to them, was the epitome of older baby boomer entitlement, and if Mr. Trump stood for anything, it was for the very things Gen Jones most identifies with: jealousy, resentment, self-pity.
There’s a word in Ireland, “begrudgery.” Padraig O’Morain, writing in The Irish Times, says: “Behind a lot of this begrudgery lies the unexamined and unspoken assumption that there is only so much happiness to go around. And guess what? The others have too much and I have too little.”
I turned to the feminist author Susan Faludi — a fellow Generation Joneser, born in 1959 — for more insight. “I recognize the yearning/resenting description of that cohort,” she told me. “Personally, I’ve always been in the yearning category — a modern-day Miniver Cheevy, ‘born too late’ to be in the thick of the ’60s social justice movements, which I shamelessly romanticized. As a girl, I had, God help me, a suede fringe vest and a hippie doll that came with a sign that said ‘You Turn Me On!’”
But many Jonesers feel bitterness about the 1960s, Ms. Faludi said, not nostalgia: “Researching my book ‘Stiffed,’ I met many angry baby boomer men — laid-off workers, evangelicals, militiamen — who felt they were slipping down the status ladder and blamed civil rights, antiwar, feminist and L.G.B.T. activism for their misery.”
Jonesers expected that as adults, we’d inherit the same wide-open sense of opportunity as our older brothers and sisters. But when those opportunities dried up, we became begrudgers instead — distrusting of government, nervous about change and fearful that creating opportunities for others would mean a diminishment of our own.
And so instead of changing the world, we’ve helped to create this endless mess — a result of the choices we’ve made, and in the voting booth not least.
Damn. The more I think about it, the more I think I don’t relate to Generation Jones either.
But maybe not relating is what Generation Jonesers do best.
“In a way,” Ms. Faludi asked me, “aren’t we all Generation Jonesers now, all still living in the unresolved rain shadow of the ’60s, still fighting the same issues, still shouting the same chants (‘What do we want?…’)?”
Maybe. But I’m hoping that this tumultuous, traumatic spring is finally the time Generation Jones — and the rest of the country, too — embraces the idea of transformational change. It’s been 50 years now. Couldn’t 2020, at long last, be the year we end the 1970s?
We’ll soon find out. Something’s happening here, and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?