For the first time, in the 2021 election, all of the leaders of Canada’s major political parties are being led by members of Generation X — a cohort encapsulating folks born between 1965 and 1980.
When this term was first popularized by Canadian writer and visual artist Douglas Coupland in the 1990s, we were stereotyped as slackers like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites. Now in our 40s and 50s, Gen Xers have traded in our flannel and moth-eaten cardigans for power suits and pocket squares, like Kendall in Succession.
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Underlying these shifts in wardrobe there still lingers a few essential traits of our generation: an ironic aloofness and the exaltation of personal authenticity over flash. Overshadowed by both Baby Boomers and Millennials, we remain outsiders.
Going into the election, I had unreasonably high hopes. Gen-Xers, it’s our time to save the world through our off-kilter, ironicized worldview!
Of course, our prime minister since 2015, Justin Trudeau (born in 1973), is a Gen-Xer, and all the leaders, except for the Green Party’s Elizabeth May (replaced by Annamie Paul, born in 1972), belonged to that age group in the 2019 election. But things were supposed to be different this time because of COVID-19.
Our defining crisis, its devastation still incomplete and impact unknown, has exposed Canada’s disparities between its wealthy citizens and those who are economically disadvantaged and marginalized. In the wake of its upheaval, many Canadians are left wondering why things have to be the way they are. Aloof in nature, supporting actors in our own life stories, Gen-Xers might have the distance to act outside our own narrow self-interest.
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Pre-COVID-19, I would argue that Trudeau governed like a Baby Boomer — someone who wanted it both ways. To be radical and traditional, progressive yet capable of carrying out a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. The scion of a Boomer icon, he painted himself a feminist but then sidelined two of his highest-profile female cabinet ministers. His party touts a “cleaner, greener future” while supporting the Trans Mountain pipeline.
It’s in the pandemic that we’ve seen Gen-X Justin. As our economy contracted and millions of Canadians lost their jobs, our PM introduced the Canada Economic Recovery Benefit (CERB), through a system that supported Canadians first and asked questions later. Not heeding warnings about debt and right-wing fear-mongering that it would turn Canadians into (another Gen-X trope) slackers, Trudeau threw a lifeline to millions of grateful Canadians. I didn’t collect CERB but was glad many hard-working friends did.
Trudeau’s chief rivals, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh, also initially inspired hope — an unlikely feeling for my peer group. Born in 1973 and a Smiths fan, O’Toole brought a stance on climate change that showed an oil-patched size of daylight between himself and many Conservative Party members. While Singh, born in 1979, sits at the outer edge of Generation X, and his policies on taxing the wealthy and homeowners’ capital gains is less likely to appeal to other Gen-Xers, maybe the last generation to buy a house easily, than to Millennials, who have experienced the brunt of technological and economic changes that have left them short on stable, high-salaried wages.
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On the campaign trail, however, principled rhetoric surrenders to an appetite for power and the expedience of having a convenient answer for any hard question. Running behind the Conservatives after calling an election early, Trudeau dodged accountability about reconciliation and the SNC Lavalin affair. When pressed on his party’s lack of progress on emission targets in the debates, Trudeau blamed Boomer PM Stephen Harper, the bogeyman of yesteryear, for the Liberals’ lack of progress on the environment.
Meanwhile, O’Toole has to weasel around the fact that his party failed to recognize the reality of climate change at their official policy convention in March. And Singh must prove how his assertion that the NDP can enhance home affordability for younger people while preserving homeowner equity isn’t empty wishcasting.
Last year, as we saw Trudeau make announcements about COVID-19 with increasingly untamed hair. Jarred by the visual disjunction between his newfound gravitas and his unhappy house-husband look, I found myself humming a Gen-X anthem: “Darlin’ don’t you go and cut your hair / Do you think it’s gonna make him change?”
Regardless of generational differences, I should have realized none of these politicians will change. And that inspires another feeling engendered by my unheralded age group: disappointment.
When Generation X first appeared, we were disappointments for our lack of engagement with the world. Now that we’re in charge, I (almost) think we should have stayed apathetic.
Kevin Chong is an author and Creative Writing professor at UBC Okanagan.