As a core member of Gen X, I’m usually content to sit and watch boomers and millennials lob rhetorical bombs at one another. I and my cohort quietly plug away as an underrated influence on society, and especially the modern tech industry; despite our occasional complaints about being forgotten, many of us relish operating out of the cultural limelight. But recently I’ve come to recognize some of my generation’s worst pathologies in the extractive, divisive models promoted by Silicon Valley’s venture capital class. Which makes sense: So many of them are Gen X, especially Gen X men.
Gen X workers were the ground troops of the 1990s web boom. Many of those who struck it rich then used their newfound wealth to, unsurprisingly, invest in more software. If you consider us along with our close cultural cousins, people who are technically part of the midcentury baby boom but born after 1960, you find an enormous percentage of the people who actually pull the strings in Silicon Valley, or dispense the money, which amounts to the same thing. The values and mindsets of millennial CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Adam Neumann get a lot of press, but Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Paul Graham, Alfred Lin, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel? All born between 1964 and 1973. These Gen X men run the Valley, and their short-term, disruptive focus shows the twisted side of our quiet get-things-done habits.
In a recent interview, the venture capitalist and software engineer Marc Andreessen (born, like me, in 1971) nodded to the “decline of state capacity” as an inevitable matter before going on to discuss at length his belief in the power of software to revolutionize every facet of life on earth. He dismissed the historical sweep of collective societal endeavor as “the systematic failure of virtually all public sector entities around the world.” He said this presumably while sitting somewhere amid a publicly maintained network of safe transportation, water, and power infrastructure, communicating over publicly developed internet connections, and protected by his publicly funded, publicly distributed Covid vaccine. Andreessen went on to talk about how only private enterprise, and most specifically software enterprises, could address the problems we as a nation and a world are facing now. I realized that Andreessen was selling Reaganite nostrums from our shared childhood.
We Gen Xers entered the web industry just after the extreme uncertainty and shocks of our formative years had shaped, and for many solidified, our worldview. Unlike boomers, we didn’t grow up with duck-and-cover drills; by the time we were grade-schoolers, both the US and the USSR had enough nuclear weapons to make any fully engaged war unsurvivable. The Day After played on national television in 1982. Just as kids have always discussed gruesome fairy tales, we matter-of-factly discussed how much better it was to die quickly at the center of the blast zone than experience torturous radiation poisoning at the edge.
In 1989, as the Berlin Wall came down, the first Bush administration was ramping up tensions with Saddam Hussein and struggling toward a recession. Gen Xers looking for work after graduating from high school or college found a landscape of corporate raiders, decreasingly unionized factory work, and public institutions that were either downsizing or offshoring and could afford to hire few of us. While many private industries recovered, tax cuts meant that hiring in state and local governments has never bounced back to its 1980s level. It was hard to believe—indeed, most of us didn’t—that there would ever be the kind of institutional support for us that past generations had enjoyed. Reality truly bit.
And then from nowhere (except to the few who’d been following the developments at Darpa and UIUC), a boom—a new industry where we could not only make a good living but put our own stamp on the world. For those of us privileged to participate, it seemed like a reprieve from all our expectations of doom. Even more, the quick fortunes and easy entry points seemed to confirm that the generational solidity we so missed in institutional support would be found through private enterprise, and private enterprise alone.
In the 1980s, strange complements of Morning in America jingoism, the AIDS crisis, and crushing interest rates revived an axiom that government didn’t work. To our generation the message was starker: It couldn’t work, and it definitely wouldn’t be there for us when we grew up. We knew Social Security would be long gone by the time we retired, if the bombs didn’t get us first. That turned out to be nonsense, but it was pervasive nonsense promoted by politicians and eagerly covered by the media. It’s hard to break free of base-level assumptions set so early in life, and many of our Gen X investors seem to still think like disregarded 20-year-olds, to the detriment of imagination and innovation for us all.
Gen X investors and leaders helped commercialize Netscape, built search engines and online payment systems, and invented the first social networks. Their pride in those accomplishments is justifiable. But in his interview, Andreessen—whose influential A16Z fund manages over $18 billion—says, “Someone writes code, and all of a sudden riders and drivers coordinate a completely new kind of real-world transportation system, and we call it Lyft.” This overstates both the newness and the benefits of private ride-hail systems, which in 2021 are becoming, as predicted, more expensive and less reliable even as they continue to fail to turn a profit for the companies or investors. And it glosses over the point. Lyft and Uber were designed to extract profits from all parts of the system, so that once investor subsidies decreased, an unaffordable and immediately inequitable system that exploits drivers was baked in.