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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.1 (Winter 2016)


Cultural Conservatism Hidden in Collapse


Cuspers: A New Generational Category Proposed
Mark Wegierski

A neglected subset of North American culture born between the Baby Boomers and Generation X exhibits distinct qualities that account for many cultural and political phenomena.

(An earlier version of this article has appeared at Quarterly Review (UK). The notion of “cuspers” was initially proposed by this author on the blog of the Hudson Institute’s American Outlook, April 23, 2004.)

It appears that hardly anything can be added to all the ink that has been spilled concerning generational and/or “decade-based” politics in the United States and Canada, especially in regard to the apparently overwhelming presence of the Baby Boomers. Nevertheless, the author would like to propose a new generational category – “cuspers” – to better explain certain social, cultural, and economic realities of America and Canada in the last fifty years or so. It should be noted that it is in a period of very rapid change – such as that which the triumph of the Baby Boomers in the Sixties has inaugurated – that generational or “decade-based” social, political, and cultural analysis becomes especially pertinent.

There has been a high degree of imprecision in regard to defining the actual period of the Baby Boom. The singer Tina Turner is often described as a typical Baby Boomer, although she was in fact born before the U.S. entry into World War II. The Canadian demographers David K. Foot and Daniel Stoffman (authors of the best-selling book, Boom, Bust, and Echo 2000: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the New Millennium; Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 1998) define the Baby Boom as people born between 1947 to 1966 – surely a too-wide period of time.

The term “cusper” is proposed to apply to a category of persons sometimes identified as “the tail-end of the Baby Boom” and sometimes as “the first wave of Generation X.” These would be persons born roughly between 1958-1967. This proposed generation has existed “on the cusp” of massive change, falling somewhere between Baby Boomers and Generation X in many of their social and cultural traits. A concept similar to “cuspers” has been proposed by the little known website, “generationjones.” Also, the Hollywood libertarian Thomas M. Sipos has coined the term “Generation Keaton” – after the Michael J. Fox character in the 1980s show, Family Ties.

The “cuspers” were children, not teenagers, in the 1960s; and for many of them, the Sixties’ “revolt against the elders” was highly disconcerting, and not a badge of shared identity. The “cuspers” were typically teenagers in the 1970s, and the music they listened to was most often so-called “progressive rock” – groups such as Genesis, the Canadian band Rush, Supertramp, King Crimson, and Yes. Their favorite movies in that era were the Clint Eastwood action pictures, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dirty Harry, as well as The Godfather – which may be interpreted as a portrayal of a highly traditionalist subculture in modern America. Two dystopian movies of the 1970s, Soylent Green and Rollerball, may also have had some appeal.

In the 1980s, “cuspers” were typically in their twenties, and they wildly embraced the whole New Wave/alternative/technopop music as their music. It was possible to give a “contrarian” reading to many of the Eighties’ songs – such as re-interpreting songs about “gay alienation” as songs of “conservative protest” against the stultifying consumerist society. The cuspers had a decided element of ambiguity between being critics and products of Eighties’ pop-culture. Cuspers enjoyed such Eighties’ movies as Blade RunnerTop GunBack to the FuturePeggy Sue Got MarriedRomancing the StoneJewel of the Nile, Ladyhawke, Legend (the fantasy movie with Tom Cruise), Labyrinth (with David Bowie), Absolute Beginners (a “New Wave musical”), the two Conan films, Red Sonya, and Red Dawn. Many of these movies could be seen as expressing the theme of human authenticity against a near-dystopic world, as well as a longing for “true romance.” Politically, many of these twentysomethings were willing to vote for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. In Canada, they would be voting for Progressive Conservative candidate Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988 – but Mulroney’s Prime Ministership from 1984 to 1993 would prove an intense disappointment to many of them. They resented “the yuppies” of the 1980s, whom they often actually saw as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” (i.e., offensive to both social conservatives and true liberals) – but more importantly, holding all the good jobs. The “cuspers” mirrored the angst and resentments of the somewhat later Generation X, but at least some of their criticism could be interpreted as more “creatively-nihilist” or even socially conservative.

The “cuspers” had been born in a time of great social turmoil, and when they reached the age at which earlier generations had typically entered the main job-market and started families, they often encountered a series of frustrations. The highly evocative book by Adrienne Miller and Andrew Goldblatt, The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers Who Underachieve (New York: William Morrow, 1989), looks at many of these types of problem. With quick career advancement – even for those with university degrees – often blocked by the prevalence of “the damn yuppies” and stable family life undermined by the unhappy consequences of the concatenation of sexual and social revolutions since the 1960s, many of the “cuspers” turned to embittered politics. The “angry white male” phenomenon of the early to mid-1990s, and the unexpected Republican majority in Congress under Newt Gingrich in 1994, were possibly expressions of “cusper” angst. In Canada, there was the rise of the Reform Party, initially a Western Canadian-based protest party.

The prosperity of the later Clinton years tended to dissipate much of the anger building up among many disaffected persons whose concerns were not being acknowledged in the mainstream media, except in highly caricatured form.

However, the apparent economic troubles of the George W. Bush period – which were arguably exacerbated by such phenomena as outsourcing; high, uncontrolled immigration; and mass H1-B visa hiring—led to renewed frustration among persons who were then in their forties, and simply could not afford to lose their jobs. And what has followed under Obama has been seen by many as little else than an extension of these previous trends. For example, the frustration among many native-born American computer programmers and engineers is now undeniable. And many “cuspers” who have finished “useless” liberal arts degrees – sometimes simply out of a feeling of “love of scholarship” – and hold “politically-incorrect” views, have actually been in a twilight limbo in terms of conventional career-advancement for years on end. Most persons in the entire post-Sixties period have also had to struggle to construct a decent, stable family life in an often hostile environment (such as a close to fifty per cent divorce rate).

Perhaps the hope of some “cuspers” today is that some of their ideas (such as those partially seen in the ever-popular “retro” music of the Eighties) may attract some of the succeeding generations to adopt a similar “creatively-nihilist” critique of current-day, consumption-addled society. There have been some survey results around the turn of the millennium that have shown that American teenagers of that time had a surprisingly deep identification with religion and with the importance of fidelity in relationships, as well as some surprisingly “realistic” attitudes to certain issues, such as the necessity of America’s fighting terrorism. It has been suggested that the fact that today’s teens pretty well know that they are “abortion survivors” has led to increased social conservatism among them. The same society that produces highly disturbed teens also nurtures ones that are manifestly willing to die for their faith – both of which types were seen at Columbine.

The aftermath of “9/11” might have introduced a brief surge of some moral clarity to America – something which many “cuspers,” despite their frequently nihilist posturing and moodiness, have often hungered for. Two great movie experiences of the early Twenty-First Century, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Passion of the Christ, may have been pointing the way towards a social and cultural rebirth for America and the West. And in 2015, there may have been occurring a similar cultural rallying in the U.S. around American Sniper.

In such a re-birth, some “cuspers” may be hoping to assume a vanguard role in society which they see as having been long-denied to them. Now in their late forties and early fifties, the cuspers are growing increasingly desperate, and various strongly dissident movements are arising in America. There may be less perceived need of desperate measures in Canada, as (until the recent federal election) the Conservatives were said to have been comparatively successful in guiding the economy.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto.  His research interests in our journal have ranged from political theory and practice to science fiction and popular culture to–most recently–the culture of Poland, his ancestral homeland.