Generation Xers — grown up now and in their 30s and 40s — are feeling hardest-hit by the recession, and are the most divided over the presidential candidates for 2012, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.
Generation X has always been a diverse demographic and hard to peg, politically or otherwise. Older members came of age idolizing President Reagan, at a time when Hollywood's Gordon Gekko became an icon with his declaration that "greed is good." Younger members revered the saxophone-playing President Clinton and were dubbed the MTV generation, defined by slackers and grunge.
"They are a generation that was brought up in the boom days to some extent," says Pew researcher Michael Dimock. "Their early adulthood was the 1990s, and those were great times. And now this economy has turned around on them, and many are feeling more pinched than any other generation."
The Pew survey on generational politics finds a big spike in Generation Xers' concern about their personal financial situation. Dimock says that for many, the impact of the recession seems to be cumulative.
"When we interviewed Xers two years ago, they weren't thinking about retirement," Dimock says. "They had other problems. But now they're becoming increasingly worried about having enough money to get through their retirement."
That's true for people like Dan Sullivan, 36, with decades of employment ahead of him.
"I don't see myself retiring. I don't think it's possible," Sullivan says, pushing his 3-month-old son in a stroller in downtown Frederick, Md., a colonial-era town of red brick storefronts. Sullivan is an active-duty soldier and says he has been sheltered from a lot of the economic turmoil. But like a third of Generation X, according to the Pew poll, he has lost faith in the social programs set up to cushion old age.
"I don't think Social Security's going to be there for us," he says. "And Medicare, I don't think that's gonna be there. And, even if so, at this point I don't want the government's Medicare. I think you have to plan to be totally independent."
Although Sullivan admits that doesn't actually seem possible either.
Sullivan is a lifelong conservative, but he's not thrilled with any of the GOP presidential candidates. In a hypothetical matchup between President Obama and Mitt Romney?
"I'd probably lean a little bit more towards Romney," he says, "but I don't think he's all that great either."
Hard Hit By Housing Crisis
A block away, 33-year-old Leah Fuhrman-Fell sits with her dog outside the Starbucks where she is a barista.
"Obviously I'm not making any money right now for retirement," she says.
Fuhrman-Fell is making plans to get back into her former field of Internet marketing; she says her fiance is a gainfully employed architect. Still, like many Generation X members, they had the misfortune to buy their house at the height of the market.
"Oh, we're screwed!" she says, laughing. "The house next door to us went into foreclosure for less than half what we paid. We'll never leave."
Fuhrman-Fell is a lifelong liberal, although like many Gen Xers she says she is open to persuasion. As a group, Generation X leaned Democratic in 2008, then Republican in the 2010 midterms. Fuhrman-Fell says she likes some Republican politicians, but none are moderate enough to get her vote.
"But I still really like Barack Obama," Furhman-Fell says. "I think that he's been too nice. But I think if he comes in for a second term, he'll do what he wants to do, and I hope that's what he does."
Today, the Pew survey finds that a majority of Generation Xers have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party. Most are also disappointed with President Obama. They're not as down on him as older voters, but then the older generation never got on the Obama bandwagon to start with, researcher Dimock says.
"I think the Xers and boomers in some respects have moved farther on Obama," Dimock says, "going from being supporters to at least on the fence, if not somewhat unhappy with what he's done."
The Pew survey finds an even split in Gen X support for President Obama and Mitt Romney. Those on either side, though, say they're waiting to be impressed.