Jonathan Pontell: Clegg's rise is the sound of Generation Jones clearing its throat

Monday 03 May 2010 13:45

As observers scramble to explain Nick Clegg’s sudden popularity, a key cause is often missed. The excitement surrounding Clegg’s emergence, like that which accompanied David Cameron’s in 2005, partly reflects both leaders’ membership in a younger generation, at a time when many are fatigued by the long reign of Baby Boomer power.

The election on the 6th of May mirrors a broader battle currently being waged in Britain at large: a generational tug-of-war pitting aging Boomers against this next generation of would-be leaders, occurring from Fleet Street to the City to Westminster.

Some relish the prospect that the Boomer era may be over, along with the aftershocks of that generation’s emblematic turbulent decade - the 1960s. Others hope the Boomers hang on, mortified at the possibility of leadership by the stereotypically cynical children of the 1970s - Generation X.

This leadership strife affects much, yet is widely misunderstood. Whether Boomer Gordon Brown yields the top job to Cameron or Clegg or not, a clear transition is already happening throughout the UK. The next generation has been taking over power and influence culturally and economically, and will soon politically, as they fill many of the vacancies left by the huge number of retiring Boomer MPs.

But this generation seizing power is not Generation X, and the impact of the 1960s isn’t over. This moment marks the second act of the 1960s, as the torch is passed from that decade’s “flower children” to its actual children.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are neither Boomers nor GenXers. Instead, they belong to a distinct generation in between, one long under the radar and only now making its full impact felt. I coined the term "Generation Jones" for this long lost generation, which includes not only Cameron, Clegg, and many of Britain’s most influential new movers and shakers, but also over two thirds of the current Presidents and Prime Ministers of EU and NATO member countries. The exact birth years vary slightly between countries; in the UK, GenJonesers were born from 1955 to 1967, and are now 42 to 55 years old.

We Jonesers have long been lumped with Boomers simply because we arrived during the same long post-World War II spike in births. But generations arise from shared formative experiences, not head counts, and the two groups evolved with dramatic differences.

We fill the space between the original Glastonbury revellers and the Acid House ravers, between Twiggy and Kate Moss, and between Abbey Road and Wonderwall. Jonesers have a unique identity separate from Boomers and GenXers. An avalanche of attitudinal and behavioral data corroborates this distinction. Generational self-identification is particularly compelling. When polled, those in this age group identify not with Boomers or GenXers, but overwhelmingly with this generation in between.

So who are we? We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part. The name "Generation Jones" derives from a number of sources, including our historical anonymity, the "keeping up with the Joneses" competition of our populous birth years, and sensibilities coupling the mainstream with ironic cool. It also borrows from the slang term "jonesin'" that some of us as teens in the 1970s popularized to broadly convey any intense craving.

The Jones runs deep in us. It arose from our 1960s childhoods. While the Boomers were out changing the world, Jonesers were still school kids - wide-eyed, not tie-dyed. That intense love-peace-change-the-world zeitgeist stirred our impressionable hearts. We yearned to express our own voice. By the time we came of age and could take the stage, though, a decade of convulsions had left society fatigued. During the game we'd been forced to watch from the sidelines, and passage into university and careers came only after the final gun had long since sounded.

The Boomers had their opportunity, and the GenXers weren't around soon enough to bear witness. Neither was left jonesin'. But the actual children of the 1960s yearned for something more. Our unrequited idealism has bubbled beneath the surface ever since. There is an underlying idealism to Cameron and Clegg which contrasts with GenX leaders like George Osborne. Cameron and Clegg have The Jones. It's a crucial piece of their identities.

Recognizing this generational mindset provides insight not only into Britain’s new leadership, but also the world’s. GenJones leaders like America’s Obama, France’s Sarkozy, and Germany’s Merkel are redefining global politics. Most of these leaders have filled their Cabinets with primarily Jonesers. More than a quarter of all adults in many countries are Jonesers. Our size, age and influence across the board make us an irresistible force.

But there is something beyond our mere demographic might. What makes us Jonesers also makes us uniquely positioned to bring about a new era. Our practical idealism was created by witnessing the often unrealistic idealism of the 1960s. And we weren't engaged in that era's ideological battles; we were children playing with toys while Boomers argued over issues. Our less-ideological pragmatism allows us to resolve intra-Boomer skirmishes and to bridge that volatile Boomer-GenXer divide. We can lead.

Last century, Thomas Wolfe wrote that another generation wasn't lost so much as undiscovered. "And the whole secret, power and knowledge of their own discovery," he declared, "is locked within them - they know it, feel it, have the whole thing in them - and they cannot utter it."

Generation Jones is clearing its throat. Its voice is at last ready to be heard. We are finally scratching the itch of The Jones. For Boomers, the legacy of the 1960s is ideology, but for Jonesers it is idealism. That spirit of the sixties is far from dead; its seeds were planted in us as children then, and are flowering now. We're not late Boomers; we're late bloomers.

Jonathan Pontell is a social commentator who focuses on the intersection of politics and culture. For more information about Generation Jones visit

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