(CNN)Editor's Note: Generation whining has become nearly a national pastime. Millennials say they have it the worst. Generation X feels neglected. Baby boomers are tired of being called narcissistic. In articles and cartoons everywhere -- from CNN to The New York Times to Gizmodo and beyond -- critics call out this generation's sense of entitlement, that generation's self-absorption. We invited writers, activists and CNN contributors from different generations to hash it out.
Which generation has it worse?
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I belong to generation X, which might as well be called the interstitial generation. We're the cohort everyone skips over — the all-but-invisible slice of 50 million fortysomethings, jammed in between the self-satisfied boomers and self-indulgent millennials.
Yet, despite our generation's small size and overlooked status, we've nevertheless been handed the job of being America's cultural roadies, stuck with the grotty work of cleaning up a world-stage festooned with the detritus of decades of boomer indulgence, while simultaneously setting it for the triumphant arrival of the millennial headliners to come. (Plus we're raising the post-millennials to not be like their unappreciative grandparents and big siblings.) We gave the world the smartphone, the Internet and the social media revolution. In return, the world called us slackers. Is there any wonder we're bitter?
Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action."
Sixteen years ago I wrote in Esquire, "The baby boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history."
Nearly a generation later, I stand by every word. In fact, I'd like to double down on it. Boomers: Worst. Generation. Ever.
In the intervening years, George W. Boomer ran up trillions in debt. He and fellow boomer Dick Cheney sent hundreds of thousands of younger, better men and women into combat (a chore each declined to do in their youth). The bill for their misdeeds -- in blood and treasure -- has been handed off to generations X, Y, Z, etc. (To be fair to the boomers, the other boomer-in-chief, my old boss Bill Clinton, embraced the best legacy of his generation, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, while returning America to greatest generation-era economics: a budget surplus and a jobs boom.)
I'm at the tail end of the boom. Like President Obama, I was born in 1961. But the main boomer tsunami is hitting the shores of old age, the time in life when folks are most needy. They will need Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, Meals-on-Wheels, nursing care and more. But they need not worry. Their children and grandchildren are more selfless, more service-oriented and far more committed to the common good. The irony is that while the greatest generation spawned the worst, it looks like the worst generation has given us another greatest generation.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.
Don't hate us -- we're just confused. We've seemingly made "changing the world" with our sparkling idealism, creativity and massive egos trendier than ever. And our generation really is changing the world -- we're upsetting traditional models in just about every sector from hospitality (Airbnb) to transportation (Uber) to advertising (the last time I watched a commercial was Super Bowl 2015).
But in dismantling old models, we're also making the world more bewildering for ourselves. It's harder to find applicable career advice from the older and wiser generations because what worked ten or twenty years ago won't necessarily work today. The job market is increasingly competitive and our career paths are increasingly less clear.
This is why many millennials I know are in a perpetual cycle of existential crises. We have to make money, change the world, all while showing off our zen skills at company yoga retreats.
Of course, these are the stereotypical millennials that everyone loves to hate. In reality, our generation is very diverse. But for many of us, the challenges brought by overturning traditions are very real, as comforts like the stability of working your way up in one company (or even one industry) for decades becomes a relic of days past.
We're faced with shining examples of 20-something CEOs urging us to stick it to the man and break out on our own. While generations past could decide on jobs based on a decent income and hours, we feel like whatever decisions we make may be upended in a couple of years.
So, take some pity on us when you're judging. And take comfort in the fact that we really do want to be productive members of society. In a lot of cases, it's that desire in overdrive that makes us move back home with our parents while deciding on the next move, or quit a job after three months because it just doesn't sit right.
We're the existential crisis generation because we want so badly to have purpose that we can get lost in the frenzy of looking for it.
Dasha Burns is a writer and works as a strategist and creative content producer at Oliver Global, a consulting agency where she focuses on leveraging media and digital technology for global development.
For me, it's a tale of two cities.
One city is heterosexual, born between 1945 and 1964 and positioned for greatness and opportunities. This is my city and most of us got inexpensive educations, good jobs out of high school or college, reasonable housing costs and women's liberation.
Most of us had the sexual revolution without lethal sexually transmitted diseases. We were vocal and protested the Vietnam War, homophobia, gender inequity and racism. We saw women and minorities gain civil rights -- we feel somewhat smug that we helped them become CEOs, senators and president.
But there is the other city. The one that saw a whole generation of promising young men annihilated. These were the plague years of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, before there was a "cocktail," general sympathy, organized and effective movements for awareness. Those years were beyond awful: I lost my best friend and writing partner, Philip Blumstein, and then within eight months his life partner, Gary Jordan, unofficial godparent to my son. Every day brought a new victim. So many fallen souls, so much talent cut short.
Our generation was mixed. But I've been personally blessed. I had freedom in my twenties, marriage and children in my thirties, and a lifelong career that was unattainable for most women before my time. I just wish the cost of sexual and personal freedom for gay men had not been so high.
Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of many books, including, "The Normal Bar." She is the love and relationship ambassador for AARP and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is also a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families.
At 33, I'm a young-ish-but-sorta-old person with a generational identify crisis. I've been told I don't text back fast enough to be a millennial -- but I also don't have Kurt Cobain's death circled (in black) on my calendar, so maybe I'm not so gen X. I can quote "Reality Bites," a staple of the 30s to 40s set, but I also use Snapchat.
I'm both and neither. Generation-adjacent. Floating in time.
I think people in my situation -- the youngish-sorta-getting-older set -- define ourselves mostly in terms of what we're not. Which is to say that we're not boomers -- or anything the boomers say about us. They're so en-TITLED, so NEEDY, so stuck in their little gadgets or whatever. You've heard that junk for years. It's almost trite to repeat. But since boomers run the media and the job market, there seems to be no shortage of "trend piece" drivel about the vapid millennials and our shoddy work ethic. If the boomers took 10 minutes to listen, they'd notice that young people today have it worse. The job market's better but still rough; part-timing's the norm. This is the age of inequality, climate change and anti-immigrant sentiment. We millennial-adjacents may seem wayward and indecisive -- but we're light years ahead on all those issues.
It's the boomers holding us back. I mean -- it is, right?
John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm a proud baby boomer. That's my generation, marked by the proliferating of our parents or grandparents after they returned from World War II.
From the beginning of the 1900s to about the mid-'60s, generations had romantic names: the lost generation, the greatest generation, the silent generation, the baby boomers. Then someone hiccuped and historians went generic: gen X, gen Y and gen Z.
If I were a member of generations X, Y or Z, I'd be miffed. Candidly, it's a wonder they don't suffer from an identity crisis. On top of bearing names as sterile as a supercomputer lab, they have to hear how they're all "me, me, me," and (further) will be the first generations to do worse in America than their parents. All I can say is that I will take the blame for the world that generations X through Z inherited from us. But, please do remember, we have not only lived through the traumas of our times, but yours as well.
For all our faults, any generation that produced Dolly Parton, Elvis, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen -- not to mention Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — has to be considered the best. But I am sure some of my friends in the millennial generation would likely say the best is yet to come. Go ahead. Prove me wrong.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease."
We baby boomers grew up watching small black and white TVs that carried only four networks that went off the air at midnight. Cable news and the Internet didn't exist. Most music came from static ridden AM radios.
In school sports, not everybody made the team. Parents didn't "helicopter" their kids. College students traveled between home and school by hitchhiking to save money. We didn't believe in haircuts or the Vietnam War. Everyone was afraid the Russians were going to nuke us. People under 25 feared getting drafted into the military if they didn't volunteer. A lot of my friends did and many got killed.
In 1975, the starting salary for district attorneys in New York was $11,500 per year. When I began my legal career at the Brooklyn DA's Office, I didn't get a paycheck for six months because of New York City's financial crisis. The crime rate was three times higher than it is now and was handled by one-third the number of assistant district attorneys. We often worked nights and weekends for no extra pay. Didn't matter since we weren't getting paid anyway.
At work, there were "typewriters," "carbon paper" for making copies and "white out" to correct errors. Spellcheck had not been invented. You had to get it right the first time or you would look like an idiot to the judge because of all the white out on your document. Public telephone calls were made from "phone booths": the place where Clark Kent changes into his Superman costume.
Cigarette smoke hung in the air everywhere as smoking was permitted in offices, bars, restaurants, buses, movie theaters, airplanes and even in courtrooms and hospitals.
People who owned cars put "No Radio" signs on them because thieves smashed car windows and stole radios all the time. Replacing the glass was more expensive than the radio.
In 1977, New York's power system failed for over 24 hours and the city descended into a night of terror and looting. A serial killer called "Son of Sam" was still on the loose that night. But we survived.
We boomers are tough, resilient, hardworking and creative. Instead of whining, we invented rock 'n' roll.
Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst, is a former New York homicide prosecutor who now serves as senior trial counsel to CallanLegal and Edelman & Edelman, PC, both New York law firms that litigate criminal and civil cases. He looks forward to residing at an upscale assisted living facility in the future at the expense of his three Millennial children. Read Callan at CallanLegal.blogspot.com.
Debating which generation is better or cooler is a popular but futile exercise. It's pretty clear, for instance, that every generation wishes it could claim Bob Dylan. Boomers win on that one. Debating which generation had it tougher, however, depends.
To a certain extent, there have always been throngs of poor youngsters who work for minimum wage, toil as unpaid interns, or slog through as chronically underemployed baristas. What's alarming these days is the acute degree of income inequality Americans face: the highest since 1928. The house you are born into is much more likely to dictate your socioeconomic status than just about anything else.
The cost of college also matters -- a lot. Since 1978, university tuition has ballooned over 1000%. The notion of higher education has shifted. Ben Franklin, for example, saw it as a public good. Now it's seen more as a private commodity, financed largely through student loans. These loans are holding America back: A $1.3 trillion student loan debt crisis means houses, cars and goods are less affordable for young Americans, and that in turn drags down our entire economy.
Maybe we should compare ourselves to other countries where college is virtually free, or our friendly neighbors up north where upward mobility is on the rise, rather than previous or future generations in America.
Matthew Segal is the co-founder of Attn.com and OurTime.org, advocacy organizations for young Americans.
The real reality that bites is that every generation was screwed by the economic dip, but every generation has an opportunity to try to fix it.
Millennials are lucky in that we have nothing like the Great Depression or the World Wars.
We are the most diverse generation in American history. We are also incredibly progressive.
We are creative and have used our ideas to make new things. Boomers invented the Internet, generation X improved it, and millennials found how to bring people closer through it. Even though we join all other generations in hating the nonsense that is the U.S. Congress, we remain optimistic that government can be used as a tool to help people, or, if you're a "Daily Show" fan, something to laugh at.
Like those who came before us we're neither better nor worse, good nor bad. We're different, and we bring different experiences and understanding to the table. There's no competition. We're in the same boat trying to do what we can with what we've got to make a better world.
Sarah Burris is a former editor at Future Majority. During the 2008 presidential election, she was named one of the five Rock the Vote Rock the Trail reporters and covered the perspectives of millennials.
For God's sake we live in the United States. We all have it good. Look around. There are families running from conflicts in the Middle East and children from Central America fleeing the dire circumstances of their lives.
If you are lucky enough to be an American, be thankful. Make the most of it. Stop wondering if you had it tougher than your parents or if your kids will have it tougher than you.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign.