At 9:54am this morning in California, a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX blasted off the launchpad to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites into orbit. 9 minutes later, the jettisoned first stage of that rocket ship self-navigated back down, landing perfectly and without damage. The dream of self-landing, reusable rockets, abandoned 50 years ago, has become a reality.
If you are a science & technology enthusiast, it is an unbelievable time to be alive.
Everywhere you look, there are signs that all of the science-fiction dreams of the 20th century are rapidly coming to life. Boom Aero is ready to bring economically viable supersonic jets (Mach 2.2) to commercial air travel, and several competitors are now racing to bring their own to market. In just a few years years, Tesla has reshaped the global automative industry by executing on their audacious plan to accelerate the transition to clean energy by proving the market-viability of electric cars. Google has not only brought self-driving cars to the tipping point of commercial viability, but it is sparked a global race to bring them to market by the end of this decade.
Uber is talking about flying cars. Amazon is patenting airship warehouses for drone for commercial delivery, and has delivered ambient voice control to our homes. Facebook is bringing us true virtual reality. Apple is delivering the equivalent of a crystal-in-our-ears to connect to the cloud. Moon Express will land on the moon in 2017.
What has changed so dramatically? Why are so many of our collective dreams, many of which predicted over 50 years ago, suddenly tumbling to market in an avalanche of advancement?
I have a simple hypothesis. We are living in a decade of Gen X wish fulfillment.
The Ascendent Economic Power of Gen X
Poor Gen X. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing some political or economic framing around the political and economic tensions between the Baby Boom generation, the 70 million Americans born between 1946-1965, and the 90 million Millennials, born between 1981-2000. Sure, Gen X got a few TV sitcoms & movies in the 90s, but it was a brief time in the sun before the cultural handoff.
As of 2017, most members of Gen X now range from their late 30s to their early 50s. They have found careers, started families. More importantly, they have hit the economic sweet spot of the US economy. Wealth accumulation is highly correlated with age, and career success is as well. You can see it clearly in the numbers: Gen X is wealth is accelerating rapidly, faster than the Millennial generation, and over a smaller base of people, while Baby Boomers begin their inevitable asset decline as their retire.
The Influence of Gen X Leadership
Like every generation, Gen X has produced a set of exceptional leaders, and many of them are now concentrated in technology, where the industry rewards founders and executives at a younger age than other industries. Larry Page & Sergey Brin at Google. Elon Musk at Tesla & SpaceX. Travis Kalanick at Uber. Jeff Bezos misses the cut off by a matter of months, but clearly fits the profile as well.
Demographers have always projected the window for Gen X would be hard: Baby Boomers are determined to hold on to power as long as possible, and Millennials have the political strength to force transition more quickly on their terms.
Still, we are clearly in a window of time where a fairly large number of Gen X leaders have accumulated significant economic power.
So what are they doing with that power?
Gen X Wish Fulfillment
Five years ago, Peter Thiel lamented that we were promised spaceships and flying cars, but all we got were 140 characters. The sentiment, in various forms, became common place. Why wasn’t Silicon Valley investing in hard problems?
Not surprisingly, it seems as if the peak of that disenchantment actually coincided with an incredible resurgence in investment in deep technology.
Gen X is, in the aggregate, almost canonically described as cynical and disenchanted. But with the ascendence of science fiction into Hollywood in the 1970s, they grew up seeing the future through the lens of technology. The boom in personal computing, followed by the internet, filled their formative years. True, huge initiatives of the 1970s around space and clean energy faltered and almost expired. But while there were disappointments, like the Space Shuttle, they also saw the end of the Cold War, and the phenomenal growth in the technology industry.
Is it really so surprising that a subset of this generation, in this brief window, has decided to invest its economic power into tackling the problems the previous generations failed to deliver?
Electric cars. Clean Energy. Gene Editing. Space Travel. Drones. Artificial Intelligence. Man-made diamonds. Robots.
Even our comic book movies have become phenomenal, mostly thanks to Jon Favreau.
Dreams transformed into reality.
Can Gen X Inspire?
Make no mistake, Gen X stands on the shoulders of giants. The previous generation gave us the economic and technology platforms to make these dreams become reality. Gen X deserves credit for not giving up on those dreams, and finding innovative ways to push through old barriers and find new solutions.
After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation inspired a whole new generation of scientists and engineers with their audacious efforts in technology in the 1950s & 60s. We may be witnessing a similar era, a decade where the technological achievements of this generation ripple through the children of today, and play out in second half of this century.
So many of the technical dreams I discussed eagerly with friends in high school and college are now actively being delivered to market, just twenty years later. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in technology.
Personally, I hope this generation will not only hand off and even better set of opportunities to the next, but we’ll use this brief window of time to inspire an even younger generation to reach for the stars.