When I read Sara Scribner’s essay “Generation X Gets Really Old: How do Slackers have a midlife crisis?” on Salon.com, I nearly tore my still luxurious head of curly brown (though admittedly now silver-flecked) hair out of my scalp. “How is it possible,” I thought, “that more than twenty years have passed and we’re still reading mistaken generalizations and petty simplifications of the people identified as Generation X?” Then I suspected that some trend analyst somewhere must think there’s money to be made by stoking the flames of Gen X early-90’s nostalgia and Salon.com must be trying to get on that train.
In the Salon.com article Scribner writes:
Around the time Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker” came out in 1991, journalists and critics put a finger on what they thought was different about the young generation of emerging adults – they were reluctant to grow up, disdainful of earnest action. The stereotype stuck – and it stuck hard. Business school management books define our generation as adaptable but reluctant to make decisions; and boomer managers call on Xers to finally take on leadership roles. Wake up and step up, X! the culture seems to be saying.
The essay is illustrated by a still photo from the movie Singles, directed by notorious Baby Boomer rock romanticist Cameron Crowe, and, in both the headline and final section of her essay, Scribner notes Winona Ryder among the voices of a generation, Ms. Ryder being associated with Gen X most notably as the star of Reality Bites, a mediocre Ben Stiller rom-com that was never intended to be a generational statement, or if it was, can hardly be taken seriously. Winona Ryder was never a spokesperson for anything other than perhaps shoplifting while on painkillers. Scribner contrasts the midlife crises of Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down with Stiller’s character in the recent Noah Baumbach film Greenberg and I began to wonder if this was meant to be a critique of Gen X or of media representations of midlife masculinity? I assume Ms. Scribner realizes that she’s drawing generational portraits from movies and not real life?
It is useful at this point to note that Scribner attributes her characterization of Gen X as “reluctant to grow up, disdainful of earnest action” to “journalists and critics” and “reluctant to make decisions” or being unable or unwilling to step up and lead to “business school management books”. Later in the article Scribner shares that:
…Xers tend to create sanctuaries that cannot be pierced by fluctuations in the marketplace. Sheryl Connelly, a global trends and future forecaster for Ford Motor Co., says that Xers tend to seek out experiences rather than status symbols. Acquiring flashy cars is for older generations.
Well, I’m glad that we’re relying on the completely disinterested opinion of a global trends forecaster from the Ford Motor Co. to determine the consumer profile characteristics of Gen X!
By relying on generational definitions supplied by media pundits and marketing experts, Scribner capitulates to stereotypes and generalizations that are as misguided and offensive now as they were twenty years ago. Oh, and they’re all wrong.
…those born between 1965 and 1980 think they’re best equipped to manage, according to a new study from Ernst & Young. What’s more, baby boomers and millennials agree. Not only were Gen X workers viewed as best at generating revenue and building teams, they were considered least likely to be considered “difficult to work with” or “cynical and condescending.”
It’s a rare and surprising vote of support for a generation that’s used to seeing the spotlight drift to the larger pools of people on either side of it. The EY findings, based on a survey of 1,215 professionals outside the company, found the generation raised on MTV (VIA) scored points for being more inclusive and flexible than its older peers, while having stronger communication skills and vision than Gen Y. As EY partner Karyn Twaronite puts it, they’re in a “sweet spot,” viewed as young enough to be adept at new technologies but experienced enough to lead.
The Bloomberg quote is much more representative of my experience than the whiny, midlife malaise described by Scribner and her sources.
And here I’ll pause to assert my Gen X bona fides:
I went to high school in Baltimore from 1982 – 1986, frequenting a dump called Jules’ Loft on Eutaw & Mulberry to see punk bands like JFA, Dead Kennedys and Black Flag; I listened to The Meat Puppets, REM, the Violent Femmes and The Replacements, not to mention all the Brits from Elvis Costello to Stone Roses. In college near Chicago from 1986-1990 I went to house parties where Urge Overkill played in living rooms and saw Soul Asylum play to 10 people in the student union cafeteria. In 1990 I moved to Seattle, sleeping for days at the Federal Building to protest the first Gulf War, seeing Nirvana on Halloween in 1991 at the Paramount with Mudhoney and Bikini Kill; my friend Daniel once bought Kurt, Courtney and Mark Lanegan (from Screaming Trees) a round of drinks at Ernie Steele’s on Broadway.
I self-published ‘zines & chapbooks, I got in the van and toured around, performing at the spoken word tent at Lollapalooza and random bars and cafes from Los Angeles to Vancouver and then all along the Northeast. I went to raves and Crash Worship shows, saw the first-ever Foo Fighters show at the Satyricon in Portland and had a spoken word track on a benefit compilation for Home Alive alongside Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, finally moving to NYC in October 1995 .
After nearly three years of flailing, my HTML skills allowed me to jump on the Internet bandwagon from 1998-2001 when the economy tanked and I earned the dubious distinction of being the first person on the planet to blog 9/11, losing my job in the aftermath. In Spring 2002 I went back to work in the arts at less than 50% of my advertising salary and ten years later finally returned to my pre-9/11 income, before leaving my full-time job this past August to start my own business (online content & offline experiences) in this terrible economy.
I recount my history in so much detail only because I was there, I experienced it, and I recoil every time I hear this same stupid trope of Gen X’s disaffection and indifference. That was not what I saw, that was not what I felt; that was not who I was or who my friends were or are. Just because we didn’t – and don’t – behave like Baby Boomers, doesn’t mean we’re ineffective, indifferent or disengaged; we’re not even actually very ironic. Baby Boomer David Letterman is ironic, cynical and detached while Gen X’er Louis CK is earnest, bordering on the sentimental. Jon Stewart’s humor is not ironic; more accurately it reflects a perpetual disbelief in our elders’ obstinacy and the wider culture’s persistent dysfunction that is characteristic of Gen X.
The article’s final paragraph reveals Salon.com’s editorial bias and a persistent, fundamental misunderstanding of the changes that Gen X has been making for the past twenty-plus years. Scribner writes:
If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves. Middle age is, if nothing else, time to shift out of second gear. If we can’t take a break from the urban farms, put down the knitting and home brewing equipment, and step into politics, business and other kinds of leadership, we’ll deserve our reputation as the generation that never quite showed up. Rather than the sound of silence, we should be hearing our voices – and they should be loud and angry.
Urban farms, home brewing and knitting are visible gestures at living a values-centered life, one that values individual artisanship and creativity over mass production and slick commercialism, one that prioritizes meaningful interpersonal relationships over facile transactionalism. The current economy is a place Gen X knows well, and all of these cultural “trends” are much more than merely trendy, they are life choices predicated on creating a viable alternative to mass consumer corporate culture. Gen X’s life choices propose a more modest and moderate way of living and doing business, a more consensus-driven style of leadership, a desire for a less antagonistic, less oppositional political culture. With any luck the culture of paying heed to loud, angry voices will become a quaint relic of the 20th century.
From my perspective, much of what is happening today can be seen as a kind of Long Tail of Gen X alternative culture from the early 90’s. Whether it is so-called “hipster” culture that prizes craft beer and locavore, sustainable agriculture or the innumerable ways the Internet is changing the way people interact, I see the positive impact of Gen X everywhere. Admittedly I live in a bit of an arts-centric Brooklyn bubble, and it is easy to make fun of “hipsters” – but the signifier is becoming increasingly meaningless as more and more people embrace some of the really fundamental ideas of valuing craft over mass production, artisanship that shows a personal touch, and scalable, manageable, individual entrepreneurialism that allows us to do business with people, not corporations. From The American Maker movement to the proliferation of indie arts spaces and festivals dotting the country, to the cultural shifts around marriage equality, multiculturalism and diversity, I see Gen X as being essential “change agents” – to use douche-y marketing speak – whose chief characteristic is to seek synthesis and cooperation, where previous generations and the dominant culture persist in perpetuating a culture of division and conflict.
The key difference is that back when we were kids you had to actually leave your house to discover new, weird, alternative stuff and meet people of like mind; now you can do it on the Internet. Back then you had to send a SASE for a ‘zine and a mix tape, now you can download it and share it instantly. Back then you had to get in the van, now you can do a Google Hangout. So it seems to me that the biggest challenge of the Internet-era DIY moment is re-learning the importance of being together in real life, in small groups of good friends; of remembering that the mediated world distorts and deludes, that it is valuable for distribution but not necessarily for depth.
Which brings me to why the Salon.com article was so upsetting in the first place. Why does the myth of generational likeness and intergenerational difference persist? For that matter, why does the myth of the midlife crisis persist? We all know people of many generations who we like or dislike, who we agree with or disagree with, who share or reject our values – so when did generational difference become such a powerful framework for supporting a culture of opposition and antagonism? Why would Salon.com solicit an article predicated on the notion of the generation gap and the midlife crisis? I’m going to venture to guess it is money.
We all know people who matured early or late, who came brilliantly into their own or wandered aimlessly in search of themselves, who succeeded early and burned out or kept going into new and better adventures. We all know people of all generations, older and younger, who woke up one day and felt alienated from who they had become, or who woke up one day and realized that they had finally become the person they were meant to be. For every Jon Stewart there’s a Paul Ryan, for every Gloria Steinem a Laura Bush, for every business visionary like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos there’s a midlevel account manager at a huge insurance company.
The only thing that really persists across all generations is that there are rich people and poor people, people with access to education and people without, people who will have opportunities and others who won’t. And each generation battles, in its way, to determine how equitably or inequitably their society will function. We are at an extraordinary moment now where generational differences on “how” society is meant to function are butting up against cultural differences that transcend generations, and we are collectively failing to change the discourse.
In the case of this article, let’s start changing the discourse by proposing that the terms “Generation Gap” and “Midlife Crisis”, both popularized during the Golden Age of Mass Media, exist primarily as advertising strategies used to distinguish and target potential consumers for new products. For instance, while some sources suggest that the phrase “Generation Gap” might have been used as early as 1925, the term didn’t come into wide usage until the early 1960’s, and was about distinguishing “the kids” – who had enormous buying power and influence in the home – from their parents, who also had significant buying power and were very indulgent of their children.
While these ideas are deeply embedded in the Baby Boomer constellation of self-mythologizing narratives popularized in mass media, there is little evidence to suggest that they are objectively true or universally acknowledged conditions of the human life cycle. The widespread acceptance of these ideas as accurate descriptors of life experience is predicated more on their ability to capture the imagination of an influential consumer demographic than on any empirical truth.
The consumer culture of status symbols, competition and an “American Dream” based on acquisitive materialism rather than personal industry and thrift is a product of post-war affluence and the rise of ubiquitous mass media – newspapers, television, radio and film.
There can only be a “generation gap” insofar as we perceive some kind of generational exceptionalism; one can only have a “midlife crisis” insofar as one has unrealistic expectations about what life is “supposed” to be. Scribner is right in this: Gen X, by dint of growing up in the Baby Boomers’ wake, had no such delusions.
The Baby Boomers’ parents won World War II; the Boomers themselves were born into a world where America was at the height of its power and influence, at its economic peak and confidence and where Mass Media flourished through the advent of widely available and affordable technology. The well-oiled machinery of consumerism produced an endless bounty of goods that was laid for the taking at the feet of the fickle and feckless Boomers. Assured by their parents and society at large of their exceptionalism, their boundless future, their endless possibilities; nurtured by a sound social structure, good schools and Post-war affluence, indulged and coddled by elders who hoped to spare them the suffering of The Depression and World War II, the Boomers never heard the word “No”. Success was a right, not a gift, growth inevitable, bigger was always better; the Moon itself was attainable for these children of American Might and Power.
Gen X, on the other hand, grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, when the Boomers were going through the first of their many so-called “midlife crises”. I was a latchkey kid and though I am fortunate that my parents are slightly older and thus remained married, I watched my friends’ parents’ messy divorces. I have fuzzy memories of James Taylor and Carole King on the hi-fi, macramé owls and herbal tea, clogs and corduroy and hand-stamped leather bracelets, finding someone’s dad’s copy of The Joy of Sex and old Penthouse magazines, the pervasive odor of pot smoke, seeing grown-ups through half-closed doorways deep in confusing conversations as they went from support group to encounter group to therapy and on and on and on. Every season brought a new form of sensitivity awareness or consciousness raising, a new divorce, a new fad, a new self-improvement regimen that would inevitably take them away from their children in pursuit of their own happiness and gratification, in pursuit of the life they felt they were owed. So these ignored and isolated latchkey children banded together, waiting for Saturday Fathers who never came to ball games and consoling our weeping, overworked single mothers, unsupported and underequipped and often alone. We were our own proxy parents, raising ourselves.
As the dominant narrative tells it, not entirely inaccurately, when Gen X entered adulthood in the late 80’s and early 90’s we had already spent our entire lives being ignored by narcissistic, self-involved, entitled and over-privileged Boomers who took their own droit du seigneur for granted, who misinterpreted our reticence for timidity. Not to get overly Oedipal, but when you grow up listening to Grown-Ups make extravagant promises they never fulfill while trying to buy your affection with toys and sugared cereal, you learn to be a bit suspicious; when you see the disconnect between what Grown-Ups say and do, when you perceive so clearly in them what they can’t see in themselves, when you see that despite all their so-called success and affluence they are still miserable, unhappy, empty people, it gives you pause.
So, theoretically, this disenfranchisement gives rise to Slackers, which creates a Slackers vs. Boomers framework which is, as mentioned before, specious. Boomers – as a whole – comprise an enormous group of people, only a tiny fraction of whom could legitimately be characterized as hippies or counterculture. Gen X, as a whole, is made up of a much less enormous group of people, but still, the group who could legitimately be characterized as “slackers” would be only a tiny fraction of that.
The Slackers vs. Boomers oppositional dynamic is about creating aspirational marketing demographics with which consumers can self-identify. In this case, the Boomer marketers latched onto a “slacker” image that seemed to “capture” a certain zeitgeist. But if one can attribute “slacking” or the delayed onset of adulthood among Gen X to anything, it would be the complete lack of jobs during the terrible economy created by the policies of the Reagan/Bush administrations, a cycle we’re seeing repeated now with the so-called millennials. Obama is trying to dig his way out of W.’s mess, but the system is pretty well broken.
Scribner’s Salon.com article is a symptom of a media culture that is compelled to stoke generational antagonism – as it stokes xenophobia and all manners of base, reactionary attitudes – in the pursuit of revenue. Legitimate alternatives to mainstream consumer culture are more easily co-opted than confronted, neutered rather than killed. These articles – and the media culture where they are incubated and published – are all just distractions from the real, endemic, systemic problems of our society, problems that demand new frameworks, not the relentless trumpeting of failed “solutions” based on the same assumptions.
Laura Helmuth’s recent article on Slate.com explains that life expectancy has doubled in the past 150 years. She writes:
We used to live 35 or 40 years on average in the United States, but now we live almost 80. We used to get one life. Now we get two.
Elsewhere I’ve read that many of the babies born since 2007 will live past 100! Thus the very idea of a “midlife crisis” is absurd, the idea of a “generation gap” even more so. We live, more than ever, in a constantly moving perpetual now where the only constant is change. I’ve previously discussed the idea that the programing languages that operate our digital devices and mediated environment are themselves dynamic and existing in a series of ever-changing, iterative and conditional hierarchies. Fixedness, linearity and finality are no longer viable conceptual frameworks for how we experience the world or live our lives, if they ever were.
If there is any useful oppositional, binary framework to be applied across our society, it is to distinguish those who embrace change from those who resist it, those who seek to become thoughtful stewards of an inclusive, equitable culture from those who seek to exploit difference in pursuit of personal profit at the expense of the public good.
It is a remarkable thing that Greatest Generation, Baby Boomer, Gen X and Millennials are all alive at the same time. I go back to this picture of my grandfather Moses as a young man in Greensboro, NC in 1913, standing next to his grandfather Shmuel, visiting from Minsk:
Amazing that such difference can co-exist in one country, in one family, at the same time.
Last week I went to Rosh Hashanah services at my local shul in Greenpoint, one that had been largely abandoned for almost 50 years until they hired a young Orthodox rabbi who happens to be open-minded, thoughtful and inclusive. The synagogue itself is beautiful but old and in disrepair, yet the vitality of the congregation fills the space with a sense of promise. Here was a mix of all generations, from the World War II veteran who has kept the building standing these past 50 years, to the Rabbi’s month-old newborn and everything in between. The congregation is multicultural and diverse, everyone at different levels of religious observance as well as economic and life stages, coming together in community, and it was beautiful.
If there’s any cultural shift worth noting, one often tied to generational outlook, it is that we are probably no longer in the age of Visibly Great Undertakings. While we are once again called upon to engage with the Big Ideas and Great Questions of the human endeavor, we might want to see that change is achieved incrementally and iteratively over time, that the biggest change in the world starts with the smallest change in the minds and hearts of people, for it is when we come together respectfully to acknowledge difference and seek areas of common ground that real progress is possible.
Martin Luther King – and others before and after him – said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Throughout history there have been those who taken the long view and worked towards creating a more just and equitable world based on an abiding conviction in humanist values. And there have been those who take a short view, who value material gain, unfair competition and disinterest in the welfare of others. That is the opposition that transcends generations. Thus it is only when we act in the world with compassion, patience and understanding that we open up to possibility. And now, more than ever, this is what we must do. Because things in this country – in the world at large – are broken, and every human being now living is called upon to grow up, take responsibility and work assiduously to put things back together. We are so much more than we have given ourselves credit for, and yet we perpetually settle for so much less. Let’s aspire for a better world, let’s open our gaze in time beyond the limits of generations and into millennia, looking back on how we came to this place and forward on who we might become and embark on this grand journey, together.
L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, may you have a sweet and happy New Year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.