Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Generation X Grew Up - and We're Still Trying to Figure Out What That Means

Most of the writing about Generation X - that quirky post-Boomer/pre-Millenial group born in the 60s & 70s - acknowledges the realities of the first generation of divorce and the first group of latch-key kids. It was a time when kids first faced the possibility of growing up less successful and prosperous than their parents. And, while no catastrophic world events defined the era, it was truly a "Cold War" childhood. Yet, by now the average Gen X-er is in his/her forties, and has most likely casually slid into middle age, going about parenting in the laid back way most would have imagined. So, for the group defined by John Hughes films and Douglas Coupland books, the idea of growing up is complicated.  A couple interesting takes on the idea of childhood and growing up are in the pop culture news cycle now. Philosopher Susan Neiman asks us an important question in the title of her recently published book - Why Grow Up?  Neiman looks to Enlightenment-era thinking to ponder the twentieth-century invention of childhood, adolescence, and maturity. And, critic A.O. Scott offers an insightful analysis of her thesis:

Nor, in spite of its subtitle, is her book a critique of contemporary mores. The “infantile age” she has in mind goes back to the 18th century, and its most important figures are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. “Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem,” she writes, “and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment’s heirs” than that we understand it as a topic for argument and analysis, as opposed to something that happens to everyone in more or less the same way. Before Kant and Rousseau, Neiman suggests, Western philosophy had little to say about the life cycle of individuals. As traditional religious and political modes of authority weakened, “the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust.”

Another important work at, perhaps, the other end of the cultural spectrum is the new Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, which is garnering hugely positive reviews from all corners. Lisa Damour writes for the New York Times that perhaps the best quality of the film is its "convincing argument against happiness in childhood." That perception would seem to hit home with the Gen X parents out there.

In other words, the movie begins where most parents begin: We tend to treat dark feelings as unwelcome intruders into the idyllic childhoods we had in mind for our children. At the extreme, we can act as emotional offensive linemen, throwing our bodies in front of anything that may knock our children down and equating a happy childhood with the absence of distress. Pixar doesn’t buy it. And neither should we. Though Fear carries on like a neurotic mess, he’s rightly charged with keeping Riley safe. Anger seethes throughout the movie and often loses control by pushing the levers at the mental command deck to full throttle. But Riley’s success as a hockey player is credited to the healthy aggression that zips her around the ice. While avoiding spoiler territory, I can tell you that Sadness more than holds her own. “Inside Out” doesn’t just stick up for dark feelings, it also recognizes that growing up comes with evolving emotional complexity. We meet Riley as a baby, when her rudimentary mental apparatus delivers emotions that are straightforward and pure. We really get to know her as a preteen when Joy loses control of the command deck and gets lost, along with Sadness, in the now-complex recesses of Riley’s mind, while back at headquarters, Anger, Disgust and Fear jockey for position.

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