Wednesday, November 16, 2016

McLife: Generation X Looks Back At Twenty-Five Years

The amusing irony of Generation X is, in many ways, it’s a generation that never knew it was one. Coming of age in the stagnant decade of the 1970s, the demographic uncomfortably situated between the aging Baby Boomers and the attention-grabbing Millennials is about as far removed from ego-centric generational identity as one group of people could be. As far as its namesake is concerned, many Gen Xers have never even heard of, much less read, the zeitgeist-like novel by Douglas Coupland that with its publication in 1991 became directly responsible for the moniker of a group known only to that point as slackers and twenty-somethings.  Even fewer Gen Xers have probably seen Richard Linklater’s first movie Slacker, released the same year, though many aging Xers have certainly watched Linklater’s Boyhood, which is the culmination of a career grounded in X-ish consciousness. Thus, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Douglas Coupland’s seminal Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, it’s worth looking back at a 1990’s pop culture artifact and the moment in time it captured. I can still recall the first mention of “Generation X” when a classmate – who had graduated early and was waiting tables – told me about “this new book about people our age.” How appropriate that we were discussing a book about the very lives we were living. It was a work that captured a generation’s resigned sense of detachment from the expectations and institutions of a society it casually dismissed as it sought lives of meaning and authenticity by choosing lifestyle over career.

For a group of people who lived their early adult years working at McJobs and wondering how it came to be that they were destined to do worse than their parents, the traditional and institutional ideas of work, careers, and professional fulfillment have often been a punch line. From the classic Generation X film Reality Bites in 1994 to last year’s While We Were Young, two movies bookending the early adulthood and middle age of archetypal film Xer Ben Stiller, life has been about a struggle for authenticity in world that seems devoid of it. And, there has never been a sound reason for Xers to buy into the standard American Dream that seems destined to be forever out of reach. As Gen X essayist Claire Dederer noted in a 2014 article for PS Magazine “Reality, Still Bites” for many Gen Xers firmly grounded in middle age. Countless financial articles have documented how Generation X has been hit harder than either the Boomers or their Millennial offspring in the last two economic downturns, often losing the majority of their personal wealth. And, the timing of Generation X couldn’t have been more unfortunate, as the two hard-hitting recessions hit in 2001 and 2008 just as they entered adulthood and career age. It didn’t help that X’s economic and career misfortune kicked off with Wall Street Crash of ’87 followed by the downturn and shrinking job market of the early 90s, an atmosphere that influenced the writing of Generation X, the filming of Slacker, and the recording of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Currently Xers are in their late thirties to early fifties, and financial experts note these as the prime earning years, though not for a group like X which is continually trying to recover from financial blows.

Yet, domestic, financial, and institutional stability, which was promoted to the latch-key kids watching The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver while home alone after school as their families disintegrated in an epidemic of divorce, was never going to be their raison d’etre anyway. Generation X had experienced the failure of that promise, and they were destined to approach life differently. Growing up with a deep-seeded mistrust of institutions rooted in dissolving marriages and a resigning President, the slackers were the classic middle children who quietly went about their lives, detached from the drama that they couldn’t understand anyway. They found solace in a burgeoning consumer and pop culture movement that they viewed skeptically even as they embraced it. Even their heroes looked different, and no one typified that more than actor Matthew Broderick who inspired young Xers to rebel differently, whether it was as a Cold War savior and computer hacker in War Games or a snarky suburban anti-hero in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Truly, roles like that typified how in the late 80s and early 90s the slackers became the hackers, as Generation X is the first group to have truly “hacked” society, beginning with the supposed slacker mindset that led Generation X’s protagonists Dag, Andy, and Claire to flee to the desert. They simply refused to play by the rules, and became a new Lost Generation, expats in their own country. 

From the early 90s onward, Generation X has “hacked” society in such myriad ways that the term “life-hack” has become mainstream, and websites are devoted to innovative manipulations of the norm. Entire business models have sprung up around unique and innovative ways to improve life and change the way things are done. While much of the praise for technological innovation has long gone to Boomers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs or Millennials like Mark Zuckerberg – and justifiably so – the media has often overlooked the technical significance of Xers like Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin or YouTube’s Chad Hurley and Steven Chen. Perhaps no other people have altered how the world collects and disseminates information than the founders of those sites. Unless, of course, that person is Jimmy Wales who democratized access to information and authority with the creation of Wikipedia.  The same could be said of innovative Xer and business hacker Elon Musk who has almost singlehandedly revolutionized the automobile and space industries with Tesla and Space X. Raised in the spirit of punk rock and opposition to institutional control, Generation X also hacked the entertainment world with the rise of independent films in the work of Ed Burns, Kevin Smith, Stephen Soderbergh, and of course Quentin Tarantino. And the list of societal hacks goes on, as Generation X has been continually forced to innovate and subvert just to get by. Knowing the cynical view that most have of the childhoods of Gen Xers, it’s amazing that they not only survived, but have begun to thrive, albeit on their own terms with new definitions.

For a group of people that Time Magazine labeled hopeless and lazy, Generation X has responded in kind with a sardonically whimsical shrug as they went about re-creating the world in a manner of existential whatever-ness. The latch-key kids who were the victims of the first and unprecedented divorce boom have now become parents of cautious optimism and confident faith in their kids’ ability to thrive in a world gone mad. Gen Xers have been referred to as the “stealth-fighter parents,” which is a welcome relief from the “helicopter parent” syndrome of the Baby Boomers. The zen of Gen X parenting is nowhere better exemplified than the mother who let her nine-year-old go to Times Square alone and then wrote a column about it, opening herself to national scorn and ridicule. For the last generation to ride bikes without helmets, to sit on our grandparents’ laps unbuckled in the front seat, to ride carefree and open in the back of a pickup, to run with scissors, Generation X is a population that has grown up unflappable against the doubts and suspicions of the world. Historically, people view Generation X in terms of the years from 1961 to 1981, but that decades-wide span doesn’t offer much in terms of identity. Identity crystallizes when we come of age, and, truly, the defining moments of Generation X can be bookended by memories of two falls – the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. One fall came as we were stutter-stepping into adulthood, and the other as we settled into careers and parenting. Each event rattled the collective consciousness of the world, and each demanded reflection and recalculation of institutions and belief systems. Throughout it all, Gen Xers have carried on, oblivious and dismissive of being a generation at all.

Defined by the quest for authenticity, Generation X has been noted for its suspicion of institutions and authority, as well as its reluctant reliance on itself. No doubt this would be true of the kids who came into consciousness amidst the Watergate scandal and the rise of punk rock. Generation X has always been the classic middle child. Yet, rather than take on the whiny voice of Jan Brady lamenting her victimhood, Gen Xers have been much more likely to simply withdraw into their rooms and not give a shit what anybody else thought while they went about developing and refining an increasingly interconnected world. In response to the disruptive nature of the late twentieth century, the innovative rebellion of Gen X has led to changes that simply result from individuals doing it their way and dismissing the way things have been or, perhaps, ought to be. From the rise of artisan crafts and organic food in the traditional business world to their firm support for gay rights and gay marriage, as well as the homeschooling and even unschooling movements, the members of Generation X have led a stealth revolution for a more authentic life in defiance of tradition and institution. And in the process of living a McLife funded by working a McJob, Gen Xers have created new definitions of normal, and they haven’t really cared much about what anyone else thinks.


Chloe Koffas said...

Well written piece. Thanks for writing it. I am proud to be a part of a generation that in spite of the odds being against us in every possible way, we do the quiet, hard work that needs to get done, and we contribute so much to the world. If anyone can bring society out of a Crisis era of history, Gen X can. We've made it this far in the continued wake of every kind of instability, and because of that, I believe we will be the ones to bring an end to it. All the friction, chaos, and struggle of the decades of our lives have made us stronger and more capable of leaving the world truly better than how we found it. Another way society let us down is the American public school system when we were growing up. I wonder if you've already written about this or if you plan to. As a Gen X teacher, you'd bring an interesting perspective to this. It's pretty extraordinary how at every single stage of our lives, every single aspect of society crumbled around us. Even more extraordinary is how we overcame (and continue to overcome) so much. Here's to the leadership of every Lost Generation, who is given the responsibility of turning the mistakes of society around, even when they are barely given credit for the hard, selfless work of cleaning up other generations' messes.

mmazenko said...

Chloe, thanks so much for the feedback and insight. The spirit of Gen X has always been that "X-class" of individual who goes about life as he or she seeks it to be, as opposed to how it automatically is. That's what write Morris Burman called the "new monastic individual" who sidesteps society in pursuit of authenticity and culture. The education side of things does interest me, especially as an Xer who vividly remembers the US Dept of Ed's criticism of a "rising tide of mediocrity" among our generation. That certainly proved to be of dubious validity. We just went about changing the world in spite of the system.

Chloe Koffas said...

I agree. I always had this innate knowledge that I shouldn't accept a pre-packaged life, but that I was supposed to carve out an existence that was something completely original. 'Monastic' is a good term to describe us, after all, we are known for owning wardrobes full of black.... Just as monasteries often help the immediate communities around them, this is what Gen X has been known for - volunteering or serving locally to change the world quietly, pragmatically, and without an overarching need for attention for doing it. I can't think of anything more valuable than striving to live authentically as we serve those of our own generation and those of other generations, particularly the kids who will still be here when we are gone.