Recently I read in Salon that the generation with which I most closely identify–GenX–is now reaching middle age. The writer repeated a lot of common GenX tropes about how we’re all a bunch of loser slackers who do a lot of whining about our lot. And as a (more or less) GenXer at the outer edge of middle age, I naturally had a few thoughts on that score.
I may have been born in 1963 and so am, technically, a “Baby Boomer.” But I’m not. When people were sticking flowers in guns, I was watching “Romper Room” (and wondering why that damn magic mirror never saw “Doug”). When women were burning their bras, I was diggin’ on Morgan Freeman as “Easy Reader”. I wasn’t watching Mrs. Robinson; I was watching “The Brady Bunch.” You get the picture. My “generation” came right after the Baby Boom. We’re a wedge generation; too early for being Gen X; too late to understand sock hops or free love or all that. We’re not even really a generation; we’re more of a condition. A state of mind. A longing, perhaps.
Put it this way: When I tried to read one of Updike’s “Rabbit” novels–supposedly one of the major literary voices of the Boomer generation–I found it stultifyingly, brain-numbingly tedious. “Get over yourself!” I kept yelling. “Stop pining over your lost youth and do something, you useless git!” If this was a typical “Boomer” voice, not only did I want no part of it, I couldn’t even relate to it.
Why? Because it seems like as long as I’ve been a conscious entity aware of what was going on outside of my immediate area, the country has been in decline. It started with Vietnam, of course, but then we had the various economic stuff of the 70s (Gas lines! Stagflation! Runaway inflation! Etc!), Watergate, the constant sense of impending nuclear armageddon (until 1990 or thereabouts), Reagan & Bush I running up the deficit and exploding the deficit and building up the military to a ridiculous level and wedging the income gap wide open, Iran/Contra, the S&L crisis, the housing bubble, the Great Recession, two profoundly stupid wars (which the Boomers got us into)–three if you count the recent mess in Syria, the fact that more than half of our parents got divorced, and on and on.
It’s just been one damn thing after another, as they say. Sure, no World War III, but it’s not exactly been one long party, has it?
So why is my “generation” the way we are? Because we’re busy, that’s why. We have a lot of messes to clean up (some of which, admittedly, we created our own selves, like the tech bubble–though let’s be honest here: We had plenty of help from the Boomers in that one). We don’t have time to wallow in angst and self-pity like Rabbit; we have to deal with shit. And we have to do it with less money and more debt (personal and governmental) than previous generations. And hey, thanks a lot for all that, by the way.
But if you’re wondering why we sometimes whine, there it is. Sometimes it gets wearisome. I can’t tell you how many of my friends are so, so, SO tired of having to continue to keep re-fighting the social values wars of the 60s. Gay rights, women’s rights, sexual freedom, freedom from religion, minority equality, reproductive health and self-determination, even effin’ birth control, for Pete’s sake! We thought that had been taken care of. We look at the Tea Party types and their fellow travelers on the far right and want to scream, “You lost those battles! We won! WHEN will you get over it?!” (I’ve personally reached the conclusion, much like Andrew O’Hehir writes in his post on Salon, that we just have to wait for demographics. i.e., we have to wait for these older, white, cis-gendered, Protestant, heterosexual Republican voting folks to–let’s be frank–die off. Yeah, yeah; there are some younger folks who have allowed themselves to be brainwashed by the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, but believe me, they’re a minority. I just hope and pray they don’t destroy the country entirely in the meantime. And frankly, I don’t have much hope.)
Now, you may make fun of some of us for moving back in with our parents, taking longer to get married, staying in school longer, etc. I understand. But we’re facing some serious shit, here, and we have fewer resources with which to deal with it. It’s all downsizing, and out-sourcing, and off-shoring, and “make do with less”, and “work smarter not harder”, and rising productivity with no corresponding rise in wages. Why do you think the tech worker’s social ur-Text is “Office Space” with its “dream of doing nothing”?
So we’re doing our best, which sometimes means living in Mom’s basement while we desperately look for a job that pays us exactly the same in real dollars as they paid dear old Dad in the 70s, with no hope of catching up to the Romney’s, Trumps, Kochs, and the like. We don’t have the money to just dive into marriage, or buy a new house. (Sami and I needed a loan to get married!) We’re struggling, to be blunt about it, but we’re scrubbing away at the mess, and we’re doing our best.
I would never call folks my age and in the bracket 20 years behind me “great”, though I think we do pretty well. But bear this in mind: The “greatest generation” was to a large part in a similar boat. They dealt with the aftermath of WWI, absurd income inequality, a crushing Depression, and a World War that, literally, threatened democracy. They had Gilded Age jerk-weeds wanting to lord it over them just like we do. They had Victorian-era blue-noses that wanted to control their wild kids’ sexuality just like we do (though ours are 50s-era). And I betcha they complained plenty until they hit retirement age, at which point they only complained about kids on their lawn. (Rim shot.) Will we get that kind of epithet when we retire and people look back on the period of, say, 1990-2020? Who knows? But I betcha money we’ll come off better then than we do now. What we basically lack is a Roosevelt, a member of the rich, monied group who “betrays their class” to stitch society back together. (If only!)
So yeah, now we’re moving into middle age (some of us are deep in!), and hardly anyone is writing about it. That’s okay; we don’t seem to get noticed except when we complain or invent the iPhone or something (Jon Ive is a GenXer). And we don’t seem to go all batshit crazy just cuz we come up with a good idea that makes a lot of money (I’m looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg, member of the “millennials”). We just keep plugging along and, when it gets to us as it inevitably does, we complain. So apparently we’re a bunch of slackers who don’t do anything. No, we don’t; we just clean up messes. Cuz someone has to.
Note: Some of this content is a repeat of a post I put up on Open Salon in 2009, shortly after Obama’s first Inauguration.