The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.

Silent Joe

Silent Joe

I just wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on the news stories surrounding erstwhile and possible future Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden was born in 1942, which according to Strauss & Howe generations theory puts him in the last birth year of the Silent Generation. This generation was actually first recognized and named in the early post-war era, in an essay in Time magazine.

The Silent Generation were too young to fight in World War II, and came of age after peace and prosperity had been secured. With all the battles won, and the social order locked down, they became careful conformists, with an easy future laid out before them. They developed a reputation for technical expertise, for nuance and respect for process, and for a sense of fairness and compassion.

These are the very qualities which are getting Biden into trouble today. On the political side, he’s been accused of helping Republicans, voting with them or endorsing them. In positive terms, his behavior might be called “reaching across the aisle” – after all, isn’t working with the opposition party one of a politician’s duties? Well, maybe not so much in an age of hyper-partisanship, where there is no room for compromise.

The other problem the world has with Joe Biden is that he is physically affectionate with people. This has exposed him to the “me too” outrage movement on social media. Biden is a sensitive guy – so much so that he released a video apologizing for being insensitive to the new social mores surrounding the expression of sensitivity. You could say he was being meta-sensitive, or perhaps simply that he has the misfortune of being empathic in an age that has rejected empathy.

This is not to say that Joe Biden couldn’t be a competent President. I mean, just look at how low the bar has been set. But unfortunately for Biden, he is not a man for the times. The personal qualities which served Biden well in his long career and not what the electorate is currently seeking in a Presidential candidate, and should he make a bid for the Democratic nomination, Biden will have a tough time competing in an already crowded field. In fact, his cohort Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) stands a better chance, precisely because he goes against the grain of his generation, with his radical ideas and firebrand attitude.

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Someone at work left the company, which means the mandatory going away lunch happened. I remember at a previous position I was invited to a going away lunch in my first week on the job. It was just assumed that I knew that guy who was leaving. It was a strange way to start a gig, but of course I went along with it.

Anyway, at my current job, you may realize if you are following this blog that I work almost exclusively with Indians. So we all go to an Indian restaurant (which is one of my favorite cuisines) and enjoy the excellent buffet. The men sit at one table and the women at another. I am the only non-Indian present.

At the end of the meal, the guy who is leaving, who is at a somewhat senior level, gives a little speech. He very graciously thanks everyone, and then advises us all to always be working on our skills. That is the best to ensure we will have confidence in ourselves and our careers will go forward.

I can’t help but think that India – or at least this man from India, or these Indians with whom I am lunching – has embraced the ethos of the neoliberal market state. That may be an over-analytic or pigeon-holing way of thinking, but that is just the kind of thought that pops into my head. Here is this group of professionals, all in the United States on work visas, who clearly fit into the structure of a globalized, meritocratic labor force.

Meanwhile, young Americans are being told – or internalizing – a different message. Skills will get you nowhere, the economy is stacked against you, it’s better to vote for free college or universal basic income, we just gotta pry control of government out of the hands of the billionaires. I can’t help but wonder if my current situation represents an economic mode that is about to end, or that will survive, or be vindicated, in the times ahead.

Basically Millennial

Basically Millennial

In an earlier post I mentioned Millennial angst about being “basic” – a slang term for ordinary or conventional. Here’s a couple of satirical videos that make fun of this idea, from the College Humor channel.

So there’s a contrast between being a “basic bitch” versus being a “bad-ass bitch” – that is, a regular girl versus an interesting or stand-out girl. Now, for the last generation which was similar to the Millennials – the GI or Greatest Generation – being a regular guy or gal was something to be proud of. And I think that for Millennials, satire like this video is cover for a heartfelt desire to just be basic – to enjoy acceptance without having to take the risks associated with trying to stand out apart from your peers.

The male version of the above video.

You can see in these videos what Millennials have done with customs which for previous generations were marks of rebellion, of a break from the bland culture of postwar America. Customs like yoga, astrology, and tattoos, which once defined the counterculture, have now been appropriated into mainstream culture. And these videos make fun of them for being the new definition of bland and unimaginative. Even down to the backward baseball cap.

Those young adults who do push the limits of style and behavior may be admired to a degree, but for most Millennials it’s OK to stick to basic conventions in personal expression. How much more is there really left to explore in that sphere? As the zeitgeist moves away from the inner world to focus on the outer, Millennials will save their collective energy for bigger things.

The Circle of Life

The Circle of Life

This past weekend I traveled to Washington D.C. to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I stayed at my mother’s house. It was comforting to walk up the stairs to her familiar front door, a door which has welcomed me for nearly three decades of visits. A fixture in my life, anchoring my wandering soul.

I slept in the basement, which Mom uses as an art studio. The furnishings in there are older ones, including some that I remember from growing up. Again there was a sense of comfort from seeing these things; their material fixity reassuring me of the constancy and immutability of the past. For all the changes over the years, these things remind me that the past experience which made me who I am today is definite. It cannot be erased.

As William Blake put it: nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.

Of course the fixity of these material things is an illusion; they will all crumble away into nothingness in the due course of time. What is important to us in life is not stuff but our loved ones, and the relationships we have with them. That is why in all my wanderings, I keep circling back to the family in which I was born and raised.

We gathered for the celebration in a cheery restaurant – siblings and friends and relations all together again for the first time in a few years. There have been many changes in that short time – moves from one state to another, jobs lost and gained, marriages, divorces – but still we remain a family. So happy birthday again to my sister, and may we never forget our true and perfect home, in our hearts.

Joining the Millennial Fold

Joining the Millennial Fold

One characteristic of the Millennial generation as a peer group is their desire to fit in, to be conventional. For all the angst about being too boring – or “basic” – about leading uninteresting, fuddy-duddy lives, there is this undercurrent of wanting to just be normal.

Social media is the great definer and enforcer of what is normal, and no site does that better, IMO, than reddit. Its system of upvotes and downvotes ensures that the consensus opinion is always prominent. The hivemind cannot be resisted.

Millennials who are stuck on the fringe of society are using reddit to fold themselves back into the conventional world. For example, children of anti-vaxxers can look for help.

Another great example is the subreddit for Millennials who have escaped the outlier belief system of the Mormon church – https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon.

Through social media, Millennials as a generation are establishing a definition of what is conventional and acceptable, despite the efforts of some Boomer and Gen-X parents to raise them in an environment fragmented from the rest of society.

On Being an IT Guy

On Being an IT Guy

If you ever saw the TV show The IT Crowd, you probably recall that at the company where the characters work, the tiny IT department, consisting of two gacky guys and their hapless manager, is relegated to the building’s basement. Meanwhile, on the upper stories, the people who are employed in the company’s daily operations are all young and beautiful and lead glamorous lives. This clip from the show’s first episode illustrates what I mean.

Now, as someone who has worked in corporate IT – or Information Technology – for most of his career, I can attest to the fact that there is something like a class distinction between the IT workers and the people we serve, whom we call “the business.” They are, after all, the ones whose activities contribute to the company’s bottom line, and our role is to support their needs. We refer to their needs as “business requirements” and strive to develop software solutions to meet them.

Ultimately, an internal corporate IT organization is a service organization, and developing a service mentality is the best way to thrive within one. This is despite the fact that corporations do make an effort to capitalize the costs of software development, to try to transform at least some of that massive payroll into a corporate asset.

The IT Crowd exaggerates the difference between IT and the business, but the hyperbole is based on a grain of truth, of course. Where I work the employees on the business side don’t sit on a whole other floor, but rather on the other side of the same floor. They each have their own cubicle, while on the IT side we sit in an open environment. It’s an odd little status difference.

The business employees are more likely to be full timers as opposed to contractors. And they tend to have longer tenure and be a bit older. In fact, I’m a bit old for sitting over on the IT side, surrounded by people who are mostly younger, and mostly Asian. It feels a little like my career wandered off in a different direction than that of my age cohorts. Where is everyone from my graduating class? They must all be vice presidents by now.

It is a bit disconcerting to be one of the few middle-aged Americans that sits in my area, but that is where my choices have led me. I will simply continue to enjoy learning new technology and applying my knowledge to help my business customers. That is the value I provide, and that is the deal I have made with the corporate world. Being an IT guy may not be very exciting, but it sure does pay the bills.

On Millennial Burnout

On Millennial Burnout

My last post was inspired by a meme that was about Gen-X in that Gen-X was absent from a graphical depiction of generations. The graphic was actually titled ‘Are Millennials the “Burnout Generation?”‘ and referred to a recent BuzzFeed article by Anne Helen Petersen – in other words, it’s really a meme about Millennials. The article in question is very well written and well worth the long read. Here are some thoughts on it.

The Millennial generation is known for the sheltered way in which it was raised, with heavily scheduled lives, hovering always-involved parents, and pressure to achieve. From this childhood mode of life they graduated into an adult world that was already occupied by Boomers and Gen-Xers, and arranged to suit the more individualistic lifestyle of those older generations. The transition has been jarring for Millennials, which shows in the struggle they have with becoming self-determined, or as they put it, “adulting.”

Boomers and Gen-Xers might wonder what the problem is. After all, we’ve been living like this for decades. Yes, life is complicated and often inefficient. So just deal with it like everybody else does. But expecting Millennials to play along might be unreasonable on the part of older generations.

Perhaps, without the structure and guidance they were used to growing up, young adult Millennials feel unmoored. They are now supposed to find their own purpose in life, but instead many are wondering what is the point. It seems like a whole lot of effort for little reward. Millennial “burnout” may simply refer to a rejection of the frenetic hyperindividualism of the past and a yearning for a simpler way of life.

In that sense, burnout may just be the first step in a transition to a new social era. An era that is no longer focused on self-fulfillment, but grounded in a higher collective purpose. There will be less to do, but what there is to do will have more meaning, more value. Change is in the air.

The invisible mid-lifers

The invisible mid-lifers

Recently there was a meme going around that showed the living generations and their birth years, but with Generation X conspicuously absent. The responses from my generation came fast and thick, loaded with the expected amount of snark and ironic detachment.

The meme was circulating around the same time that Saturday Night Live aired a sketch called Millennial Millions – a parody game show in which Millennials had to withstand obnoxious, narcissistic Baby Boomers for a chance to win the same entitlements the Boomers already enjoyed – like health care, or a job. My generation was there in the form of the game show host, who had this memorable line: “I’m Gen-X, I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn.”

My generation has always had an instinct to keep to itself, to take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself, but otherwise stay in the background. It’s because of the hands-off way we were raised in the 1960s and 70s, a time of cultural upheaval when children were not a social priority. We learned to depend on ourselves, not to trust social institutions or the wisdom of our elders. And we’ve carried that attitude forward into mid-life, perhaps to our detriment.

Is Generation X really on the sidelines of life, ignored and forgotten? Let’s took a look at the impact we have had in different spheres of life. We can also look at some of the best known Gen-Xers for insight.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, Generation X comprises everyone in their late 30s through late 50s. These are the prime years of life – we are at the peak of our careers, growing in responsibility and taking over leadership roles. The culture may decry Boomers living too long and keeping good jobs away from Millennials, but it is really Gen-Xers occupying all those managerial positions. It’s Gen-Xers who have driven the digital transformation of the economy, and the remarkable productivity gains which have given us our prosperous commercial age.

The most successful Gen-Xers in business, particularly in the dot.com world, have been greatly influential in forging the modern zeitgeist. But only a few are really prominent, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Tesla founder Elon Musk. Other founder-CEOs are responsible for much of the background of modern life, but aren’t as well known – Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. The iconic Internet startup-CEO is a Millennial, Mark Zuckerberg. And no highly successful Gen-X entrepreneur has the stature of the two great Boomer godfathers of the digital age – Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

In politics, the influence of Generation X is also rarely noted, though we are integral to one of the remarkable political stories of the century – the rise to power of the Republican party. Gen-Xers were the most likely to embrace the Reagan Revolution in the “greed is good” 1980s, with its philosophy of deregulation and elevation of the free market. Like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties, we turned away from the hippie past to embrace a new era focused on the business of making money. Prominent Gen-Xers in politics today are mostly Republican, furthering that agenda. It’s as though left-leaning Gen-Xers are just not interested in getting involved.

In the 2016 presidential election the two Gen-Xers who made it the furthest in the primaries were Republicans Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio. With the subsequent Republican takeover of the government, it seemed that unfettered individualism had triumphed. This may be mostly a Boomer accomplishment, but it is one in which the Gen-X go-it-alone ethos has been complicit.

Since 2018, the tide has started to turn against Republican dominance. If a progressive wave does sweep away the current regime, if the Presidential administration does collapse from its corruption, Gen-Xers who hitched themselves to the Republican success story will find themselves sidelined. But Gen-Xers on the Democrat side aren’t likely to become prominent as a result. The political narrative of Democratic regeneracy is focused on the needs of the young generation, and the up-and-coming Democrat who is making the biggest waves today is a Millennial.

Media and entertainment is perhaps where Generation X enjoys the most eminence. A look at the highest paid film stars shows a lot of Gen-X faces. Gen-X has always been obsessed with pop culture, and now that we are in the peak of life, it’s like Gen-X content creators are finally getting the chance to realize the imaginative visions of their youth, aided by all the advances in computing and audiovisual technology. It’s no wonder so many of the franchises of our childhood years are springing to life in movie and television form. Gen-X also brings a bit of a dark touch; as I put it in an earlier post, we are in a large part responsible for a new film noir age.

As for the more serious side of media, Generation X has had less luck supplanting previous generations of journalists and news reporters. Part of the problem is that we peaked at the same time that “fake news” became a thing, and that the public stopped trusting traditional media. The great Gen-X opinion shapers are actually the sarcastic, fake news types, like Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert. It’s like not taking anything seriously has been our great contribution to the culture.

In family life, it’s Generation X whose live-and-let-live attitude has given us the diversity of the Modern Family, up-ending traditional family values. Not that Gen-Xers don’t support family – we are fiercely loyal and dedicated to those we love. After a childhood during a social era of family disintegration, we seek in mid-life to rediscover family life. We also are the ones who introduced work-life balance, turning away from the workaholic careerism of the Boomer generation. For us, for the most part, work is a necessity for survival, not a calling.

The main way in which the influence of Gen-X on family life is commonly regarded, if not acknowledged as a Gen-X trend, is in the rise of overprotective parenting – a reaction to the underprotective parenting of our childhood. A common kind of meme in social media feeds is one extolling the good old days of laxer parenting, and boasting about how a mid-lifer (70s or 80s kid) got along just fine without all the child protective rules and regulations of today. The irony is that a Gen-X parent might post such a meme, and might enjoy such a meme, but is unlikely to actually change parenting styles.

This high level look at Generation X shows how our ethos of individualism and self-determination has influenced our contributions to society. On the one hand, our productivity and innovation have helped sustain the great economic boom of the post-war period. Our tolerance and open-mindedness have helped to give us a society that is more diverse and full of opportunities for all than that of the past.

On the other hand, our avoidance of group participation – even denial of its value – hampers society’s ability to find solutions where collective action is required. This means long standing problems such as wealth inequality and the lack of affordable healthcare and education remain unsolved. As time marches on, Generation X has to be careful not to let its instinct for non-participation cause it to be fully sidelined, should a progressive or quasi-socialist regime supported by younger generations rise to power.

Gen-Xers still have many peak years of life left in which to make our contribution to history. In the transformative years that lie ahead, our generation may well produce new leaders from unexpected places. As the old order dies and a new one takes its place, we may find ourselves in positions of unprecedented power – and surprise the world with what we do with it. The story of Generation X is not over yet.

Heros and Villains by the Generation

Heros and Villains by the Generation

One aspect of this era is the wild success of the franchise films based off of the works of two prominent American comics publishers – Marvel and DC.

There is something quintessentially American about the superhero genre. It tells stories where empowered, self-motivated individuals – what all Americans are in theory – strive to better society while struggling with profound ethical dilemmas.  The stories indulge a form of escapism where the intractable problems of the world are conceivably solvable – given fantastical powers and abilities. Why is it so hard to bring peace and stability to the far-flung regions of the planet? Well obviously we simply lack sufficiently advanced technology.

At their worst these movies are trite and tedious, with the same formula repeated ad nauseam. At their best they are rich allegories about power and responsibility, or intriguing character studies. The modern wave of blockbusters has enjoyed tremendous box office success, and love them or hate them, you can’t deny they are a hallmark of our time.

Because I always like to see the generational angle, I decided to catalog the generation and sex of the directors and principal actors in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe films to date. Actually, only up to how far I’ve seen the films because I didn’t want my research to reveal any spoilers. But that’s close to all films to date.

So here is a summary of what I discovered.

The franchises have been a bonanza for Gen-X men, who comprise the majority of directors, and of actors portraying either superheros or supervillains. Gen-X men dominate as directors, with a few Boomer men joining their ranks, along with one Gen-X woman (the director of Wonder Woman) and one Millennial man (the director of Black Panther).

Gen-X men play a majority of the superheros, though a significant number of Millennials share that role. The iconic Gen-X example is surely Robert Downey Jr. as reckless playboy Tony Stark (Iron Man), who is a foil for dutiful Millennial Chris Evans (technically a Gen-X cusper) as Captain America. A conflict between the two characters is even a major element of the MCU story arc. And DCEU has its own Gen-X/Millennial pair of frenemies – the brooding Ben Affleck as Batman versus the self-assured Henry Cavill as Superman.

GenX men are less dominant as supervillains, because Boomer men have found a niche there. Many of the villains are egotistical and power-hungry Boomer men – James Spader as Ultron, Kurt Russell as literally a character called Ego. Their machinations are always being thwarted by younger heroes – an allegory about our times, I suppose. But Boomer men have also found a niche in supporting roles, paternal and self-sacrificing – like Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent or Michael Booker as Yondu.

Boomer and Gen-X women have benefited much less from the superhero film phenomenon. There are very few roles for Gen-X women, despite such prominent stars as Gwynneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Boomer women are similarly underrepresented – the only notable example I could identify was Glenn Close in a supporting role.

With Millennials you see the most gender diversity – there are almost as many female Millennial superheros as male. But with the exception of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, no female superhero has her own movie – a fact not lost on critics. There is a female Millennial villain – Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, and there are two if you count Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have the most gender diverse cast – including the only Gen-X female superhero – Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Thus it is ironic that writer/director James Gunn was hashtag metoo’d out of the franchise.

A final note: only one actor from the Silent generation appears in the MCU or DCEU – Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

In conclusion, the modern wave of superhero movies can be seen as the wish-fulfillment of Gen-X men, who are so prominent in their making. Presumably many of the men of that generation grew up consuming the comics and the earlier movies and television shows made around them. Boomer men, who overshadowed Gen-X growing up, get to be villains or supporting characters. Millennials, meanwhile, are along for the ride, with many Millennial women asserting themselves as equals, as the girl power generation has been preparing to do their whole lives.

Assuming the superhero craze lasts for very much longer, can we expect the Millennial generation to slowly take it over, putting an end to the male dominance that characterizes the franchises today? Or will Gen-Xers maintain their control, until the genre is out of touch with the times? I’m always hearing people say they are tired of these movies, yet there doesn’t seem to be an end to them in sight. And personally I’m excited as any fan about the upcoming releases.