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.

The new noir age

The new noir age

My BFF and I binge-watch episodic television on streaming services, or – in the parlance of our times – “Netflix and chill.” We always find, though, that everything in the panoply of shows available, on multiple streaming services, is just so dark. It’s either harrowing, desperate drama or mean and sarcastic comedy. Personally, I like harrowing, but my BFF prefers entertainment with a positive message – but where is it? I suppose in the Kids Profile, but that won’t suit us.

So why is everything so dark in this entertainment era? I think there are two possible explanations. The first is that the fault lies with my generation – Generation X – which currently dominates television and film, as directors, writers, producers and lead actors. GenX likes fiction that is raw and uncomprimising, exposing the rotten side of the human psyche. We like fraying and corrupted settings populated by wandering anti-heros.

Another possibility is that it is simply the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. It is a deeply pessimistic time, and our society is interested in exploring human failure, at both the individual and institutional levels. That is why there are so many end of the world stories coming out. It’s where we assume we are headed.

Really these two factors intersect, as it is the attitude of the living generations that defines the spirit of the age. So while my generation is at the peak of life and in charge of creative content, you’ll just have to live with the new noir age while we work out some personal issues. Once we get through these dark times, some other generation can create the celebratory epics of our triumphant passage through the gates of history.

Of course, it is also true that there are options for entertainment that my BFF and I ignore – cable and over-the-air television with its many niches and its nostalgia channels. No mind, because my BFF got hooked on the brilliant – and harrowing – Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle. And if we want upbeat, we can always watch The Waltons. Yes, on video streaming services one can binge-watch television from 40 or 50 years ago if one wants. Truly amazing times.

Generations in the Age of the Social

Generations in the Age of the Social

I joined Facebook in 2008, the first year of the current Crisis Era. I was really just jumping on a bandwagon – everyone around me was joining and I wanted to be a part of it. It was an early example of FOMO, I suppose. I soon found myself reconnecting with people from my past – from high school and college – distant in time and place from where my life was then. Facebook became a place of gathering. It also became a place to assess my life, as I saw how the careers and family lives of my peers had progressed compared to mine.

Eventually I reconnected in physical space with some friends, and renewed relationships. It was as though – assisted by social media – my life folded back on itself and began again from a past point. I wonder if others of my generation have had the same experience  – a chance to revisit the past and reorient oneself towards the future. Like social media is our hot tub time machine.

I wonder if the experience of social media has been different for other generations. Some Boomers I know have embraced social media wholeheartedly, and post far more than I do. For them the smartphone age represents an even greater technological leap from their childhood  than my generation experienced. Millennials, on the other hand, have joined social media at a younger age than Generation X – in young adulthood rather than midlife – but they still remember a time when it did not exist.

The one generation that stands out as fully immersed in “the social” is the Homeland generation, the first of whom were born in 2005. Their entire lives are documented on social media, from the first ultrasound images in the womb to the latest back to school snapshot standing outside of the family home. They are the true superstars of social media.

I still post regularly on Facebook, using it as a kind of diary to keep track of my life. It is fun to revisit the year and see all the places I have checked in, and my patterns of work and play. It’s also a joy to watch people I know from different times and places in my life come together in a discussion in the comments section of one of my posts.

Lately I’ve taken to Twitter as well to attempt to promote my blog and my thinking. Dare I call myself an “influencer”? Of course not – that is pure vanity. I know a hamster with more followers than I have.

We’ve been in the age of the social for a good decade now. I’m curious about how the experience has been different for people encountering it at different stages of their lives. If you’d care to share your experience in the comments below, please do.

Millennials Are Killing Movie Endings

Millennials Are Killing Movie Endings

I’ve posted recently about Millennials and how they’ve taken over YouTube and invented new genres of video content. One common pattern is to analyze and pick apart other creative content, like popular music and film. Everything gets rehashed so quickly one must be wary of it being spoiled before one even gets around to consuming it in its original form.

Sometimes these channels are silly parodies – I’m sure you have been subjected to videos such as this one at some point. Others are serious and intelligent; I’ve already mentioned in a previous post the excellent set of video essays at Every Frame a Painting

One particular way that film gets worked over on YouTube channels is through proposing alternate plots and endings. It’s almost as though the movie ending is another one of the aspects of modern life that Millennials are ruining.

An example of the sillier sort is How It Should Have Ended. But even though this is a parody channel, it often exposes movie plot problems in insightful ways.  A serious example is Nando v Movies, which focuses on blockbuster hits like the recent massive wave of superhero films. The creator’s mind holds the treasure trove of pop culture knowledge characteristic of the modern film geek.

Here are a couple of Nando v Movies videos where he rewrites the recent Wonder Woman movie. I enjoyed that movie, but have to agree that it was not excellent. It’s hard not to think that the imagined version described below would have been much better. Sorry if this ruins the movie for you.

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

The Family Gathering Around the Tube

In the classic television show The Waltons (which you can binge-watch on Amazon Prime if you’d like), the Walton family is often seen sitting around their radio, listening to news or to one of the Presidents fireside chats. Ever since the invention of broadcast communication using electromagnetic radiation, some form of this ritual has been a hallmark of modern life.

When I was young, we sat around the television, which picked up a signal that was broadcast over the air. It was a huge deal when sometime in the 1980s we upgraded to receiving our signal over a wire. Even back then we had many electronic devices in the house, in contrast to the Waltons, who only had their beloved radio.

Fast forward to my early adulthood and you might have found my friends and I enacting the ritual around a computer screen, playing a strategy game. We would all have insisted on playing competitively against one another, but today’s young generation can be seen gathered around a game where one person is playing and the rest spectating. Either way the social bonding around the screen remains a constant.

Now that I am in mid-life and enfolded again into a multi-generational family, we repeat the ritual gathered around the Internet. For that is what our big screen is connected to now, the old commercial channel format replaced by streaming on demand. We sometimes sit and watch short videos on YouTube, discussing them in heated arguments, or showing our favorite new finds to one another. For whatever faults the Internet may have, it has become a place of gathering, of sharing and interacting.

I’ll leave off with a video from a YouTube channel we enjoy, since we are all film fans. The channel is a very erudite set of video essays on film technique. Here we learn why Edgar Wright movies are so good (and this was made before Baby Driver).