Generation X: Waiting for the Apocalypse

Generation X: Waiting for the Apocalypse

My BFF and I started watching The Walking Dead again after a long hiatus. She just couldn’t stand the show any more after a certain something happened at the start of Season 7 (if you watch the show you know what I mean). And so we stopped watching it. But in time she was ready to get back to it, and we have watched all of Season 7 and are now in the middle of Season 8.

When I watch this show, I can’t help but think of how Gen X it is. The main characters are almost entirely from our generation or from the Millennial generation. There is a smattering of characters from older gens, but they tend not to last, and there are some token kid characters with no real story arc. The Gen Xers are always in charge of the different groups, and have to become ruthless enforcers and daring opportunists, always thinking on their feet and doing whatever it takes for the group to survive. The Millennials meanwhile are the hopeful and idealistic ones, whom the Gen Xer leaders are protecting. What stung so much about the opening of Season 7 was that one of the nicest Millennial characters was brutally murdered. As my BFF put it, “they killed the heart of the show.” That made it hard to care about the series any more.

So on the show, each Gen X leader has their own unique way of leading, giving each group or community its own culture and political structure. The show ends up exploring questions of politics like what gives a ruler the right to rule, or how do you balance the needs of the many with the needs of the few. In fact, when one of our boys was taking a civics class and trying to understand the concept of “rule of law,” I used an example from the show to explain it to him.

There was one not very nice group in an earlier season that had a rule where if you saw something before anyone else and called out “claim” then it was yours. I explained how even the leader had to follow this rule; if one of the others called “claim” on something really nice, the leader couldn’t use his position to trump the subordinate and take that thing from him. If the leader acted that way, this basic rule that held the group together wouldn’t work any more, and the group would fall apart. That was the idea of “rule of law” – the law has priority over the whims of the politicians. This applies even in the very simple polity of a group of people banding together for survival after a zombie apocalypse.

What’s ironic about this show that explores politics being a Gen X show is that Gen X has actually eschewed political involvement our whole lives. It’s like we would only do politics if absolutely forced into it, as would be the case if civilization collapsed. In fact, it seems like Generation X has been waiting for the collapse – it’s our expectation after being told since childhood that the world is doomed. The popularity of end of the world shows like The Walking Dead is a manifestation of our yearning to see it all just go to hell.

I’ve even seen bumper stickers like the one above. You probably have too. We really do want to stand on the sidelines and watch the world burn. We don’t want to choose between the lesser of two evils – we want all the evil to come out all at once. We want to find out how we would handle it. We want the ultimate freedom of a lawless world where the winner takes all ethos prevails. Because that is just so Generation X.

Hence our society’s apocalyptic mood, our deep sense of foreboding that we express in this dark genre of entertainment. We are in a fin de siècle phase of history – the American century is coming to a close, and there’s no telling what come next. Possibly the Pax Americana is coming to an end as well. For some Americans, the wound to the pride has been too much.

Politics is driven by resentment. Long festering problems of economic insecurity and environmental degradation may have grown to the point of insolubility. It might seem that the only way out at this point is cataclysmic and violent change. To cut the Gordian Knot you need the sharp edge of a sword. Or a zombie apocalypse.

But remember it is the cycle that is coming to an end, not the world. Zombies are a fantasy. War, plague, climate change – those are real but of course we can survive them all. As we have before. History is inexorable and will take us into the next cycle whether we’re ready for it or not. We don’t get an escape hatch in the form of utter destruction. This craving for the end of the world is a cop out.

Consider the Greek roots of the word apocalypse: apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To uncover, to reveal. As in Revelations. The apocalypse is not a violent end, it is a moment of truth. It is the moment when the facade is swept away and the stark reality underneath is exposed, and we have to finally face the problems we have been putting off. It is happening now, shaking up and realigning our politics, pitting group against group.

Generation X can help lead us through this conflict. It won’t be the sci-fi extravaganza we have spent our lives fantasizing about. It will be a messy, mundane effort to reconstruct our teetering old political institutions to deal with life in the new century. And I hope that what prevails is a community built on the principles of one of the good groups from The Walking Dead – one that is fair and kind and inclusive. One that taps into, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

But we can’t avoid the reckoning. We can’t avoid getting involved, hoping that it’s all just going to end. Not my generation, not any generation alive today can escape the future. We must face, without fear, the world that is bound to come.

The Silent Generation: Still in Power

The Silent Generation: Still in Power

I’ve posted a couple of times lately about the Homelanders, the current child generation. I am going to jump way up the age ladder now, and take a look at a generation that is well into elderhood, but still influential in our society. I am talking about the Silent Generation – the generation that was born between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

There is actually some awareness of their existence, so you may have encountered references to them before. Just think about it like this – the Greatest Generation fought World War II – they were young adults by then. The Baby Boom came after that – they were the kids born after the war. Well, someone had to be kids during World War II, right? That’s the Silent Generation.

Before I go further, let me present the birth years that I am using for each generation, based on the theory which I study.

  • Silent Generation: 1925-1942
  • Boomer Generation: 1943-1960
  • Generation X: 1961-1981
  • Millennial Generation: 1982-2004
  • Homeland Generation: 2005-202?

Based on these birth years, members of the Silent Generation today are between the ages of 76 and 94. And there are still people in that age bracket who are powerful in society. Two notable examples are Mitch McConnell (b. 1942) and Nancy Pelosi (b. 1940) in the U.S. Congress. Arguably, through their leadership of their respective parties, they are sustaining the pattern of partisanship and deadlock that began with the Gingrich revolution 25 years ago.

What’s truly amazing about the Silent Generation in politics is that the top two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020 are from their generation. That would be Joe Biden (b 1942) and Bernie Sanders (b. 1941). At least they represent different wings of their party. And considering that this generation has never had a President, it would be an historic event indeed if either of the two men were to be nominated and then win the general election.

Another group of powerful Silents are the billionaire investors, sometimes associated with the corruption of politics and conspiracy theories about dark money controlling the government. Depending on the conspiracy theory, they may serve either major political party, or perhaps just use them both as pawns. The most infamous examples would be George Soros (b. 1930) and Charles (b. 1935) and David Koch (b. 1940).

Two notable Silent billionaire investors are in the list of top ten wealthiest people on the planet – Warren Buffett (b. 1930) and Michael Bloomberg (b. 1942). I’ve named the most prominent wealthy businessmen of this generation, but many others still enjoy positions of power – if not name recognition – as C-level executives or corporate board members.

The presence of the Silent Generation in the top echelons of government and business could be part of the reason for the sense of long drawn-out and unresolved crisis in our society. In many ways we are still living in the regime of their generation. Special interests control the legislature, government action is stalled, true reform is impossible, and inequality gets worse as the country continues to slide in global standings.

This is the way things have been going for decades. But it actually hasn’t been bad – for the Silent Generation. The inequality in our country is in part generational. So we could hardly expect that generation to be the ones to instigate reform, when they are benefiting from the status quo. All of this takes on special meaning in light of the Democratic primaries with its large number of contenders spanning a vast age range.

I don’t mean to be resentful of the Silent Generation, just to make a point about generationally-driven social change. In a future post I’ll write about the Silent Generation in film and entertainment, where they are also still making waves.

The Homeland Generation in Film

The Homeland Generation in Film

In a recent blog post I mentioned three films featuring the Homeland Generation (b. 2005-202?). They are all great films which I enjoyed very much, and I thought I would give a little more detail and quick reviews about each one.

The first one is the best of the three films, 2017’s The Florida Project. A young girl lives with her mother in a motel somewhere near Disney World. They are poor, getting by through means semi-licit or worse. Despite this life on the economic fringes, the girl finds joy in her simple life of carefree play with her friends. When trouble brews, the ragtag denizens of the motel generally look out for each other. The Magic Kingdom is there in the background, but what is the true paradise – the artificial construct of middle-class America, or the innocent heart of a child? This poignant film will make you wonder.

The next film is about a girl whose circumstances are even starker than living in a motel. In 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a girl and her father dwell deep in the swampland of the Louisiana coast, part of an eclectic group of squatters in a community called “The Bathtub.” Their impoverishment is just a backdrop for a tale that takes on mythic proportions and features some thrilling fantastical elements. When her life and home are disrupted, the girl must search for her past to find the courage to face her future. The movie ends with a note of confidence that, much like the child’s imagination, seems out of touch with reality.

Finally, there is What Maisie Knew, also from 2012. This is a retelling of a story from the late 1800s that was written by Henry James, about a girl whose parents are divorced. They share custody, but are both irresponsible, and eventually the girl finds a safer haven in the guardians who are entrusted with her care. The movie changes the story a little bit, and is also set in contemporary times. As such, it presents an anomalous portrait of how children are raised today. The parents are acting like parents from the 1970s, not those of the 2010s. It’s still a very touching film, and I thought it brought out some Homelander traits in the girl character, particularly her compassion for others.

Three films about Homelanders that are highly recommended. You may have noticed that they are all about girls. Where are the boys of this generation represented? Perhaps we will see those films in the future. I will write more about girls versus boys growing up in a future blog post.

Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

The rest of the family is on vacation at Knoebels this week. I would have joined them, but I couldn’t afford to take the time off; not with another vacation coming up in July. So instead I will work, and at the end of the day get back to binge-watching The OA on Netflix.

If you subscribe to streaming video, which you probably do, and if you live in a family, which you might, then you are familiar with the following pattern. If you start to binge-watch a show with a certain subset of the people in your family, then you can’t continue to watch episodes until all the people in that particular group are together again. So you end up with one show that you watch with one family member, a different one to watch with another family member, and a third show that you watch when all three of you are together.

And then you have series to watch when you are alone, or everyone else is busy. For me, it’s been The OA, an imaginative and drawn-out sci-fi/fantasy thriller. It has a little bit in common with the mini-series Maniac – what is it with Millennials and shows about being experimented on? It’s basically a genre – fantastical sci-fi where Millennials are tested, evaluated, rated, categorized – going all the way back to Harry Potter. Is this really how they’ve felt their whole lives?

Another kind of show you might have is one with short episodes to watch while enjoying a meal. The convenience of the streaming format really shines in this context; you’re home from work, you’re eating dinner, you want a 20 minute episode to watch, and there’s practically an endless supply of them available. For me lately, assuming it’s just me, the show I’ve been watching at dinner has been Rick and Morty. The girl has no interest at all in it, and the boys have seen all the episodes multiple times already.

That show is on Hulu. Yes, I pay for both Hulu and Netflix, and then of course there is Amazon Prime. I’m amazed that I am able to keep up as well as I do with which show is on which service. Even paying for all three still costs less than cable. And there are no ads. Who wouldn’t cut the cord?

Finally, there is another mode of binge-watching which you might have experienced – re-watching a series with someone who hasn’t seen it so you can enjoy their reactions to it. I remember how much fun it was to re-binge-watch (that’s a word now) Stranger Things with my mom and sisters during a weekend visit – just because they hadn’t seen it yet. And the girl and I have binge-watched old TV shows from her childhood that I missed – Dark Shadows for example. And I do mean the 1960s version – another awesome thing about the streaming era is how much old film and TV is available.

All of this just goes to show that I watch too much TV. I watch it like I’m running out of time, but as the girl reminds me, there is no way I will watch it all before I die. But I will try at least to watch all the sci-fi. 😀

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Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

I’m re-reading one of my old sci fi books that was published in 1972. There is this xeno-anthropoligist on another planet that was colonized by Earth, and he is looking for the original humanoid lifeforms that were supposedly on the planet but no one has seen for a few generations. But what’s great is that when he is inventorying his equipment as he sets out on his expedition, he includes tape recorders. And film for his camera.

Because the author did not predict that neither tape nor film would be used any more in the near future, long before humans ever colonize another planet. Assuming we ever do, though I suppose I shouldn’t make any assumptions there. Who knows what technological change awaits us, and how different our world will be decades to come? After all, no one predicted the ubiquitous smart phone, at least not in the form that it exists today.

Science fiction ends up with these fun kinds of anachronisms because of its efforts to extrapolate the unknown future from the known present. It ends up overconfident about some trends, and misses others completely. My favorite anachronism from sci-fi is from the movie A.I. which is set in a future after the ocean levels rise. In a scene where the main characters fly into the submerged city of Manhattan, the World Trade Center twin towers are visible, jutting out of the water.

Because the film was released just before the destruction of the twin towers. That’s something that actually happened, though the oceans have been slow to rise up to the point of submerging our coastal skylines, if they ever do. There is even something of a double anachronism in this depiction, in that the short story on which the film is based was published before the twin towers were raised, and so would not have been a part of the story originally. They appear in the movie as a strangely out of time anomaly.

For more ruminations on this, check out this older blog post of mine. Meanwhile, I will keep re-reading my old sci-fi books, and enjoying the anachronistic details. Which honestly are incidental, since sci-fi is really about humanity confronting itself, trying to understand its place in time.

Growing Up in Crisis America

Growing Up in Crisis America

When one reads in online media about the generations that are alive today, it is most typically a story contrasting the Baby Boomers with the up and coming Millennials. Sometimes my generation, Generation X, gets a mention. In other blog posts, I have referred to the Silent Generation. You may even have read about the post-Millennial Generation Z, usually said to have been born starting some time in the late 1990s.

Clearly some generation must follow the Millennials, but I have my doubts about the Gen-Z concept. In the generational theory which I study, the next generation, still in childhood, is called the Homeland generation. This name was coined early in the century, around the time that the Department of Homeland Security was instituted in response to 9/11. The name evokes the idea of a country entering protective mode, and of a generation that is sequestered within it.

With the first birth year of the Homeland generation being 2005, the oldest of their members are just turning 14. What can we say about this child generation and their experience growing up in an America in crisis?

The Homeland generation has clearly been the beneficiary of the restoration of the American family that began when Millennials started being born in the 1980s. The era of rising protection of children has reached its apex; children are now completely ensconced within the family unit. You can see it online in social media with the endless stream of posts of happy families headed by Gen-X parents – and, increasingly, by Millennial parents.

Protective child nurturing has reached the point that there is are hints of concern that overprotection has gone too far. But despite memes extolling the free-wheeling child rearing of days past, there is little sign of the protection relenting. Instead, in a shift away from the way that Millennials were raised, Homelanders are being taught not so much that they are special and unique, as that they must learn to fit in and to get along with others. It’s a trend propelled by concern for the perceived negative consequences of being a social misfit in a time of rising suicide rates and mass shootings, or of standing out in an era of social media scrutiny.

Homelanders, in fact, are the first generation to have their entire lives documented on social media. It starts when they are still in the womb, with sonograms posted by excited expecting couples. Then comes a flurry of adorable toddler posts, capturing every precious moment. Once they hit school age, there is a mandatory start of the school year portrait for every grade from kindergarten on. My favorite indicator on social media of the centrality of family in American life, and the Homelander generation’s comfortable place within it, is the themed costume group photos that come out every Halloween.

It seems to me like Homelanders are always on exhibit. If not as the trophies of proud parents and grandparents, there are two prevalent ways in which Homelanders are put on display. One is the viral video featuring a toddler in some moment of discovery or precious and adorable behavior. Follow this link for a great example.

The other prevalent way that Homelanders are put on display is in the role of victims, as object lessons about the failures of our society. Movies like The Florida Project and Beasts of the Southern Wild portray young children in trying circumstances, on the economic fringes American life. Another example, What Maisie Knew, warns of the follies of the affluent and the damage that divorce and neglect do to a child.

The Homelanders who are truly on the fringes of American life are the undocumented migrants – their status raises doubts that they even belong to the homeland at all. The political left has made ample use of images of their tribulations to protest immigration policy. One photo of a crying toddler being processed by immigration authorities has become an iconic representation of these suffering innocents, caught on the edges of a fragmented society that is, with difficulty, trying to group itself back together.

In conclusion, the Homelander experience is reflective of the needs and priorities of their Gen-X and Millennial parents – to restore family stability, and to provide a controlled and safe environment for child nurture within a society that feels out of control and unsafe. With these goals in mind, children are being taught that rather than stand out, they should fit in. Rather than express emotions, they should manage emotions.

This is the opposite of how Generation X was raised half a century ago, at a time when family stability was not a priority, and parents sought to provide a free environment within a society that felt overly controlled and limiting. The reversal is a response by Gen-X, conscious of the failings their generation has faced as a consequence of lax parenting. Today’s parents will surely make there own mistakes, as all parents do, taking on what is the most difficult of all human endeavors. They will take things too far, and so set up the course corrections that will lead to another shift in how children are raised, for a new generation yet to be born.

To end this post on a positive note, here is a wonderful example of an adorable young Homelander viral video. These kids are our future.

Crisis as opportunity

Crisis as opportunity

I posted more frequently than usual the last couple of months, but then sort of stalled out. I’ve got some more generations posts planned, but I have been much too busy, at work and at home, to finish them up. So here’s a quick post with some thoughts about work.

Since the year began we have been involved in a massive undertaking to transfer about a dozen years of historical data to a group of data scientists modeling credit risk. It’s a big chunk of work that leverages my skills with ETL and database. Don’t ask me what the modelers are doing exactly, they are all way more educated than I am.

This leads me to think on how I have been employed in the financial sector for my last few gigs. First I worked for a mortgage services organization, basically at ground zero of the housing crash, for a company that purported to be the good guys helping struggling homeowners who were delinquent on their bills. Then I worked for an investment firm, on a project that modeled counterparty risk. And now for a consumer bank.

In both cases where I’ve worked with risk modeling, it is financial institutions directly responding to the GFC, and the implication of what another debt crisis could do. The response is both voluntary and imposed by government regulation – that is, institutions are complying with regulation, but also pursuing their own risk mitigation strategies. The Global Financial Crisis was a Big Chill for the financial sector.

A lot of money is being spent on all this analysis and reporting. It is basically overhead from the perspective of financial companies. Is it really going to do any good? I would say the answer is a clear maybe. Still, it hardly makes sense not to incur the cost. It is better to attempt some oversight, however uncertain its benefit, than none at all.

And for me, and others of my ilk, it’s clearly a great opportunity. All that regulatory overhead is paying my bills. It is part of the story where my life has only gotten better since the crisis started. So I guess I should be looking forward to the current administration’s trade wars destroying the global economy. Who knows what opportunities that will bring?

The Machine Stopped

The Machine Stopped

As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.

Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.

As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.

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.