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A Tale Of Two Generations

A Tale Of Two Generations

Back in the early to mid-2000s, I lived in an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the end of the block was a commercial plaza which had a barber shop, which is where I would go to get my hair cut. I must have gotten my haircuts there for five years. It was an old-fashioned men’s barbershop, a proprietorship owned and operated by two men. The chairs had ashtrays built into the armrests, though no one ever used them. There was a small TV up against the ceiling in one corner. Customers would hang around just for conversation. It was the kind of business that acts as a “third place,” or place of gathering and shared experience outside of the home or workplace.

From talking to one of the two men who ran the shop, I learned that it had opened in the 1950s. One of them had started the business, and then invited the other to be his partner. This guy told me he had been coming to work at this place ever since. It was the only place he had ever worked – and for longer than I had been alive. In contrast, since graduating from Virginia Tech in 1988, I had worked at ten different jobs in four different states.

Judging from their life story and apparent age, the two barbers must have been members of the Silent generation, born 1925-1942. Their career stability is characteristic of their generation, as my career instability is characteristic of mine – Generation X, born 1961-1981. When you read laments about the lack of job security in this day and age, you are reading about this trend.

This instability hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go the same place for work for decades on end. Honestly I think it would drive me crazy. I have enjoyed my nomadic contractor life, despite the insecurities, as I described in an earlier post. I have been exposed to so many different environments, and met so many different people. It’s been an adventure. But what I have missed, which the two Silent generation barbers enjoyed, is a deep sense of belonging to a community of people rooted in one place.

Shortly before I moved out of that apartment, I heard from the old guy while he was cutting my hair that his partner had gotten sick, and was planning to retire. He was going to retire as well, since he didn’t want to run the business alone. Not long afterward, the store was empty. The chairs, the counters, the TV on the shelf – everything was gone.

Then a tattoo shop opened up at the same location. It only lasted a few months before it closed – some younger entrepreneur’s failed dream. Next came a gift shop. Then I moved away, so I have no idea if the gift shop lasted, or if any business with staying power could ever survive there again. Or where all the men who used to hang out at the barbershop now went to instead – if they ever found a new third place.

 

Generation X at the Turning Point

Generation X at the Turning Point

Let’s take that list of what to expect of the living generations in the current social era – the Crisis Era in Strauss & Howe terms – and look at the expectations for my generation, Generation X. My generation is in mid-life now, between the ages of 36 and 57, in the phase of life where we will reach the peak of our career achievement and financial earnings. Having already sorted ourselves into winners and losers in the Unraveling Era, and then weathered the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession, for many us this peak won’t amount to much. Many of us will be lucky if we can retire with even a modicum of comfort.

A tiny minority of us have become the wildly successful and wealthy techno-utopians who have reformatted the economy. The billionaires at the very top of the heap even have their own space programs. But most of us are just muddling along, without a grand plan, as we have all of our lives. Despite economic recovery, we are anxious about what disruptions will come in the remaining few decades that we will be able to earn a living. We haven’t all been materially ruined – yet – but the Crisis Era is not over, and our President has decided to start a Trade War (insert eye roll emoji here).

It is plain that Generation X is ambivalent about the emerging new order. On social media we confront the current political crisis with posts that range in tenor from mocking to incredulous to anguished. It is unclear where we are headed, so ambivalence is perhaps inevitable. What is clear is that the old Culture Wars of the previous era have come to a head – and while some of us have picked our faction, many of us remain on the sidelines.

Gen X may be overshadowed by older generations, which have retained power at the highest echelons of government. For the most part we are ignored in the media, obsessed as it is with the generation that came after us. But we’ve quietly taken over managerial leadership positions in both the private and public sectors, where we can make a difference behind the scenes. Our generation’s archetype is known for its pragmatism and resolve in solving the issues of the Crisis Era, and with the unfolding future comes our chance to live up to the expectation.