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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 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.

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 to 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.