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Sufjan Stevens’ Songs of Gen X Neglect

Sufjan Stevens’ Songs of Gen X Neglect

One of my favorite indie singer/songwriters is Sufjan Stevens (b. 1975). He is a multi-instrumentalist who often plays multiple parts in his recordings, as well as vocals. His style ranges from acoustic folk to symphonic to electronic, often blended in one piece. It’s very unique and creative, and I love most of his albums and have listened to them over and over. His songs tend to be very downtempo, often sad and depressing (as another singer put it, sad songs say so much), but also lyrically brilliant, each song a miniature story rich with historical, cultural and spiritual references.

Stevens was born in Detroit, and grew up in Michigan, raised by his father and stepmother. His mother moved to Oregon and remarried when he was very young, though he still kept in touch and eventually ended up working with his stepfather. Now I don’t know him, and can’t speak for him, but I have noticed that he has written quite a few songs about growing up with divorce and about children feeling abandoned by their parents. It’s hard not to conclude that he has some resentments about his mother leaving, and has expressed those resentments through his music.

A childhood raised in neglect is a hallmark of the Generation X experience, which is why I gave this post its title. I wanted to showcase some of my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs which have this neglected childrearing theme.

The first song is “Romulus,” off of the 2003 album “Michigan,” presumably named after the Detroit suburb of Romulus, Michigan. In this song, children who are being raised by their grandfather are eager for the rare moments of interaction they have with their mother, who has moved away to Oregon. Notably, the narrator is ashamed of her. This song has a memorable line about kids being raised by being left alone to watch TV all night. A plaintive banjo melody runs through it.

Here are the full lyrics to “Romulus”:

Once when our mother called
She had a voice of last year’s cough
We passed around the phone
Sharing a word about Oregon
When my turn came, I was ashamed
When my turn came, I was ashamed

Once when we moved away
She came to Romulus for a day
Her Chevrolet broke down
We prayed it’d never be fixed or be found
We touched her hair, we touched her hair
We touched her hair, we touched her hair

When she had her last child
Once when she had some boyfriends, some wild
She moved away, quite far
Our grandpa bought us a new VCR
We watched it all night, we grew up in spite of it
We watched it all night, we grew up in spite of it

We saw her once last fall
Our grandpa died in a hospital gown
She didn’t seem to care
She smoked in her room and colored her hair

I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her
I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her
I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her
I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her

The next two songs are from the album “Avalanche,” which features outtakes from what is probably Stevens’ most famous work, “Illinois.” The first song has the unwieldy title “The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, the Mind That knows itself).” In it, a family’s children are exposed to their father’s affair with a woman who is apparently a convicted criminal (“the ankle brace she wore”). When one of them has a seizure and the others come to his aid, they are made painfully and shockingly aware that no one is looking out for them. Interwoven voices sing these haunting lyrics:

(Oh my God)
A mind that knows itself is a mind that knows much more
(No one came to our side)
So we run back, scrambling for cover
(To carry us away from danger)

The next song, “Pittsfield,” is less melancholy and more defiant. Alright, it’s still pretty melancholy, but also defiant. The lyrics invoke a story of children learning to take care of themselves while their parent works all the time. It’s not clear, though, if the parent has to work to make ends meet and so is actually sacrificing on behalf of the children. It’s not explicitly stated in the lyrics, but to me it sounds like the parent is probably a single mother. The child from whose perspective these lyrics are sung might not be aware of the constraints of keeping a house. Instead, they are aware of being put down (“Stand there, tell me that I’m of no use”). They are afraid of their parent, and becoming self-sufficient is how they respond, how they learn to free themself from this fear. To me, this strikes me as a particularly Gen X childhood experience, though it could conceivably happen to a child of any generation. Life is always hard for working class single moms, assuming that’s who the parent in this song is.

Here are the full lyrics to “Pittsfield”:

I’m not afraid of you now, I know
So I climbed down from the bunk beds this low

I can talk back to you now, I know
From a few things that I learned from this TV show

You can work late till midnight, we don’t care
We can fix our own meals, we can wash our own hair

I go to school before sunrise, in the cold
And I pulled the alarm, and I kicked up the salad bowls

Since the time we meant to say much more
Unsaid things begin to take their toll
After school we shovel through the snow
Drive upstate in silence in the cold

You can remind me of it
That I was lazy and tired
You can work all your life as
I’m not afraid of you anymore

If I loved you a long time, I don’t know
If I can’t recall the last time you told me so

Here in this house in Pittsfield
The ghost of our grandmother works at the sewing machine post
Hiding the bills in the kitchen on the floor
And my sister lost her best friend in the Persian Gulf War
There was a flood in the bathroom last May
And you kicked at the pipes when it rattled oh the river it made

Stand there, tell me that I’m of no use
Things unspoken break us if we share
There’s still time to wash the kitchen floor
On your knees, at the sink once more
You can remind me that I was tired
You can work late and give yourself up
Now that I’m older, wiser, and working less
I don’t regret having left the place a mess

You can remind me that I was lazy and tired
You can recall your life as
I’m not afraid of you, anymore

In 2012, Stevens’ mother died from cancer. In the next few years he worked on an album to help with grieving and to process his relationship with his mother. It was released in 2015, titled “Carrie and Lowell” after his mother and stepfather. It is quite possibly the most depressing album you will ever hear. Stevens combines melancholy songs about death with childhood reminiscences which speak to many of the same themes discussed previously. Did his mother really leave him at a video store? Maybe so based on these lyrics from the second song on the album.

When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store
Oh, be my rest, be my fantasy
Oh, be my rest, be my fantasy

I’ve linked to the entire album below (on the artist’s official channel) and you can judge it for yourself. We can’t know exactly how Stevens was able to reconcile his feelings regarding his mother, but from his repertoire of sad songs about childhood neglect we must surmise that her abandonment of him left deep scars. I know many Gen Xers for whom something like this is the case.

If you’ve listened to the songs and perused the lyrics I posted here, I hope you appreciate Stevens as much as I do, and how wistfully and painfully his music portrays Generation X in childhood. We were tough, we were resilient, but the feeling of being left on our own haunts us to this day. Through his music – introspective, maudlin, often resentful – Sufjan Stevens perfectly captures this generational experience.

My Generation in the Land of Opportunity

My Generation in the Land of Opportunity

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson (b. 1966)

My last post, about the confirmation of KBJ to the Supreme Court, brought to my mind another African-American woman of my generation: NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson. I hope this doesn’t seem too weird, but I feel a connection to her, even though I don’t know her at all IRL. It’s because her birthday is very close to mine – both the year and the day. We are generational peers.

The fact that a black woman born at the same time as I was could have a successful career as an astronaut is a testament to how far our country has come toward the goals of racial and gender equality. It might not be perfect equality, but at least, for my generation, the opportunities have been there for achievement in any field, for anyone willing to put in the hard work. Seizing opportunity and excelling as an individual is quintessentially Gen X.

It’s also amusing to me to consider that as a boy, I likely dreamed of being an astronaut (and a firefighter, too, if I recall correctly). Clearly I made different life choices than Stephanie Wilson did, and ended up on a different path. Not to have any kind of Frank Grimes resentment energy about it, but most Gen Xers will not visit outer space in the lifetime of Generation X. But it’s inspiring to know that anyone born when I was born clearly could have, as one of my peers has proven. And that some Gen Xers have gone to space gives me a heartwarming feeling, a sense of pride, and a vicarious delight in the historical location and experience of my generation.

The Generational Shift in the Supreme Court

The Generational Shift in the Supreme Court

The confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the 116th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is being hailed as an historic event. From reactions on social media it is plain that partisan blue zoners are relieved that the latest replacement on the Court has occurred during a Democratic Presidency, and succeeded despite the partisan split in the Senate. No one could forget the Republican controlled Senate’s political tactics in 2016 that handed the nomination of Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement to a Republican President. That Jackson is the first black woman to serve on the Court is also rightfully being hailed as an important historic milestone. It reflects the long secular trend of the elevation of women and minorities as equals in our civil society. It is meaningful, in my opinion, that this historic moment occurred during the Presidency of Joseph Biden, who is from the generation of the civil rights movement – the Silent Generation. This moment is a fitting capstone to his generation’s legacy of fairness and inclusion in American life.

There has even been some notice of the fact that with Jackson’s appointment, the Supreme Court will, for the first time, have four women Justices serving on it. This reflects another secular trend of increasing gender equality on the Court. The first woman Justice was appointed in 1981 (O’Connor); this increased to two women Justices in 1993 (Ginsburg) and then to three in 2010 (Kagan following Sotomayor’s replacement of O’Connor). Ginsburg was also replaced by a woman (Barrett), suggesting that not even President Trump could bring himself to interrupt this historic progression.

When Justice Stephen Breyer (circled) vacates the Supreme Court, there will be no more Justices from the Silent Generation serving on it.

There’s another story that seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Take a look at the birth years of the current members of the Court. The Justice who is retiring and being replaced by Jackson is Stephen Breyer, born in 1938. He is the last remaining member of the Silent Generation to serve on the Court (the first was actually O’Connor; only six members of his generation have served on the Court). After Breyer’s retirement, all of the Justices will be either Boomers or Gen Xers. Jackson won’t just be the fourth woman on the Court, she will also be the fourth Gen Xer. This is another historic moment for the Supreme Court: the replacement of the Silent Generation by Generation X.

The other three Gen Xers on the Supreme Court were all appointed by President Trump. It is not surprising that Trump was able to find suitable red zone aligned jurists among this generation, which leans conservative and Republican. These three appointees may well be his administration’s most lasting legacy. They will steer the Court in a conservative direction for a long time to come. Even if, by some twist of fate, Biden should get the opportunity to replace another Justice, the Court will still be majority conservative (5-4 instead of 6-3). What does this new alignment, both generational and ideological, mean for the future of the Supreme Court?

I am not a legal scholar, so I can only speculate from the perspective of an educated layman. One thing I think is certain is that we will see breaks from precedent. This is already evident in the uncertain fate of Roe v. Wade – the dreaded (by blue zoners) overturning of that decision may be coming. One of the Gen X Justices, Gorsuch, reputedly disdains precedence and would prefer to craft his own conservative judicial philosophy. This sort of independence of thought is just what you would expect from Generation X.

Another trend I see is the continued success of the conservative mission to roll back the administrative state (a Silent Generation legacy) in favor of individual freedoms (a Generation X legacy). Case in point: the recent Court ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate. Given her background as a public defender (the first to be appointed to the Supreme Court), Jackson herself might be inclined to rule in that direction.

Once Breyer has retired this summer, only one Justice will remain on the Supreme Court who was appointed in the twentieth century: Clarence Thomas, who will be the oldest, in his mid-70s. No serving Justice will remain from a generation older than the Boomers, and there will be four from my generation, Generation X, all appointed in the past five years. It’s actually quite remarkable that all of the Supreme Court Justices will be younger than both the President and the Speaker of the House, and that their average age will be slightly lower than the average age of U.S. Senators.

You would think that the Judicial branch would be where the old wisdom of the country resided, but a move to pack the Supreme Court with conservative thinkers has put my generation there instead. This historic generational shift in the makeup of the Court will have repercussions for years to come. Long-standing legal precedents and regimes that have been taken for granted are clearly in for a significant upheaval.

Is This TV Show Peak Gen X?

Is This TV Show Peak Gen X?

Lately we’ve been getting into Peaky Blinders (available on Netflix), a very artfully crafted period crime drama set in Birmingham, England in the 1920s. It’s dark and brooding, ruthlessly violent, and bristling with attitude. It has occurred to me while watching it that it exemplifies the qualities of Generation X, and may well reflect the peak of Gen X influence in today’s entertainment world.

Now, I realize that the show is British and therefore not technically Gen X, since that is a name for an American generation. And I realize that the creator, Steven Knight, would be a Boomer if he were American, and that the younger actors on the show would be Millennials – if they were American.

But the principal actors, the ones who make the show so tough and gritty, and so cool, are Gen X. I mean, they would be if they were American. They are superbly skilled and nuanced in their performances (particularly Helen McCrory, God rest her soul), portraying characters that are stylish and brash, with a hard shell of bravado that disguises a vulnerable soul.

The setting is the criminal underworld in an industrial town, just after the First World War. In fact, the older criminal gang leaders are all veterans of the war. In other words, their characters are from a generation that matches Gen X in archetype – hard-hearted survivors in a rough and exploitative social milieu.

The beautiful costumes and sets, and the brilliant cinematography, with everything shot in dark lighting with a gray and grimy color palette, contribute to my judgment that this show is an epitome of the new golden age of dark and harrowing television. On top of that, the show features a soundtrack of modern indie/prog/hard rock. It’s completely anachronistic, but it works, much better than in other shows or films that I’ve seen try the same thing. It just cements the affinity between the Lost Generation characters and the punk Gen Xers who play them, their archetype resounding across a hundred years of history.

That’s why I say Peaky Blinders isn’t just peak TV, it’s peak Gen X.

Theater as a Sheltering Space for the Young Generation

Theater as a Sheltering Space for the Young Generation

Last weekend I went to see a high school musical show – Shrek, to be precise. On the way in I was handed an LGBTQ pride flag and told it was my “freak flag.” I didn’t really know what this was about, having never seen Shrek before, but I eventually found out. “Freak Flag” is actually the name of a song in the show, sung by the fairy tale characters. It celebrates diversity and inclusion, and through it the characters resist how they are treated by the oppressive chief antagonist (you may recall the story from the movie).

It’s not a stretch to associate the unique fairy tale characters in Shrek with minority groups in real life who face discrimination and barriers to acceptance. So it seemed fitting enough to have these flags to wave while the fairy tale characters sang their “fly your freak flag” refrain. As I watched the kids dressed as fairy tale characters walking down the aisles of the auditorium, I wondered how many of them might experience discrimination in real life, given how kids on the fringe – whether gay, or neurodivergent, or just outsiders – are drawn to the arts and to theater.

This message of inclusiveness and acceptance was part of the show from the onset, as in the curtain speech (the speech made before the show to introduce it) the director spoke, as if assuring the parents, of how much he and the staff make sure all of the students feel accepted and valued. Everyone of them, like each unique fairy tale character, knew how special they were. To my mind, this was a perfect generational moment – this is exactly how I would expect Generation X (the director’s generation, as well as mine) to treat the children of the Homeland generation (to which all but the oldest of today’s high school students belong). Sheltering them in a protective bubble. Teaching them to be sensitive and considerate of others.

It was a moment that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of this era. I should have more such moments in the future, as the spring season is upon us and I will be attending a lot high school performances in the weeks to come.

Gen X Creatives in Film and Television

Gen X Creatives in Film and Television

Recently we’ve been on a kick of watching movies and series on streaming video that are made by two particular Generation Xers, just because we like their stuff so much.

The first Gen Xer is Mike Flanagan (b. 1978), probably best known for the horror miniseries The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. He’s also done another great horror show on Netflix called Midnight Mass, as well as a couple of film adaptations of Stephen King stories: Gerald’s Game and Dr. Sleep. We’ve watched all of these. His work is moody and atmospheric, with brilliant technical design and camera work. It includes, as horror typically does, shocking and bizarre supernatural elements, and even some good jump scares, although the latter is not what Flanagan has a reputation for. Rather, he is known for his cerebral, character-driven stories and his creative themes. He’s like an indie darling of horror film, and his work has an unmistakable signature.

The other filmmaker we have been getting into is Jeremy Saulnier (b. 1976). He makes these gritty, gripping, true to life thrillers, set in ordinary run-down parts of America, featuring characters who are ordinary people you might recognize from your own life. His films are plot-driven, very tense and suspenseful, and punctuated with extreme violence. They always make me think of Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah (b. 1925). Like Flanagan, Saulnier has an unmistakable style. We’ve watched Blue Ruin, Green Room, and Hold the Dark, and they all come highly recommended.

I’ve noticed that a signature style tends to stand out in the works of Gen X auteur filmmakers like these, more so than for older generations. Boomer filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) are more likely to genre-hop and try their hand at different kinds of films. It’s as if they want to prove that they have the creative chops to do anything (a really good example of that is Ang Lee, b. 1954). Gen Xers, on the other hand, carve out a niche and cultivate a distinct, individualistic look and feel.

Probably the first Gen X filmmaker to make waves was Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), with his break-out film Reservoir Dogs in 1992, followed by his instant classic, Pulp Fiction, in 1994. His work is famous for its dark sense of humor, its artful violence, and its plot twists that shift character loyalties. Tarantino has perfected the art of the lurid crime B movie. Another Xer who came on the scene early is Kevin Smith (b. 1970), of Clerks fame, who tends to make crass comedy films. He’s another B movie all-star.

In the decades since the rise of Generation X in the early 1990s, numerous film makers from that generation have made a mark, crafting bodies of work which have a distinctive style to them. Many have won Academy Awards, and some have smashed box office records in the current era of blockbuster sci-fi and superhero action adventure movies. For example, there’s Christopher Nolan (b. 1970) with his Dark Knight trilogy, and J. J. Abrams (b. 1966) with his Star Wars movies. There’s other big names, but I’m more interested in this post in bringing to light some of the (perhaps only slightly) less prominent Gen X directors and their idiosyncratic styles.

If this brief list leaves anyone out, it’s only because of my particular exposure and preferences. It’s interesting how their birth years are clustered in the late 1960s (same as me, hmm) and how so many of them got their start in the late 1990s.

Joss Whedon (b. 1964) created the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, and the much celebrated sci-fi television series Firefly, among others. I think his writing perfectly captures the peer personality of Generation X – sardonic, scrappy, at once defiant and full of self-doubt, independent and fiercely loyal to their friends. He’s created many lovable ensembles of characters, caught up in implausible science fiction and fantasy plots, fighting the good fight with panache and a lot of witty banter.

Wes Anderson (b. 1969) has created a unique style that’s been called “deliberative,” with very literal narrative exposition, and acting which is intentionally stilted and mechanical, like the characters are clockwork toys methodically enacting the story. His movies are whimsical, bordering on absurd, but under their farcical surfaces lie warm and heartfelt messages. My favorite of his movies is Moonrise Kingdom.

Darren Aronofsky (b. 1969) makes very weird psychological films, with touches of both insanity and the supernatural. His debut film was Pi, about a number theorist with severe mental health issues. His best known work is probably Black Swan, but my favorite is The Fountain, with its conquistador subplot and its occult references.

The Wachowskis (b. 1965 & 1967) are best known for The Matrix movies. They’ve made a number of adaptations of comics and novels, and the original story Jupiter Ascending. They go for big production values, visual extravagance, elaborate settings and complex plots. They have a reputation for flair over substance, but personally I like their stuff. My all time favorite is Cloud Atlas, based on a novel by David Mitchell (b. 1969).

Sofia Coppola (b. 1971) has made more down-to-earth dramas and comedy-dramas than the other creators on this list, starting with the film The Virgin Suicides. Her work is influenced by her background in the fashion industry, and has even been accused of being “too feminine.” Her best know work is probably Lost in Translation.

Spike Jonze (b. 1969) has a relatively short director filmography compared to others on this list, but boy are his movies weird and creative. He is definitely a boundary-pusher, going for odd stories that make you think. You might have seen his intriguing interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are. For story idea and social commentary, I really liked Her.

Zach Snyder (b. 1966) has had considerable success making adaptations of comics, including several films in the DC Extended Universe, most famously Justice League (you’ve probably heard of the “Snyder cut“). His style includes extensive use of slow motion and speed ramping in his action sequences, making battle scenes into works of 3D art, like the comics on which so many of his movies are based. I really like Suckerpunch, which is based on an original concept.

Reviewing this list, it’s plain that I like sci-fi/fantasy a lot, as well as weird indie films. And I do think it’s fascinating that so many of these auteur directors are about my age. Is that a selection bias coming from my personal preferences, or is there really a cluster of highly successful filmmakers among my immediate birth cohorts? Patterns like that do happen. In any event, I hope you enjoyed this list and will consider watching some of the work by the creative lights of my generation.

Gen Xers and their Podcasts

Gen Xers and their Podcasts

As I noted in my previous post, of all the generations, it’s mine – Generation X – that has most ardently embraced its generational identity online. Compared to other generations, whether older or younger, there are far more Gen X branded accounts, sites, blogs and channels on the Internet.

In particular, there are a slew of Gen X branded podcasts. Podcasts, if you aren’t aware, are an audio-only format of Internet content, with themed channels publishing periodic episodes of about an hour in length. Sometimes it’s just one person basically lecturing, sometimes a small number of people (typically two or three) chatting in a more or less free-form manner. Sometimes they are up on YouTube, so they are not necessarily audio-only. It’s a flexible term.

Why do Gen Xers love podcasts so much? Perhaps it’s connected to anxiety about being neglected, forgotten. We want our voices to be heard. We want to be remembered, like we’re all singing our famous theme song from the end of The Breakfast Club.

I’ve found that Gen X podcasts can be broadly categorized into two groups. The first is nostalgia-themed podcasts, looking back at the pop culture which Gen X grew up with. Now that we’re middle aged, we apparently want to get together and reminisce about all the great music and TV from our youth.

The Gen X-tra Podcast
Pop culture, movies, music, trivia

Generation X Rewind
Music, films and TV

Toys and games


Pop Culture Preservation Society
Pop culture nuggets of the classic Gen X childhood

Project GenX Podcast

The Riff Radio Show

The Untitled GenX Podcast
Pop culture

The other kind of Gen X podcast has a theme of personal affirmation. They are about the Gen X experience or perspective.

Gen X Amplified

GenX Stories

GenX Voice

Gen X Woman

It really is astounding that there are so many Gen X branded podcasts, but none (that I know of) for other generations. I can understand how this format appeals to my generation – it’s suited for individuals who just want to work for themselves, and since video is optional, you can do it from the shadows, so to speak.

It’s not just that, though; it’s also that Gen X is so intent on being recognized as such. There are plenty of podcast-style video channels created by Millennials; it’s just that they don’t brand them as Millennial per se. They have broader scopes and subjects than the experience of one generation.

This phenomenon connects to an idea that I’ve expressed before, that in mid-life Gen Xers are using the Internet to fold the past back into their present experience. Maybe it’s because the future is so uncertain, so doubtful in this time of crisis. We need our past experience, the setting of our youth, as a bedrock on which to build the foundation of whatever we can make out of the rest our lives.

Generations on the Internet: 2022 Update

Generations on the Internet: 2022 Update

On this blog I often write about generations, and when I do I often find myself writing specifically about the generations online. For example, I have posts about social media, where I’ve observed how different generations experienced social media at different life stages, thus having a different relationship with the technology. It’s like what I really blog about is the Internet, and that’s not surprising given that I spend almost of all of my waking life there, whether at my paying job or working on personal projects like this blog.

It’s nothing new; on my old blog, I had a background section about the generations, and it emphasized their presence on the Internet. For example, I noted that the GI generation did not have much Internet presence, and that it was members of the Silent generation who were typically portrayed as the older people just learning how to get online. Meanwhile, Boomers and Gen-Xers were the Internet entrepreneurs, and the Millennials had their own unique online portals. I was writing all of this in the early to mid-2000s, so a lot has changed. If you go to my old site, you will find that some of the external links still work, but many, if not most of them, are dead now.

Back then, I focused on “the web.” Web 2.0 was young, and social media was still evolving as a concept. You might note that in my background section, social media makes an appearance on the Millennial page, in scare quotes no less. Twenty years later, I think it’s natural to associate social media and the ubiquity of apps and crowdsharing with that generation; it goes hand in hand with their consensus-seeking peer personality. Now that social media apps, with their relatively closed platforms, are supplanting the more open world wide web, what has changed about the presence of the generations online?

Well, for one thing, everyone is on the Internet now. You can’t really talk about any particular”online generation” when the Internet is part of the background of everyday life. At best there’s the idea of “digital natives” to cover all the people so young that they can’t remember when there wasn’t an Internet. But I think all generations from Boomers on down are comfortable with life online.

I would say that, as a rule, different generations tend to congregate in different platforms. Facebook and Twitter, and what’s left of the old world wide web are where you find the older generations, while Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and TikTok are where the younger generations are. This assertion is based on no data at all; it’s just my impression. While all of the living generations are on the Internet, they have different reputations online and different presences as a generation. Let’s call the sum total of all that a generation’s Internet profile.

First, for the Boomer generation and older, I’d say their Internet profile doesn’t looks so great. There’s not much around specific to the Silent generation, except for pages that amount to encyclopedia entries. Boomers as a generation have a terrible social media presence, since they are mostly the butt of jokes. As I noted in an earlier blog post, there’s a Facebook group devoted to making fun of Boomers. And we all know about “OK boomer.” As individuals, plenty of Silents and Boomers are in command of their social media presence, particularly celebrities and prominent and powerful officials. I imagine that many elder leaders actually have teams of younger people managing their social media accounts.

The Millennial generation’s Internet profile is a bit of a muddle. For one thing, younger Millennials would prefer to disassociate themselves from their older generational peers and call themselves Generation Z. Articles about the gap between Millennials and Gen Z are generally silly fluff, but the real story here is that there is a reluctance among Millennials to embrace their generational moniker. Despite the fact that the term “Millennial” has become a commonplace and is ubiquitous in online discourse about the state of society, Millennial individuals are not keen on taking on their generational name as a brand.

This takes me to my generation, Generation X. Of all the generations, Gen X is the one which most willingly – eagerly, even – embraces its identity online. Gen X’s Internet profile is like a bold statement – don’t you forget about us! There are so many Gen X themed YouTube channels, podcasts, social media pages and accounts that I am not even going to list any here. Instead, I’ll pick that up in a future post. Suffice it to say that many Gen X individuals see themselves in terms of belonging to their generation, and a lot of what Gen Xers obsess on in their online content and sharing is nostalgia for their past. You know, that time before there was an Internet.

Subreddit of the Week: antiwork

Subreddit of the Week: antiwork

You may have seen a chart like the one on the right, which I took from Wikipedia’s page on workforce productivity. It shows labor productivity growth compared to wage growth since the end of the Second World War. What’s remarkable about it is how the two statistics track one another for a period of two decades or so, but then suddenly veer off, dramatically so for non-managerial workers. Workforce productivity starts growing much faster than nonsupervisory workforce compensation, as the latter curve flattens out.

What this means is that for a good couple of decades (the length of a generation), after 1948, as output per hour of work improved, so did the compensation for that work. The improvement in the value of labor was transferred to the workers themselves. But suddenly, in the early 1970s, gains in output were no longer matched by gains in wages. The improvement in the value of labor benefitted only those managing or employing the labor. This trend continues to this day, and is at the root of what is wrong with the economy, with its massive income and wealth inequality, and lack of economic opportunity for the working class.

There are actually a slew of economic indicators that shifted dramatically in the early 1970s, along with political and social indicators. They are all captured on a site here. This shift can be seen as the start of a new economic regime.

So what caused this shift to a new regime? Arguably, a shift in social priorities and the rise of a new generation into the workforce. In the early 1970s, that generation would have been the Baby Boomers. They brought a new inner-world, moralistic focus into American life. For Boomers, work was a personal mission, a matter of defining the self, not a matter of bargaining for rights and responsibilities as part of a collective.

Consequently, union membership declined as this generation entered the workforce, yet another indicator shift to join the ones on the site I linked above. Boomers were pursuing their own individual agendas through their work, not participating in building any kind of functioning system, as their union-joining forefathers had done. Boomers gave us the concept of the workaholic, someone for whom the work itself was the reward. Success in work became a status symbol for the inner-driven, wealth-obsessed yuppies of the 1980s – a sign of individual merit and self-worth.

By the time Generation X started working, labor rights had become completely passé. Gen Xers entered the workforce with an attitude of self-determination, as free agents, always looking out for the best deal for themselves. They gave us the concept of the perma-temp, the employee with no benefits or safety net, who drifts from employer to employer. As a Gen Xer might have put it, “it’s just a job.”

Gen Xers were the young adults of the boom times in the 1990s, when economic growth was high and productivity growth was on the rise. But in the new opportunistic economic regime, economic growth no longer acted as a rising tide to lift all boats. Instead, it was like a wave that some successfully rode, and others did not. Workers separated into economic winners and losers, with far more of the latter. Today, Gen Xers are middle aged, and one has become the richest person in the world. Many others have utterly washed out.

Now Millennials are the young adults in the workforce, doing much of the nonsupervisory production work which has experienced so little gain in compensation compared to the actual value it provides to employers. The “slackers” of Generation X, raised with low expectations, may have been willing to tolerate these circumstances. They may even, like Kevin in 1984’s Repo Man, have seen opportunity in them (see the video clip below). But not so Millennials.

Raised with high expectations, in a structured environment that rewarded following the rules, Millennials have not taken well to the free-for-all job market they have inherited from Boomers and Xers. Many Millennials have gone into massive debt for a college degree, only to discover that the jobs which a college degree opens up don’t pay well enough to justify the cost. Milestones of financial and personal success, such as buying a first home or starting a family, are elusively out of reach for Millennials, given the economic disparities that have grown over the course of the meritocratic, “neoliberal” regime established by Boomers and Xers.

Millennial disappointment with this state of affairs is visible in the many memes that fill social media feeds, comparing the economic circumstances of their generation with those of past generations and highlighting their disadvantages. Talk of “late stage capitalism” and enthusiasm for progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez point to disillusionment with the current economic system. Could Millennials even be willing to embrace – gasp! – socialism? Red zone pundits would certainly like you to think so.

This brings me to my subreddit of the week, /r/antiwork. This subreddit has taken off in 2021, in concert with all the news stories about the “Great Resignation” and the labor shortage.

On /r/antiwork, the workers of reddit unite to commiserate over the awful conditions and abuses suffered by workers today. They post about the absurdities of our system, like costly health insurance that provides almost no benefit, and low salaries for jobs with high education requirement. They proudly tell stories about how they quit their last position, and encourage and praise union efforts.

Do reddittors really think we can reach a state where no one needs to work? Or is this subreddit simply a forum for venting about the miseries of living on the flattened curve of low compensation employment, where so many are stuck today?

I think that what this subreddit is really bringing to light is the pent-up demand for significant structural economic reform. A new generation with new priorities is in the workforce, and a new regime is required to meet their needs for an economy that provides fair rewards for work, and fosters financial security and not merely the opportunity for personal achievement.

Unfortunately, the only policy the U.S. government can come up with is to borrow and spend to keep the economy hot. While that might relieve the pain for some in the short term, it’s doubtful it will change all those economic indicators for the better in the long term, or quiet the dissenting voices of /r/antiwork. For that, major economic reforms would be needed, to transfer the value of labor back to the workers themselves. Maybe then they won’t mind coming to work so much.

Young Gen Xers bullshitting about work in the mid-1980s.
Subreddit of the Week: insaneparents

Subreddit of the Week: insaneparents

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the movie The Shining.

You may have seen the meme that Independence Day 2021 was the 100th anniversary of a famous fictional event: the 1921 July 4th Ball pictured at the end of The Shining. The event is depicted in a photograph that mysteriously features a younger version of Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance. In celebration of this anniversary, our family decided to watch the movie on the night of July 4th, even though we’ve all seen it multiple times, it being an excellent and iconic example of the horror genre.

The highlights of the film are Nicholson’s creepy, expressive performance, and the tense, suspense-building score which is artfully synchronized to the action. The camera work is great, too, and the film shows how much emotion can be generated just from pacing and music, with slow buildups to cathartic release. The strings slowly rise, and then the axe suddenly falls, and the viewer’s heart skips a beat. But frankly, the film is a little light on story, of which there is much more in Stephen King’s book. The sequel movie from 2019, Dr. Sleep, drawing more story from the novel which it adapts, is a supernatural horror action adventure with a much richer plot.

In The Shining, Jack’s son Danny is played by Danny Lloyd, who does a decent enough job of portraying a harried Gen X kid dealing with less than ideal parenting, not to mention bizarre otherworldly events. Here’s the scene from the end of the film where he escapes his deranged father. Note his inventive survival skills. That really marks him as a Gen Xer.

When I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but imagine how it would look as a post on the subreddit /r/insaneparents. Something like, “when I was a kid, maybe about 10, my Dad chased me through a snow-covered hedge maze with an axe – he really wanted to kill me, I’m not joking – but through some misdirection and careful hiding I managed to escape him. Never saw him again after that, I actually think he might have died that night. Can’t say that I miss him, but I will say that the experience really made me who I am today…”

If you don’t know about this subreddit, it is basically a place where people go to share the bizarre and unwholesome parenting behavior they have experienced. I imagine that most of it is Millennials calling out their Boomer and Gen-X parents; one can never be sure since reddit is mostly people posting anonymously. It is possible that older posters are bringing up their long ago childhood experiences, or that Homelanders (the post-Millennials currently in their early teens) are already sharing their own victim of parenting horror stories.

I imagine that this is mostly a subreddit for Millennials not only because reddit itself was founded by Millennials, but also because Millennials are champions of Internet reviews. It all ties into Millennials’ collective peer personality, which seeks rational consensus on the best choice. Here’s a post on LinkedIn that shows what I mean. More and more, choice in the marketplace is driven by communal decision making, rather than personal preference.

As this generation has risen into adulthood, they have helped drive the proliferation of reviews on commercial web sites like Amazon and on web directories which also function as review sites, such as Yelp. As students in higher education, they have access to resources to rate and review their educators – why shouldn’t they know ahead of time if a professor’s class is worth taking, or be able to give their feedback after taking a class? In a way, the subreddit /r/insaneparents is just a site for reviews – albeit anonymous ones – of parents.

Parenting, I believe, is the hardest job in the world. Everyone is expected to do it, but the only training anyone gets is a bad example. Since not everyone makes the strongest parenting choices, you get a subreddit like /r/insaneparents. So parents out there, do try to raise your children well, or you just might end up getting a bad review on the Internet.