The first post in this series is here.
I called the editor of a national college magazine I was writing for at the time and said I wanted to interview the authors of Generations and 13th Gen. It was 1994, three years after the watershed year when Coupland, Linklater and others kicked off what was fast becoming Gen X’s dubious legacy. I eventually managed to get an interview with author William Strauss, one of the few public supporters Gen X could boast.
Strauss said a couple of things to me in the interview that really resonated and helped ferret out facts from a landfill of pop media garbage. The first was that Gen X was the most pragmatic of the generations. We gravitated toward what works. Spiritualism and the New Age were fine for mystified enthusiasts, but not for rabidly skeptical pragmatists. Theory was great, but application was vital. Don’t distract me with bunnies in the clouds when there are problems to solve. And the old time religion—we’ll test its medal with a ball-peen hammer and see if it’s still standing when we’re done.
The other thing Strauss said was that Gen X was a reactive generation, and as such it was destined to draw fire from every generation preceding with members still breathing. He sketched a few historical lines to show that all of the reactive generations found themselves in tension with their predecessors. The generation before a reactive generation experienced a “spiritual awakening,” and the reactive generation was determined to challenge it at its foundation.
“Did you ever notice,” he asked me, “how many devil-child movies came out when you were a kid? Rosemary’s Baby. The Omen. The Exorcist. Carrie. Halloween. Those were responses to your generation being born.” The end of innocence. The spiritual awakening finished. Long before anything pop media threw at us as teens, we’d already been tagged as suspicious in diapers.
No surprise that as young adults we became reactive–but what exactly were we reacting against? Ideals that failed? Yes. Promises that couldn’t be kept? Sure. Hypocrisy? Definitely. But most of all we were reacting against self-serving delusion.
After WWII, the country was caught up in a flurry of growth, prosperity and baby making. Then came the Korean War euphemized as a “conflict”; civil rights riots that burned our cities; Great Society programs that shifted debt to future shoulders; and the ultimate anti-delusion, Vietnam. Many of us were born while our parents were watching gory scenes from the war on TV every night. But it wasn’t being born into war that dogged us as much as it was being born into the rude awakening from a two-decade’s long dream of a new America.
Turns out, the new America wasn’t any less overwhelmed with problems than the old America, and Gen X was the generation born into that realization. It would, of course, take the next 15 to 20 years for the realization to emerge in our psyches, just about the time when many of us were in college or getting ready to graduate.
By then, the view outside was bleak. The late 80s and early 90s were a bad time to leave the relatively stable confines of campus. Law schools and MBA programs became bloated with applications, particularly from those of us with liberal arts degrees seeking refuge. In school, we were taken with the world of ideas–not for pure theory’s sake, but because we wanted to apply knowledge to real problems. What pissed many of us off was finding out that most people didn’t really give a shit.
At the same time, those of us who did find employment were stomaching epic levels of flack from our Boomer bosses who seemed convinced that we just didn’t want to work. What they really meant is that we weren’t like them and they couldn’t understand why. To them, we were apathetic whiners who couldn’t hack it in the real world. Pity they had to suffer such insolence.
I’m not sure how often they realized that the feeling was acutely mutual. Ask most Gen Xers at that time what they thought about the Boomers and you’d likely get a two-word answer: sell outs. To us, the generation that supposedly changed the world seemed mighty content occupying high-salaried positions in corporations they once criticized as flaccid and corrupt. We wanted to remind them that they’d benefited from an enormous post-war boost, and that their success wasn’t achieved in a vacuum. Their short memories made critiquing the upstart underlings convenient, but the truth of the matter wasn’t lost on us.
Gen Xers looked skeptically upon the Boomers’ penchant for the big sell and thought, “This is what became of the revolution?” If so, who needs it? And collectively, as if a memo went out to millions of people, we shrugged and said, “To hell with it. We’ll figure out our own way and succeed or fail on our own terms.”
And we did. We started businesses, we pioneered non-profits, we moved to the heart of America’s cities and found niches to fill. The Web age was dawning and many of us found our element online. We worked on the first online newspapers, happy to sit in a newsroom all night loading AP wire feeds just to be a part of the action. We worked days and nights pursuing one, two, three start-up projects at a time. The conventions of the workplace didn’t apply—we were fueled by motivations too big for office cube walls. And those of us who were in office cubes often had something going on the side that stoked our passion and made the stale routine of the workplace more bearable.
I’m sure we failed at least as much as we succeeded, probably far more, but the ratio wasn’t important. Doing it was important. Staking our claim was important. Forging a character unique to our prematurely judged generation was important.
All of this was materializing as the country became embroiled in a war for oil. The political climate was growing more contentious. An unsustainable technology bubble was within a few years of bursting and taking a good part of the economy with it. AIDS was picking off twentysomethings with abandon. Life wasn’t becoming less complicated—it was growing more so.
A few concluding thoughts on this in the next and final post in this series.