Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Generation X

I've been reading Neil Howe and William Strauss' 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? "Thirteenth Generation" is what Howe and Strauss call what's more commonly known as Generation X. I wish their term had dominated because I've always felt like "Generation X" is a non-name, as if those of us born between 1961 and 1980 are so generic that we have no character to speak of. "Thirteenth Generation" has more style, but because "Generation X" is the term that has won out, I'll use it in this post.

13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? was published in 1993, when Generation X still occupied high schools and colleges, except for those of us born early in the cohort who were trying to figure out how to earn a living. I was 26 for most of 1993 and if I had come across this book then, I would have dismissed it as old people trying to tell me who I was. Reading it now I can see that Howe and Strauss were actually trying to be sympathetic to Generation X. They depict us as young people who have never really been given a chance, who were raised during a time when adults were "finding themselves," focusing on their inner growth, getting divorced in record numbers and not as focused on child-raising as past generations of parents had been. During our childhood, adults were experimenting with classroom format and curriculum changes, new ways of grading students and taking the focus off of traditional core subjects. Howe and Strauss describe our plight as not having been offered a traditional education and then being criticized for not knowing what we would have learned with a traditional education.

It's kind of sad reading the book now. I think Howe and Strauss got a lot of things right, one of which is that Generation X will never hold the cultural attention that the Baby Boom Generation got -- and is still getting (the Boomers were born between 1946 and 1960). One explanation I've seen for why Generation X doesn't have a lot written about us these days is that we're not at an interesting stage of life. This perplexes me because the Baby Boomers attract attention every time they enter a new decade. If the middle adulthood of Generation X isn't that interesting, am I supposed to believe that the middle adulthood of the Baby Boomers was? Am I the only one who saw and heard discussions of the Boomers turning 40, 50 and 60? Where was the cultural recognition of the first Generation X-ers turning 50? It came and went quietly.

Howe and Strauss also describe us as a kind of clean-up crew. As early as 1993 Howe and Strauss saw that the establishments and traditions that had been battered by the previous generations were now the inheritance of Generation X. Boomers and their predecessor generation -- the Silents -- had torn down old traditions, knocked down classroom walls and turned old definitions inside out. A lot of this was good. It was progress. But a lot of it also left things in tatters (such as the educational system).

Impressively, this book identified Generation X as the hapless generation made to clean up after the idealism and hubris of the Boomers, fifteen years before the housing bubble led us into the Great Recession. And this book came eight years before the Enron debacle showed us what a house of cards our energy system had become. Talk about Generation X being left holding the bag for the bright ideas of the Boomers. The election of Barack Obama (born in 1961) was the quintessential hand-off of a huge mess that had been created during the previous two presidencies of George W. Bush (born in 1946) and Bill Clinton (born in 1946).

One of my favorite points that Howe and Straus make is the phenomenon of the devil baby. These authors point out the slew of movies made between 1964 and 1984 that depicted babies and children as evil, destructive creatures. From Rosemary's Baby through The Exorcist to Children of the Corn, kids were seen as the enemy during Generation X's childhood as during no other. By 1986 Hollywood had done an about-face on child-raising with movies like Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. It's not that there haven't been any horror movies since then that have shown kids as scary, but the dominance of children as monsters is over.

The title of 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? uses the language of computers to reflect how Boomers and Silents have regarded Generation X. Apparently, after the invention of the birth control pill and better access to abortion services, we were the most avoided and aborted generation in history (ouch). In fact, reading this book and seeing how drastically attitudes towards babies and childbearing have changed over the past 50 years has convinced me that what access to abortion services we still have in 2014 will not last. Once the pendulum has finished swinging, the limited rights American women have over our bodies will disappear. I just hope I'm not still here to witness it.

There are many things about Strauss and Howe's book that don't work for me. It's not an annotated, sociological discussion, but reads like a book that was trying to be fun and controversial. The authors created a Generation X character called "crasher" who interjects his/her opinions periodically. The dialogue between crasher and the authors strikes me as strained and pandering and makes me wonder why the two Boomers who wrote this book tried to mimic the voice of Generation X. I find those passages distracting and they don't add much to my experience of the book.

I haven't quite finished it yet and am wondering if I should. It's discouraging. To counter the gloom that came over me as I read it, I googled things that have been written about Generation X recently. There isn't a whole lot, but one study that I found says that Generation X has grown into an optimistic bunch who are devoted to our children, highly value marriage and family and see a bright future for ourselves. I don't know those people, but it was uplifting to read that Generation X hasn't gone from being a surly bunch of teenage cynics to a surly bunch of middle aged cynics. At least, not all of us.

Now the Millennials take up large amounts of cultural attention and will continue to do so in at least the amounts that the Boomers did/still do. To be part of Generation X is to be in the background, trying to get things back on track while the generations that sandwich us talk to interviewers. Will we get another Generation X president before the Millennials take over the American political arena from the Boomers? Who knows? Howe and Strauss' groundbreaking book Generations: The History of American's Future, determined that generations alternate between being dominant and non-dominant. Generation X just isn't a dominant generation. I hope I don't seem too much like a Generation X-er when I write that there's nothing that can be done about this. It just is.

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