Gen X or Gen Why?
I wasn't going to say anything, but then The New York Times had to go and print an article about Paul Ryan's nomination for Vice President being a wake-up call for "Generation X." He was born in 1970, so we're in the same age bracket, as are Julian Castro (37) and Marc Rubio (41).
For the past few years, I've been mulling over the whole Gen X thing and, truth be told, I've never felt comfortable with the label. I read Douglas Coupland's novel (which lent its name to a generation) in the early 1990s. To be honest, it wasn't really my thing. In the background, MTV was trying hard to brand the lifestyle of ironic/sardonic hipster slackers who looked like Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder, and listened to "grunge." My reality was very different. I was a student, interested in the state of the world, and tuned in to dance music's message of hope.
It frequently occurs to me that my generation has never been accurately represented in the mainstream media. The Gen X tag just didn't fit me or my friends; it spoke to an older generation born in the 60s. I was born in 1973, during a recession that ended the excess of the previous decade. OPEC flexed its muscle and cut off easy access to oil, and around the same time the Dollar went off the gold standard. By all accounts, the 70s were a decade of widespread malaise in the western world. As for us kids, we were all, without exception, the products of divorces and broken homes. The recession didn't do us any favors.
We were the children of punk, not the offspring of the hippie movement. Our memories begin in the second half of the 1970s when there was "no future." Instead, we grew up in a time of economic turmoil, energy crisis, geopolitical turbulence, the death of Elvis and the Beatles. Then the 80s arrived: just when we were entering puberty, we were hit with the AIDS epidemic. Talk about bad timing! This was the era when Baby Boomers swung the needle on their vices: chastity was now "in," the war on drugs was "on," and abandon was "out." In the meantime, the Cold War was still a threat, never seen but always felt. The world was paranoid and it felt primed to explode.
More than anything, my generation questioned the old order. We were fed a steady diet of propaganda through our schools, our parents and our TV sets, but we knew no one actually believed in it. Everything was said with a nod or a wink. Even as kids, we knew there was no certainty in this world. College would not guarantee a lifetime of comfort. Jobs might not materialize. Just surviving to fight another day was an achievement. As a result, the hallmarks of my generation are: a healthy questioning of authority; knowing what to take seriously; and, being able to laugh about the rest.
We knew we would live to see another day. We would find some of the answers. That's what next generations do. So, we listened to our parents and went to school, then to college and eventually ended up in jobs where we knew we could make a difference. I don't really know any slackers who are my age, and I've been around the block. The slackers I know are either older or younger than me. The people my age have jobs and kids, and are still searching for meaning in their lives.
Our whole outlook on life as a wonderful jigsaw puzzle to be solved has affected all areas of our existence. Some of the most rewarding jobs these days were but a distant dream when we were kids. Design, innovation, creativity, flexibility, and evolution are words that now grace the covers of serious business magazines. They used to apply to niche markets, when technology was strictly for engineers. We've undergone a revolution of the mind and a redefining of what's possible. Some of this is a direct result of our ability to adapt to disruption.
This brings me back to my earlier point: we are the children of the punk movement. What is punk, if not an exercise in disruption and deconstruction? While many of my friends may not think of themselves as the progeny of this particular art form and might even recoil at the idea, they have unwittingly been influenced by punk in its various guises, from "grunge" to "social" media to "hacking." True to form, we are angry and sometimes unreasonable, but we are committed. An overused Margaret Meade quote springs to mind here, but applies to a whole generation: "Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
We are realists who know there are no easy fixes. As I look around at my friends, I realize that our biggest achievement is keeping our heads up and moving things forward for the next generation. Whether we do this by raising our children and/or by finding greater meaning in our lives, we have all pitched in and are doing our part. We may not be "the greatest generation," but for now we're willing to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of the world. Hopefully our kids will inherit the world in better shape than when we did.
As for Ryan's nomination being a wake-up call for my generation: we've been awake the whole time.