Friday, January 29, 2016

CultureWatch: GenX, History's Latchkey Kids



So, a developing theme out there in the culture is this Baby Boomers vs. Millennials war. You've probably seen it floating around. It's the kind of thing journalists love to write about and more importantly, try to referee. Pretending they can arbitrate this new generation gap makes journalists feel important. Not much else does these days.

This apparent struggle has emerged as an issue in the workplace, with Boomer management expressing their frustration with Millennial work habits. Millennials in turn have shot back arguing that it was a lot easier to find and keep a job when the Boomers were coming up (in other words, before Globalism began systematically dismantling the middle class) and that life was easier and cheaper back then.  

Indeed, in the fictitious media construct known as the post-Recession recovery, the Baby Boomers were said to have "won" the great struggle in the job market, continuing to hold a larger proportion of plum gigs than their children. I'm not sure how this excuses some of the work habits- or the overall lack of preparation- managers complain about, but hey, it's not my fight.

Some in the media have tried to smooth over the conflict, assuring the two opposing generations that they're more alike than they think, with their idealism and all the rest of it. One study even highlights the two cohorts with the title, Two Special Generations: The Millennials and the Boomers.

As in "Hey everyone, don't fight. You're all in this together. You're all, you're all…special!"


And who gets left out of this equation- again? The not-so-special generation. History's latchkey kids, those born between 1965 and 1984, Generation X.

You know, the ones who had to fend for themselves while their parents were off finding themselves. The generation who were raised on TV dinners while their parents were off at TM class. The latchkey kids left at home while their parents went to key parties. 

The generation that grew up knowing all too well how much better it was for their parents and older siblings.

But it was also the generation that- for ever-so-brief a time- were at the cutting edge of technology and culture. If Generation X had a theme it was chafing at the arbitrary restrictions it saw in not only culture and business but the business of culture and the culture of business. So many of the innovations made in the workplace- that Millennials have come to expect- were put into place by Xers, who in turn were following maverick Boomers.

It was Generation X that embraced the Internet and became its first great wave of both users and entrepreneurs ( I mean, blogging?). So much is said now about video games and the power of the industry but it was Generation X that embraced the medium and became its pioneering engineers and programmers. Having seen the Oculus Rift webinar I can safely say that I didn't see anything shockingly unlike what I'd seen in gaming 20 years ago. Maybe more bells and whistles but the same basic chassis.

It was Generation X that got fed up with the music industry monopoly and built its own scenes- punk, metal, hip hop, jam bands, rave- often dealing with a lot of legal and criminal hassles to do so. The window would be open only a frightfully short time, but long enough to break down a lot of old ways of doing business.

Of course, no one realized that the music business itself was going to be written off as an expendable asset for the mass marketing of cellphones and other consumer electronics- a loss leader, if you will. Least of all, the Xers who thought they could carve out niches for themselves as independent musicians.*

But at the same time there's also a whole range of viable alternatives to corporate pabulum for listeners, and that came in large part out of the independent spirit of the 80s and 90s.


Generation X would make its mark on cinema with the Independent boom in the 1990s, and it would do so not by embracing high art but by reframing the junk culture that babysat it in its latchkey days; X auteurs would use pulp and teen trash as their medium, and in irony of ironies, be embraced by the same kinds of critics who wouldn't give the source material these filmmakers grew up on the time of day.

Which leads me to comics and superheroes. Everything we're seeing now, all the big hit movies and TV shows, owe all their success to the material that Generation X embraced and/or created in the 80s and 90s. There hasn't been anything truly original done of any real thematic significance since that incredibly fertile period. 

All the storytelling conventions we're seeing now were established then. Not during the so-called Silver or Bronze Age and not in the past 20 years either.

And that was also a period when you saw a lot of self-publishing, a lot of self-starting on the retail end. But it would be- and to a shocking extent it remains- Generation X who embraced and supported and militated for that work. Many of them would go on to work in the film and TV industry and fight to get this kind of work on the screen.

I could go on, I mean there's a lot more besides, but you get the picture.

So why do the media care so little about Generation X? Why does all of this seem to be forgotten all of a sudden? Most of what we see are pity stories, despite the fact that many of these writers are themselves Xers. 

Well, maybe it's because of that independent streak, that rebellious nature that formed the Xer stereotype. While you can't generalize about 60+ million people, Generation Xers do tend to be more skeptical of government and authority than Boomers and most certainly more so than the Millennials. 

That tendency towards autonomy is not something that people in power much care for; look no further than the small business tax codes. Hell, look at everything everywhere these days. Autonomy and independent thinking don't seem to be on the menu, do they?

Millennials can't be stereotyped either, but we are seeing many of them embrace all kinds of trends and technologies that are inhibiting personal freedom, individuality, independent thinking and maybe worst of all, complexity. Maybe some of these Millennials-- a vanguard, if you will-- would argue that these are necessary sacrifices, that it's all leading to a more fair and just society. 

To which I'd argue to them, are you sure about that? I mean are you certain?

It's a hell of a thing to be wrong about. Have there ever been any examples were people are lured into giving something- or perhaps, everything- up in exchange for some promised better thing that in fact never actually arrives or comes true?

Or in fact what arrives is actually the opposite of what was expected or promised? Seems to me history may have a few examples of this. Quite a few, if I'm not mistaken.**

Something to ponder.

I'll end this by advising everyone to not count Generation X out yet. You're talking a cohort that grew up with diminished expectations already and has already dealt with two major economic downturns in the adult lives of its senior members. And a cohort whose vanguard made their mark by rewriting the plans laid out for them to their own liking, or at least tried. It may still have a few tricks left up its collective sleeve.



UPDATE: This is interesting.

In this light, it strikes me following in the wake of David Bowie's death how Boomers made him a star but in fact it was Xers who made him a superstar. Bowie would shift his alliance from the Boomers he came up to the Xers who adopted him as their own- a move personified in the tour he did with Nine Inch Nails in 1995 and would later concretize with BowieNet, his dotcom boom-era online service.

**  In fact, Generation X was out in front with the whole campus identity politics movement 25 years or so ago only to find themselves on the wrong end of a major backlash. Already we're seeing history repeat, only there won't be a booming job market to escape into when the reaction sets in. It seriously frightens me to consider what could happen in this dangerously polarized country in the event of a major economic downdraft.

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