I was woefully informed several months ago that I’m considered the tail end of Generation X as a child of the late 70s. I never paid any mind to those types of generalist classifications but I will elaborate on why I do now see some significance. My so called generation has lived out it’s entire cultural life thus far in the shadow of the achievements (and failures) of the more numerous Baby Boomer generation. With every new Rollingstones tour, Beatles re-release and Patti Smith autobiography we are reminded of our own insignificance. The boomers have always been our idols at the expense of elevating those of our own age group.
In the 60s the boomers rebelled en masse against inequality and unjust war. The times fed the potency of their youths. This activism waned in the 70s and devolved into hedonism in the 80s where noble ideologies had been forgotten. The 90s were a sunny and benign time as my generation came of age with the boomers firmly in control of the establishment.
The events of 911 changed the trajectory of Generation X’s future. The potency of our youth was lost to the futility of the Bush years. Instead of galvanizing us to protest like the boomers had done we were infected by a great malaise. All we wanted was to experience success like the older generation yet boomer excess after excess has barred the way. Now in this economic crisis they have dug a hole and covered us in their dirt.
Ironically as I look to the younger generation I see bright lights (Zuckerberg and Mullenweg come to mind). Our baby siblings, the digital natives, are emerging from the muck and reclaiming the world. But what about us? We were the original pioneers of the Internet revolution yet were nearly irreparably scarred by the bust of 1999. We have done ok for ourselves in a satisfactory way navigating great obstacles, yet the exceptionalism we revere in the previous generation and now the younger class seems difficult to find in ours.
Caught at the Crossroads
‘Generation X’ is unique from the other two generations in at least one aspect. We grew up in a very similar cultural world to our parents, we can still ‘feel’ analog. Then we came of age as the digital world began transforming and taking over our lives. We were on the front lines.
As a reader of Alvin Toffler I’m inclined to see history in terms of ‘waves’. The first wave being the agricultural age, the second wave as the shorter industrial age and the third wave, a world where the premium is the inexhaustible energy source of knowledge (which sounds better than labeling it the digital age). A major theme in Toffler’s work is wave conflict, meaning the clashing of two different ages. He says the wave conflict we are living through right now is the painful transitioning between the industrial age (second wave) and the knowledge age (third wave).
So where does this leave GX? We have lived out our entire lives during the heated points of wave conflict. We were raised on the factory values of specialization, synchronization and even entitlement. This is the predictable world order of our parents. What the upcoming generation instinctively knows (despite the antiquated weening of the education system) and what the GX is learning the hard way is that many of the old ‘givens’ are obsolete. In the third wave everything is always changing so fast you should never get comfortable.
I often see in my generation complacency and resignation. What has eroded and probably for the better is a sense of entitlement. It has been hard for us and because of this we are well equipped to weather the depressed economy (we had already done it before). In this we may more closely resemble our granparents than our parents. ‘The Greatest Genaration’ who managed through the Depression in their youths picking up life long values of frugility and pragmatism. But what I also see in GX is a fatigue that threatens to be a roadblock to the exceptionalism we are capable of. Our masters were/are the boomers. If we don’t embrace the changing tide of rapid change and relish the acquisition of new knowledge our new masters will be a good deal younger than us.
I would like to think there is value in growing up in one age and becoming an adult in another. It remains to be seen if wave theory is just a taxonomic categorization or a more tangible changing of times. If it’s the latter perhaps we will have a unique and valuable perspective that will give us the competitive edge to belatedly make our own palpably relevant cultural fame.