Okay, just so you know, this post is not about AC/DC. Though it should be; they might be the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Nonetheless, alternative matters are pressing.
Retrobacktive serves to chronicle anecdotal components inherent to the decade; small milestones that accumulate to a grander legacy than the sum of a generation’s parts. But what, or who, exactly is that generation? When does one generation end and another begin? And what does it mean when it all comes together? Retrobacktive dives into a little self-examination.
What It Means To Be Generation X
Literally it means anyone born between 1961 and 1981. Though that’s only one study’s suggested age range. There are hundreds of them by different historians, demographers, and journalists and no one can agree on exact dates, but generally early 60s to early 80s.
Figuratively it gets even more complicated.
Four years ago the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth released a report based on annual surveys that described Gen Xers as happy and balanced, with strong educational backgrounds and active lifestyles.
This hardly echoed the general sentiment of a generation raised in Reagonomics and the first Bush patriarchy, which at the time represented the epitome of disenfranchisement. Perhaps it was the threat of nuclear annihilation. Perhaps it was being two generations removed from The Greatest Generation, a culture so steeped in heroism they named it The Greatest Generation. Yes, they earned it, but you’ll forgive the rest of us if it doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of room left for self-aggrandizement.
It’s true. In the 80s there was threat of war, but no real war – and it was really more a threat of nuclear holocaust which isn’t the kind of conflict that lends itself well to heroics. The Baby Boomers had Vietnam. Generation X is one of the few generations that can’t define itself by a war (Desert Storm? The Gettysburg movie had a longer running time than Desert Storm).
Okay, so there was no war. That ought to be a good thing. Who cares about the Russkies? They are literally on the other side of the world. And if the world is going to end, might as well enjoy life to the fullest, right? After all, the Baby Boomers withstood mounting global tension and were still able to embrace a level of decadence seldom seen since Sodom & Gomorrah.
Turns out they might have embraced things a little too much. Generation X arrived in the 80s to face a battlefront with a new enemy called AIDS. While understanding of AIDS may be taken for granted now, 25 years ago it was still somewhat shrouded in mystery, grossly misinterpreted by the public, and much swifter in its shocking mortality. Quick deduction showed the two most common forms of transmission were sex and intravenous drug use. So fun, basically. Fun could kill you in the 80s.
A recession in the early half of the decade, growing incidents of global terrorism, rising crime rates – all readily available for viewership thanks to continued advances in consumer technology; there was plenty of reason to be disenfranchised. Or at least to appear that way. An overarching sense of discordance permeated the youthful fabric of society in the late 80s and early 90s. No one ought to deny that. But Generation X was not a spiritless monolith mired in defeat. It was a victim of circumstance that needed a creative outlet.
Perception is Reality
What would you think if you survived the worst economic depression in American history, the most violent war in world history, then found your grandchildren despondent over a lack of enticing video games? At best you probably would have at least a couple moments of questioning some life decisions. You can’t really blame earlier generations for looking down upon those that follow. The human condition is adroit at fixating perceived notions upon others. And to The Greatest Generation and the Boomers, Gen X was the other. It was lazy, impatient, and irresponsible. Of course if you ask a Gen Xer if any of those terms are self-applicable, you probably won’t get an enthusiastic response. Ask the same Gen Xer to trade spots with a Millenial and you’ll likely get just as listless a reaction. “Millenials? They don’t know how good they have it (grumbles something under breath)!”
Defining a generation boils down to two problems: One, it’s defined by the preceding generation; two, that generation always forgets about a thing called evolution.
The whole point of human suffering is to evolve and improve upon existence by providing a better world for future generations. So why are past generations so quick to judge the next? Maybe it’s a fear of growing obsolete. Whoever said “youth is wasted on the young” was probably no spring chicken. Vitriol can buy you a lot of emotional assurance. Despite the flagrant hypocrisy it is a time-honored event to be looked down upon by your elder statesmen. Generation X had the misfortune of following a particularly brash generation; the Boomers are alternatively known as the Me Generation. So the odds were never in Xers’ favor.
Where Do We Go Now?
Gen X found a way to respond. Grunge rock gave an ironic limp middle finger to the establishment that said “you think we’re indifferent…and we don’t care enough to fight you.” Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith made hit movies that aptly captured trademark Gen X nihilism, but they did it with tongue firmly in cheek.
But the highlight of Generation X is without a doubt the technology. It wasn’t just the devotion to new fields formerly the exclusive arena of “eggheads” and “college boys.” It was that the stuff all worked! Who doesn’t have a cell phone today? Who doesn’t use the Internet? Who doesn’t listen to music on an MP3 player? Turns out Generation X was good for something more than sitting around watching MTV.
And another interesting thing the Longitudinal Study found was Gen X’s focus on family. Apparently at some point the disenfranchised youth got enfranchised and decided to create junior ambivalent assholes. Some of these people are called Millenials; others are going to fall into a yet unnamed generation under the working title Generation Z. Whoever they become they’ll inherent a world likely easier but far scarier than any before. That’s progress’s perennial catch, the stake’s always get higher. Yes, the human race moves forward but with every step we widen the margin for error. Sadly the Millenial Generation is a reminder of that having returned to form the distinction of owning not one but two major armed conflicts. Yet hidden at the bottom of Pandora’s Box lies hope, and it seems to be the light every generation crawls to. If there’s one thing that binds all cohorts together it’s the drive to surpass the last generation and improve the next. Reality is we’re all parents whether we like it or not.
So maybe we should just call everyone the Human Generation.
The Human Generation: a Generation of People.