For a while now–maybe forever–it’s been popular in marketing circles to talk about generational differences and how they affect people’s behavior. Baby Boomers are self-involved and idealistic and competitive. They’re goal-oriented workaholics. Gen-Xers are individualistic and flexible and value what, in corporatespeak, we call “work-life balance” (as if work were not part of life). Gen-Yers crave attention and care more about their friends and family than about work.
Is it just me, or do these simple generational bromides seem a lot like horoscopes? I know lots of lazy, non-competitive Baby Boomers. I know lots of recalcitrant, narcissistic Gen-Xers. Show me a devil-may-care Gen-Yer, and I’ll show you two who are motivated and focused and really into their jobs.
In an absorbing segment on the always-wonderful Slate Culture Gabfest–seriously, you need to be listening to this–Carl Wilson admits that the whole idea of generations may be suspect; there’s too much overlap, too many arbitrary dividing lines. Wilson also wrote a provocative piece in New York Times Sunday Magazine about Generation X’s aversion to nostalgia, especially in light of the upcoming twenty-year anniversary of Nevermind, the album that launched a thousand flannel-infused, loud-quiet-loud choruses.
Wilson starts the Gabfest interview by noting that his observations about Generation X apply, in some part, to the people who came just before: the tail-end of the Baby Boom Generation. (Wilson astutely measures the period he’s describing as “the punk-rock era to the culmination of the punk rock era, with the grunge breakthrough.) The people who came of age during this time lived, to paraphrase, in a shadow cast by Baby Boomers who had (and have) a seemingly unquenchable thirst for celebrations of their own past; witness the endless TV-fascination with Woodstock and the Beatles and the Vietnam War even today. As a result of nostalgia overexposure, Gen-Xers became allergic–so much so that they often failed to adequately document their own pop culture moment in the sun.
We Tail-Enders were teens in the ’70s and young adults in the ’80s. We were bombarded by nostalgia, too–starting with our Silent Generation parents’ nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the ’50s. American Graffiti was released in 1973 (directed by George Lucas who, being born in 1944, was a Silent.) Happy Days, created by 1933 Silencer Garry Marshall, hit our TV screens in 1974. The ’50s were huge in the ’70s.
But we weren’t comfortable living in the past, either. The promises of our parents’ generation–flying cars and no-wax floors, TV dinners and spandex jackets for everyone–proved ultimately to be unsatisfying or untrue. Everything was trivial in light of the horrorshow that was Vietnam.
Our older brother and sister Baby Boomers may have been too wise to ever buy into that mess. They promised us something different: a future of free love, mind-expanding drugs, groovy music. That future didn’t last long, either. By the time we came of age, the communes were shuttered and the groovy musicians were drug victims.
And what did we turn to on the music front? Punk. Or disco. Either choice was essentially nihilistic: you could either slam dance and stick safety pins through your cheeks or boogie till the break of dawn and blow your future up your nose.
Wilson also mentions the poor economy of the early ’90s, and the dim future facing Generation X as they entered the workforce. Those tattered plaid shirts, he implies, were not just a fashion statement. We, too, graduated into the economic turmoil of energy crisis, stagflation, and a high Misery Index that fueled the Reagan Revolution of 1980.
And–ironically–we Tail-Enders were also pretty poor correspondents. Inspired by Watergate, record numbers of us saw journalism as a path for making a difference and saving the world. But most of us never worked as reporters; there weren’t enough jobs. And our own distaste for nostalgia has forestalled any grand celebrations of our formative years. The disco or punk equivalent of Woodstock worship simply doesn’t exist.
It’s another thing we have in common with Generation X. Many Tail-Enders continued to explore new music and embrace new technologies in a way our older brothers and sisters never did. We didn’t stay mired in what today is called “classic rock.” We graduated from punk to new wave. We loved grunge and indie rock. I still spend plenty of my disposable income on music, almost all of it released this year. (Thanks, Luna.)
All of this is to say that we’re watching, too. Maybe if our Gen X friends figure out how to celebrate their past without devolving into cheese, we’ll find a way to do it ourselves. Maybe there’s a future for disco documentaries and Richard Hell and the Voidoids Rock Band. (And maybe we should call ourselves the Blank Generation.) And maybe–
Oh, well. Whatever. Nevermind.