(Mis)-Understanding Generation X
I wanted to respond – in part – to this intriguing piece in the Washington Post on the much-derided “Generation X.” I am one of them, after all. In fact, as a 37-year old born in 1973 I am right in the middle of the GenXers and I’ve experienced and felt most of what our generation is known for: the cynicism, the pessimism, the penchant for ironic detachment, and the iconoclasm. But reading through the WaPo analysis reminds me that Generation X actually needs to be further divided into late and early GenXers. Those born between 1964 and 1972 are early GenXers; those between 1973 and 1982 are late GenXers.
My age cohort is right in the middle. And I distinctly remember a cultural shift when I came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
For one thing, older GenXers are quite conservative. They came of age in the late Carter and early-to-mid Reagan years. They were mostly cynical about 1960s idealism, and vowed to correct the excesses of crime, sexuality and drug abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. They were at least somewhat responsive to Nancy Reagan’s “War on Drugs” message. Their humor was defined by anti-PC cynics like Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern. Even early Rush Limbaugh (before he became the de facto leader of the GOP) had appeal to them for poking holes in the liberal cultural and intellectual establishment. Their musical tastes were defined by 1980s-era synth-pop that accepted the post-Civil Rights era melding of de-politicized black funk and white post-punk rock. Even the hit movies of the era – the John Hughes classics – reaffirmed the increasingly materialist basis of 1980s suburbia while poking fun at its excesses.
But that era began to change in the late 1980s on many levels. First, the shockingly peaceful end to the Cold War – Mikhail Gorbachev was the prime symbol of the Soviet Bloc for late GenXers – meant that there was little need to justify the dirty excesses of Cold War policy in Latin America and elsewhere. Even the made-for-TV Persian Gulf War of 1991 seemed to signal a new era of global partnership – a “New World Order” as the first Bush put it.
In the world of music, the alternative sounds of the Replacements, X, the Athens, GA bands like REM and B-52s, and the codification of “Classic Rock” radio from 1968-1972 as the Golden Age of music suggested that the synth-pop days of the mid-1980s were as dead as disco was to the older GenXers after 1979. When Seattle grunge hit it big in the early 1990s it signaled the rejection of all things 1980s. No more slickness. No more fake drums and Debbie Gibson garbage pop (though newer versions of it like New Kids on the Block popped up long enough to be annoying).
This was all WITHIN Generation X.
What’s more the younger GenXers were the ones who moved back to the great American cities in droves after we finished college. Who do you think gentrified New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC and other cities in the mid-1990s? It was the younger GenXers. Of the three most popular TV shows among the younger GenXers – Friends, Seinfeld and the Simpsons – the first two openly celebrated the reinvigorated Big Cities that the older GenXers once derided as cesspools of crack and big government liberalism. Crime was dropping precipitously in the mid-to-late 1990s, which only accelerated the new urban chic of the late GenX crowd.
But what really defined us was our cynicism toward the conservative social crusades of the 1980s. We were the first to find the Christian Right and the Big Government conservatives like William Bennett to be a far greater threat to liberty than liberal social welfare programs that irked the older GenXers. It was our cohort that mocked the War on Drugs for failing to differentiate between the very real crack cocaine epidemic ravaging our cities from the mostly harmless soft drugs like marijuana that the Drug Warriors presented to us like Reefer Madness of old.
Another social difference between early and late GenXers was the 21-year old drinking age. It was in 1984 that the so-called “10th Amendment President” Ronald Reagan signed a Federal law forcing states to raise their drinking ages (if they still wanted Federal highway funding). We all knew older brothers and sisters who could drink legally at 18. It was patently unfair to punish us because some idiots drove drunk.
And so we became a (mini)-generation of outlaws. We viewed the new Drug Warrior (and anti-drinking) state as the real Leviathan. We weren’t anarchistic hippies looking to create some bizarre utopia based on sex, drugs and rock and roll. But we were being infantilized as such, which only made us resent cultural conservatives more.
Late GenXers paved the way for a far more liberal Generation Y, which is known for its idealism and civic participation. While late GenXers still reacted with cynical detachment – Bart Simpson was our hero – we at least positioned our cynicism toward the conservative Republican establishment as much as we found annoying the aging Boomer self-righteousness.
It should be obvious by now that though I was born in 1973 I firmly identify with the younger GenXers more than the older cohort. I laugh at my early 40-something friends who still speak of American cities as dens of crack cocaine and imagine that welfare reform was never actually passed. They weren’t necessarily reactionary – in many ways they legitimized most of the post-1960s cultural order even as they worked to restrain it. But they were far more conservative than the Boomers before them or the late GenXers and Generation Y that came afterward.
I like to think of the early 1990s as the moment when this shift really occurred. For a younger generation coming of age in 1992, the Republican National Convention that year really looked like a terrifying blast from a dystopian past. My own political outlook – and that of many others my age – was cemented in reaction to the ridiculous culture wars of George H. W. Bush (which were MUCH harsher than the younger Bush).
Perhaps we were the first generation to be liberated FROM the 1960s. That is, we weren’t obsessed with it – either as a positive that many Boomers celebrated or a negative that Silenters and their early GenX offspring derided. We simply gazed back at it as an interesting moment that both liberated society from some genuine social evils, but also as one that yielded a lot of social decay. It was neither good nor evil. It just was.
As the GenXers move into positions of political, economic and cultural leadership in the coming years it’s important to keep in mind that we are really of two minds. And much of it hinges on exactly WHEN we came of age. The Reagan and Clinton years were both defined in large part by material prosperity. But the two halves of Generation X understood those years very differently. And the current Millennial Generation (or Generation Y), so defined by support for Barack Obama in 2008 (and, to a large extent, still so today) has come of age in a cultural world made largely by the second half of Generation X in the early 1990s.