March 10, 2010

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 1:56 pm by chavisory

So until I read this column yesterday in Newsweek, I actually didn’t even know what my generation was supposed to be called.  I do remember when we were supposed to be Generation Y, but for what I think are obvious reasons, it didn’t really stick with us.  It didn’t mean anything we could connect to; all it said was that we had no better identity than whatever came after Generation X.  A couple times I saw it represented as Generation Why, which I did like a lot, but it never caught on.  Having never felt particularly connected or included or identified with people my own age anyway, I quit thinking about it eventually.  I could never look at other people of my own generation and see myself, my concerns, my joys, reflected.  (Reviving Ophelia was published when I was a teenager, and I read it but it meant nothing to me.  Those girls didn’t have anything to do with me.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have problems, but mine seemed completely lost on the supposed experts.  It was like reading a very interesting treatise on a completely alien species.)  At this point, we seem to have a spirit of nostalgia for all the same childhood TV shows, movies, toys, and school experiences, but beyond that, it’s hard to see that we have a particularly coherent value system or collective unconscious.

Or is it maybe just a retrospective illusion that any American generation has had that much cohesion?

But evidently the name that’s settled on us now is “the millennials.”  It still doesn’t have much ring for me, but I guess it’s better than Generation Y.

Samuelson explores here the ways in which the idea of a “generation gap” or that of distinct generations with beliefs and perceptions unique to their experiences is, and isn’t, useful for tracing political and cultural change, and the ways in which ours, and our relationship with our government, could be adversely affected by this economic downturn far into the future.

Here’s the thing about generations, though: they never get to name or define themselves.  Their title and the supposed dominant cultural gestalt is largely determined by the generations who write history later.  Ours, the “millennials,” seems fairly unique in that there’s been so much presumption and supposition about what our generation means, what we’re like, ever since we were small children, by our elders, rather than in retrospect.  And it feels unfair, to have the objects of so much anxiety for the entirety of the time we were growing up.

I think we might just be the most prematurely judged generation in American history, and that we may suffer uniquely, especially in the aftermath of the current recession, for the misjudgment and misperception of our elders.

{To Be Continued}


  1. katie s. said,

    it’s weird the difference a few years will make. supposedly Gen X runs through 1980 – some will say that the election of Ronald Regan is the real cut off, that it marks a specific cultural shift that is telling.

    anyway. it is peculiar to me that difference a few years can make. i can definitely see a divide between myself and people just a year or two younger. i was just old enough to get in to see a lot of seminal bands that were important to people of the gen x cohort, i’m just old enough to remember a good chunk of my youth without a computer or the internet, just old enough to have real memories of iran contra on tv or the challenger disaster etc.

  2. brandy said,

    Yeah, we’re at an odd between-generations spot. The last year or two of Gen X – I definitely identify with Gen X more than Millennials, but at the same time the vast majority of Gen Xers are in a totally different place in life than I am. Heck, depending on when you say it started (I’ve heard pretty much every year from 1960-1965), my mom and I are both Gen Xers (she was born in 1962). And that does not feel right. But I also think that I have more claim to it than she does – she was not a teenager when Nirvana and My So Called Life were cultural touchstones.

    So I’ve always been a little uneasy with generational divides – I do identify as Gen X, but it’s a little weird to be a 30-year-old Xer instead of 40+, just like it was a little weird to be in high school instead of just-post-college when Reality Bites came out.

  3. Allison M. said,

    I was talking about generational cutoffs with someone several weeks ago. We’re right on the cusp.
    Some say we’re the tail end of Gen. X while others group us into Gen. Y/Millenials.
    I personally identify more with Gen. X, but I don’t have the same experiences. If I talk to someone only two to three years younger than me, I find there are minute differences that are present. . .but they aren’t minute enough to not matter. For example, after I had Burke, I took some time away from school before going back. Once I was back, kids where about two to four years younger than I was. One discussion I remember vividly is where we were/what we were doing on Sept. 11. I was in bed. It had been a long night. My son was only nine days old. Another girl mentioned she was in high school. What? That seemed so foreign to me, even though I was only a couple years removed.
    All my own childhood TV shows are ones that are usually liked by people born in the late 70s (I guess my house was a time warp growing up). All my memories from childhood are detailed; that’s one large difference between my husband and I is that I remember so much while he remembers very prior to the age of 12.
    I always felt like I was on a different plane then everyone else. Not one that is better, or ‘higher’ or anything like that. I seemed to just be different. My worries were different, my interests were as well; maybe that’s why I’ve always had such a difficult time making friends or maintaining friendships. You’re not alone in feeling that way. If I ever seemed ‘normal’ to you, like the rest of the people we went to high school with–it’s because I was faking it. I wanted nothing more than to fit in and would try to no matter how much it meant that I had to deny being true to myself.

  4. chavisory said,

    Allison–Heh, yeah, you did seem “normal” to me…in a good way. It’s sort of amazing what you never realize about people; I never would’ve guessed you felt that way. As for me, it’s not that I didn’t want to fit in–I did, more than anything. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure it out, and I gave up by about 7th grade. What I’d really like to see is people of our generation teach our children to be unapologetic about who they really are.

    I’ve had some funny generation-gap experiences with people only a few years younger than me, and some extremely frustrating. One, I was telling a younger apartment-mate about a reading of a new musical I was working with, about Generation X, called “Apathy.” I referred to “Reality Bites” as a comparison point and she looked befuddled; she had no idea what I was talking about, and I realized she’d not only never seen it; she’d never heard of it.

    Then one day I was working a show at Juilliard, a big orchestra concert for the Pre-College program–kids like 11-16 mostly. The stage manager’s console backstage has a little black and white TV monitor with a live video feed from out in the house so I can see the stage. This one kid was totally taken with it. He kept asking me questions about it, and finally says “but why is it black and white?”

    “Uh, because it just is,” was all I could think to say. What kind of a question is that? I went home thinking “stupid kid,” but later I realized: he had probably never seen a black and white TV before. Where would he have?

    On the frustrating side…I keep dealing with people just a few years younger than we are–like 3-5 years younger, in their early/mid 20’s, who cannot or will not figure out ANYTHING for themselves. Will not hop on Google to look something up. Need point by point explicit instructions for, like, how to use the laundromat, apply for a library card, where to get tax forms (library!!!). Has anyone else noticed this? What’s going on?

  5. Loren said,

    It’s funny you should mention “Apathy,” because I found it a striking example of the way those same sorts of stereotypes and misconceptions were applied to Generation X when we were immediately post-college: this whole idea that we were “apathetic” and “uninterested” and “slackers”–rather than being one of the first generations to graduate from college saddled with debt, into not only a recession but into an economy seriously moving away from ideas of job security, long-term contracts, etc., into independent contractors and temp hires and no benefits and exploding health care costs.

  6. chavisory said,

    Yeah, that’s exactly the point I was attempting to make to my roommate at the time–that “Reality Bites,” though some of the characters *were* spoiled and clueless, made some attempt to represent the real problems of the time. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, but their personal faults were running smack into the societal and economic problems in bad ways. And the same with “Rent.” Those characters have deep and serious personal pathologies, but they’re paralleled with an exploration of the good reasons those people feel locked out of what mainstream society has to offer.

    Whereas in “Apathy,” all of the characters are just hedonistic losers who don’t care about anything or anyone. I felt like it was just a minstrel show of what Baby Boomers *wanted* to think was true of Gen X, to avoid having to think about the real problems that left you in an untenable social and economic position. Because it’s easier to say “the spoiled kids just don’t know how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps like we did,” than to look around and admit that there are major systemic problems.

    And the appearance of apathy can be a necessary defense mechanism. I’ve had to decide that I cannot even think or worry about retirement savings until I’m 30, because I’ll drive myself crazy with anxiety and guilt otherwise. It’s just too much right now to try to think about being financially secure at 80, when I’m only just making it month to month right now.

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