|Posted on October 14, 2013 at 12:35 AM|
For an interesting experiment recently, I (Generation X, born in 1966) decided to ask my sister (Generation Y, born in 1978 what she thought of the Millennial generation. These are the people who were born during the Clinton boom, came of age under George W. Bush and in a post-September 11th world, and are now 20-somethings looking for work. How did they compare to the new, upcoming generation—the one I’m currently teaching in middle and high school?
For starters, I nearly lost my hearing.
“Oh my GOD!” she screamed, her face rigid with contempt. “They [the Millennials] are the laziest, they are the stupidest, they are the most entitled…” And we were off.
If there’s anything I’ve learned teaching history and social studies over the past few years, it’s the understanding for how the different American generations see each other. There is some degree of envy, to be sure, but there is also some outright hostility and contempt. There’s also the weird faux-nostalgia element. When I was growing up in the late 70’s, 50’s nostalgia was at its peak (thank you “Happy Days”), arguably climaxing in 1985 with “Back to the Future” - an emblematic year, based on TV, Elvis, and rock and roll - when the modern idea of the teenager more or less crystallized. When I tell kids today that I came of age in the 80’s, I get a breathy exhale of, “That must have been so cool.” (Any era is cool if you’re focused on day-glo colored clothing and bouncy synth music, as opposed to nuclear saber rattling, AIDS, and the Iran-Contra scandal.)
During the Reagan years I went through a period where I was obsessed with the Sixties. The music, movies, and political/social movements of that era two decades prior seemed so much more urgent and vital than those of my own generation, which was largely the privileged-but-disaffected suburban kids found in John Hughes films. Our parents were fat and happy Reaganites; it was “morning in America.” After the long, confusing hangover of the 1970’s, when all of the old institutions seemed to be crumbling, this was an era of caution and retrenchment – “Just Say No,” and “Be Safe Or Abstinent.” Oh, why wasn’t I back marching with the Freedom Riders, or boogieing to Motown and the Beatles? My wearing handmade bead necklaces or lacing daisies through the braid on my Greek fisherman’s cap were but futile gestures - and certainly didn’t gibe with everyone else wearing Izod shirts with the collars turned up and J. Crew sweaters. (When I think of my private high school years of roughly 1980-85, it all seemed a blur of sweaters and reputed cocaine use in the bathrooms.)
The Boomers: The antiw-war movement and other social upheavals. Photo: Bernie Boston
Ah, but what of those 60’s young people I admired? (If I’d ever met that famous kid with the blonde hair and the turtleneck who stuck flowers in the muskets of the National Guard, I’d probably have married him on the spot.) Well, some of them hung on to their ideals and continued to live a counterculture lifestyle, but many others turned into the comfortable Yuppies of “The Big Chill” (a movie I loved at 16 but now regard with some degree of suspicion). Sure, the former Sixties friends in the movie all talked a good game - but aside from the impotent Vietnam vet, most of the characters seemed preoccupied with making money. All of them were white and comfortable. Two of the women were pretty much full-time moms while the third was trying to get pregnant. There were no gay friends, and no friends of color; diversity seemed to extend largely to Kevin Kline’s record collection. (Even there, there was a kind of smug insularity: when a character comments that he’d like to hear some other music from the past few years as opposed to 60’s staples, Kline’s character replies, “There is no other music—not in my house.” These are exactly the people who now make jukebox hits of musicals like “Mama Mia!” and “Jersey Boys.” They only want to listen to what they already know.) These are also the same Boomers who now refuse to retire, thus squeezing subsequent generations into lower-wage service jobs for the foreseeable future.
Now, what of their parents, those in the “over 30” population that nobody was supposed to trust? Those were the people whom Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation” - those who lived through a long, hellish Depression, then four years of brutal World War before storming the beaches of Normandy or securing the South Pacific. They were the last people to dance slowly to big bands in soft-lit ballrooms, the people who helped create the interstate highways and the U.S. higher education system, and who made sure that even lower-middle-class homes had the basic amenities and conveniences that we now take for granted (washing machines, ovens, televisions, automobiles).
"The Greatest Generation": World War II
Their loving children responded to their parents’ sacrifices by basically creating contemporary adolescence, embracing rock and roll (and nearly killing off jazz and what we might call “standards” in the process), denouncing their parents’ values, and diving headfirst into the counterculture. Can you imagine these poor forty-somethings, circa 1967, staring at their surly, long-haired, disaffected offspring who would gladly take their money, but who then proceeded to “drop out” and not work for a few years, or refused to follow their parents’ example in the military because Vietnam wasn’t a “good” war? Add in new ideas about sexuality and gender roles, and it’s no wonder that Pat Loud (of TV’s reality show “An American Family”) would announce that she wanted a divorce on a national TV broadcast.
So, then came the Greatest Generation’s grandchildren, and the Boomers’ children: The Xers. Salon magazine recently ran an intriguing article about this generation, the one born roughly between 1965 and 1977. (Lily Tomlin, a Boomer, nonetheless portrayed a Generation X punk rocker named Agnes Angst in her one-woman show, who observed, “By the time I came into the world, Elvis was already fat.” And shortly thereafter dead.) Xers were the generation of diminished expectations (the divorce rate creeping up to 50% began during the late 1960’s and the 1970’s), also known as the “latchkey kids.” We could settle into our beanbag chairs with bowls of cereal while waiting for a parent to get home, and watch reruns from the 50’s (“Leave It To Beaver”) and 60’s (“My Three Sons,” “The Brady Bunch”). We fully recognized that they were fantasies, yet still longed for them to be real. As Ethan Hawke reminded Winona Ryder in the Gen-X classic “Reality Bites,” when Ryder laments that real life should be more like it was for the Bradys: “Well…Mr. Brady died of AIDS.”
Generation X: Gordon Gekko of "Wall Street" - "Greed is good"
We are the generation that saw cheap gas slowly becoming a memory; a president resign for the only time in history; rain becoming acidic; movie theaters become boxy multiplexes; and uncut, R-rated movies appear on cable. We also saw, for the first time in almost 40 years, economic uncertainty and the blue-collar way of life decreasing. Between austerity budgets pushed by the Reagan conservatives and new thinking against committing mentally ill people against their will - not to mention the fallout from Vietnam and drug use - the population of homeless people exploded. Fifteen years after Dustin Hoffman fled his parents and their friends making money from “plastics” in “The Graduate,” Tom Cruise in “Risky Business” turned his parents’ house into a brothel and scored a place at Princeton due to his business acumen. The 70’s may have begun the era of everything being for sale (pet rocks!), but the 80’s perfected it: “Greed is good,” as Gordon Gekko (in the movie “Wall Street”) put it. Of course our icons (Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix) were going to die young; hadn’t enough artists done it in the late 60’s that it was no longer novel, just grimly par for the course? And all that “free love” from the Boomers had now bequeathed the ultimate bummer: the reality that sex could kill you.
(Coming soon: Part 2 - Generation Y, the Millennials, and Our Future Together.)
Categories: Other Voices