The End of Millennials

As the so-called Greatest Generation takes its place in oblivion, Generation X finds itself as the lone middle child of the generations, sandwiched as the smaller sibling between the Baby Boomers, the worst generation ever, and the Millennials, that great monolithic unseasoned mind.

GenX has assumed a peculiar role, I think, of being divided, divvied up by our parents, being the incarnational byproduct of the Baby Boomers’ willful overthrow of western institutions. On one side of the divide there is a sense of pessimism and doom that the whole western project is failing, and that the Baby Boomers are the primary malefactors in their sucking all the pleasures of civilization unto themselves before they crumple it up and throw it into the dustbin of history, at just about the same time they pass on to sleep with their fathers, leaving us no heritage except for some really great record albums.

On the other side of the divide is this: I was driving my 12-year old son to hockey practice the other day, and I was trying to penetrate his world, which was shielded by his iPod earbuds, and I heard myself saying, almost unconsciously, “So, Tom, what does your generation think?” Thankfully, he didn’t hear me or he would have rolled his eyes, and I would have become infuriated, and both our worlds would have become unpleasant. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the question, for even though this young man hasn’t a thought beyond the latest Minecraft update, or (to be more generous to my own dear progeny) his latest electronics project, he will soon have thoughts beyond those trivial things, and they will be generational.

It is an anxious game GenXers are playing, a Machiavellian one (by the common understanding): with one mouth, we are encouraging the Baby Boomers to remove themselves before their grip on our civilization becomes too morbid to procure its release, saying, “Why, yes, Peter Singer has some wonderful ideas about assisted-suicide. Say, the skin around your eyes does look a touch pallid, doesn’t it? I’ll go fetch the doings, and we’ll be done with you in a jiffy. You’ve lived a good life, now on to better pastures, right?” With the other mouth we are trying to set up a renewed western canon of ideals for our children via the Millennials, saying, “Have you thought to consider that human dignity doesn’t necessarily end when you become so weak that you need the constant care of your family?” Alas, to be the generational Pushmi-Pullyu is exhausting, and it is the essence of futility.

My son, however, is pushing the Millennials, and his generation are of a number, and they will be of a myriad of ideas that they shall press against the Millennials, and the Millennials shall press back, applying unwittingly the idealistic torsion forces which will shatter that infuriating optimism, as ours shattered, and as did the Boomers’ before us, and as it was for every generation whose parents sinned and set the children’s teeth on edge.

And then it shall come to pass that the Millennials will be frustrated in their efforts to progress, more or less, and their contributions to civilization, or to its collapse, will be put into the great crucible, and it will be fired, and the generations will sift through the ashes to find what value there might be.

And so there is hope.

The Factory Closed

A Generation X Tale

We were kids when the factories closed. This is significant.

Can you imagine being told that if you work hard in school, keep your nose clean, and watch your social Ps & Qs you’d get a job right out of high school, and if you went to college, you’d get a career? Guaranteed?

Yes, we were guaranteed. The misery of school was therefore bearable, knowing that enduring thirteen years of it would yield a steady flow of cash and the strong possibility of upward mobility. We were treated to thousands upon thousands of stories about young and upwardly-mobile professionals, the Yuppies. There was even a very popular and critically acclaimed TV show about Yuppies, Thirtysomething. They made so much money they had problems! Real problems!

At the same time, they were inventing terms for us, the children of the Baby Boom. First, we were Generation X, the unknown quotient, which I found, immediately, insulting. Then we were the Latchkey Kids, the first generation of children ever in the history of the universe to come home from school alone, with no parental supervision. My mom and dad were wise enough to hire a high-school girl to supervise us while she watched TV and talked on the phone. Misfits records, and the like, became my surrogate parents. Other kids picked other things.

I have distinct memories of riding around on bikes and skateboards talking to my coevals about these new terms for us. We were talking about them because there was no framework for us to interpret what was happening. It was true: the stability of the middle of the 20th century was coming to an end, and it was emerging that the stability of the middle of the 20th Century was something of a pristine ideal, somewhat removed from common, everyday experience.

Here are some examples: even though culture was unified by the three television networks and endless reruns of cultural artifacts via syndication, cable television was nascent, driving a wedge into that unity. Independent radio stations sprang up, splintering pop music into a thousand shards. Proto-emo, anyone? It was on a radio station in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1988.

That’s just pop culture, right? Perhaps. Perhaps symptomatic. We talked an awful lot about divorce. There was no such thing as counseling for children whose families were splitting up. What dad did to mom, and what mom did to dad, in full view of the children, was unprecedented, at least by sheer number of cases. We ceased being individual tragic stories and became statistics, truly the heirs to our name: psychology was racing to solve for x.

Dad never wore a shirt when he drove the kids to Church and Sunday School. Two hours later, he was at Grandma’s house for Sunday Dinner.

The E.T. movie resonated so strongly because it reflected this disintegration. If you recall the setting, E.T. happened upon little Elliot and Gertie’s house ensconced in prototypical American Suburbia, a home overseen by a single mom, who was struggling to provide financial and emotional support for everyone, even for her teenage son Michael. Why was she single? Unspoken, the truth was that her husband ran off to Mexico with another woman. E.T. rescues them all with a strong resurrection motif. Effective, eh?

See? The bottom was falling out. The abyss has always been there for every generation, but Generation X is unique in that its progenitors conceived of a lie that there was a scaffolding over which to traverse the abyss in ignorant bliss. Who believed it more: the Baby Boomers or their children?

The fascistic scaffolding of school gave birth to a stillborn generation, having trained us for the factory floor or for factory management. Our parents, split up, a hopeless Penelope, stood upon the shores of Lake Erie, gazing westward, waiting for the lofty sails of Bethlehem Steel to set upon the horizon, marking its triumphant return from the Far East. We popped out of the womb into a decrepit and empty cinder-block shell. Thankfully, the nearby bars were still open, and nostalgia flowed there freely, and some of us made do until the beer ran dry.

Not all of us, at least not entirely. Angry is no condition in which to navigate the abyss. The mainsail can be repaired. We are the mothers of invention, after all; every generation is.