*These views are my own. I am a fellow Generation X. I see myself as a very average person from very average circumstances, therefore my views reflect that.
During casual channel browsing yesterday, I came across a documentary style program on National Geographic channel called Generation X. I recorded on my DVR for my late night insomnia viewing. People of Generation X are now between the ages of 35 and 55 (those born between 1961 and 1981) and we number in about 65 million, roughly half size of Baby Boomers, and for most of us, the narratives of our lives have been determined. They are determined by our social class, our own choices, family situation and how we reacted to what life threw at us. We are the unfortunate generation of people sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. The Baby Boomers were the largest generation created by capita and everyone is obsessed with Millennials now. Everyone wants to know their spending habits, likes and dislikes and generally what makes a Millennial tick so that mass marketers and corporations can sell to them more things they don’t need with money they don’t have. The sales pitch is so insidious that many don’t even realize that they are being worked over.
Generation X are stereotypically described as loners, slackers, social outcasts (usually by choice), electronic and computer geeks (think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) and mistrusting of government, authority and establishment institutions (for their propensity to lie to us). Generation X was also the first generation of people blighted by family breakdown and family dysfunction. As divorce lost its stigma in the 70s and 80s, getting divorced right when the going gets tough in a marriage became the norm. People in the 80s specifically were terribly impulsive as the ‘Me Generation’ mentality took over. Everything was about me first and everyone else later. This idea of having obligations in which you must fulfil even if you don’t want to became an anathema to the ‘Me’ anthem of that time. This created a whole generation of children who grew up in single parent homes, blended families and having siblings who don’t share both parents with you. Perhaps because of this, we became a generation of people feeling alienated and full of pent up angst. When the people you look to for guidance gives zero fucks about what they do and who it affects, their offspring gives zero fucks about them too.
It is also the reason why the sitcom ‘Friends’ was such a big hit, our friends became our families. We chose our own families. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that I have seen every single episode of Friends at the time it aired. Every Thursday night, I plonked down on my sofa and watched Friends religiously. The story lines made me laugh and I identified with each character’s dysfunctional family. Chandler’s transgender father who has a Vegas showgirl, Monica’s parents favoring Ross over her – always seeing her as the loud fat girl even though she’s no longer fat but still loud, Rachel’s parents’ divorce was so bitter they can’t be in the same room with each other, Phoebe and her twin sister Regina Filange were given away as babies to foster homes, only Joey had some semblance of a ‘normal’ family in the form of a large squabbling Italian-American family. I don’t want to shit on our parents too much, they had their own struggles. After the heyday of idealism and activism of the 60s and 70s, when the party was over in Haight-Ashbury and other such places, people dusted off their old suits and went back to work. Many were probably permanently impaired from all that drug use. Many were disillusioned. Starting in the 1970s, industry in America began to collapse. Every recession since the 1970s and its subsequent recovery was less robust than the previous. The disastrous economic policies of ‘Reaganomics’ put a lot of American families in a worse position than before. There was no “morning in America again”. It was all a lie.
This program highlighted several events in the 70s and 80s which pierced our collective consciousness. In the 1960s and 70s, the Cold War was still raging. We were told that the evil empire USSR could at any time drop nukes on us and we’d be all obliterated. The ‘duck and hide’ exercises were especially hilarious considering if a nuclear bomb actually dropped on our cities, no amount of hiding or ducking can get you out of that pickle. One look at the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and one can see. Not much was left after the bombs were dropped. I don’t think cockroaches survived that, but I digress. To be told by your president and Commander-In-Chief that there are countries, empires out there so evil we must fight them is really disconcerting. Every single person who resides in USSR or in the influence of USSR is evil or embodies evil? You see where the cynicism comes from.
[Incidentally, my father got go to the USSR right after Gorbachev’s government collapsed. He went in 1992, when he got back I asked how was Russia? He went during winter so he said the weather was appalling, just like the New England winters he endured as a child, but he got first row seats at the Bolshoi Theater to see Swan Lake for $30 and that was the highlight of his whole trip. He mentioned the famed theater was in need of an overhaul, they were still manually pulling up the curtains but aside from that, it was the best ballet you’ll ever see. I asked him if it was ‘scary’ or how the people were? He said, people are people, the same everywhere. You have nice people, you have complete assholes. Conditions were bleak at the time, breadlines were long but it was due to the government collapsing more than anything. It reminded him too much of the cold New Hampshire winters so it put him off.]
If I can single out events which defined the narrative for Generation X they would be ‘Watergate’, ‘The Iran Contra’, ‘The War on Drugs’ Reagan’s version, fall of Berlin Wall and Kurt Cobain.
Watergate scandal is pretty self-explanatory. President Nixon had his ineffective goons break in to Watergate hotel, where Democrats often hold their conferences to bug the place with wiretaps. The break in failed, two nosy Washington Post reporters went digging and brought down a president. If the public was suspicious that our politicians routinely lies to us, this was the proof and Nixon was caught red handed. Who can forget the “your president is not a crook” lecture? While his henchman Henry Kissinger got away scot free, at least the president was punished for it and Nixon’s legacy is forever tarnished by Watergate.
Not so with ‘The Iran Contra’ affair. No one got punished for this double-dealing event which involved the president as well. The Iran Contra affair was when the US government sold weapons to Iran (our sworn enemy who kidnapped Americans and held them in hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran) just one year after they released all the hostages, in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras (anti-communist, anti-Sandinista militia group). Since the US isn’t allowed to be directly involved with the affairs of another country, they found this back door way to do it. And in exchange for selling illegal weapons to Iran (Iran was barred from buying weapons on the world market), Iran is to help the US release hostages who are being held in Lebanon during their bloody civil war. And the go-between in all this, the middle-man if you will was Israel. They helped the US collect the money, they were the cash register. Again, Iran is also the sworn enemy of Israel, but when it comes to doing some below the table dirty work like this, they are all in. And I am willing to bet the middle-man charged an ‘inconvenience fee’ for his troubles. The US government in all these cases sets up a fall guy and this time it’s Oliver North, he went to testify in Congress in his uniform and full insignia and medals and said it was a “neat idea”. It was a whole dog and pony show was to exonerate Reagan. In the end Reagan kept his job, he summoned his best second rate acting skills and apologized to the American public and he insisted that he didn’t know about trading US hostages in exchange for selling weapons to Iran. Right. Reagan, in some quarters is still one of the most beloved presidents today. This whole incident reeked from beginning to end and watching back the grainy, non-digital footage of Oliver North’s testimony had me breaking out in guffaws.
In the case of Watergate, the lesson was the cover up was greater than the crime and Nixon was duly punished, regardless of all the forces at work behind the scenes. In the Iran-Contra affair, there was no lesson, just a series of putrefying testimonies by rancid people covering up the president’s involvement.
Nothing elicited more laughs from me than seeing Nancy Reagan in her coiffed hair with pearls the size of a person’s eyeballs saying “Just Say No” to drugs. While the crack cocaine epidemic was raging in the inner cities, while black men were being locked up in huge numbers, their white counterparts who snorted powdered cocaine got slaps on the wrist or no punishment at all, all Nancy Reagan can say is “Just Say No”. Towards the end of the second Reagan presidency, they resembled our elderly grandparents who’s got not one clue how the world has changed. Despite the raging AIDS epidemic, Reagan never uttered the words “AIDS” during his presidency. The Reagans’ had become stale and outdated. Nancy Reagan’s constant pearl clutching like she was some ante-bellum southern belle was especially annoying, you wondered if she carried smelling salts. While they still abided by rules of a WASPy country club, the real rules of society had changed.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is always a touching moment to watch. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet influence in Europe’s Eastern Bloc. But politics aside, to see Germans of East and West reunited is moving. Many have died trying to scale that wall. It is slightly comical in that the soldiers who’s main duty is to guard that wall with their lives didn’t get the memo that the East Germany government have allowed free passage. It was long overdue.
Kurt Cobain and through his band Nirvana unwittingly became the voice of Generation X. Cobain, like many Gen Xs’ came from a broken family. His father remarried, his new stepmother had children from a prior marriage as well, his father had another child with his new wife and he hated it. He got lost in the shuffle and was ignored (though not intentionally), he begun to act out and found his outlet in music. In the movie ‘Montage of Heck’, Kurt Cobain’s parents were interviewed, and they were your typical working class baby boomers, and especially his father, he was very clueless about what plagued his son, in fact, he’s still very clueless. His mother tried helping her son when he was young but his behavior got so bad that she gave up custody of him to his father. She didn’t want to deal with a wayward child. When his father and stepmother didn’t want to deal with him, he would couch surf with any relative who’ll have him. Kurt Cobain died without ever reconciling with his father, he reconciled with his mother and she had intermittent custody of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain after his death when his widow Courtney Love didn’t have all her marbles with her.
Lots of other trends and movements happened between 1961 and 1981, I enjoyed watching The Sex Pistols crashing the Queen’s 25 year jubilee on the river Thames, blaring out their own version of ‘God Save the Queen.’ It reignited that rebel spirit in me which had lay dormant, I remembered how nice it is to give zero-fucks about anyone or anything. The first two episodes of this program is a mash-up of the “best of” reels, they covered political events, social events and pop culture.
Generation X symbolized many ‘lasts’. We are the last people to experience any sort of job security, a job with health benefits and 401K. We are the last generation to attend college at a reasonable cost (especially the older Gen Xs) and our degree was worth something. We are the only generation who still remember what it was like to have a 56K modem, where Internet access at home was a luxury and the PC computer, we straddled the arc of being disconnected all the time to being connected all of the time. If you are a thirty-something Gen X, you still remember your childhood as living in the real world (as opposed to online), where you begun to type your school essays on a bulky PC unit and laser jet printer was a luxury. You still checked books out from the library to do research, Google search wasn’t in wide use yet and everything was not at your fingertips. I got my first flip cell phone when I was 20 years old, an impossibly ancient age by today’s standards.
This generation of loners and social outcasts made a way from no way. One can argue Gen X grew up during a time of unprecedented wealth and technological advancement but material wealth is no replacement for stable relationships with parents. The generational wars are in full force. Baby boomer (our parents) look at us with disdain and the feeling is probably mutual, our grandparents (The Silent Generation) while loving and kind do not understand us or our problems. After all, we didn’t have to live through the Depression like they did, which to them, was the major crisis of their lives. Many Gen Xs such as myself (and many of my peers) forged close bonds with our grandparents because they actually gave a shit about what’s happening to us even if they didn’t understand us. They know that children need to grow up in stable households and safe environments and nothing can take the place of familial affection. The financial planner Ed Slott said half jokingly, the reason why grandparents leave legacies to their grandchildren instead of their children is because there’s a conspiracy between them and their grandkids: they both hate the generation in the middle.
My heart bleeds for the Millennials, who are like my younger brothers and sisters. They are entering the workforce in a most uncertain time. There are no more safety nets, no more buffer between the sheltered life at home and the cruel world. Millennials don’t suffer the sort of alienation their older counterparts did because of smartphones. They can trick themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of friends. Feeling lonely and alienated is part and parcel of growing up in any generation, some are more pronounced than others and to overcome that feeling of alienation is part of character building and strength one will need to navigate this world. Also, to feel alienated and lonely isn’t that bad, in fact, I think it’s good. To always fit in everywhere all the time means you just go with the trend, with the sole purpose of trying to fit in, without deliberating if fitting in all the time is a good thing. A sense of belonging and validation is one of the most basic needs of human existence but it must be with the right glove. As for Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that the world will get better because we are all connected and we can share our ideas easily, it’s all crock. Silicon Valley cannot save the world from its ills, technology can help but it’s still the people.
Finally, “fuck Andy Rooney”, you know nothing about Kurt Cobain or what he meant to people, so get off your moral high horse and stick to talking about what you know about – boring white people stuff.
A lot of people would like to have the years left that he threw away,” Rooney said. “What’s all this nonsense about how terrible life is?” he asked, adding rhetorically to a young woman who had wept at the suicide, “I’d love to relieve the pain you’re going through by switching my age for yours.” In addition, he asked “What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a Depression, World War II or Vietnam?” and commented that “If applied the same brain to his music that he applied to his drug-infested life, it’s reasonable to think that his music may not have made much sense either.”
This is a 6 episode series about Generation X on National Geographic Channel. Check local listings for air time.