Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Letting X Mark Us Gen-X'ers

We're not slackers.

Are we?

My generation, Generation X, was born roughly between 1961 and 1981, depending on who's doing the categorizing.  There are roughly 80 million of us here in the United States, and as Sara Scribner wrote for Salon last week, the oldest of our cohort have hit a milestone, with the rest of us soon to follow, and hardly anybody's noticed.

We've entered what's traditionally considered to be middle age, where we've supposedly given up our younger ambitions and overcome the naivete that told us only our ambitions could contain us.  The Boomers before us cried out in agony when they entered middle age, but I guess we Gen-X'ers have been too busy trying to keep our heads above water to throw ourselves a pity party.

We're the most educated generation the United States has ever produced, but we're earning less than our parents did.  We mask it with our two-income families, and for us whites, our smaller family sizes.  We've been hit with the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, the technology bust around the turn of the millennium, the mortgage meltdown, offshoring, downsizing, and the lingering effects of our Great Recession.

The divorce rate skyrocketed when we were kids, and in return, many of us have become helicopter parents, afraid to let our own kids out of what we think is our protective oversight.  Those of us with cable in our homes witnessed the invention of music videos.  Heavy metal, punk rock, grunge, rap, and hip-hop were all invented while we were growing up.

AIDS?  Yup - we were kids when what we were told was a gay disease exploded onto the scene.  You hardly hear anything about it today, but I remember when people like Rock Hudson died of it, and Elizabeth Taylor set up a foundation to fight it.  Kids today don't even know who those two iconic people were.

In her article, Scribner says that we've been called "slackers" because we haven't been able to build upon the socioeconomic legacy of the celebrated Boomers.  We're also sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennnials, those new twentysomethings who've been raised on the Internet and cell phones, creating the illusion that they're sophisticated enough to be the new trendsetters for our brave new wireless world.  Why haven't we been out there, creating our own mark on the world?  After all, almost everything that's happened during our time on this planet has basically happened to us, not because of us.

Does Gen-X stand for "generation reflex?"

"Downward mobility is a hallmark of this generation," writer and fellow Gen-X'er Neal Pollack tells Scribner.  "I just feel like we’re not going to pull ourselves out of the hole.  But what can you do?  We don’t have that security – the illusion of knowing that everything was going to be all right.  But Gen X always had that feeling that everything wasn’t going to be all right.”

Well, we might have had it, years ago, when we were very young.  When our parents and schoolteachers were telling us that we could do or be anything we wanted.  I often still hear parents and teachers spouting that nonsense - and yes, it is nonsense.  We Gen-X'ers are living proof.  Not everybody is going to be President of the United States.  And hardly anybody with common sense even wants to be.  Not everybody is going to be a glamorous lawyer like we saw on LA Law.  True love only comes true for everybody when you're all sailing on the Love Boat.  Racial harmony is only easy on Diff'rent Strokes.  The cannibalizing of jobs by globalization can only be reversed in the last few minutes of Mr. Mom.  Even flying on a commercial jetliner is only entertaining these days on Airplane!

Reality isn't a sitcom, or the reality shows on which Millennials have had the misfortune of growing up.  But things aren't all bad.  Many conservatives don't like President Obama's politics, and his presidency hardly signals an end to racism in our country, but nobody can deny the breakthrough in race relations we achieved by voting a black man into the Oval Office twice.

Medical technology has advanced significantly since the early 60's, as has automobile safety, and even the state of our ecology here in the United States.

I remember when environmentalism was first championed in our public schools in the early 1970's, and the long gas lines my parents had to sit through in the mid-70's.  Granted, much of my home state, New York, is a Superfund site today, thanks to generations of industrial pollution that contaminated fields and waterways, before our country's manufacturing output shifted to Majority World countries, where people even more desperate for jobs than we are have no position to complain about how their local ecosystems are being ruined for our benefit.

Indeed, our world is much smaller today, with international travel an affordable luxury in which many people around our planet can participate, even if safety concerns have made flying a miserable chore.  9-11 made us Americans more aware of our position in the world, even if it also distorted our own preoccupation on security.  Having Millennials Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, not to mention Gen-X'er Julian Assange, exposing the ways America's government is apparently using our security fears against us helps show that global mobility, just like everything else, has its risks and rewards.

Television journalist Tom Brokaw famously categorized the parents of Boomers as the "Greatest Generation," since they'd survived two catastrophic world wars and turned around to build the most rapid expansion of our economy in America's history.  Of course, the Greatest Generation created some major problems with which we Gen-X'ers are having to grapple today, such as a rapidly-deployed suburban infrastructure that seems to be aging much more poorly than its urban forebears, an unwieldy and costly military industrial complex, an increasingly unaffordable civil service pension system, and a Social Security Administration that has been woefully under-funded since at least 1982.

Are we Gen-X'ers "slackers" for not aggressively solving all of these problems that we've inherited?  Might it be that we're the first generation that is getting stuck with the task of paying the bills of preceding generations whose lifestyles and expectations were not as affordable as they thought they were?  How long have some of these socioeconomic cans been kicked down the road by white flight, the ubiquity of divorce, unrestrained welfare programming, unresolved issues from the first Gulf War, an unwillingness to recognize the negative impacts of new media and pop culture's evolution, and even the Jesus Movement, which led to trends within almost all American churches that split congregations and further splintered the Body of Christ?

Maybe we won't earn as much as our parents did.  Maybe there will be no such thing as Social Security when we get to retirement age - sometime in our late 70's, at the earliest.  Maybe marriage and family and employment and military service and our transportation network - and everything else - will look completely different - and not even as good as they do today - as our generation transitions off of this mortal coil.

But hey - even if we are now entering middle-age, at least it's middle age, and not old age!  As long as we have today, we're to encourage each other.  "We have come to share in Christ," says the author of Hebrews, "if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."

After all, despite everything else, God is the same today, and at this precise moment, as He was when you were born, when your parents were born, when our country was founded, and when He created the world.  And the more things may change, the more He'll remain the same.

In Greek, the letter Chi is the first letter of Χριστός, which is translated in English as "Christ," Whose symbol is the letter "X."  We can hardly be slackers if He would be the "X" for which our generation's "X" stands.

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