Generation X, the first post-1960s generation, is reaching middle age. The cohort Sara Scribner describes in Salon as “those born roughly between 1965 and 1980” grew up amidst the social transformations the Baby Boomers brought about, and the sources she examines have noticed a certain backlash:
The writer Emily Matchar has written a book called “Homeward Bound” about homespun, sustainable culture—a cozier, less punkish offspring of the original do-it-yourself indie culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s—as a rejection of what Xers and Millennials see as the false promise of career and marketplace. After 9/11 and then the economic collapse, some Xers even took things to the extreme, digging into their sustainable urban farms as a way of girding for a post-apocalyptic world.
Other generations say that we lucked out because there was no major war that took legions overseas, no presidential assassinations, no civil rights battles rocking our home turf. Not true, says Gregory Thomas. “Our war was at home and it was divorce. They were some of the worst divorces in American history.”
… Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s childhood that they never had and they have been pretty focused on creating a solid home life for their children, whether it’s from re-creating the idyllic family-oriented tableaux depicted in an Ikea catalog or jarring their own preserves. Making things “from scratch”—stepping away from the marketplace—is the new status symbol. Domestic success for the college-educated Xer is gauged by how many processed food packages you have in your pantry. Neil Howe describes a recent survey in which a sample group of Xers were asked to pick their model mother. Among many options, they chose June Cleaver.
Maybe because Generation X was also the name of a punk band, I thought of a decrepit Johnny Rotten when I first saw the link to Scribner’s article on Twitter. But John Lydon was born in 1956; he’s a Boomer. Punk was actually a product of the same “generation” (a 20- or 30-year stretch, after all) that gave us the hippies. The representative Xers Scribner cites are “Liz Phair and Winona Ryder… Elliott Smith, David Foster Wallace, Eazy-E and Kurt Cobain.” Two smart, sexy, and ultimately underachieving alterna-chicks, three white guys who killed themselves before they learned to dress like adults, and a black man who died of AIDS. Johnny Rotten just got rich, fat, and starred in a butter commercial—he really is a Boomer.
What one finds among Xers and millennials alike is a second-order decay of American idealism: the Boomers tore up the world of June Cleaver, but what the Boomers built wasn’t a liveable replacement. So now status symbols that have been taken for granted in this country for about 60 years are losing their power to charm. Rick Newman at Yahoo, for example, reports that millennials are indifferent to the automobile:
One of the biggest mysteries of millennials is why they seem to have little interest in cars, which have been an irresistible source of freedom and mobility for young people since the interstate highway system opened the whole country to Chevys and Mercurys in the 1950s. Yet millennials seem to scoff at the open road. The percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds with a driver’s license has dropped sharply since 1997, and is now below 70% for the first time since 1963. “Millennials are demonstrating significantly different lifestyle and transportation preferences than older generations,” declared a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Group. Overall, it concluded, “the driving boom is over.”
Newman’s story points to the tough economy—over 16 percent unemployment for 16-to-24-year-olds, many of whom have mountains of student debt—but it’s worth asking as well what a “source of freedom and mobility” is supposed to mean for young people. Freedom and mobility to drive to Wal-Mart? The ’80s thing was to hang out at the mall, maybe the indie record store, but that’s 30 years in the past. Get a car so you can get a job at McDonald’s so you can earn enough money to… get a car? There was a time when driving meant you could get away from parental supervision, but parental supervision is the least of the millennials’ worries.
It wasn’t just the Boomers’ ’60s ethos that dismantled the social order but the consumer junk culture as well, and much of that consumerism only made sense within status hierarchies that both an unsustainable economy and Boomer sensibilities (or later generations’ revulsion against them) have destroyed. If a fortysomething Generation X’s success is hard to measure, it’s because the old measures—traditional, commercial, and countercultural alike—have been hollowed of meaning. Human driftwood is just what you’d expect to come of this.
The Xers have suffered worse from this anomie than millennials only because they have some memory—if only second-hand memories from TV—of what life was like for the Boomers. They had jobs, intact homes, and what seemed like a purpose in changing the world. The Xers knew what they were missing. The millennials aren’t defined by that absence in the same way, and I think they have a sense that what they want they’re going to have to build anew, or rediscover.