Generation X Saves the World
As a member of Generation X, I’ve been clumped into a category of slackers and losers. Maybe it’s appropriate since part of the soundtrack of my high school days is the chorus to Beck’s Loser.
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.
I had no clue what the rest of the lyrics to this song were until last night when I looked them up, and the chorus is the only part that even comes close to making sense.
“Loser” was the go-to insult to call your friends at my college. It even has its own hand gesture. Loser seemed to be our tongue in cheek reference to ourselves. Really, how much of a loser could any of us be as we signaled the “L” to a friend across the dining hall of the high end, private, college? Loser was a word we owned. It had its own song!
Slacker was the insult given to us. We have been known as the slacker generation since before some of us were even aware that we were part of a generation. According to Wikipedia, the perfect slacker resource, “slacker” was first used in Back to the Future (in 1985) when the principle says to Marty:
You’ve got a real attitude problem, McFly. You’re a slacker! You remind me of your father when he went here. He was a slacker, too.
The term became widely used to describe my generation, which was seemingly apathetic, cynical, and uninterested in political and social causes. I guess some people have tried to embrace the image of the “slacker”, but I think that’s mostly in the movies – and usually comedies, and hey sometimes the slackers save the world.
But frankly, I don’t know anyone of my generation that’s a slacker. I don’t know that I ever have.
I don’t think we’re truly apathetic. I think a lot of us grew up hurt – from parents that were the stereotypical boomers and self-involved, from divorce (I know I was the first of my peer group in elementary school whose parents got divorced), or for those older Gen Xers knowing that you were economically screwed from the get go. I don’t think we were apathetic, I think we were afraid. I can’t see how anyone would call us apathetic at all now.
I wouldn’t say that as a generation we are completely cynical, but yes, there might be a little bit of a cynic in a lot of Gen Xers. I’ll give you that stereotype.
The idea that we are uninterested in politics and social causes is completely laughable. Myself, I grew up in a household where politics were very private (even if my grandparents were yellow dog democrats), so this new world of knowing everyone’s political leanings is different, and I think we’re still learning how to bridge the gap between being very private about our politics to being very public about them. As far as social causes go, volunteerism among Gen Xers is growing, whereas it is stagnant in all other generations, according to the annual “Volunteering in America” report from the Corporation for National Community Service released last August.
We also aren’t the young people anymore. Even by the most liberal definitions of Generation X, we’re all at least 30, some of us even make it up to the ripe old age of 50. We’re the movers and shakers now.
I can’t even begin to speak for those Gen Xers who were born in the 60s (one of the problems with the whole idea of generations), but even though we are the movers and shakers now, it seems that every time I talk to my fellow thirtysomethings, we all feel like we aren’t grown up, that we’re still fighting this image of the slacker, who can never really be a grown up. We keep expecting adulthood to be different, to somehow assert itself and feel like a starburst in our souls that screams, “hey you, you’re all grown up now, you now have all the secret knowledge!”
But, I think Generation X grew up a long time ago, and a lot earlier than anyone expected us to.
- We grew up a little bit when we watched a teacher die in a space shuttle explosion and even the 7 year old hearts broke.
- We grew up some when we realized what we were being told wasn’t how things really were by a long shot.
- We grew up a little more when we realized our parents pretended that everything was fine when it really wasn’t.
- We grew up more when our moms went to work.
- We grew up even more when our parents got divorced.
- We grew up quite a lot when we became latchkey kids and fended for ourselves, or even became a second parent to younger siblings.
But I think we grew up the most when we realized the American Dream wasn’t our dream. It wasn’t dreamt for us, definitely not about us, and most assuredly not by us.
We’ve grown up with the burden and the privilege of dreaming our own dream, and while we may still be pinpointing what that dream is, we’ve grown up enough to do it. We aren’t the slackers everyone thought we’d grow up to be, and even if we are, slackers can still have some pretty amazing dreams.
Fairy Godmagazine: An Ode to Sassy
When I think about what defines a generation, and what defined mine, I think of an afternoon at age 11, when I sat, bored at a barbershop while my dad got his hair cut. I’m a kid sister, a surprise-child born in ’78, rounding out a family of five. I grew up surrounded by love but imbued with this sense of not quite fitting in. I hated Wham and New Kids on the Block. I read Time magazine instead of Tiger Beat. I had logged innumerable hours watching as my two older sisters teased their bangs high and went to Pink Floyd laser shows—but I was always looking in. Then, that afternoon in 1989, I ran across the street to the drugstore to get something to read, and I spotted this new magazine on the stand.
True: I probably grabbed it because I wanted to read “the sad story of a teenage stripper,” or about “how to be the best kisser”—two topics equally exotic to me. These splashy blurbs scan 100-percent titillation—but in truth, there was a kind of bait-and-switch going on–to get sheltered, curious teenagers like me into the pages. And it worked. Soon, I had a subscription to Sassy.
It was Seventeen that had long reigned as the monarch of teen magazines. In 1989, the year I discovered issue number 3 of Sassy at the drugstore, Seventeen’s pages were devoted to impressing boys, fashion trends, and impressing boys through fashion trends. Oh, and articles with titles like: “Finally: A Diet Even You Can Stick To.” Sassy, on the other hand, was founded by an Australian feminist named Sandra Yates. And it was different from anything the U-S had ever seen. Its articles and advice columns talked unabashedly about sexual issues of all kinds
—as well as sexist beauty myths
They were filled with how-to’s for personal empowerment—and even discussed yes, politics
and social justice issues in the real world
—rather than just celebrities. Although there were those, too.
My parents quickly grew to respect the afternoons Sassy arrived. After doing my homework I would sprawl on the couch and read the entire issue, cover-to-cover, an adolescent alone with her idol. When I first started reading I suppose I was what marketers now call a “’tween,” but back when my demographic was coming of age, the tail end of Generation X, no market yet existed for the age group between 10 and 14. No “market” of any sort had ever appealed to me.
But Sassy? It was a lightning rod; it was the first thing I’d ever read that spoke with me and not at me. I was a music-obsessed, creative girl, a skeptical and extremely awkward girl, and Sassy was my best friend from age eleven to sixteen. Sassy gave me grunge rock and riot-grrl.
It gave me this entire, brilliant Do-It-Yourself subculture (Slide 10).
(Ah, yes. The infamous pillowcase dress.) Sassy taught me how to dye my hair with Kool-Aid. It taught me about ‘zines—underground, handmade pamphlets popular with the unpopular kids in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It introduced me to writers who would be a huge influence on my own early writing: like Blake Nelson, Francesca Lia Block, and Pagan Kennedy.
Suddenly, I had this sense of personal territory. Like I was part of something that spoke to me. A generation. Even though I still felt like the odd-girl-out among a lot of the kids at school, I now knew I was part of an entire tribe that felt that way, too. The writing in Sassy gave one voice to the critical thinking and skepticism that characterized Generation X, and it was nothing short of exhilarating. As my friends and I rocked out in our bedrooms to bands like PJ Harvey and traded our issues of Sassy, we felt this deep in our bones. And we thanked god we weren’t our older sisters—who were now asking us what bands they should listen to and what books they should read.
In an interview, former Sassy staff writer Karen Catchpole notes: “You can’t fool readers. Ever.” She was right. When I was 16, something odd happened. Sassy stopped coming for six months. Then—and I remember this—I opened my mailbox one afternoon, and there it was. But something had changed. Sure, this magazine had Sassy’s old chatty voice. But that voice was now saying odd things. It warned of the calorie-counts on my favorite foods. It warned of the, quote, “feminist, PC thought-police,” and it warned against flirting. Sample line: “Men think about sex all the time—some studies show as much as six times per hour. So any given time you’re flirting with one of them, there’s a chance he’s wondering what you look like without your clothes on.” I felt bewildered. Abandoned.
In response to this new, false Sassy, this Stepford Sassy, we readers penned a torrent of angry letters. After all, naïve or not, our dear old magazine had trained us to speak up for things that mattered to us. It was to no avail–Years later I learned that the magazine had been sold to a new publisher and the old staff, fired. (Sassy had clashed with its advertisers for years—feeling the pinch from groups like Focus on the Family, which objected to the magazine’s treatment of sexuality.) I canceled my subscription. The magazine went under not long after.
Yet, for its rise and its fall, Sassy was a galvanizing force. It taught me that there was this precious thing, this self inside of me that I should never stop working to champion—because it was always at risk. And it taught me, in an age before the internet—that I wasn’t alone. My friend and I started putting out our own zine,
which I now realize echoed the old Sassy’s voice and aesthetic. In the years that followed, I worked for social justice, for causes I believed in, just as Sassy had encouraged me to do—believing myself to be a part of something larger. And I still like to imagine this: a wave of ladies who grew up in my tail-end of Generation X, fired-up former readers marching out into the world fighting, because we had learned we had something worth fighting for.
Of course, Sassy both belonged to us—and it didn’t. Without the often-frustrated struggles of our older sisters and our mothers, there would have been no Sassy. I fell in love with it for the same reason every generation falls in love with itself: because it blasted away at an existing sense of complacency. In a UU language, Sassy shored up my belief in a lifelong search for truth and meaning.
And I wasn’t the only one. It inspired third-wave feminist magazines such as Venus, Bitch and Bust. And the other day, I came across the online teen magazine Rookie, founded last year by the precocious 15-year-old fashionista Tavi Gevinson. Gevinson started Rookie with the help of former Sassy editor-in-chief, Jane Pratt—and she cites Sassy, and its intelligent way of speaking to teens—as her website’s primary inspiration. In Rookie’s first year, writers and journalists such as Ira Glass, Dan Savage, and Miranda July have worked with her to help shepherd that vision.
As for me, I’m tentatively really excited about Rookie. I’m also keeping a skeptical eye on it. I think that’s how Sassy would have wanted it.
As I talked with people across the spectrum of Generation X about what we should say today, the theme was that we feel like we’re from the Island of Lost and Broken Toys. We’re this relatively small generation sandwiched between two behemoths: the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, both of whom never seem to tire of talking about and hearing about themselves.
And herein lies the creative tension of today’s Gen Xers: we hate being ignored, but we don’t really want to be defined. We lament not getting credit for our accomplishments, but we don’t necessarily like the spotlight, especially when it gets in the way of getting stuff done our way. One blogger recently ranted that, “Generation X is a journeyman. It didn’t invent hip hop or punk rock or even electronica… but it perfected all of them, and made them its own. It didn’t invent the Web, but it largely built the damn thing. Generation X gave you Google and Twitter and blogging; Run DMC and Radiohead and Nirvana and Notorious BIG. Not that it gets any credit.” On the other hand, as much as we resent the slight, the pressure of fame silenced many of the “voices” of our generation: Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, David Foster Wallace. I also couldn’t convince very many in our midst to stand up here with me today.
It’s just not in our nature to be comfortable with self-promotion. We grew up in a time when you only got a trophy for actually winning something. In order to be special, you had to do something, well… special.
So what does make us special? The Longitudinal Study of American Youth started tracking Gen Xers in 1987, back when we were called “a bunch of insecure, angst-ridden underachievers.” Their recently released reports say this about Gen X: “they are active in their communities, mainly satisfied with their jobs and able to balance work, family and leisure.” “close to family and friends” and “unafraid of extra work to get ahead. Previous generations,” the authors write, “would have been hurt even worse by this recession.”
There are three words I’d like to leave you with that describe Gen X from my shoes:
The first two are Resilient and Committed
We grew up in a time when our parents –our mothers in particular—were experiencing dramatic changes in cultural expectations. So we grew up to be independent and self-sufficient when mom went to work whether for her own personal fulfillment or as a result of economic necessity or divorce.
We watched the work struggles of our parents, many of whom learned the hard way that their loyalty to the company was unrequited. Gen X’s commitments tend to be to the work and the team, not to institutions.
Quentin Tarantino said in 1994 that “The Vietnam War and Watergate were a one-two punch that basically destroyed Americans’ faith in their own country.” And Gen Xers definitely tend to have a disdain for authority… but at the same time, we are still committed to the greater good and most Gen Xers I know are working to change their world, mostly in small ways. The best description of this ethic I could find called it “urban acupuncture.” This problem solving approach focuses on fixing things in the microcosm and letting the idea radiate outward. We aim high, but start small.
There are tons of great examples of this in public education, where I work. Generation Xers have given us the nation’s highest performing charter schools—public schools that are built from the ground up with independence from traditional systems. A Gen Xer founded Teach for America in 1990, an organization that in 20 years has grown from placing a few hundred new teachers to this year supporting over 10,000 outstanding recent college graduates teaching in underresourced public schools across the country. TFA is, incidentally, how I started my work in education 12 years ago. Aim high, but start small.
So, back to our three Generation X superpowers: Committed, Resilient and the third is Balanced.
Many Gen Xers are the children of divorce and those of us who aren’t went through it with our friends. We grew up to be very cautious and serious about marriage. For all the pop-psychology articles out there about the phenomenon of the “starter” marriage, divorce rates have been dropping since 1996… around the time when the Baby Boomers got it out of their systems.
Our families are really important to us. This is more a function of being in our 30s and 40s than a generational attribute, but working women are having more children today than our Baby Boom foremothers, and Gen X parents feel that our kids are as critical a contribution to our community as our work. My personal worst fear as a parent is raising Alex P. Keaton who, despite the best efforts of his hippie parents, was determined to make his first million by age 30 by any means necessary.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Gen X Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, recently made headlines when she went public with the fact that she goes home from work at 5:30 every day to have dinner with her husband and children. She also described her career in an address to this year’s graduating class of Harvard Business School as “a jungle gym, not a ladder.” And she was sharply critical of our generation’s failure, thus far, to bring gender equity to the highest levels of leadership in business and government.
Taking both of these ideas at once has led to a lot of chatter recently about whether we can “have it all.” In my opinion, Generation X’s idea of balance looks more like the ebb and flow of a surfer’s dance with a wave than the unmoving counterweights on scale. So, as with so many other things, the question for Generation X isn’t whether we can have it or can’t. We’d rather redefine what you mean by “all.”
So may it be.