Sunday, November 8, 2015

Gen X - how we got here

We had fractured childhoods, filled with constant change and little security. It’s estimated that as many as 40 percent of Gen Xers were latchkey kids, a term invented for us that disappeared when Millennials were born. When our school day was done, we didn't do milk and cookies with a parent or after school programs sponsored by the Y. We came in and did our homework (or not), played video games (or not), cleaned house and did laundry (or not), did drugs and joined gangs (or not). We were the epitome of self-governance,for good or for ill, learning that we were on our own in an indifferent and at times hostile world.

We weren't worried about sharing classes with children of a different race or creed; we were worried about the end of the world. From the hostages in Iran to Red Dawn's nuclear apocalypse, we found little to believe in and much to mistrust.

Abbie Hoffman described the rebellion of the late 60s as discontent with the system, people "sick of being programmed by an educational system void of excitement, creativity and sensuality. A system that channeled human beings like so many laboratory rats . . . into a highly mechanized maze of class rankings, degrees, careers, neon supermarkets, military-industrial complexes, suburbs, repressed sexuality, hypocrisy, ulcers, and psychoanalysis."Abbie Hoffman, Woodstock Nation, (New York: Vintage), 1969, p. 15.

But Hoffman and his ilk caused whiplash with the speed at which they embraced their own authority once they had children. Generation X had a shortened childhood with nothing to go to afterward. Gen X wasn't socialized through religion but through the small screen, singing Conjunction Junction more often than a church hymn. Having torn down the structure of social norms, Boomers-as-parents sought to set themselves up as standard-bearers, creating boards to govern what went on television, what went on records, and to establish whole arms of government concerned with decency.

In the Eighties, the threat posed by nuclear holocaust and the Cold War lent a sense of imperilment to the times. Movies such as “The Day After” which aired on television and Red Dawn in the theaters gave voice to the suspicion that the least reliable members of society were the ones with their hands on the button. For the most part, the Eighties saw a banal time of reflecting and of getting by by the adults. Americans enjoyed the expansiveness of the Eighties economy, especially having just come out of leaner economic times. Conspicuous consumption raised its head again, and the youth and other idealists cried foul.

The conservative backlash in the Eighties saw picketing in front of abortion clinics, with some protests near the end of the decade turning violent. The anti-military quarter found its voice again, but only briefly, against the war in the Persian Gulf. It was difficult to oppose an all volunteer military.

Musically, there was another British Invasion, and all things English enjoyed brief status as hip. Americans flocked to their television sets at the crack of dawn to watch royalty marry. But none of this brought back the traditionalism or white-male oriented culture of the Fifties. By the time the investors in Savings and Loan banks across the country realized they were impoverished, Generation X had already accepted that things were simply different these days. Any meaning to be had was going to be of their own making.

The founders of Earth Day and organizers of love-ins did not wait for an event on a calendar to get involved. Julia Butterfly Hill has made no small career of tree-hugging (now referred to as tree-sitting), and these activities do not accord with Robert Putnam’s presentation of decades of diminished involvement or of a reduction of pressures on the political system. How can we see this group or this time as less philanthropic? The idea that music can change the world had no diminished audience in the Eighties when Band-Aid released the “We Are the World” record to raise money for hunger relief. The generation who opposed apartheid, believed in Solidarity and Glasnost, who watched as the wall came down and who now want to free Tibet are not alienated from the political issues.

We didn't look to leaders for answers; we looked to ourselves. We recognized that the leaders were the problem and that we were powerless as things were. We digitized everything, creating bulletin boards, making a crazy-quilt of temp jobs when perma-temping became a reality, and established our own survival units by packing an apartment and getting a rice cooker.

Portions of this post come from my paper blasting Robert Putnam's conclusions about the loss of social capital at the hands of Gen X.