Every time a social commentator dusts off the old generational saw and puts forth a new theory about what's happening with Generation X, I groan. After 25 years, it's tiresome to be told over and over that my entire generation is comprised of a bunch of "slackers," that my friends and I have somehow failed at the game of life. That is, when I have time to read the stories. I'm usually too busy working.
When the movie "Slacker" came out in 1991, I didn't have time to see it in theaters. That year, I was enrolled in college full-time while simultaneously running what was then (in terms of membership) Missouri's largest environmental organization. I was also holding down several part-time jobs and putting myself through school on a mix of scholarships, loans, and my own income, as no one was paying my way.
When I finally saw the movie on VHS, I thought the "Madonna's pap smear" character had a sense of humor that was cannily similar to my high school best friend's, but other than that, the movie didn't resonate with me.
None of my friends seemed to be slacking off, either. That high school best friend went to one of the best journalism schools in the country, was politically active, and had launched her own paper devoted to animal rights issues. Most of the other people I knew were working in "the movement" in some way, knocking on doors in the evenings trying to raise money and grassroots support for bills that would, for example, bring least-cost utility planning to Missouri or raise corporate auto fuel efficiency standards. Not as sexy as a 60s protest, but these are the nuts-and-bolts of real social change.
So whenever Generation X gets unfavorably compared to the baby boomers, I feel defensive, and justifiably so. We've been living under the shadow of the baby boomers all our lives, and enough is enough. It's time to question the authority that taught us to question authority.
As a student activist for all of my undergrad days, I took part in quite a few public demonstrations: to protest the first Iraq War, to fight racist policies, to uphold Roe vs. Wade, to protest the Catholic church's stance on gays. But what I'm most proud of is the measurable change we brought about in the form of community gardens planted, food distributed to those without, and bills passed to protect our rights, our air, and our water. Some of the members of my generation did a fine job of continuing the legacy of the boomers, and the world is better off than it would have been without us. And we did it without burning down any buildings.
But Generation X has always been on the cusp of an empire in decline. And what that means is that a lot of us, despite our practical idealism, find ourselves in adulthood having to shift from savior mode into survival mode.
We've lived through a recession in the 90s followed by a short-lived boom followed by terrorism, wars, and economic collapse. Pensions, the likes of which many of our boomer parents still enjoy, have albeit disappeared for us. The very notion that a person could work for a company throughout her adulthood and then count on being taken care of by that company in her old age seems quaint and unreal to us, like Beaver Cleaver's white picket fence. We've had to do more with less than our parents. As this chart vividly illustrates, the U.S. was recently surpassed by China as the world's number one economy.
Most of us are saddled with student loan debt we might still be paying off in our old age. I don't know a single person who doesn't feel deeply depressed after clicking through her company's online retirement calculator, if she's lucky enough to have a job with a 401(k) plan. We know Social Security likely won't be there for us when we need it. The money taken out of our paychecks now funds the baby boomers' retirements, but it looks like it won't be there by the time we can no longer work. And even if by some miracle it is, it won't be enough to live on, especially since many of us won't own our own homes. Most of us figure we'll just have to keep going till we drop.
Even those Gen Xers who never tried to change the world were working hard at what they were doing: starting businesses, raising children, making art, you know, little things like trying to become writers during the collapse of the newspaper and publishing industries. That high school best friend of mine never got a chance to be a journalist despite her J-school pedigree.
By the time I hit my 30s, I had shifted from politics to non-profit fundraising to education, hoping to effect social change on an individual level with every student I taught. I turned down a university teaching post in favor of working for a community college, reasoning that I could have more of an impact with that student population than I would at an expensive, private university.
But even after earning tenure, I was still making far less than median salary for my region. Because my raise each year would be lower than the rate of inflation, I was staring down the barrel at a lifetime of personal economic struggle, in which I'd be effectively making less every year while the cost of living would continue to rise.
And not only that - I felt like my impact on students was very limited by the broken educational system in which I tried to function. Washington state had put its funding into community colleges at the expense of four-year universities, and both students and teachers suffer as a result.
I'd expected to teach a traditional community college population of students in transition, some of them underprepared for college due to the challenges of their circumstances. Instead, community college instructors in Washington state are effectively asked to cover the first two years of a four-year education for the majority of students in the state, but for far less money than their university cohorts, with far fewer resources, and with a higher classroom student/teacher ratio. It's essentially McEducation.
On top of that was the pile of student loans I had to pay off. Then I rode the roller coaster real estate market, buying a house, selling it high, buying another, and having to sell it again, coming out on the whole deal with no gain and more debt.
So in my 30s, for the first time in my adulthood, I went to work for Corporate America, eschewing my idealistic mandate in the process. It's taken me a decade, but I'm almost out of student loan debt. Even so, I'm priced out of the housing market where I live, and my retirement calculator still makes me weep.
Perhaps in our shift to survival mode, we have failed to fight the good fight. These days, I'm an armchair activist at best. But some of my Gen X friends stayed in teaching, and they've done a lot of good, even if they haven't been able to change any of the frustrating aspects of the structure in which they must teach.
The author with her husband, raising money for their spiritual center's trip to Cambodia.
Have I given up my idealism? I help my family, friends, and community whenever I can, and I donate an annual tithe to worthy causes. I've committed a portion of the sales of my book, Cat in the Flock, to Jubilee Women's Center, a fantastic org that helps women transition out of homelessness. At this point, I've donated more than I've earned on the book, and that's OK.
I'm relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence here to make the argument that my generation has never deserved its "slacker" label. You can mesh that with the statistics that have been flinging around the Internets for years about rising education costs, skyrocketing student loan debts, wage shrinkage for everyone except the topmost earners, the dissolution of the middle class, the real estate debacle, the dismal propects for Social Security, etc., etc.
While this argument is structured as a defense, I hope I don't sound overly defensive. Is it right to generalize any group of people, especially on so arbitrary a foundation as birth? Generational theory is specious at best. It's only meaningful in the event of a short-term, measurable spike in births, making the baby boomers the only true cohort we can examine. While I can look across the experiences of the men and women around my age and defend us in a general sense, I also see a great deal of variance.
The baby boomers were the last generation that shared a common culture, focused as the nation was on a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers. There used to be more of a collective gaze, a shared set of role models and celebrities. Everyone paid attention to the Beatles, or what was on top 40 radio. But now entertainment and media are balkanized, broken up into a gazillion cable and YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and Instagram sensations. These days we gravitate toward tribes and identifications. My stepson, who's 15, has no idea what's happening in Seattle's indie rock hipster culture. But ask him about rap stars, and you get a dissertation. The very notion of a "popular" culture is being replaced by demographic preferences.
Generation X was on the cusp of this shift, and many of us are overly nostalgic about our vanished American childhoods as a result. We go wild when listicles like "You know you were born in the 70s/80s if you recognize these" pop up on social media, and we can't help but scroll through, pining for our lost Garbage Pail Kids. Despite acrimonious divorce and/or real abuse that sent many of us into therapy, our childhoods from this vantage point can seem recklessly idyllic. We picture ourselves back then, drinking from garden hoses with abandon and riding our bikes without helmets, the breeze blowing through our Farah Fawcett wings.
We also saw a shift in the idea of role model. Our parents' generation to this day continues to idealize men like Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and Martin Luther King - men who were rubbed out in the prime of their lives. My cynical Gen X mind wonders what would have happened to these men's legacies if they'd lived to old age. It's Ted Kennedy, after all, whom we link to Chappaquiddick, and the baby of the family hasn't been lionized like his brothers have. JFK may have been involved with Marilyn Monroe, but that just deepens his appeal.
By contrast, many of Gen X's would-be heroes have lived long enough to have flamed out in big, embarrassing ways: Pee-wee Herman's public masturbation, Bill Cosby's string of 13 (and counting) rape allegations, Bill Clinton as the highest office of sexual harrassment in the land. Then there's Michael Jackson, Gary Hart, Dennis Kucinich, Whitney Houston, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Ted Nugent, the list goes on.
Some of them recover and reinvent, like Bill Clinton and Robert Downey, Jr. But still.
A line from a Gen X-era song sums it up well: "Who'll be my role model/ now that my role model is gone, gone? He ducked back down the alley/ with some roly-poly litte bat-faced girl." Notably, the songwriter is Paul Simon, beloved baby boomer, adopted by my generation.
Perhaps the last best hope many of us had was Barack Obama. But when he reversed his campaign position on the Iraq War and government overreach in his first term, he kind of broke us. But then again, as much as that hurt, it didn't really surprise us. We've come to expect it. Some of us even voted for him a second time, because you know. Politics.
But just think for a moment about what kind of legacy he would have if god forbid he'd been assassinated during his first year in office.
Of course that couldn't have happened; we're in a different time and place than the baby boomers. Our struggles are not to change the social fabric of society the way the 60s hippies needed to do. While our parents were questioning the very authority that was the Great Empire of the United States, we're too busy trying to survive, or change what is still in our power to change, as that empire slowly but surely declines.