The Breakfast Club

The Gen X delusion

They like to play the cynic, but Gen X built the modern world and got rich doing it

Artillery Row

Generational critique almost inevitably focuses on two targets: boomers and millennials. Boomers, according to their younger critics, bought up all the housing when prices were lower and then settled back to gripe about their grandkids. Millennials, according to older critics, are a bunch of soft-handed, self-entitled avocado-munchers who have never had to face real life.

Throughout this, Gen Xers have been left almost unscathed. Born between the coddled boomers and hysterical millennials, this cohort watches verbal volleys fly back and forth and thinks, “Wait, what if we’re the special ones?”

Joe Hildebrand, an Aussie journalist, appeared on Sky News this month and scorned his elders and his juniors. “You’re both screwed,” he said, “You’re both useless. We’re the ones becoming CEO’s and getting it done. We’re paying for both of you.”

A certain tarmac-hardened independent streak

A few years ago, Gen Xer Rich Cohen, writing for Vanity Fair, saw his peers as a cultural bulwark against ideological irrationality on both sides. “We’d seen what became of the big projects of the boomers,” he wrote, “As a result we could not stand to hear the Utopian talk of the boomers as we cannot stand to hear the Utopian talk of the millennials.” Matthew Hennessey of the Wall Street Journal took up this theme in his book Zero Hour for Gen X, seeing his generation as a “counterbalance to the millennial rush to a digital world, with its ethos of instant gratification, public shaming and isolation-by-technology.” (A Nielsen report, interestingly enough, has shown that Gen Xers are more addicted to social media than millennials.)

Perhaps there is something to it. Think of cultural figures who have stood against excesses of “social justice”. Names that leap to mind include Joe Rogan (born 1967) and Dave Chappelle (born 1973). 

Elon Musk (born 1971) is another case, and joins Gen Xers who have spearheaded technological innovation and economic growth, including Jeff Bezos (born 1964) and Peter Thiel (born 1967). Indeed, in the US and the UK Gen Xers are the leading generation when it comes to entrepreneurs. 

It’s a kind of enough-already detachment

So, one has a sense of where Gen X smugness comes from. Still, it needs a reality check. Housing prices took off in the 2000s, by which time even the slackers in their cohort should have had a chance to get their feet on lower rungs of the property ladder. Higher education costs took off then as well (or, in the US, in the mid-nineties) along with the pressure to incur them. My point is not to make anyone feel bad about their “privilege” but to suggest that economic outcomes are not always reducible to a set of attitudes.

The Gen X attitude is a point of pride. Gen Xers love to emphasise that they grew up in an age before social media, often to divorced parents, and had a certain tarmac-hardened independent streak as a result. That this is not quite “storming the beaches at Omaha” is accurate but cheap. That these same kids went on to perfect helicopter parenting is more ironic. It’s tough to be a latchkey kid if you’re barely allowed out of the house.

Gen Xers define themselves by a sort of cynical insouciance. “Our generational works of art,” Rich writes, “Share this sensibility. It’s a kind of enough-already detachment, an exhaustion, an opting for comedy over morals, lessons, rules.” That’s the idea anyway. Gen Xers had rich seams of anti-corporate moralism which — for all the virtues of ‘zine culture and independent film — were often abandoned once they made bank. Gen Xers railed against suburban tedium and existential ennui and were supplanted by younger activists with more intense convictions. Gen Xers wallowed in the sort of dark introspection that metastasized online after the millennium.

Of course, these are all lusty generalisations. People born in 1965 alone included J.K. Rowling, Charlie Sheen and Mark “The Undertaker” Calloway. One cannot boil a generation down to a simple and coherent definition any more than one can reduce a greengrocer’s to a single recipe. 

Less of the attitude

I’ll cheerfully say that I admire the outlaw creativity that spits and bubbles on the fringes of Gen X life. Kevin Smith might have decided that it was more fun to watch big dumb blockbusters than to try to make interesting films but Paul Thomas Anderson still surprises us with cinematic weirdness. While Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins drifted off, comically overinflated by egotism and earnestness, oddball poets like Jason Molina and Bill Callahan will endure.

But for the most part the problem with Gen X is that there is no there there. The cynical insouciance was a front, in many cases, for not having much to say. Ageing Americans sometimes complain that there has never been a Gen X president. Who has been on offer? Beto O’Rourke? A guy who spent his early years in hacker communities and post-hardcore bands and has ended up this dull

Even the prose of Gen X’s most infamous far-right philosopher, Mencius Moldbug, is best described as clever, with all the stirring inspirational qualities of a bowl of ramen noodles. No wonder millennials overdosed on ideology. Say what you like about the tenets of social justice, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.

Somehow, a generation of proud individualists gave us a world where almost every book is bought on Amazon, almost every search is logged by Google, and almost every box office hit is steeped in misty-eyed nostalgia for the cultural products of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Empire Records might as well have been made in the 1930s for its irrelevance to cultural and commercial life today. 

Again, I am not trying to make anyone feel bad here. God knows we millennials are not going to have a very proud collective identity. But Gen X? Less of the attitude. If you resent being “the forgotten generation” you have to ask yourself how much you are leaving to remember.

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