Gen X Is Having a (Very Gen X) Moment
Some demographic disclosures: I was born in 1977, two weeks before Star Wars came out. I turned 42 in May. I am a late-edge member of the age cohort commonly known as Generation X. Sometimes the word “xennial” is used to describe people like me and my proximate-age peers, but I can’t use that word without feeling like I’m trying to weasel out of something, or weasel into something else. I identify as Gen X. It’s a label that makes my history make sense.
I used an internet-connected device for the first time in my friend’s parents’ basement in 1987. I wrote a review of Slanted and Enchanted for my high-school paper and used QuarkXPress to make the page it appeared on look like a David Carson layout from Ray Gun magazine, complete with power-clashing fonts. I flew the flannel. I got a Caesar haircut to look like George Clooney in From Dusk till Dawn and everybody remarked on how much I looked like Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk till Dawn. I dropped out of college to work at what people were then still calling a “dot-com.” I saw Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo open for Henry Rollins doing spoken word. I saw Hole open for the Lemonheads.
I say these things not because I think they’re important but because I believe that they aren’t. No one should want to know more about what these experiences were like. I do not want to impress you. I am ready to be nothing, in the grand scheme. I am eager to be nothing.
To identify as Gen X is to lay claim to insignificance. We are members of a demographic blip. There are only, like, 84 million of us. We’re outnumbered on both sides by the baby-boom generation who preceded us and the millenials who followed. If you take away everything but brute post-apocalyptic math, this makes us the best generation — when the shit goes down we will, statistically speaking, be less of a drain on the world’s dwindling supply of food, water, and shade than those other age cohorts. You’re welcome.
We are a fractious generation but we can still roll our eyes in unison.
But, as long as civilization endures, we’re an inconvenient historical remainder. In January of this year, during a segment on the phenomenon of “millennial burnout,” CBS News threw a hilarious infographic on screen, breaking down the population by age, birth year, and agreed-upon generational moniker, from the silent generation (born between 1928–1945, ages 73–90) up through post-millennials (21 and younger, including people born yesterday). This graphic was noteworthy for what it left out; CBS’ sorting of all living humans into four blue rectangular bars did not include a bar for people born between 1965 and 1980. We were not worth the proportionate reduction in the size and overall legibility of the other bars that including us in the conversation would have entailed.
This erasure felt both boneheaded and perfect. It should go without saying that the first person to notice and point it out in a viral tweet was a Gen Xer — a guy named Bill Evenson, who is from Minnesota and co-hosts a podcast about the Frankenstein movies. It should also probably go without saying that the replies to Evenson’s tweet quickly filled up with Gen Xers cracking mordant jokes about this referendum on our relevance. We are a fractious generation but we can still roll our eyes in unison. It’s muscle memory. Also, we’re used to being disrespected by CBS News. We have been taking this kind of shit from them since Andy Rooney ho-hummed Kurt Cobain’s suicide on 60 Minutes, although we’ve since outlived our usefulness as a rhetorical focus for old people’s derision; even the title of “most entitled” belongs to the millennials now.
I’m using “millennial” the way boomers do, as a word that means “someone younger than me who is better at Twitter.” I’m using the generational “we” because I’m full of shit. The generational “we” is as misleading a term of art as the American “we.” Ascribing characteristics, an outlook, and an experience of the world to 84 million people isn’t painting with a broad brush. It makes painting with a broad brush seem precise. What thread connects Jay-Z and Andrew Cunanan, Paul Ryan and Will Oldham, Peter Dinklage and Stacey Abrams, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Cate Blanchett, me and possibly you? Shared memories of Schoolhouse Rock? The minute you say “we” or “us” about a cohort this large, the no true Scotsman fallacy strolls into the room, warming up on bagpipes. “X” is a variable, and my ’90s are not your ’90s.
That dumb X-less infographic would have been a perfect final word on “us” and the desultory, conflicted, categorization-averse cultural legacy that “we” left behind. But that’s not how the culture industry works. Stories need pegs. Nostalgia is like school spirit — sometimes it wells up organically and sometimes you have to create the conditions for it to manifest by deciding that Friday is “crazy shirt day.” 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of 1994, a year that gave us Pulp Fiction, Weezer’s Blue Album, and My So-Called Life, making it inarguably one of the most ’90s years ever. The take-machine revved up almost on its own, summoning up retrospectives and reexaminations and tributes, like the Gen X package that ran in the Style section of the New York Times in May. Good package. Odes to the beeper, a nice pirate-looks-at-fifty profile of Evan Dando, that sort of thing. As the last generation to come of working age before the Internet atomized the notion of careers in media, we are probably overrepresented in decision-making positions at legacy publications. I suppose it’s our turn to start throwing compulsory anniversary parties for our heyday, the way the boomers of 1994–25 years removed from 1969 — made us all watch Forrest Gump.
But our hearts aren’t in it, for a lot of reasons. It’s partly because any attempt at ’90s revivalism at this point feels like a revival of a revival. Tumblr kids picked over those crates years ago, unearthing grunge and Twin Peaks before moving on to more ’00s reference points. (The best retro coming-of-age show of this year was Hulu’s Pen15, about middle-school girls in the year 2000, aka the last historical moment you can tell a retro coming-of-age story without including 9/11 or the Forever War.) It’s partly because 1994 is a weird year to hang a Gen X retrospective on, given that the things we tend to think of as characteristically early-’90s are approximations of what was bubbling under the last years of the Reagan/Bush ’80s; 1994 just happens to be when the mainstream ingested what we seemed to be all about and exhaled Reality Bites. Our ’90s ended around 1998, when Total Request Live premiered; we don’t even own an entire decade, the way the boomers own the ’60s and by extension a rhetorical abstraction called “the sixties.” We know our time in the retro-thinkpiece spotlight is limited; for purely actuarial human-lifespan reasons the living icons of the ’60s are speeding toward the generational cliff. The next few decades will be Ragnarok for Jann Wenner’s Rolodex; the same elder gods who monopolized the conversation by having lived will re-monopolize it by dying. Building a counter narrative to that story feels like a waste of time.
But the real reason this Gen X moment feels less like an actual moment and more like a period of mourning for the absence of one is that Gen X culture is fundamentally incompatible with the way legacy-making works. The boomers processed their sense of having lived through unprecedented cultural upheaval by draping their lifestyle choices in a mythology of revolution. Anniversaryism — think of the orgy of explanation that bubbles up every time a Beatles album has a big birthday — grows from that soil, from the notion of one generation as the protagonists of the 20th century. Gen Xers grew up in the long shadow of that solipsism. It made us — or “us” — suspicious of mythmaking, of the very notion of a world that a pop song could change. We anointed generational spokespeople based on their unwillingness to speak for anyone. To the mainstream we offered conflicted, desultory, ironic, recombinant art. Commercial “alternative culture,” as critic Eric Weisbard wrote 20 years ago in the Village Voice, “was about the least profitable mainstream variant ever, a product that practically begged to be taken off the shelf.” Rallying around that question mark flag hasn’t gotten any easier with time. Our principled opting-out of certain kinds of bullshit is a hard thing to build a heroic narrative around, and so is the late-decade tech revolution that commentators love to point to as proof we weren’t so apathetic after all. Yes, we built new paths to the internet. We also built an industry on top of it that has amplified capitalism’s worst tendencies toward labor exploitation and generally done more to make the world worse than any business this side of petroleum, and we don’t get off that hook just because Mark Zuckerberg isn’t one of ours.
Recently a card-carrying member of Generation X entered the race for President of the United States. His name was Beto O’Rourke. He is 46 and a father and a former senator from El Paso, Texas. He was identifiably One Of Us. He’d been part of the hacker collective Cult of the Dead Cow. He’d been in a punk band with guys who went on to play in unassailably credible outfits like At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta. He posed for said punk band’s album cover wearing his girlfriend’s dress, seemingly less as a statement about gender and more as a big Novoselician goof. He was filmed tooling around on a skateboard and quoted about his admiration of Fugazi. He seems bright and eager to make a difference, and also completely doomed — and not just because attempting to ride the wave that swept history’s most racially and ethnically diverse Congress into office is an inherently room-illiterate thing for a handsome young white guy to do. He seemed doomed because every data point that emerged about his X-ness made him seem more like a traitor to that history. If listening to Fugazi inspires you to run for president — let alone to run against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as a centrist Democrat — you have perhaps not been listening to Fugazi correctly.
Let us be the first generation to opt out of building monuments to our rightness. Let’s build no monuments at all.
It’s somehow perfectly Gen X that Beto has already been kickflipped-over in the polls by a millennial; at this point the race to be the white man who loses the nomination to Joe Biden by the smallest margin appears to belong to Pete Buttigieg, whose earliest entries to the historical record include a mixed Harvard Crimson review of Radiohead’s profoundly antiheroic, fan-base-downsizing and therefore archetypally Gen X art-rock opus Kid A. Barring the possibility of Kamala Harris (born in 1964, just outside the X window) and, like the admittedly very X-presenting Barack Obama (born 1961), we may never get to vote for one of our own as president.
This is totally fine. This is better than fine. We are good at ambivalence, as a generation; when we feel ambivalent about tributizing our legacy, we should listen to that ambivalence and treat it like a lodestar. We were right about a great many things — corporate rock really did suck, misogyny really was pervasive and insidious, global warming really was a huge fucking problem. But let us be the first generation to opt out of building monuments to our rightness. Let’s build no monuments at all. Let’s lord nothing over anyone. Let’s expend no energy explaining ourselves and what we stood for to younger people who could not care less. Let’s fund no biopics of our heroes, compile no box sets, commission no further thinkpieces about how the pundits actually had us all wrong. Let us opt out one more time, from the generational requirement to look dismissively at our successors. Let’s be the first generation in modern history to subsume our specific interests to the greater good instead of insisting that the kids defer to our wisdom and experience just because we gave the world curbside recycling and Lilith Fair and voted for Bill Clinton. What we fought for, or didn’t see as worth fighting for, isn’t important. The only battle that matters is between pre-teen climate-change activists and an entrenched political establishment led by a boomer who believes the world goes away when his eyes close. Let us take whatever energy we might have put toward historical reenactments of the first Lollapalooza and use it to support and amplify and backstop anyone working to cancel the apocalypse on any front. It’s our only chance to ensure that when In Utero turns 50 in 2043, there’ll still be a civilization around to celebrate it.