The Young and The Feckless: Reinventing the Identity Wheel

J. Maureen Henderson
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I blame Douglas Coupland. Before he coined the term Gen X and set it loose into the cultural lexicon, we didn't care about analyzing and compiling character profiles of generations. Demographics were good enough and the presumption was that youth had always been headstrong know-it-alls who wanted to push the old guard out of the way and seize their day at the helm (which they assumed would never end, natch), while fronting as if the idea of making their adult way in the world wasn't every bit as terrifying as it was thrilling. Change the dates and get Michael Cera's or Jesse Eisenberg's agent on the line and you could remake a film like American Graffiti tomorrow and it would be every bit as salient.

But somewhere along the way, things changed. It wasn't enough to talk about youth and middle age and dotage. Discussing historical touchstones for how they affected or shaped our national identity as a whole didn't drill down far enough. Everything needed to be broken down, disaggregated and reassembled into birth year based subcultures with their handful of generic descriptors - entitled, myopic, self-satisfied, disaffected, slackers, go-getters, etc. If it hadn't been Coupland, I suppose someone else would have eventually attempted to get all cute and zeitgeist-y and hive us off. The end result is, as I alluded to in The Myth of Gen Y Homogeneity, one-size-fits-all (all socioeconomic classes, races, gender identities, etc.) narratives that experts use to describe purportedly cohort-wide values and attitudes and to "explain" "conflicts" between generations that are apparently born of these value schisms. Never mind that youth and middle-age have never seen eye-to-eye and that that no one age group has a monopoly on angst and self-doubt.

I was reminded of how damn I annoying I find these caricatures while reading A. O. Scott's NYT piece on Gen X's mid-life crisis, or more actually A. O. Scott's piece about 40 year-old men feeling dissatisfied with their lives (gasp! really!) that he attempts to cast as a generational phenomenon by name-checking Ben Stiller's latest movie, John Cusack's Hot Tub Time Machine and a novel no one has read. I'd like to believe he was spoofing the ennui-associated traits that Gen X gets tagged with, but, unfortunately, I think Scott has actually swallowed the stereotypes attached to his peers (especially male peers) hook, line and sinker and has chosen to regurgitate them on the pages of the New York Times.

I see little to no acknowledgment, let alone championing, of historical context over character content when it comes to defining differences between demographics. At least not since the days of Sonny and Cher's The Beat Goes On. Sure, the technology may have changed and certain historical markers have infiltrated our collective consciousness (Vietnam vs. 9-11), but the logic of a life stage is a life stage is a life stage doesn't get any play at all. Instead, we feel the need to reinvent the wheel and to assert each generation's special snowflake status for the purpose of...selling books? keeping consultants in business? staking out an identity vis a vis other societal groups? Never mind if the distinctions might be artificial and Occam's Razor would tell us that the details aren't worth sweating. After all, what kind of compelling narrative does "Mid-life crises: a hallmark of humanity since our life expectancy exceeded 35 years" make?

But really, pull some sort of Freaky Friday meets Back to the Future stunt and I'm pretty sure our parents would be more than at home in our shoes and, likewise, our supposed existential angst would be par for the course in the turbulent 60s. Heck, if sexting had been around in the Roaring 20s, you can bet those flappers would have been all over it. Current iterations of FB pictorial debauchery would have nothin' on snaps of your great, great aunt Louise passed out next to the proverbial bathtub full of gin.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Small correction

Maybe I'm just chafing at the dis to Coupland, my favorite author of all time, but I feel compelled to clarify that he did not actually coin the term Generation X. His book by that name did popularize it, though.

Re: Small correction

You are absolutely correct. I believe it originally dates back to the post-WWII era and was applied to folks born earlier than the late 60s vintage we now associate with the term...

I've really been enjoying

I've really been enjoying reading this series (as is probably evident from the fact that I linked to it twice in my weekly blog round-up). Thanks for writing it.

I don't agree though that Generation X was the first generation to be fetishised and analysed to death - although I will concede that it may have been the first to be fetishised and analysed in the particular manner that it was. I recall many articles, television series and the like looking at the lives and influence of the baby boomers (this would have been in the early 1990s). I'm too young to remember any media before that, but this suggests that the category of "generations" isn't all that new. (See also: The Greatest Generation.)

I think part of the appeal of generationalism is that it serves as a target for anxieties about broader social changes. The youngest people at any given time are those who have been influenced by the smallest range of historical influences; therefore you could argue that they best embody the nature of the times. Generalisations aren't the answer though, and most popular analyses of generation are pretty intellectually feeble. Thanks for providing something that isn't!

Don't blame poor Douglas

Don't blame poor Douglas Coupland. It was sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss who most forcibly made and popularized this argument about generational cohorts. Check out their books "Generations" and "13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?"

Maureen your the only good

Maureen your the only good writer on this site and i can see you actually getting progressively better.

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