LIBBY EMMONS: What we should learn from Gen X defiance

There aren't that many of us. Between the years of 1964 and 1980, there were less children born than in the years previous or the years after. Hormonal birth control, legalized abortion, and the Vietnam War stole or prevented the formation of many lives who would have been our generational peers. Looking around America today, it's harder to spot us Gen Xers than our Boomer predecessors or Millennial successors, made up, in many cases, of our parents and kids or siblings, respectively. Even we have a hard time spotting ourselves out in the wild.

That doesn't stop a new report from The Future Laboratory from summing us up in order to sell things to us. The new report isolates the Boomers, the Gen Xers, the Millennials, and the Alphas by character type. I'm always interested in what's being said about our little generation, so I checked it out, and the report says that we're increasingly "feeling undervalued," that we're "skeptical," and "most likely" to distrust government. We aren't in charge of much the way our parents were at our age—in many cases, our parents are still in charge of it all, they've refused to hand off the reigns of power to the kids they left to run wild, unattended, throughout the 80s and 90s as we came of age.

The study's author Fiona Harkin posits that this "has seriously affected Gen X's earning power," and likely also our self-esteem. Boomer legislators would rather die in office than hand off dominion to us kids—and yes, they still call us that. We haven't inherited power, we haven't inherited wealth, we instead inherit the burden of our parents' aging, the rearing of our children amid infrastructure collapse, a job market where top tier positions are still occupied by our parents who staunchly refuse to give up control, and a housing market where–well good luck getting a foot across the threshold. 

Harkin calls our midlife "middlescence," a new adolescence where we need to morph from one phase of life into another without the traditional milestones our parents had. We're not out here buying Ferraris and marrying bimbos, that's not quite the Gen X style. Instead, we're rediscovering simplicity, trying to eat healthy to avoid adult onset acne or menopausal weight gain, and trying desperately to attain some kind of balance where we can chill, keep making our housing payments, student loan payments, launch our children into whatever remains of the American future, and hopefully adapt to life as an aging generation who has no hope of retirement. 

Where our Boomer parents kept working out of some inexplicable sense of drive and ambition, we'll just keep doing it out of necessity. We have little expectation that life will be otherwise. Harkin calls it "worktirement," but that's just a cute word for "working because there's no social security and we weren't able to save enough to retire on our own." (See housing payments and student loans.)

I often think of us a bit as a lost generation, not because we were lost to any crisis specifically, just because we were essentially neglected, ignored, glossed over. Ask any Gen Xer and they will tell you how they let themselves in after walking home from school or bus stop alone, how they were expected to make their own meals or those of their younger siblings, how they were told to get out the house for long stretches of time and to not return home until the street lights came on or the sun went down. Most of us got into college, not because we were particularly intelligent, but because there just wasn't that much competition.

We were curious, we were outsiders, we did for ourselves. Even the entertainments concocted to keep us occupied were alt—all ages nightclubs, raves in random airplane hangars out in the middle of Maryland somewhere, college radio and alternative music cassette tapes played on our boom boxes because there just weren't enough of us to really make it mainstream. Okay, so REM got 4 top 10s on the Billboard charts, Nirvana had one with Smells Like Teen Spirit, The Cure hit it with their most annoying song, Friday I'm In Love, and sure, The Beastie Boys got 1 in the top ten with Fight for Your Right to Party, but you see my point. Our movies were about teen outsider weirdos too, see Heathers or The Breakfast Club, even the X-Files.

We are still like that. We are still basically the odd men out between two massive generations that speak seemingly with one voice respectively, clamor for power and influence, look past us, and when they think about us at all do so with an eye toward blaming us for not living up to our potential. But of course, we know that already, we've been hearing it for years in the comment sections of report cards. 

Since we were kids, Gen Xers have basically wanted to be left alone. We were left to our devices and we got used to it. We don't ask for help, though we'll give it readily when it's asked of us. When we have a problem though, we're more likely to just try to solve it ourselves or make do without. We tend to face crisis alone.

While Boomers and Millennials are still trying to find themselves or figure out their true purpose, we already know who we are and we know what we're here for. We know that life consists of pinpoints of light and joy surrounded by a vast, deep expanse of work, responsibility and toil. We know that we must earn that joy and light and treasure it in our hearts to sustain us between the sunbursts. 

We expect nothing, we know we're entitled to nothing, and frankly, that's fine with us. The mega-generations that flank us on both sides can vie for supremacy, we for sure know that that legacy is not our own. We gave up on it decades ago.

But please, spare us the cute terms, like "middlescence" and "worktirement." We simply exist, and we prefer to do so without talking or writing about it (at too much length, anyway). We prefer to do our jobs, go home, find the joy, live in the light, and ignore the encroaching darkness.

Image: Title: gen x


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