The thoughts of a journalist/libertarian–conservative/Christian husband, father, Eagle Scout and aficionado of obscure rock music. Thoughts herein are only the author’s and not necessarily the opinions of his family, friends, neighbors, church members or past, present or future employers.
In Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… (1989), Lloyd Dobler sketches out a stumbling, uncertain-but-nevertheless-determined path for his and my generation:
“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” “We’re not sure what we want, but not this,” was a strange but endearing generational rallying cry. Few of us who saw the film in our teens or early twenties failed to laugh with recognition.
Ascribing common traits to an entire generation of tens of millions of disparate Americans is a dubious exercise, even a fool’s errand. So call me a fool, I won’t take it personally.
For instance, assuming everyone in a particular generation has seen a particular movie. Except probably for the original “Star Wars.”
Still, a few characteristics unique to Generation X did become clear as the decades passed. Gen X was notably the first generation to have to deal with the mistakes of the Baby Boomers, and the first in which interracial relationships and homosexuality enjoyed widespread acceptance. Gen X-ers were also more emotionally damaged by divorce than the children of any previous or subsequent generation. There was fragility within us as we faced a joyous historical moment when American ways had indisputably been proven superior to those of the Soviet empire and affluence had become, for the first time, available to a huge proportion of Americans. No previous generation could simply choose wealth, but Gen X discovered that a master’s in business or a law degree was a virtual ticket to the upper class. And this created a conflict, given the anti-materialist shibboleths of the John Lennon-led Boomer culture we’d all inherited: Did access to wealth mean we ought to pursue it? Could we achieve it in some Doblerian way that preserved our sense of self? The natural optimism and excitement of youth were tinged with doubts.
Steeped as we were in Boomer rock music, we sensed it was full of questionable advice. Turning away from, or blowing up, the existing power structures so we could “get ourselves back to the garden,” as Crosby, Stills and Nash sang in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” was not an option we considered. We were not revolutionaries. The country that awaited us not only didn’t require radical overthrow, it seemed pretty good. Our first votes were likely to be for Reagan (61 percent of the youth vote in 1984) or George H.W. Bush (53 percent in 1988). We advanced into adulthood as cautious idealists, a little hopeful and a little confused.
When I arrived at college in 1985, U2 and Talking Heads were very much the bands of the moment, but there was a palpable sense that Bono and Co. still hadn’t quite fulfilled their promise, that their best days, like ours, were yet to come. Junior year, just as we returned from spring break to a New Haven that flipped overnight from gray slush to Monet efflorescence, U2 delivered its hoped-for masterpiece in The Joshua Tree, instantly and obviously the defining rock album of the decade.