Two hundred posts! I think that merits a little reflection and reminiscence.
This blog has been an ever-shifting beast since it started, neither fish nor fowl: I’m as likely to be writing about pop culture one day as about politics the next. I think taken as a whole, though, the selection of subjects says something about me and how I see the world. (And perhaps also about my readers: the niche-fandom posts tend to attract far more hits than the political ones, which may indicate a preference for superficial topics or, more charitably, may just indicate that the latter posts are lost in a sea of better-known political sites.)
Part of what this wide range of interests says, I imagine, is that I’m not particularly settled in life; that I’m always looking for the next thing to occupy my attention. And the thought arises that perhaps this isn’t just true of me; that in some ways it’s emblematic of my generation. The idea is bubbling up lately (if not for the first time) that Generation X is facing its own unique variety of midlife crisis. I certainly wouldn’t claim to offer the voice of a generation—indeed, the very concept of having a “voice of a generation” can’t really be discussed in a GenX context without using quotation marks to signal the overt irony—but I do think it’s interesting to look at where we stand at what’s quaintly called “midlife.”
…A.O. Scott of the New York Times mused on the subject last month in a piece examining Milo Burke’s new novel The Ask and two recent movies, John Cusack’s Hot Tub Time Machine and Ben Stiller’s Greenberg… an odd assortment of works in which he nevertheless found common threads reflecting the present-day anomie of “that overeducated, insecure demographic cohort” to which he himself belongs (having been born in ’66). When and how, Scott asks, did Cusack or Stiller become “the older guys”? And why are they, and we, still so insecure? Whereas previous generations found larger social norms to rebel against, Scott says, GenXers (as portrayed in these artistic snapshots) find ourselves flailing about more randomly, consumed mostly with “regret, an intimation of lost possibilities that haunts everyone.”
This, he posits, is because we’re a generation that never quite fully entered adulthood in the first place; that found it impossible to take seriously the culture that was handed to us by our Baby Boom predecessors, and has therefore languished in prolonged adolescence. Certainly a sense of ironic detachment has characterized our cohort from the start, when Douglas Coupland coined and claimed the term in his novel Generation X back in 1991… and with that detachment has come a pervasive sense of underachievement. (And Coupland himself having been born in ’61, I have ever after rejected any and all claims that the Boom generation extended beyond that date, trivia like birth rates notwithstanding. Generational divisions are cultural constructs, not strictly statistical ones.)
In a sense, however, this particular “midlife crisis” dates back to at least ’91 itself; certainly I began feeling the symptoms as far back as college. It was then, looking a few years beyond my formal education, that I began wondering “what next?”, a question that has more or less dominated my life ever since. Not that anyone should be surprised, but recent research studies verify that GenXers have put off the traditional trappings of “adulthood” until far later ages, and in far greater numbers, than preceding generations. We take longer to complete our educations and establish our careers. Some of us have encumbered ourselves with mortgages and children, granted; but it’s not unusual to have delayed them throughout our 20s and into our 30s.
And a great many people (including yr hmbl correspondent) have avoided these trappings entirely. Per the above-linked article, such things, once all but inevitable, “are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.” As columnist Mark Morford observes about his GenX cohort in San Francisco, so too for me here in Chicago:
I know almost no one (including myself) who fits the traditional models of [career] path, relationship, adulthood. … Everyone is experimenting to some degree, playing with time, rearranging the tropes, improvising the lifemap. Definitions blur, expectations evolve, possibilities tingle. What fun! Well, sometimes.
And I embody the anomie aspect of all this more than a little as well, after all… 40 years old (shhh!) and heading back to school for a doctorate and another new direction, hoping that perhaps this time it’ll stick.
The reasons for these trends are complex and overdetermined. I think to a significant degree, however, they’re a rational, even unavoidable, response to following behind the Baby Boomers. The Boom generation has since its beginning occupied a disproportionate share of our collective cultural attention, and it has steadfastly refused to relinquish that spotlight or, for that matter, to acknowledge its own aging. If as they approach retirement they are themselves still only in “midlife,” how can those of us residing in their long shadow possibly see ourselves as genuine adults? We’re young because we’re not as old as they are… although of course we never will be. (Moreover, with so many of them uninterested or simply unprepared actually to enter retirement, and thus create the kind of job openings that let everyone else move up, how can we plausibly reach for the same kind of responsibilities or accomplishments they have claimed?) We’re stuck in limbo.
As a generation, the Boom represented a one-time-only convergence of a huge population surge with a 25-year period of the greatest prosperity, social mobility, and global influence ever enjoyed by America or, indeed, by any nation in human history. The Boomers’ reaction to their formative years was like anyone’s would be: as a matter of basic psychology, the best status quo one has ever enjoyed is what one takes for granted as “natural” and expects to shape future norms. In reality, however, those days are never coming back. The Boomers were handed the world for their (re)making and proceeded to fuck it up in every imaginable way. Among other things, rather than expanding and sharing the cultural openings they inaugurated in the ’60s, instead they collectively imposed on us a conservative backlash that degraded our political culture for thirty years, culminating in the most arrogantly stupid and stupidly arrogant presidency in American history (its figurehead himself a Boomer)… a set of circumstances that forcefully evoke late Rome.
But what does one do when one finds oneself stuck in late Rome without being either a barbarian or a religious zealot? If one actually likes secular civilization, yet sees it staggering on what may quite plausibly be its last legs? One may well cope by taking refuge in a certain ironic detachment. Yet that’s a trap as well… it leaves nothing worth one’s full engagement or dedication, and thus drains much of the joy and passion out of life.
(Indeed, that’s a balancing act that’s unavoidable in the studies I’m beginning. I care deeply about Public Policy, and hope that through scholarship I can find ways to help repair our political culture and reshape our shared future… but I’m fully aware of the risk that this may become an exercise in despair, merely documenting their decline.)
In the end, I don’t think we have any choice but to face risks like that. We keep on keeping on, playing the hand we were dealt. We can look for things worth laughing at, but also for things worth taking seriously. We construct meaning where we can. And we ask, I think, whether the title of this post applies not just to our particular generation but to our culture as a whole. I suppose this blog charts the course of my own efforts at all this.
But that’s not a “midlife crisis”… that’s just life.Tags: adolescence, adulthood, Boomers, Generation X, history, midlife crisis, psychology