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.”

For instance…

…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.

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18 Responses to “When do we grow up?”
  1. Tonnygok says:

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  4. That’s a wise answer to a tricky question

  5. BS low – rationality high! Really good answer!

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  7. Manvir says:

    The Cape is a cracking read, and befutiaully drawn. You guys should be proud of this. Joe’s original story was a brilliant riff on the superhero-antihero mythos, but the comic is something else entirely: true to the 20CG version while taking on a life of its own. Loved 1-3 and am getting the final chapter hell, I’m ordering it right now. Thanks, guys.

  8. Gaquino says:

    Hi. Just wondering if you are alive.

  9. Nicu says:

    Rethoric questions such as this one have always been pretty fun to answer … I say never as well!

  10. Andrew says:

    The one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from it, I assume this says all!

  11. So…does Flashpoint qualify?

  12. Realitätsprüfung says:

    And your half-hearted examination of Generation X’s lack of ability to grow up results in a sad conclusion: Blame it on the generation that came before.

    Which – ironically – proves your thesis: We HAVEN’T grown up, and are most comfortable commiting the same sin of the prior generation: Comparing ourselves to what came before, feeling guilty about not measuring up or trailblazing beyond, and blaming our parents for the state of the world.

    Or more simply: Continued arrested adolescence.

    As a Gen-X kid who did all that (refused to grow up in my 20s, and almost every other trope), I can now safely tell you: I’m letting the next guy fall into that trap – no more for me.

    As I hit 41 soon, over the past ~10 years I’ve grown up…taken responsibility. Career, personal life, children. I’m no longer blaming my parents for my shortcomings. I’m not going to blame prior generations for the state of the world anymore. I’m not going to rail against easy targets like some lazy pseudo-intellectual.

    Life is what you make it, and it’s too short to go blaming everyone else for your inability to grow up. God, what a luxury to take for granted – to grow up in a country as rich as ours, and be most concerned with your “historical importance”.

    As if. Us post-millenium adults should be *thankful* that prior generations built a world where we could afford to be so self-absorbed and shallow. And yet instead, so many Gen-Xers act like a petulant child that wonders why his plate of food isn’t as big as his dad’s was 30 years ago.

    It’s pathetic. Self-absorption is a luxury. Wallowing in it is futility.

  13. simon chet says:

    wow 200 posts congrats

  14. If it’s the last thing we need, it’s going to be the next thing we have, one more time.

    Brightest Day seems to be moving along at a fair clip, though.

  15. Alex says:

    As one DC fan to another, I think I can safely say that the last thing we need is another “Crisis.”

  16. What do we do if we see ourselves as being in our own version of late Rome under those conditions?

    “Keep working to leave the place better than we found it” seems as reasonable a choice as anything else to me. Of course, there do seem to be all these people who have some sort of objection to the very idea of leaving it better than we found it…

  17. Congrats on your 200 posts!

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