Sunday, January 3, 2016

The X-Smiles

Last night a Millennial (the group born 1980-2001) quasi-niece on a seasonal break from college hosted some of her friends at my house. Also present was a Silent Generation (b. 1929-1945) member. For their sake and mine, I, a Boomer (1946-1964), decided to give them all some space for a couple hours by going to the cinema. [Note: Commentators differ on the birth years for generations other than Boomers, but by no more than a few years one way or the other.] As luck would have it, I sat down to a film aimed squarely at Generation X (1965-1979). A significant part of the audience was a talkative Generation Z (aka “post-Millenials,” 2002-present) thereby fleshing out the age-spread for the evening.

Is it fair to identify people by generation? After all, every age group has its overachievers, its underachievers, its dreamers, and its cynics; attitudes and behaviors within a group fall along a bell curve. Nonetheless I think there is some validity to it; each age group experiences history in a distinctive way – or doesn’t experience it, as is the case for those too young to remember the Depression, World War 2, or Vietnam. This forms distinct age-cultures, and we’re all influenced by our culture. The center-line of that bell curve, in other words, can be in a very different place from one age-cohort to the next.

By chronological necessity, we all form our self-identities in our youths. So, our self-images are youthful ones. On the day we recognize middle-age staring back at us from the mirror it is a shock. Always. Generation X is currently looking in that mirror and is handling its middle-age crisis in its own distinctive way.

GenXers are a curious bunch. Thanks to the baby bust that followed the baby boom, they are only half as numerous as either the idealistic Boomers that preceded them or the aspirant Millennials who followed, and they accordingly are overshadowed by both. They self-identify as cynics and slackers. There is some justice to the “cynics” tag but the “slackers” one is unduly harsh. They have a high work-force participation rate and earn more money than did their parents, who  mostly are Silents and early Boomers. Perhaps they are just cynical about their accomplishments. It is true, though, that in real terms they haven’t managed to save nearly as much as their parents did at the same ages and their divorce rate is the highest of any generation ever: the two may be related. They might have good cause to raise an eyebrow at it all.

In the film Sisters, currently in theaters, GenX sisters Kate (Tina Fey) and Maura (Amy Poehler) Ellis are forced to look in the middle-age mirror when their parents inform them that the house in Orlando, FL, where the two girls grew up is under contract. The parents already have moved out; they tell their daughters to clean out their old room before the new owners take possession. Maura is divorced and Kate has a teenage daughter of her own who doesn’t live with her, but neither sister is emotionally prepared to let go of their childhood home. On the weekend prior to closing, the sisters decide to have one final blow-out party at the house; they invite their old high school crowd along with some new friends. The result is very much like a wild teen party when the parents are away, except the participants are 40-something with adult lives. In order to whip them up, Kate tells them that they used to party like animals because they thought they would live forever, but “Tonight, let's party like Vikings, because we know we could die tomorrow!” If Mr. and Mrs. Ellis thought they were done with the job of raising their daughters, they were mistaken.

Sisters is not a great comedy, but it’s not bad. I’m sure it speaks to those who are “suddenly 42” as well as to those who remember having been so. The Generation Z in the audience laughed at the potty humor, so there is something in the movie for them too. As for me, after driving home I was pleased to find my house much as I’d left it, and not at all like the post-party house in the movie.

There are lots of GenX anthems from which to choose (their music isn’t bad) but I’ll go with Radiohead


  1. I try not to over think any of the generational gaps as they sort of mesh together to me. It's hard to separate their distinctions as they blend over and together. But it seems the Millennials think swearing and profanity is just a part of the human vernacular, so just let it go. Saying the F bomb around their peer groups is permitted, though they may not use it at the family Thanksgiving dinner. That too might have evolved out of the Gen X (Kevin Smith, Seth Rogan, Apatow) generation too, but it sure has changed the landscape in ways at least showing up more in movies, not always for the better. But that's a personal preference.

    I don't know that I've ever seen what characteristic are equated to each generation, though it might be interesting. Again that's a broad statement. I have Gen X nieces & nephews and they don't seem that way at all, being level headed, having good work ethics, etc.

    I thought Sisters might be fun.

    1. There is always a full spectrum of personalities, behaviors, and views in any group – the bell curve mentioned above – but growing up with the same historical experiences, popular music, sports events, slang, movies, social events, cars, technology, etc. really does give a distinct tinge to an age group. (Sticking with the light metaphor, it’s sort of like blue or red shifting the whole spectrum over time.) A Marxist and an Objectivist both born in 1955 almost surely in ways other than politics have more in common with each other than either has with someone born in 1995 who shares his or her political philosophy.

      Of course the dividing lines between generations are in the eye of the beholder, but there usually are some grounds. In their books “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning” historians William Straus and Neil Howe argue that the boundaries are culturally akin to physical watersheds; watersheds may not always be obvious when you are atop one (the slopes can be too gentle to notice) but water flows into different streams or rivers on each side. Whether justified or not, it’s a nice image.

  2. Yeah I think you can use generational categories and they tend to be effective. As a Xer (tail end of the generation, but still an Xer), I find that the label holds a lot of accuracy. I see the slacker part as more of a cynical badge of honor that we carry, but don't really live by. This is because we feel like we have to do better than our parents did. Being cynical, we are pretty convinced that their errors made things the mess they are, and hell we can't change it, but we can at least do thing differently. I don't know. Most of the Xers I know have a strong work ethic and an independent "well I'll just do it myself" kind of attitude about work. But yeah it always ends with "its not going to make much of a difference anyway".

    My parents ended up selling our childhood home during the peak of the financial crisis. It was a surreal thing to me. I was helping them pack things up and figure out what things could be sold at the garage sale. It had this really depressing feel to it, not just because they were moving from the old place, but the way they lost the old place. Anyway, I know a few fellow Gen Xers who went through the same thing, I can see that being a touchpoint for a film.

    1. That is a rough story about the house, and regrettably not an uncommon one. I took a hit that year too in a weirdly inverse way. I actually acquired a small property I didn’t want during the real estate meltdown (a complicated story involving a private mortgage) and immediately afterward watched its value dissipate. Despite the supposed recovery of the real estate market since then, based on recent sale prices of similar properties it is still only half the value it was in 2006.

      It’s different when it’s a family home of course. A part of our identity resides in the sticks and mortar.