I’m a proud member of Generation X, the oft-forgotten demographic between the utopian Baby Boomers and the self-adoring Millennials. Granted, not all the members of any generation fit their stereotype, but the culture spawned by these groups defines them in aggregate.
After the Greatest Generation survived the Great Depression and returned from a bloody world war, they sought a quiet sanctuary in suburbia, sparing their kids such pain. The Boomers decided that life was boring and inauthentic, and tried to replace it with a Summer of Love that would usher in the Age of Aquarius. That experiment didn’t go too well.
Gen X was sold the Boomers’ utopian dream throughout our youth, but never quite bought it. The culture of our childhood was infused with the wreckage wrought by hippies and yippies. Vietnam protests and the loss of that war. Drug addicts and dead rock stars. Kiddie shows that toggled between LSD trips to eco-apocalypse. We watched the failure of the War on Poverty, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. (Not to mention the hideous fashions.)
Today, my fellow X-ers look at Millennials with confusion, much like the Boomers looked at us. Eyes on the black mirror of their iPhones, they’re focused on their reflection as the center of their intersectional utopia.
Gen X’s unique outlook has led Rich Cohen to see them as America’s “last, best hope“:
Though much derided, members of my generation turn out to be something like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca—we’ve seen everything and grown tired of history and all the fighting and so have opened our own little joint at the edge of the desert, the last outpost in a world gone mad, the last light in the last saloon on the darkest night of the year. It’s not those who stormed the beaches and won the war, nor the hula-hooped millions who followed, nor what we have coming out of the colleges now—it’s Generation X that will be called the greatest…
Perhaps without knowing it, Cohen is outlining what Thomas Sowell called “a conflict of visions,” one that is constrained and one that isn’t:
Sowell argues that the unconstrained vision relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good. Those with an unconstrained vision distrust decentralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Collateral damage is merely the price of moving forward on the road to perfection. Sowell often refers to them as “the self anointed.” Ultimately they believe that man is morally perfectible. Because of this, they believe that there exist some people who are further along the path of moral development, have overcome self-interest and are immune to the influence of power and therefore can act as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.
Boomers and Millennials, writ large, subscribe to the unconstrained vision; Gen X to the constrained, or tragic, vision. Perhaps we should start calling my generation the Sowell generation.
Irony and a keen sense of dread are what make Generation X the last great hope, with its belief that, even if you could tell other people what to say and what not to say, even if you could tell them how to live, even if you could enforce those rules through social pressure and public shaming, why would you want to? I mean, it’s just so uncool…
I couldn’t agree more.