Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love my generation.

Hate me. Do it and do it again - Nirvana

Times are gone for honest men, and sometimes far too long for snakes. - Soundgarden

I hate my generation. - Sloan

What the hell was wrong with us? Beaten down, cynical, angry young brats is what we were. Slackers. Proof that the world was truly going to hell. Generation X.

According to famed demographers Strauss and Howe:

The 13th Generation (Nomad, born 1961–1981) survived a “hurried” childhood of divorce, latchkeys, open classrooms, devil-child movies, and a shift from G to R ratings. They came of age curtailing the earlier rise in youth crime and fall in test scores — yet heard themselves denounced as so wild and stupid as to put The Nation At Risk. As young adults, maneuvering through a sexual battlescape of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals—they date and marry cautiously. In jobs, they embrace risk and prefer free agency over loyal corporatism. From grunge to hip-hop, their splintery culture reveals a hardened edge. Politically, they lean toward pragmatism and nonaffiliation, and would rather volunteer than vote. Widely criticized as “Xers” or “slackers,” they inhabit a Reality Bites economy of declining young-adult living standards. (AMERICAN: Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster, Michael Dell, Deion Sanders, Winona Ryder, Quentin Tarantino; FOREIGN: Princess Di, Alanis Morissette)

Whaa, whaa, whaa. Or in the parlance of our times: "Whatever..."

There was actually a lot of truth to Gen-X stereotypes in my life in the early '90s. I dropped out of university (slacker move), became a freelance writer (slacker career), and was constantly just planning my next trip to Europe (slacker ambition). Today, dealing with people 14-15 years younger than me at work, I can't believe how organized and driven many of them are just out of school. If you had predicted my future from age 24, you probably would've assumed I'd end up now as a used bookstore manager who kept waiting for his 'zine to take off. But it didn't happen.

I wasn't the only late bloomer. Many of my high school friends struggled to find their direction in university. Some dropped out, and followed alternative career paths. Others stayed in, taking degree after degree until they got it right. When we started grade 9 in 1984, we were told that we had to think about our careers from day one, learn computers (BASIC, actually), and get high marks so we could get into the best programmes, at the best schools, for the highest starting salary.

As far as I know this message continues to be hurled at unwitting teens, but it our case something weird happened around graduation. The stock market crashed, recession hit, good entry-level jobs became scarce, and we just lost steam.

As Lloyd Dobler said:

You mean like career? Uh, I don't know. I've, I've thought about this quite a bit sir, and I'd have to say considering what's waiting out there for me, 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, you know, as a career I don't want to do that. So, uh, my father's in the army, he wants me to join, but I can't work for that corporation, so what I've been doing lately is kickboxing, which is really a, uh, new sport, but I think it's got a good future. As far as career longevity goes, I don't really know, because, you know, you can't really tell. Your training sticks as a fighter, you know, but it's no good, you know, you have to be great, but I can't really tell if I'm great until I've had a couple of pro fights. But I haven't been knocked out yet. I don't know, I can't figure it all out tonight sir, I'm going to hang with your daughter.

Ouch. And yet I didn't do much more than that until my first agency job at age 25. But then something happened. I went from Junior Copywriter to Creative Director in five years, and basically "got a life" (marriage, house, kid) in four more. How did we end up turning out okay?

This kind of thought is what makes me take stock of my cohort. Older or younger, I'd like to give you five good reasons why we are now rocking business, the family, culture, science and sports.

1) Business — our world is flat. Sure, the boomers lost the ties and burned the bras, but we were the ones who really made the workplace casual and equitable. We started out a little timid, but once we got into positions of power, we started demanding more work-life balance (especially maternity rights), better access to upper management, and made our bosses cringe with our serial career attitude. We distrust formality, like innovation, and value coworkers more on what they do than how hard they appear to work. We hate sycophants. If anything, our biggest challenge as managers is to remember that we're the boss. Because telling people what to do "just because I said so" just doesn't feel cool.

2) Family — We're really involved. I realize that X parents drive non-parents nuts. We bring babies to pubs and nice restaurants, we demand flexibility and support to be hands-on two-income families, and we treat our kids like superstars. But the upside is, we want to have relationships with our kids from Day 1. We have pushed for changes that bring the family back into everyday life, rather than just keeping kids "out of the way". Isn't that what "family values" really are?

3) Culture — recycling ideas. Yeah, that's right: we're creative environmentalists. This actually sounds kind of lame, but it's not. Everyone knows that there is rarely true innovation in human ideas, but rather building on the trials and successes of others. We accept that. Our best bands, like The White Stripes, Radiohead, The Beastie Boys or Wilco, just shamelessly recombine sounds from rock's 50+ year history in clever new ways. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino talk openly about their influences in every scene. It may not be new under the sun, but it sure is honest.

4) Science – A more balanced approach. I'm reading the book "Supersense" by Bruce M. Hood right now. Like other Gen X social scientists I've read, he seems to take a much more balanced approach to human nature than angry single-minded Pre-Boomers like Richard Dawkins. In fact, he takes a few good jabs at the inflexible extremism of the old atheist evangelist. Very Gen X of him!

5) Sports. Okay, we're getting a little old for professional athletics, but let's just end this with our finest representative in the field (or, rather, "course"): Tiger Woods. Rising above old ideas about ethnicity, adding charisma to a stuffy old game, and carefully managing his persona as a brand.

Maybe another Gen-X band, Smashing Pumpkins, were right on the button with their sneering faux-optimism:

Oh, and "happy Earth Day". Or whatever...


  1. Admittedly, my friends just about my age, fresh out of school walk around with giant question marks above their head (Kids like this, I refer to them as space cadets, adults aren't much different) which is a little different then the type of people my age I imagine you're exposed to.

    None-the-less, well written article; insight is always appreciated into the minds of you 'ol people.

  2. You know you're Gen X when it only takes you a second to remember who Lloyd Dobler is.

    Ol' people, Patrick? Oh yeah, we are old now, aren't we.

    I remember when Gen X was young - kind of sounds like it should be a song lyric.

  3. Great post. I want to invite you check out my blog: There are a lot of us in the blogosphere - and I agree that we are the quiet change makers.