I was born in 1969 and I have feelings about generations. They include: “What leads millions of people to see ‘The Notebook’ so many times and then to complain about having done so?” (punching younger); “Why are we having a conversation about whether it’s OK to pull out your phone during a movie in a theater, because there is only one answer to this question, and it is no way?” (punching younger still). And, punching older, “Why is Eric Clapton on tour and Sinead O’Connor and Kurt Cobain are dead?” as the film critic A.S. Hamrah put it to me.
These are just feelings and don’t offer much beyond private amusement. But my general assessment of generational discourse as being about as useful as astrology (I dabble) as a way of interpreting the world has recently come up against an enormous crisis — probably the biggest, most important crisis in the history of generation discourse —which is that people are being mean to me.
Behold these recent tweets — I mean “posts on X,” formerly known as Twitter, run by a Gen X-er with whom I have no wish to affiliate myself, generationally or otherwise:
“Gen X sucks.”
“Gen X had it so good with their high income jobs with excel skills and 30yr fixed interest mortgages. This is why they make the worst leaders, ZERO empathy for the people that came after them.”
We can all agree Gen X is the worst though right?
I wrote to my millennial friend Sarah Hagi and asked her what she thought of baby boomers and Gen X.
Sarah, who is 32, wrote back, “Boomers know they’re lame but Gen X are lame and think they are cool.”
This was not the most encouraging text message I ever received, and I knew enough to register this as negative feedback. Also, my precedent for this was offended boomers, like Bill Maher roasting so-called snowflakes, or a Newsweek column about how boomers are actually awesome. But I had not the slightest inclination to mock younger people or defend older ones, even though I have known myself to have rather thin skin, and I was more surprised than upset.
I was implicated, but I did not “feel implicated,” much in the same way David Lee Roth — a boomer, but a Gen X icon — does not “feel tardy” in the Van Halen hit “Hot for Teacher.”
I was like, “OK, people think I think I’m cool and I’m not cool. Oh well.”
I called up a few friends who are in their 50s and asked them if they knew that people hated Gen X now and how they felt about it.
“No one hates me more than I hate myself,” said my friend John Gilman. His was a typical response. “So good luck with making me feel bad about something I am so used to.”
I too was already well practiced in insulting myself. So these people hated me. They could get in line, but I was going to be No. 1 in that line forever.
Mr. Hamrah (who admitted to being born “not long” before I was), who had done the very Gen X thing of writing a book complaining that streaming had ruined film, would also be a good person to talk to about this.
But right before I was going to call him, he texted me and told me that Sinead O’Connor had died.
This news seemed impossible to metabolize. I speed-cried and called him a few minutes late, explaining why. Both of us expressed our sense that her death hurt beyond itself, that it was also a terrible sign of the increasingly cruel times in which we lived.
We had a good laugh over the tweet about Gen X and their high-income jobs. I told him that I had been a freelance writer most of my working life now make less than half of what I made when I was 30. He cited similarly chilling figures about his own income as a freelance writer.
I asked him if he noticed that Gen X (defined by Pew Research as those born from 1965 to 1980) was starting to replace boomers (1946 to 1964) as the punching bag of millennials (1981 to 1996) and Gen Z (1997 to 2012) on Twitter (I mean X), and in articles like 15 Toxic Gen X Trends That Should Have Ended, Like, Yesterday, and the Reddit thread Gen X is the worst generation. I presented the theory that it was going to be hard for these younger generations to insult Gen X, because Gen X already hates ourselves.
Like any good critic, Mr. Hamrah did not waste any time rejecting my theories and supplanting them with his own.
One, he didn’t think self-hatred was the best way to describe Gen X’s experience of themselves. “It’s more like self-deprecation, or low self-esteem,” he said.
But the more important fact: “People are conflating Gen X and boomer. It’s absolutely tragic for us to be lumped in with them. These people have no idea what they’re talking about. I mean, I saw someone the other day had called Marilyn Manson and Kurt Cobain boomers.”
We laughed through our tears about this. (Mr. Hamrah was not actually crying, but I hope he will not mind me saying this.)
I went back to my friend John and told him that a very good film critic said he did not think Gen X really hated itself. John said, “Tell that guy I am happy for him, but I really do hate myself.”
Then I called up Dezeraye Bagalayos, 45, who works in rural community development and is active in water advocacy in the Central Valley of California. I wanted to get her sense of how this burgeoning Gen X hate was making itself known in her world.
“I see younger people saying, ‘Gen X did nothing,’ she said, “but I think our educational system, politics and most of the media works hard to keep younger people ignorant to the reality that we were out in the streets, after the second Iraq war, for the W.T.O. riots, pushing hard against neoliberal privatization, for food sovereignty.”
I said a lot of the criticism I saw about Gen X was about us being apathetic, or cynical, and she unpacked this a bit. “I think a lot more millennials believed the hope and change stuff from the Obama years. But I think Gen X — not all of them, but a lot — we could see where all this stuff was going with a quickness.”
To lighten the mood, I told her about people online calling Marilyn Manson a boomer. “That is truly hilarious,” she said.
This was all a huge misunderstanding. No wonder I wasn’t feeling super-angry or defensive.
I told Aaron Thorpe, 32, a host of the leftist podcast “The Trillbillies” what my friend Sarah had said to me about Gen X and boomers being the same except Gen X actually thought they were cool. He laughed.
“That’s such a good way to put it,” he said. “Younger millennials and Gen Z saw that social programs and the ability to retire with any security and the affordability of housing had basically evaporated for people like them, and weren’t terribly interested in the differences between different cohorts of older people.” He added: “Right or wrong, they just have a bitterness toward anyone who is older.”
He said that when he fell into reductive thoughts about generational differences, he tried to remind himself it probably wasn’t the most helpful way to interpret how the world worked. We agreed it was tempting to believe older people had ruined things and that younger people were going to miraculously fix them.
“But that just blurs the fact that capitalism just increasingly puts money and power into the hands of very few people,” he said, “and how, over time, this group of people gets smaller and more powerful.”
There was one more perspective I sought on why being called a Gen X loser didn’t sting quite as much as it seemed it should. I wanted to understand the psychoanalytic side of things, so I contacted Patrick Blanchfield, an instructor at the Brooklyn Institute, and his wife, Abby Kluchin. They are both in their early 40s and host “Ordinary Unhappiness,” a podcast about psychoanalysis.
Ms. Kluchin, who teaches at Ursinus College, presented the idea that generations (or at least our somewhat, sometimes accurate stereotypes of them) have superegos. You may have heard this word before but everyone, including me, could use a refresher.
“The superego is a message a person gets from authority figures that they take to be coming from inside their own minds,” the hosts explained, one starting the idea, the other finishing it, as couples invested in psychoanalysis, and podcasting, are wont to do. “You could say that the superego of the boomer generation is ‘I can do no wrong,’ and the superego for Gen X is ‘I can do no right.’”
This seemed true. I felt my work was done here, and that it was time to go read my rising sign horoscope along with my sun sign.
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