Do you remember when there used to be lots of references to Generation X? Then you’re probably a GenXer. Douglas Coupland, Reality Bites, the whole slacker stereotype was across the cultural domain, poised at the edge of a generational battle with the Boomers.
The way I remember it, we would soon be taking over and instilling society with our values. Whatever happened to that? All I read about these days is the never-ending discussion between GenY and the Boomers. It’s as if GenX never existed. You might note that a significant percentage of the GenY vs Boomers discussion is work-related, usually with GenY telling us what they need in a workplace, and the Boomers quipping in reply, “GenY employ them.”
Indeed, the issue of work may have something significant to tell us about the disappearance of GenX, and the construction of a certain type of archetypal GenX masculinity. Of course, there is no archetypal GenX masculinity, but bear with me while I entertain a few generational clichés. In short, mature Boomer masculinity (as opposed to its free-wheeling early years) is largely defined by work, whereas GenX masculinity is not. Remember Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites? Clever but annoying, oddly effeminate yet sexually predatory, and certainly dismissive of Winona’s efforts to secure ongoing employment. That’s the stereotype of GenX masculinity.
But what happened to that stereotype as it matured into manhood? Contrary to the Ethan Hawke story recently reprized in Before Midnight, most of us did not write books and enjoy a trans-Atlantic lifestyle of existential angst (and, damn it, those of us who did manage to write books probably didn’t write successful ones). Rather, we reluctantly embarked upon a work trajectory while simultaneously resenting work values and finding it all rather beneath us. (Forgive me if that wasn’t your experience, but I’m willing to bet there are enough people who share it to warrant the point).
Then, when we did not play the game of work, we became rather put out to discover that work had no desire to reward us with positions of power, but it is willing to at least acknowledge the existence of GenY who seem to oscillate between the poles of being unemployed-but-really-wanting-work, or entrepreneurs with millions in start-up venture capital. And so Boomers and GenY lock horns, but nevertheless understand one another due to their mutual centralization of that classic masculine signifier of work. GenX masculinity, on the other hand, is quietly erased from everywhere but a few sketches in Portlandia.
But here’s where I want to shift into manifesto mode. Because like all good GenXers I paint on a broad canvas, and despite all the superficial skepticism, I am at heart a hopeless optimist. I believe GenX has yet to have its time, and here’s how I hope it’s going to pan out.
GenX values will soon be viewed via a lens of sustainability. All that being dismissive of work, houses and cars was paradoxically not about slackerdom but proactivity. By rejecting consumer and corporate culture, GenX was, perhaps unwittingly, nurturing a set of lived values that would evolve into what we now understand in mainstream society as social, economic and environmental sustainability. The flow-on effect for masculinity is that it is no longer defined purely by work and possessions, rather a whole spectrum of alternative sustainable values.
The point, then, is not that GenX has been overlooked in receiving the baton of power from the Boomers: GenX has chosen not to receive the baton of power, opting instead to explore a different way of being and constructing identity. As Gen X embarks upon what Jung described as “the afternoon of life” we can expect to see many of those empty-day thinking exercises of youth begin to manifest in real life acts of subversion, mutuality and generativity. As society unravels from social, economic and environmental mismanagement we might just be lucky enough to be passed into a safer pair of hands. Of course, GenX has to stand up and play its part, but it’s a role it has coveted for years.
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