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In 1967 Time Magazine named the Baby Boomer Generation “Man of the Year”. It was the Summer of Love; they were trying to reach Nirvana by various means, fighting a war in Southeast Asia while protesting it at the same time and making some memorable music in the meantime. As Clair Raines noted “never before in history had youth been so idealized as they were at this moment.”
Their parents were the Great Generation. The most hallowed American generation since the Revolution. They stormed the beaches at Normandy, they ruled the world. As one of them put it well on a wintry January day “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…”
Grandchildren of the Great Generation, children of the Boomers, Generation X was destined for mediocrity. The generation of Van Halen and Bon Jovi neither fought in a major war nor fought the idea of war itself and will probably be most remembered for “in real dollars, this generation’s men made less (by 12%) than their fathers had at that same age in 1974, thus reversing a historical trend.”
The most important historical event to occur during the coming of age of Gen X was the information revolution. X’ers were born into a world without personal computers, cell phones, and the Internet. I was born in 1967, used a computer for the first time around 1984, bought my first PC in 1995, connected to the Internet for the first time that year, and had my first cell phone, (a bit late I admit) in 2001. I checked my email by phone for the first time in 2008. The first serious job I had was with UPS as a sales rep, and the last serious job I had was with an Internet advertising agency. Not such a strange journey for a member of Generation X . Many of us work in jobs that didn’t exist when we were in high school.
While not a very memorable generation, we are the last generation to be ‘unplugged’. Today’s teenagers, Millennials, born in the 1980’s came of age with the Internet and don’t remember a time without cell phones. As a young Gen X’er I loved talking to Boomers and their parents, they seemed to have known such a different world than I did. But as a middle aged Gen X’er when I talk to teenagers now I am hard pressed to tell them anything of interest. What it was like to buy an LP?
I was born into world where ideology meant everything, now it means nothing. My world could end with the push of a button; their world could end in an environmental meltdown. But really, I think the only important difference between X and Y (as the Millenials are also called) is we knew the world before everyone got wired up and connected.
I was part of the last generation of salesmen who “called in” to the office and picked up their messages. I would call in for my messages at around 5PM, if there was nothing from my boss; I was free as a bird till 10AM the next day. No emails, no cell phones, just a company car and a lot of highway.
I was in Tampa, made a few visits, hung out at the pool reading a book on physics and than hit the bar of a Holiday Inn, drank and talked till closing, woke up at 9AM, checked my messages and went back to sleep and got back up at 1PM to check out. I had no meetings that day. I had a company car, a small expense account and a salary of about 40 grand, which wasn’t so bad at the time, (and not so bad now either). I went to a diner, had a two hour breakfast, read The New Yorker, than took off in my Ford Taurus, not sure where I was going.
I saw a billboard for Nixon, by Oliver Stone. I remember it began at 5PM, no message from my boss; I was free again till the next day. At 8.00PM I left after three hours of a brilliant Anthony Hopkins and I decided to head to Coco Beach. There was a guy there I could see, and a bar a liked. As I crossed the state I heard about a Shuttle launch that night, a 4AM. My hotel was booked up with Japanese tourists, but I found another one and spent the evening drinking Bourbon with a very strange multilevel marketing character who said he was making lots of money off classified ads in USA Today then went to Cape Kennedy at 3AM and watched the Shuttle light up the bay and power its way into space.
Try and do that now. I did eventually get fired, but at least I lived on my own terms while the gig lasted.
Not that there wasn’t control, but there was a sense of freedom from family, friends and work that for many today is impossible to conceive of. Sometimes I think we are becoming the Borg.
And what about the ‘other’ Generation X, our doppelgangers on the other side of the Iron Curtain? As we in the West basked in our pseudo existential angst, they literally watched their entire society collapse and witnessed the world view they were raised on suddenly dispelled as an historic mistake. All we could do was look on and say ‘wow’ while secretly missing the evil incarnate that was very important part of our identities.
Teaching a group of teenagers recently, it was a challenge getting them all to turn off the cell phones, which now connects them to the Internet, messengers, music, voice, email and SMS
Ask a writer today what his biggest distraction is, and I will assure you that it is the Internet. All that information pulsating a few clicks away. For the proponents of consumption and a growth based economy, it’s a boon. The world is connected 24 hours a day to all sorts of media, most of which is funded with advertising. Just as the industrial consumer age comes to an end, consumption reaches its most frantic point.
Much of the Western industrialized world is incapable of concentrating, we are constantly chasing messages and messengers. There is a constant anxiety running through us, everyone waiting for something, but no one is quite sure what it is. Generation X may soon face the kind of challenges we thought only our parents and grandparents would, just as we take over the helm. Lets hope we are up to it.