The Death of Generation X

by Mike Wright
Originally published 1994, in the Weekly Synthesis Issue 1.

Generation X. The term appears everywhere, from MTV to Time magazine, describing the ‘90s youth culture as a lost generation of “baby busters” that have given up on the world. But does it really exist, or is it just another manufactured product of the media? Was it America’s own grungy, longhaired, long-overdue response to the British punk movement, or merely a response to the realization that in 1990s America, after going through twelve ruthless years of right-wing government, perhaps there really is “no future?”

Most of the youth I speak to say that the most common denominator in the whole “Generation X” concept is no concept at all, that whatever the media termed Generation X is little more than a bundle of directionless angst, mixed with a heap of leftover apathy from previous years.

Observers of pop culture will point out a deep irony in the suggestion that the so-called “grunge” scene which personifies Gen X arose as a derivative of punk. Unlike the British youth of the ‘70s, who took a 180 degree turn in fashion, sound, and politics when the punk movement began, the grunge scene was represented by a fashion and sound which was essentially no different than the metal bands of the mid-’70s. American youth in the ‘80s flirted with a half-hearted commitment to punk, then returned to the flannel shirts, blue jeans, and masturbatory guitar flourishes which unite both Pearl Jam and Lynyrd Skynyrd into one long blur, almost as if nothing ever happened at all to change the sound and style of popular music.

The one difference lies in the question of politics, which does borrow heavily from the nihilism of much of the classic “Punk” years. The music of the mid-’70s was apolitical and idealistic. Today there is a sense of protest, but rather than any focused alternative, the ‘’Xers” hazy visions of anarchy and cheap beer all lie on a bed of stale cynicism which, more than angry, is simply a bit tired.

On one hand, half of today’s youth appear to be totally unconcerned about anything; a dangerous position for a dangerous world. On the other, the other half don’t blink when you mention the concept of social and political revolution; in fact they’re more likely to ask you when, where, and how, even if their perspective is a bit cliched.

Behind the self-deprecation of today’s youth, the chronic “uptalk” that signals an insecurity with their own opinions, and the celebration of a “loser chic” that rewards failure over success, there lies a deep-seeded disgust with the universal unavailability of the American Dream. The problem stems from the fact that the model of success foisted upon us as desirable has no connection with what may be called our own more egalitarian set of values.

Still, it’s pretty hard to dream when all of the dreams you’ve had are nightmares. The ‘90s generation lives in a nation where the notion of health care as a human right (which was acknowledged by the UN in 1948) is seen as an alien concept akin to Orwell’s 1984; a nation where the idea of education as something any decent society should readily provide, even for kindergarteners, is being challenged by an “I’ve got mine, Jack” attitude of post- Reagan era selfishness with no concern for others.

We deal with baby boomer leaders who talk about their glory days of the ‘60s; while conveniently ignoring the fact that had there been any real change then, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now, of low jobs, no jobs, and few opportunities to “make the difference” we’ve always been told we should.

In the course of human events, however, the anxieties of one time become the actions of another; the most important question today for those of us who fall into the ambiguous category of ‘’youth” is how we move from the “whining” we’re accused of, to the active presence of mind necessary to take back our lives and build our own plan for our own future. What steps do we take to move from apathy to activism?

Once upon a time, there was a strange little German man named Hegel, who put together a theory known as the dialectic. The idea is that anything plus its opposite will naturally yield something altogether different which, while having some properties of both, will still transform these properties into something new.

Generation X, with all of its debatable components, is the chaotic, fed-up opposite to an equally debatable era of tightly focused and aimed right-wing goals, personified by the polish of arrogant Young Republicans with shining teeth and warped ideals. Is it possible, that the clash of these two phases of our recent history just might result in a tightly focused and fed up movement of youth, with shining teeth and left-wing goals, which could transform the latter half of the ‘90s into an impetus for lasting social change?

One could argue that the worst enemy of the establishment thirty years ago would not have been Woodstock, but rather a clean, organized, articulate, and non-drug infected movement of youth which actively sought to take political power away from those who created Vietnam and all of its side effects.

One can (and will) argue that rather than relive the past through its sick commercial imitations (Woodstock ’94 et al), which glamorize both laziness and capitalism masquerading as revolution, we would do better to take the opportunity to create such a movement as the one suggested above, in order to show the media and corporate powers who would keep us doped up through their plastic pseudo-politics that the real thing is coming home to roost.

That movement begins with the death of Generation X, and the birth of a new way of looking at what it means to be revolutionary in the 21st century.

When we talk about the dynamics of any generation, we’re talking about the evolution of life. In today’s info-media timeframe, generations which may have once been defined in blocks of ten years now shift every five years. The mood of the so-called Generation X, rising on the cusp of the decade and dying halfway in, is already fading into some- thing more focused, something in search of a radical vision they can call their own.

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