Some people are defined by their flaws—some, their successes. When you look back on your life, what will stick out to you? What will stick out to all of us, in relation to who we were as a society? When I’m eighty years old, what will I think of my generation? Who were we—how did we operate? Will I take pride in the society I was a part of or feel a sense of remorse for the many flaws we failed to improve upon as a collective unit? My grandparents were a part of the Greatest Generation—my parents, the Boomers. At thirty-six, I’m a steadfast member of Generation X.
We’ve been called everything from amoral to nomadic to the Unknown Generation. We seemed to be the byproduct of an awakening of sorts—a reactive generation—in this case, the Boomers, and their Vietnam years. The culture at large, and especially traditionalists, didn’t quite know how to coin us, and/or what to expect, so they stamped us with that lovely X and, I’m assuming, hoped for the best. The first president most of us recognized was Reagan, perhaps Carter. The first music would have likely been some type of rock (now classic). The first sports interest I ever had was, oddly, the Georgetown Hoyas—I liked their uniforms. Which is why I also liked the 49ers—and still do. We were too young to know about the deep and ambiguous labyrinth of U.S. government practices, even though our parents had just been through one of the most tumultuous political fiascos in American (and Vietnamese) history, and the Iran Contra Affair was swirling right around us—both events surreptitiously linked to the seemingly endless chest-beating contest we’d been having with the Soviet Union for the better part of the century—a contest we would be just old enough to see finally end, officially, in 1991. Not that we were very interested, having slept through both U.S. and World History for most of the previous decade—like the majority of junior- and senior-high kids. Many of us wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone why it was even called the Cold War, let alone what it was all about or what it represented.
Ah, but we wouldn’t have to wait long to have our young political attitudes adjusted, confirmed, changed, or entangled even more than they already were. Just as the bulk of our group was either exiting or entering high school, we all got to see war as theatre, along with the rest of the world, for just the second time. Vietnam was the first time you could come home from work or school, flip on the tube, and see who was getting killed and what bombs looked like when exploding, but this, this was a whole other form of entertainment. The Gulf War (Saddam 1.0) was the new America—bursting with pomp and firepower, resources and advancement, audacity and disconnection—perhaps the early ingredients for the same, though much more dispersed and dynamic, characteristics we see in our young people today—who now, along with much of the country, watch our present Middle East dramas with merely a passing interest from any number of digital devices. War was officially theatre by 1991, and not just in the historical sense, but literally. We watched it like a movie, and grew desensitized accordingly—especially since it was so swift—buttressing a lust for entertainment in all things that started to simmer like a social St. Helens—set for eruption a mere decade later. Our country had shown that it was at the top of its game militarily—a monumental status, historically. We had also revealed a philosophy of sorts, or rather opened up an old, dusty book of “things better left unrevealed.”
Our domination in the Persian Gulf, at face value, wasn’t much more than your run-of-the-mill butt-kicking from one rich, corrupt, and organized country to one broke, corrupt, and disorganized country. Plus it was the knockout punch we’d been looking for, but never found, in ‘Nam. So, the balance was somewhat back to where it needed to be. The only problem was that everyone now knew how dependent we were on oil and to what lengths we were willing to go to protect that dependency. While many Kuwaitis were throwing flowers at the feet of Desert Storm soldiers, you can bet that the groundwork for 9/11 was already churning in the minds of many fundamentalists in that part of the world, who considered our very presence that far east a posture against their beliefs—however sacred or spontaneous those beliefs ended up being. And we were made aware of it in no uncertain terms in a now-eerie prelude in 1993, when the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time by terrorists—with links to both Al-Qaeda, as well as the “masterminds” of the sequel eight years later.
And then a near-decade passes, and the WTC bombing passes. After all, it wasn’t like the buildings toppled over, and besides, MJ was taking the Bulls back to the Finals, the Cowboys were quickly becoming the team of the ‘90s, Tyson was back, and hungrier than ever—so to speak—and Bill and Monica were redefining the modern interpretation of sexual relations—amid the ever-endlessly redundant arena of political deflection. O.J. was scurrying around Southern California like a nervous rat. Friends and Seinfeld and Titanic and The Matrix and Jurassic Park, and then South Park and X-Files and Roseanne and Al Bundy had everyone glued to chairs and couches. Pokémon and boy bands and The Spice Girls and The Unabomber and Grunge and Hip-Hop and Dolly the Cloned Sheep and Harry Potter and John Bobbitt had us all hanging out a little longer beside the water cooler. Cell phones and iMacs and SUVs and Tonya Harding and the L.A. Quake and Waco and Oklahoma City and Columbine and Heaven’s Gate and Area-51 and the Internet and Viagra and Y2K had us all intrigued, stunned, terrified, indifferent, bombarded, distracted, placated, and then, 9/11. And then that.
When the dust settled on that day in 2001, both literally and figuratively, we were left bewildered, enraged, uninformed. I was twenty-six—my generation somewhere between six years older or younger than me. Who were we in relation to this? How did we contribute to the conditions, if any, that led to this? And what were we to do about it? Our parents, the Boomers, were, effectively, in charge of most things—at least professionally. We were coming into our own as adults but what had we done up to that point that was in any way memorable or timeless, or something that modern life couldn’t do without? Who was Generation X and what were we to become now that the obvious oversights of the previous ten years had literally come crashing through our lives?
In a socio-existential whiplash of sorts, we were all essentially force-snapped back into reality by 9/11—having been, yet again, so fascinated with ourselves and the seemingly tireless machine that ran our little worlds that we quite efficiently failed to look up and think about the certain causes and effects steadily simmering over the latter half of the nineties. We weren’t as immediately connected—politically, demographically, socially—at least not to the extent that we are today, with the happenings of the world around us. Yes, technologically, we weren’t quite where we are now, but by all accounts, we didn’t necessarily have a reason to be. We weren’t invested in most things in the way that we are today—due to such broad access to information. International conflict was in abundance—as it always is. Social unrest festered just about anywhere you cared to look; issues to snuggle up against thrived by the hundreds around the globe. But leading up to and right before September 11th, many of us were just sort of going through the motions—perhaps waiting for something monumental. Outside of a little voting conflict you might remember, now eleven-plus years past, Generation X saw very little in-house turmoil other than what is considered a normal social and political ebb and flow of the day—however oxymoronic such a designation is. But that isn’t necessarily uncommon with humans in general; we tend to be re-active when we’re not threatened. We also tend to rest on our laurels, most of us, opting to let a select few take charge and tell us how we’re going to live—which is odd in a way, having such an extensive history of proactivity on many fronts. But comfort zones are comfortable for a reason, and just as easily as we can get up and fight for what we believe in, we have an amazing capacity to homogenize, fall into routine, and turn away from reality—a disturbing and increasingly prevalent aspect of modern life. My generation was relatively unremarkable during the first quarter of our lives—having neither an enormous cause to represent nor a hardship by which to be defined.
I imagine it may have been similar for people my age in the 1920s, living in a time where consumerism was booming, America had survived a war and grown in many capacities as a result, and society seemed to be quite pleased with itself and the emerging opportunities and outright fun that were resulting from this new modernism. And then, as everyone was slapping each other on the back and smoking and drinking and buying everything on credit, the stock market crashed—and a generation was changed overnight.
So, by the time I was old enough to open my eyes and look at the world that my generation had inherited, to an extent, and understand myself enough to find a place in it, or at least my own rhythm, not much of it made a whole lot of sense anymore. I became an adult through turmoil, by way of trauma—terrorist attacks, war, economic upheaval, paranoia, political disorder, and an overall national identity crisis. We went from sitting shocked as the towers fell, to driving around in vehicles emblazoned with American flags, to arguing with and fighting one another all over again, all within about a year’s time. We were told by our very leaders to go out and buy whatever we could because that was a good way for those of us who weren’t in the military, or who had survivor’s guilt from 9/11, to support and sustain the country—to do our part. Many of us had never experienced anything like this, and were certainly unprepared by the previous two decades, so we went along with it. Even after things settled down, and we were able to stand back and look at the bigger picture, we went along with it.
But then, a shift occurred—a multi-layered shift. Perhaps, as a result of our now-heightened urge to spend, technology obliged us with vigor—providing upgrade after upgrade, one toy after the next—a new necessity every month that came with its own steady payment plan. Whether we were still holding on to a post-9/11 duty to financially support the country or we simply couldn’t locate the monetary shut-off switches that had been flipped on during the chaos, my generation opened up its wallets and went wild. Yep, there was a war going on, a couple in fact, and a few in the batter’s box—where they still sit, on the edge of their seats. We turned thirty and got jobs and money and bought cars and clothes and gadgets and got married and had kids. We learned the difference between fixed-rate and balloon and the significance of points and ARMs. We started investing (before 2007) in property and gaining weight and getting stressed and talking about “stability” and “long-term” and money markets and, well, we were becoming every other generation—except for one thing. The world around us was in disarray: is in disarray. We became teachers, bankers, CEOs, secretaries, cops, counselors, construction workers, writers—we plugged in to America and started contributing. But we were also plugged into the world at this point, thanks to technology, and because of it, connected to a larger viewfinder and the resulting wisdom gained—an insight that now swims within our thought processes in a way that is different than all other generations before us.
Necessity is the mother of invention, but then, so are accidents. We are the first, and only, generation to have become adults with a working knowledge of high-speed technology, and yet still maintain a precious link to the times when such luxuries were not a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. We understand and appreciate the convenience and function of it all, finally, as experienced thirty- and forty-somethings, and not self-absorbed, stimulus-starved youngsters. Such a badge can only be worn, and/or properly comprehended, by us. We keep a wary eye on our bosses, and their bosses—because our skepticism towards people in high places has, unfortunately, now been confirmed again and again. With the help of the information super-highway, we have an intimate view of some of the most disturbing aspects of life on earth, but also some of the most inspiring. We know now, without much dispute, that the industrial effect of our ever-broadening presence on this amazing planet is taking its toll, and will need to be addressed and readdressed on a consistent basis as populations increase and the demands of an infinitely diverse world move steadily toward one another. We’ve come to understand a world that seems to be in a constant state of conflict—politically, ideologically, physically—and a country where everyone points fingers at everyone else, no one is to blame, every single cause has an immediate swarm of critics, and nothing gets done. My generation has come about at a time in America where the word “change” has been added to the list of things you can’t discuss without nearly coming to blows—though nothing symbolizes our way of living more than the need for that word, on so many levels.
This country was established on a need for change, on innovation, on adaptability, on vision. And yet it seems that once those traits allowed for us to become strong and independent and industrious and “great,” we simply sat back and admired ourselves—expecting that nothing would ever change or need to change. It took all of seventy years since our last national disaster for a new one to turn everything upside down and remind us that change is not an option—it’s an evolutionary necessity—and that not learning from history only means you’ll relive it in a new way. This next ten- to twenty-year stretch will be our moment—will be our time to shine—our segment in the history books where it will be said that the people most capable of altering the course of America, did—for the better. We possess the fleeting combination of youth, insight, experience, and passion. In the span of a lifetime, it will be gone in a blink. Now is the time for Generation X to step up and shed its awkward roots—to become, like the many generations before it, the definers of its time.