Hey Theis, interesting piece you wrote for Vice a couple weeks back—the one about Generation X fucking up Millennials good. As a member of Generation X, I like that you called us your big brothers and sisters. Cute. Kind of accurate. I’m glad you see it that way, because I’m here to offer you some Big Brother advice. I know it must be hard to be bombarded with constant criticism about how much your generation sucks. How ungrateful and privileged you are. It must really sting to always hear that you have a flawed and childish sense of entitlement.
I understand. We went through our fair share of criticism ourselves. Like you, we were frequently and loudly derided as whiney and entitled; branded as slackers. And that’s why, as your honorary big brother, I feel obligated to mention that your anger is misguided.
But let me start with some kind words for your generation: While you seem not to think so, Millennials are widely praised as THE most progressive, empathetic, and accepting generation in our nation’s young history. You mention the recent news about the Antarctic ice sheet—an awful thing, indeed. Many look to your generation as our world’s last environmental hope. You were never alive for the fact of climate change to be a question. You know the way many Republicans are acting today? Like climate science is chicanery, and human activity irrelevant to the planet’s health? Kind of crazy, right? Extreme, I would say. Well that’s the way MOST people thought about it when we were growing up, if they gave it any thought at all.
The populism, empathy, and color blindness your generation displays is one of few bright spots in today’s America. Because of you, we may one day see true social justice in gay marriage, voting rights, and income distribution. We’ll think twice about going to war. We may even see some effective immigration policy. In many ways, each of you is a little glimmer of hope in a very bleak American landscape.
You’re fun, you like to party, and you’re degreed to the hilt. Pretty awesome.
But the fact of the matter is you are a little whiney. You complain a lot. And you have this annoying tendency to blame your faults on other people. The wrong people. Us, for example. And you tend to make grand assumptions with very little information or research. I get it. You’ve never really had to look that hard to get answers. You have this incredibly vast library of the world’s information at your fingertips—if you want to figure something out, just type in a few words, read an article, look at a wiki entry. In many cases, this is what Millennials have known since birth—a universe in which it’s easy to feel like you have a firm grasp on a topic based on lots of bits and pieces. A world in which experience and context don’t quite seem to matter. And I hate to say it, but your recent article epitomizes this flaw.
Let’s go with the book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking. Until I read your piece, I hadn’t heard of it. Thanks for the intro; I enjoyed it. Read it in a couple of sittings, actually. But that’s the thing, right? I have this funny feeling that you didn’t actually read the book. You specifically cite the intro, and many of your article’s major points are directly addressed by the author in later chapters. It’s ok, you can admit it. We’re just brothers having a little heart-to-heart. But you should read it sometime. Honestly, as much as I enjoyed it, the book is flawed and I think you could pick it apart if you gave it a go. Also, I noticed some interesting vocabulary crossover between the intro and your piece. “Solipsistic” is a good one. “Promethean” too. But I’m no scholar, or book reviewer for that matter, so let’s keep this conversation going, but focus on your view of the 1990s.
The 1990s is seeing a bit of a renaissance these days, depicted as a glorious time in recent American history, not dissimilar to the way older generations look fondly upon the post-WWII era. But let’s be clear: When people talk about the 1990s in this way, they are talking about the mid-to-late Clinton era. Because up until 1994, the nineties pretty much sucked.
Hey, actually, this might sound familiar to you!
In 1987 the stock market tanked, losing more in a single day than it had on Black Tuesday in 1929. The resulting inflation and glacier-paced growth slow-burned for six years, culminating in unemployment rates pushing 8% in 1992 and 1993, an era, by the way, that you describe as “a great time to live in.” Right in the middle there—in 1991—a US president named George Bush used our military to pursue Saddam Hussein and bomb the shit out of Iraq.
It’s like history repeats itself or something. But wait! There’s more:
A couple of months after we began our aerial assault on Iraq, a black man named Rodney King was beaten within an inch of his life by a mob of white Los Angeles police officers for no apparent reason. And somebody caught it on camera. Well, in 1991, this was a shocking event. The video went 1991-viral, meaning that all three major networks AND the then tweenaged CNN covered it like crazy. In 1992 the police officers were acquitted by a mostly white jury and the city of Los Angeles erupted in a public fury not seen since the race riots of the 1960s. Mayhem reigned. Shops were looted. 53 people died; 2000 were injured. The footage on our televisions was pure carnage: The second most-populated city in America was literally burning before our eyes.
In 1993 a real honest-to-god cult leader calling himself David Koresh led his followers to war with the federal government during a botched but warranted ATF raid. Shots were fired. People died. After a two month standoff, the FBI laid siege upon his compound in a debacle that ended in explosions and 76 deaths. This also was televised. Exactly two years later Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a truck bomb to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and wounding close to 700. This was the pre-9/11 9/11, if you know what I’m saying.
So yeah, baby brother, believe it or not, we had way bigger things to worry about than “killer bees, earth rays, and Marilyn Manson.”
You see, context matters.
And when the only context you have is the intro to a book, a handful of movies, and existential rage, I see why it would be easy to look back at Gen X’s attitude as a “philosophy of resignation.” The reality is that we had a lot to feel resigned about. The end of the Cold War promised an era of hope and prosperity, but was instead followed by race wars on the streets, rising domestic terrorism, and a decimated economy. We had to seriously self-analyze to figure out exactly who we were in this mess.
We may have had a shitty attitude towards authority, but we made the government work for what we saw was right. The 1980s and 90s saw the rise of Third Wave Feminism, major provisions to the Clean Air Act, the doubling of black representatives in Congress, an International “bill of rights” for Women, the Violence Against Women Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Million Man March, the recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday (and federal enforcement in scofflaw states), and the humanizing of the AIDS crisis. We didn’t “nihilistically accept the machine;” we pensively re-engineered it.
Culturally? Our music is still played on mainstream rock radio stations today. Electronic dance music? That’s all us. The internet as you know it a Generation X production: Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Amazon, PayPal, Twitter, the list goes on. The Onion. Vice. Yes, Vice embodies everything great about Generation X: A hunger for change; taking ownership of technology and media with an ambition to do it better—not only differently—than those fucks at CNN and US News and World Report. And being irreverent the entire time.
So what if we were sometimes Debbie Downers?
You say that our “existential search for a cultural identity was glorified” in media. What you call “glorified,” I call “commodified.” The films you mention were distributed by major carriers in an attempt by conglomerates to monetize and reign in something beyond their understanding. They were our generation’s Garden State or Spring Breakers. Claiming these films said anything about the reality of nineties life is like watching HBO’s Girls, then proclaiming that all Millennials are hook-up crazy trust-fund brats with zero sense of empathy, let alone responsibility.
The mission of every generation is to rebel against the mistakes of the last while building upon their accomplishments. Shatter unnecessary taboos and sever ties with the shortcomings of those who preceded us. The Boomers did this with the 60s Cultural Revolution. The late Boomers and early Gen Xers who became adults in the late 70s and early 80s embraced the fun but decided that all of that socialist anti-war hippie shit just wasn’t for them, then emerged as a clean-cut army of capitalism-fetish bankers. The Gen X you are talking about was disgusted with the pompous materialism of the 1980s, calling bullshit on markets that bust almost as soon as they ballooned. We didn’t hate capitalism but we hated its effect on job prospects, music, and the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall signified the outright domination and expansion of our capitalism to almost the entire world. What the fuck had we done?
So now the question is this: Whose fault exactly is it that—instead of embracing and expanding upon our strengths—you blame your generation’s flaws on the one legitimate X shortcoming you are able to deduce: An intense self-reflection, bordering on narcissism? You see our deep contemplative angst as indicative of a generation “in love with its own image…shap[ing] millennials in their hall of mirrors.” Even if that were true, it sounds as if you only recently watched your Exhibit A, Empire Records. X Saves the World was published in 2008. If your generation is only now discovering these early 90s “cultural artifacts,” how could our attitudes 25 years ago have shaped your immediate perspective?
Honestly, though, this is the fatal flaw in your argument, and the reason I’m writing you: You say that “cultural nihilism [is] a stream of discourse that…is inherited, pervasive, and insidious.” Well, sorry to break it to you, man, but you don’t inherit shit from your brothers and sisters. You inherit from your parents. And if this insidious nihilistic narcissism is something you embrace and celebrate with unbridled enthusiasm, the blame definitely lies somewhere between you and your parents. That somewhere ain’t us. We provided the mechanism, and you determined its pursuit. We provided the infrastructure and you determined its use. Our experimentation with culture’s structure has provided more choices, more open doors, and more pedestals from which to display yourself. What you decide to do with that is up to you.
And I want to reiterate that this is not just another blistering Gen Y criticism. I really think you’re good people with a lot of potential. You came into your own in a world of unprecedented financial mayhem, rotten corporate influence, government malfeasance, war, and cutthroat globalism. It’s a confusing thing; and it’s not fair.
Just remember that we’ve been through the same thing. Twice now, if you really think about it. The last generation to truly enjoy a lifelong period of prosperity with rapidly growing wealth is your parents. The same folks who fucked it up for everybody.
We’re all in the same boat.