Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In a box


I remember an article I read in the Roanoke Times back in the late 1980s. I was in grad school and working for my university, Virginia Tech, as a software programmer. The article was about Generation X. Apathetic, MTV-watching, Generation X. Up until then I’m not sure I had heard of Generation X. Maybe I had. Maybe it had been mentioned on my primary news source, MTV, but it was this article that got me. Turns out, I read, we were apathetic, self-absorbed, in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. Not really amounting to too much. What had we accomplished? Not much, it turned out. We hadn’t been protesting Vietnam or pushing any real social agenda like Civil Rights. We really weren't doing much of anything, unlike the Boomers. We were in our early 20s and had little to show on our generational resume. Needless to say I was miffed. All at once I was now part of some group with a label with a set of attributes. And I had already failed.

Recently there has been much written about the Millennial generation or Generation Y. And thanks to Google, I know my kids, born in the 2000s, are Generation Z. I wonder what generation comes next? Do we loop back to Generation A, or start using Greek letters? Or maybe names like hurricanes. That would be cool. Look out for Generation Alberta!

Thanks to Tom Brokaw I also know the generation before the Boomers is the “Greatest” and allegedly, according to Wikipedia, there is a "Lost" generation (they fought in WWI) and a "Lucky" generation (nestled between the Greatest and the Boomers).

This all got me thinking: What’s up with this generational labeling, and, can I blame the Baby Boomers for it? Is this something we worried about before 1900? Or is this a reflection of the rapid pace of social and technology change over the past 100 years or so?  Thus to describe the different experiences of our lives over time it's just easier to assign a group of people born in a range of years to a generational bucket. As if there is some big difference between someone born in 1964 and someone born in 1965.

Long gone are our comfortable tribal affiliations: There was My Clan, and everyone else. I knew My Clan because we spoke the same dialect of the same language, lived in the same valley together, and worshipped the same right local god. We may trade with the Other Clan, the one in the other valley, and sometimes there would be a inter-clan marriage to ensure ongoing peace, but we knew who was who. I suspect there was not so much of a generational delineation other than elder, adult, and child.

Our Generation Z cats fit in their own box.
Today that family-geography clan identity doesn’t work like it used to but we still need the comfort of our in-groups. So we create them. Democrat, Republican, Tea-party Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats. I guess there are still some calling themselves Independents and who cling tightly to that group for comfort. In my life I’ve belonged to several groups: Nerdy/smart kids, frat boy, computer guy, married, divorced, married, married with children, young widow(er), remarried widow(er).  I was Catholic then Agnostic, maybe Atheist for a moment, then Unitarian Universalist. I’ve actually voted for Republicans in the past, but have always thought of myself a Democrat or Green, when I can find one. I used to think I was Independent but Independents can’t vote in primaries in my state so I had to choose a side. And I’m a heterosexual white male Gen Xer. I don’t watch MTV anymore but do love Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey: Now that is a group with generational problems and lots of convenient in-groups and out-groups.

Last spring I watched all three seasons on HuluPlus and Amazon Prime. I had just had minor “guy” surgery (putting me in another group: Done Having Kids). I decided to find out what all the fuss was about so I started watching and was hooked within the first 5 minutes of the first episode. I plowed through all three seasons and am now watching it again with my wife and two boys. And what fun to share a pop culture experience with my two Generation Z’ers!

I haven’t watched any of Breaking Bad so I’m not in that group. And they seem like a cool group with their Periodic Table Chemical Symbol Facebook Profile Pictures. I'd like to be cool like that too, but I'm not. And that’s okay. One series is enough for me. And since I cancelled Netflix a year ago or so, I can't be part of the House of Cards group either. I'm completely shut out of that group. That makes me a little sad since I really love Kevin Spacey. But Downton Abbey I can share across the generations. What I know of Breaking Bad is that it would require more explaining to an 8-year-old Generation Z kid than I can muster. Though Downton Abbey has some difficult scenes it also has great "teaching" moments and lessons about people and history.

Which is good. Because kids these days need all the lessons they can get if they ever plan to put down their iPodTouches and X-Box controllers and hope to measure up to Generation X.

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