Gen X slackers unite!

I just read about the new Netflix series, Friends from College. From what I’ve read, it’s about Gen Xers who hit middle age and must deal with their own slackerist lives. I’ll probably watch it, and I’ll probably laugh at it. It’s usually pretty easy to make me laugh and after all, it’s my kind of people. I’m rapidly approaching forty, myself, in little over a year, and I’m also a bonafide (though not distinguished) member of the Gen X demographic, a late-born Gen Xer, to be be precise, just on the cusps of what the experts refer to as the Millennial generation — but I’m a card carrying Gen Xer all the same.

So, I’ll probably watch it, and I’ll probably laugh, but there’s something more going on here, more than just a generation that can’t grow up or get serious about their lives. There is, in truth, a certain cultural decay that seems to be more and more obvious every day.

Jimmy Carter talked about a “crisis of confidence,” but there’s another crisis, there’s been this really long unwinding, this decades-long crisis of meaning, a lack of purpose that continues to deepen. The Baby Boomer generation was stuffed full with a sense of destiny and of their own role as world changers, or at least as keepers of the truth, as individuals who really got it. In a general sense, this was/is true across the board — regardless of whether a Baby Boomer was/is a dope-smoking hippie or a suit-and-tie-wearing corporate types. It was as true for the religious as for the irreligious.

My father, for example, was/is an evangelical/fundamentalist minister, as far removed from any Sixties counter-cultural movement as he could be. Still, he dreamed about and contemplated the idea of revival, of God doing a great work, maybe something like the Great Awakening, but even in my most enthusiastic days as a conservative Christian I don’t remember giving that any thought or of ever being caught up with such lofty aspirations.

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. (Fight Club)

All of us post-Baby Boomers seem to share a common crisis of purpose, a loss of hope in the idea of greatness or of meaning. Or maybe I’m projecting my own Gen X perspective on younger folks, that’s possible, or maybe it’s just feeling most especially that way with Trump and his cronies in control, but my sense is that we have been rather roundly disenchanted with our own greatness, stripped bare of purpose or meaning. And I don’t know that this is such a bad thing.

When you feel destined for greatness, when you are armed with a sense of purpose and destiny, anything you do to reach that goal is okay. The ends justify the means. You can support a corrupt politician and a corrupt political party, so long as they are fighting the bad guys.

If you believe in yourself with a certain faith, with religious zeal, you can justify any wreckage you leave in your wake, because you are one of the elect, or you’re an intellectual, or a mover and a shaker, an inventor, a deal maker, someone special, someone that the world really needs. But now we have to live in the wreckage, and there’s something about this that changes your perspective.

Even so, although we post-Baby Boomers may be inhabiting a time where there is a crisis of purpose, we may have unintentionally stumbled upon a crisis, and hence may have a chance to uncover the purpose of crisis, which is basically that a crisis tests your mettle, it makes you or it breaks you. To live in the wreckage and inhabit a crisis is, itself, a form of meaning and purpose, albeit something that’s thrust upon you. Whether or not the slackers can unite and overcome it, though, well, that’s another question for another day or another blog post.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

13 thoughts on “Gen X slackers unite!”

  1. Our age inspires scant enthusiasm. In the industrial West, and increasingly now in the uncommitted nations, ardor is lacking; instead men talk of their growing distance from each other, from their social order, from their work and play, and from the values and heroes which in a perhaps romanticized past seem to have given meaning, order and coherence to their lives… Alienation, estrangement, disaffection, anomie, withdrawal, disengagement, separation, non-involvement, apathy, and neutralism — all of these terms point to a sense of loss, a growing gap between men and their social world. The drift of our time is away from connection, relation, communion, and dialogue, and our intellectual concerns reflect this alienation. Alienation, once seen as imposed on men by an unjust economic system, is increasingly chosen by men as their basic stance toward society.

    This is the first paragraph of Kenneth Keniston’s The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society. The book was first published in 1960; I bought my new paperback copy of the third edition in 1970 (cover price $1.25), toward the end of my first year in college. Maybe the main difference is that back then people experienced meaninglessness and purposelessness with a sense of loss, something to be regained if possible, whereas now it’s taken for granted. Even that’s a gross overstatement — most of the kids I went to college were slackers before their time, concerned mostly with getting drunk and getting laid. Contemporary romanticization of the Boomers’ level of commitment is not unlike the 60s kids’ romanticization of their parents’ generation. Some 60s kids looked for meaning and purpose, just as I’m sure there are some Gen Xers and Millennials who are also looking for meaning and purpose.

    [Side note: Some boomers committed themselves to purging sexism from written texts, and one is reminded of their subsequent success when reading the Keniston passage I quoted above.]


    1. “….Alienation, once seen as imposed on men by an unjust economic system, is increasingly chosen by men as their basic stance toward society….”

      It seems, though, that the sense of alienation is now becoming normative, after several generations, it seems to be taken for granted that we experience this state of disconnection and dis-integration. I think that a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, as industrialization was ramping up and the flood of consumer goods made its way into our lives, we were more acutely aware of the fact that we had a choice, that we didn’t have to go down this road. The above Keniston quote seems to go to this point.

      People used to actually debate (here in the U.S.) whether or not capitalism was unjust. But for the past half century or so, it’s been more and more taken for granted that economic injustice is a fact of life. Even though many of the young today are suddenly studying socialism and declaring themselves staunchly anti-capitalist, this may prove short-lived. Or maybe not. We’ll see. The point is that for a very very long time now, our culture has taken for granted this dis-integration and alienation. That’s why the gods of capitalism gave us the FANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), to keep us entertained. (Oh, and then there’s also our mad consumption of alcohol and drugs. Others choose religions that safely coexist and compliment capitalism. It’s all escapism in one form or another, a failure to confront the alienation head-on.)

      So, talking about the alienation and economic injustice of our capitalist, consumerist culture has a long history, but what seems (to me anyway) to be the great concern now is whether or not we as a society have become so accustomed to it that we cannot see any other way.

      For my money, nothing illustrates this so much as the current state of the Democrat Party. Even despite losing so terribly in 2016, they still hold fiercely to the idea that nothing is broken. Capitalism is fine, we just need to get back to the Clinton centrism that brought us the good times we enjoyed in the 1990s. So, those of us who are still bernin’ for Bernie and for deep reform, we are seen as just as great a threat as Trump and the Republicans. (There is truly the same level of anger directed toward us by the liberal establishment.) We’re questioning the system instead of working to get Democrats like Hillary Clinton elected. We’ve all got our Facebook and we’ve all got our Netflix, so what the hell are we whining about? What more do you need out of life? What I fear most is that the answer to these questions is a collective cultural shrug of the shoulders.


  2. I guess the “blockquote” instruction didn’t work in setting off that first paragraph of my comment as a quote from the book. Somehow it just decided to italicize everything. Oh well, whatever…


  3. If there is a generational difference, then that difference would have to be attributed not to selves but to situations, not to a change in human nature but to a change in culture. There’s some risk, isn’t there, when regarding society as sinking into decline from an earlier better era, of longing to “make America great again”? Perhaps it’s coupled with a longing for apocalypse — our own Great War, or own Great Depression — to give us meaning and purpose, to force us into great deeds. Or has it been a much longer slide, the decadence of human culture accumulating since the Fall, burdening each subsequent generation with yet another layer of depravity? I.e., Romans 1. Is human culture the enemy of human nature? If so, must human culture be stripped away in a return to Eden, or must it be replaced by a divine nature, a “new man” in Pauline terms?

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    1. Personally I wouldn’t say that human culture is the enemy of human nature (or of the world more generally), but I think that civilization is. Or maybe more to the point, civilization has been the vehicle through which the worst of human nature is exacerbated. (I don’t think civilization is inherently evil, just that historically speaking it has given rise to hierarchies of power which have in turn led to the codification of racism, sexism, caste systems, etc.). On this note, it’s intriguing to me to have read some of the data that historians and anthropologists have on hunter-gatherer societies. Much is speculative, since we are dealing with what is usually termed “pre-history,” but the current consensus is that hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian (since they were often migratory and did not have an affluence of possessions), that the people themselves were very healthy, and that they had a good deal more leisure time than most of humankind has had since. For many years now, I’ve interpreted Genesis 3 as being a commentary on the transition from a hunter-gather society into civilization and the agriculture-based society upon which it was formed. It’s all there in the text: Adam and Eve eat from the abundance of nature, they have no fixed home, no possessions, etc. Then they are forced to leave the garden and only a few verses after (4:17) there are passages describing the development of what we would call “civilization.” The NRSV (and perhaps other versions) actually says Beginnings of Civilization as its section title. Then, of course, we witness a rapid decline in human relations. Violence avalanches and eventually Elohim must intervene and bring a flood. So far as I can tell, no biblical scholars have really done any serious research on this or made (what I think is) the obvious correlation. I haven’t done much hunting in recent years though. This doesn’t necessarily surprise me. Modernity (and especially modern Christianity) is so fixated on the individual that it’s a quite massive paradigm shift to suggest that Adam and Eve are simple standing in for humankind as a whole……….Based on our prior conversations through the years, my sense is that you put far more stock in human beings as malleable, shaped by situations and circumstances and culture. On the other hand, I do remember a while back that you brought up a study (or studies) about how the influence of parents might be overrated, that peers, as an example, might exert just as much (or more) influence over a young person than their parenting. So where do you fall on the scale these days?


    2. As a matter of clarification, I think that in some very important ways our culture has degenerated, but in others we’ve seen marked improvements. I don’t know if we are better off or worse off, when you look at it as a whole. I do try to avoid over-romanticizing the past. I do think that prior to the Baby Boomer g-g-g-generation, there existed a much stronger sense of civic duty and a greater sense that society as a whole was something that needed to be tended to, i.e., that society was not merely the sum of the individual parts, that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and that society (or employers) had the duty to give back and existed to reciprocate the loyalty of the citizens. This seems to have been lost, with some rather tragic consequences (i.e., the invisible empire of global capitalism). I could be wrong on this count, though, and it should (of course) be noted that the idea of being a worker (and hence a true citizen) only applied to white males.


  4. “Talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation”…. In my youth there was definitely the sense that becoming alienated from mainstream American culture was what drew you toward and into the counterculture. Antiwar, black power, feminism, environmentalism, mind-expanding substances, free love, rock festivals, communism — all of it was out there already, you just had to join in. At times there was an expectation that revolution was imminent, that the counterculture would oust mainstream culture. But most important at the time was the sense of escape, of liberation from mainstream societal constraints, not just individually but collectively. Even my conversion to Christianity was a countercultural move, when in my wanderings I came across (was led to?) a Jesus freak commune in Morocco populated by international hippie vagabonds. There is no strong parallel to that mid-60s to mid-70s counterculture nowadays. It sounds like the Alaskan homesteaders are in a sense trying to recapture that vibe, establishing a remote outpost of alternative culture, listening to the Doors and Neil Young…

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    1. That’s interesting because I was smoking a bowl with a guy the other day in what we call “pot alley” here in McCarthy, and he was reminiscing about how back in the day (circa 1990s), he talked about how he shared a house with some friends and they were trying to do “a hippie thing,” where everyone shared the food, etc. He concluded that it didn’t work, that it couldn’t work. (I’m not sure if he said why. I think maybe because of the fact that communal living tends to draw in true-to-life free-loaders who take but never give back.) But the point is that I think hippie projects have continued ever since the 60s, but perhaps they just aren’t a big phenomena, like they were in the 60s. My sense in my own (limited) historical study of the era is that the hippies were sensationalized quite a bit. From what I understand, there weren’t actually all that many people who were full-on hippies, and frankly I’ve met a lot of people over the years who are. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are actually as many or more hippies that exist today than in the 60s. But I think more to the point is that counter-cultural elements have continued since that time period, in various forms. There’s a good deal of hippie living up here in rural Alaska, but people generally don’t really think of themselves as “hippies.” I’ll call myself a hippie from time to time, but it’s usually sort of tongue-in-cheek…….In any event, what I’ve always felt like is that the Baby Boomer generation had a sense of destiny that I don’t think post-Boomer generations feel. Hippies in the 60s seemed to feel that they were on the verge of ushering in a new era of humanity. It wasn’t just hippies, either, and perhaps not limited, strictly speaking to the 60s but also with some spill over into the 70s. Whether it was racial movements, feminism, environmentalism, hippies, or even evangelical Christians, there seemed to be this sense that the Boomers were really doing something that would change history, like it was an axial point. (Age of Aquarius stuff.) Or it might be revisionist history. (The film Forrest Gump certainly exemplifies this sense of destiny. I’ve always been fascinated by the film, even since I was a teen. It’s one of Forrests’ essential questions: “Mama, do I have a destiny?”) Anyway, that’s my hypothesis, and I’m curious as to what you think.


  5. So here’s a thing. I dropped out, but like most of my countercultural generation I dropped back in, finished college, got a job, went to grad school, got bigger jobs, etc. As a worker I had been trying through innovation to change the world for the better, for which I expected to earn big financial remuneration. I dropped out again around the end of the last millennium, having concluded that my aspirations were unachievable, especially the world-changing part. At around this time of my second dropping out, when I was in my mid-40s, the Gen Xers were coming online, finishing school and entering the workforce. So was something happening during that time in American history when the grand world-improvement aspirations were collapsing, not just for the Gen Xers but for their predecessors as well? Arguably there was a wider societal change, disheartening and enervating, one that has persisted through the next generations following the Xers.

    The counterculture got started in the 60s during a time of strong economic growth. New graduates could expect to find reasonably well-paying jobs that would lead to career advancement and regular pay raises. This sense of opportunity and optimism propelled not only those who took the square route into the establishment but also those who wanted to make incremental improvements in the status quo and those were looking for alternative paths. Then came Vietnam, starting with Kennedy, escalating massively during Johnson’s regime, and holding steady during Nixon’s first term. Draft-eligible young men were motivated, out of idealism and self-preservation, to resist the war actively, and the shared collective sense of opportunity and optimism gave the antiwar movement an expectation of inevitable success. And it did succeed: the draft ended, Nixon got impeached, the US got out of Vietnam.

    But right around then — the mid-70s — the three decades of economic growth slowed significantly. A lot of blame got thrown at the slacker 60s kids, who through a sense of entitlement and self-gratification weren’t working hard enough — sound familiar? So after 4 years of Carter’s malaise here comes Reagan, promising to restore American economic vitality through trickle-down economics: lower taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, so they can afford to hire more people and crank up growth, making America great again — sound familiar? The think is, economic stagnation wasn’t happening only in the US; 3 decades of high growth were stalling also in Western Europe — those levels of growth had proven unsustainable, while growth shifted to underdeveloped parts of the world: Japan back then, now China. So what began under Reagan wasn’t renewed economic growth but the big stratification of wealth accumulating at the top 1%. With low tax rates there was no longer an incentive to reinvest profits into expansion. The stock market has gone up, but real wages for everyone but the top-tier managers and technicians has stagnated and gone down.

    The Gen Xers came online at that time in American history when expectations, both personal and societal, had declined. The Millennials are in the same boat, as our daughter points out fairly often — lower expectations, lower optimism, lower confidence in the ability to make positive changes happen in society, lower expectations of finding a sustainable alternative.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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