Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Generation Huh?

Just finished reading an essay in The Weekly Standard on Millennials, that wild, wacky, much larger generation after mine (GenX). The basic point of the article being that so-called scholarly articles making generalizations about generations are often a bunch of balderdash, poppycock, pick your standard term for bunk.

I guess I'd have to agree. Reporting from the anecdotal field of the real world, here are my own observations of Generation X:
  • Most of my peers are or have been married at least once.
  • Most of us have jobs.
  • Many of us have kids or, if not kids, pets.
  • We have a low tolerance for the foolishness imposed on us by Baby Boomer bosses.
Beyond that? Honestly, my observations become nearly useless because our friendships and work acquaintances are self-selecting. I've worked at Disney, which attracts one demographic. I've worked for the Department of Defense, which will bring in a slightly different demographic. I've worked for NASA and the aerospace community, which truly has a niche set of social attributes. In fact, the space community has been so monochromatic that I wrote a master's thesis on marketing approaches to bring in more women and minorities. Regardless, I have been drawn to and worked in environments that have very strong, very recognizable cultures. Disney is all about entertainment, perkiness, neatness, and guest-focused customer service. The military culture is predominantly male, top-down, honor-focused, and has a tendency to break things and kill people on behalf of our national defense. The space community is almost a mix of the two: very upbeat ("visionary"), top-down, and WASP male, with a few more hopeful women than the military and a lot fewer minorities.

I suppose it's instructive, then, to talk about Facebook and my 20th high school reunion, both of which provided me the opportunity to see how "normal people" in my generation have done. (Point of reference: I got a paper award for "Most Unusual Job" at the reunion.) My high school, situated in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, produced a lot of people with what my folks used to call "straight jobs": doctors, lawyers, contractors, nurses, teachers, what have you. As a writer for NASA (and now a freelance writer working for aerospace and non-aerospace clients), I do not quite fit that label.

In other ways, I'm right in line with the tastes of middle-class white males of my age and background: I watch the NFL; I listen to classic rock and pop music from my high school days; I drive a Honda sedan; I get annoyed by the foolishness of both major political parties (the left more than the right) and recently registered as "unaffiliated" in Florida as a mild protest. I'll probably vote libertarian in coming years.

The Generation X (born 1961-1975) peers I interact with most often are scientists, engineers, or technology-focused in some way. They're some of the best and brightest people I've ever met, and they give me hope that this nation can continue to do great things. While all high-achieving, very few of these folks to share common ideas about the future--they range from loud libertarians to confident conservatives to passionate progressives. The political battles we inherited from our parents will continue.

My peers who have become parents also have a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about the world; however, being parents, they have that common traditional streak that wants to see their children grow up well-behaved, mature, and capable of getting a job. Again, it might be a self-selecting reflection on my friends, but none of them has the attitude that their kids can't or shouldn't try to do better or that they should expect a check from the government to live.

Undoubtedly I'm not seeing the whole picture of "my generation." I heard a lot when I was in college for my B.A. and afterward about how expectations were being lowered for us because many of us graduated in the middle of the Gulf War recession. I heard similar things about the Millennials in 2002 when I got my M.A. and we were going through the second Gulf War recession. (Note to self--no more schooling: I keep graduating just after war-induced recessions.) The "low expectations" line is media BS. We work, we pay our bills, we'd like to have more money. How is that any different from the Baby Boomers? Who are the exemplars of Generation X--Elon Musk, President Obama, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bezos, Darlene Cavalier? Or are they Marilyn Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Len Bias, and Pink? (Okay, you have your lists, I have mine.) History will be the judge of our deeds.

In the end, about all you can say about a "generation" is that we had a similar set of world events happen around us and we all found ways (some better than others) of surviving them. The only advantage we have over previous generations is that we get to see a bit more of the future than they do. What we do with the knowledge and experience is, of course, up to us.

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