I turned 35 years old on Tax Day. I’ve been stuck with that birth date from the beginning and have never tried to read into it much. April 15 is also the date Lincoln issued the call for troops that started the Civil War, but for me what is important is that I am an Aries, a spring baby, someone who sees every day as a new beginning.
In that spirit, I have never treated my birthday as a retrospective landmark until now. Thirty-five years is half a lifetime, a place from which to look backwards and forwards. I won’t get too deep into my personal assessment of my career, life, and philosophical goals, but I wanted to write about the fact that for the first time I relate to my generation’s label.
I’m a Gen X-er, the name used to describe the post-Vietnam offspring of baby boomer parents. Gen X-ers grew up during the last throes of the Cold War, came of age during the dawn of the Internet, and make less money than their parents did.
The phrase Generation X comes from much further back. It was the title of a 1965 journalistic study of Britain’s youth culture, authored by Hamblett and Deverson, describing a movement in young people who “sleep together before they are married, were not taught to believe in God as ‘much’, dislike the Queen, and don’t respect parents.”
Billy Idol, the ‘80s pop punk icon, named his first band Generation X, but its impact as a real social phenomena in America happened in the early to mid ‘90s.
My generation, as young adults, experienced profound ennui. We rejected the world our prosperous parents laid out for us on a platter in favor of becoming nomadic, anonymous, and hedonistic.
Remember “Reality Bites?” My generation’s icons are Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace. Suicide talents. And our films are “My Own Private Idaho,” “Boyz in the Hood,” and “True Romance.”
I never thought of myself as part of Generation X. I was never a grungy, café-loitering near-poet. I grew up in Washington, D.C., a city full of contradictions, and I found the world mostly contradictory. I wore a blazer to school and put A Tribe Called Quest and U2 on the same cassette tape.
Trying to label a generation is silly, in some ways, because people don’t change that much. But the labels can be a helpful thumbnail sketch of how a group of people’s circumstances shape the narrative of the individual in relation to society. They also help us differentiate ourselves from our parents and our children.
Generation X, as we are called, grew up during a watershed. I remember, distantly, air raid drills in kindergarten, but I also remember when the Berlin Wall came down, then when dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. I remember when the War on Drugs began, the first time I heard Public Enemy, and my first rave. I remember writing term papers with a pen in high school. I remember registering for my first Hotmail account as a freshman in college, and I remember when people just a few years older than me starting making millions during the dot com boom.
You don’t hear the term Generation X much anymore. Recently, more attention has been paid to my grandparents’ generation, The Greatest, and my parents’ generation, The Boomers, because America is aging.
The generation younger than me, Generation 2.0 or Y2K or whatever they end up getting stuck with, grew up playing video games in a fast-paced world, have a very proactive mindset and tremendous business acumen.
I doubt my grandparents would have sat around thinking about how great they were, and I know my parents don’t find commonality with their peers for having survived the late ‘60s and then succeeding in their professions.
If there is meaning to our own tag as Gen X-ers, it is that we mainly rejected the doctrine of prosperity, and having done so, refused to grow up. I have a lot of friends who fit the bill. Where our Peter Pan feet have tread, we have created hip-hop culture, body art, the indie rock world, the blog, and the X games.
The X is a sign of rejection, on the one hand, and anonymity on the other. Straight edge kids put an X on their hands to show they didn’t drink and so were part of something. Illiterate farmers signed an X on tax rolls. Malcolm X chose his name to protest being labeled by a slave owning forefather. An X-factor is an unknown. And X marks the spot.
This year, on my birthday, sitting in an Ingles parking lot in Cashiers because my truck’s radiator blew up on my way back from a day trip in Panthertown Valley, I embraced my X.
Postmodern theory tells us that rupture and continuity exist in conversation. In other words, you can’t reject something without embracing it first. My parents probably still think I don’t listen to them, but I do. I always did. As the world around us contracts in this recession and the doctrine of prosperity fades away, I feel my generational ennui as much as ever, but I also feel at home.
Maybe, I’m thinking to myself, we are like a pack of seeds left on the shelf with an X on it, planted and forgotten, now ready to bloom in the most adverse of conditions. Maybe at 35, I have finally found the X on my American treasure map, and I am ready to sign my name.