Because I’m not. As one of the 65 million or so people collectively called Generation X, the one thing I can say for certain is that we are defined by our uncertainty. We are too fractured to ever speak with one voice. We were born in the middle of a Cold War and grew up convinced the world would end in a fiery nuclear war before we had to worry about retirement accounts. We came of age as the bottom dropped out of the economy and we were called slackers because we couldn’t find decent jobs while our parents and grandparents refused to retire. Now we sit at the middle point of life. Some of us are taking over the world. Most of us are getting by. A lot of us are parenting.
Why am I thinking about my generation? Because Prince died.
2016 has been a terrible year for losing iconic musicians, and while I mourn the loss of Bowie and Merle Haggard, losing Prince has slayed me. My social media feed has been filled with tributes from fans of all ages, but the ones that have me crying are the ones from my peers, people who found their voice in the 1980’s. Prince was the artist who understood what it was like to see no future, feel powerless, and rather than scream he chose to dance. We partied like it was 1999 when the idea of reaching the year 2000 seemed impossible, because surely the world would end before that.
But guess what? It didn’t. And while every news cycle still brings us a daily round of horrors, there has grown a whole generation of people born after us who have an optimism we find a little baffling. When I was my daughter’s age, we joined anti-nuclear and peace clubs in our elementary school. Socially conscious eight-year-olds are now are much more concerned with global warming and improving the environment. These issues are crucial, but they are not inspiring The Day After nightmares. My own nightmares now involve mass shootings, not global thermonuclear war.
Generation X parents had their children at different stages of life.
I have Gen X friends who are expecting, and others who are helping their kids pay for college. The old rules of timing about love, marriage and family didn’t seem to matter anymore. We had kids when we could. We were the first generation that always had access to birth control, long before we ever were sexually active. A lot of us waited until we had puzzled our way through our twenties before we dared try our hand at parenting. In the 1980’s my Baby Boomer mom was mistaken for my brother’s grandmother when she picked him up from school with grey hair. At the park, I sometimes mistake Millennial parents for babysitters.
Children of divorce. Latch-key kids.
We grew up in a world where independence was a life skill we learned before we mastered swimming. This early independence, whether we experienced it ourselves or observed it in our peers, has had a definite effect on our parenting. I’ve noticed it swing like a pendulum – some Generation X parents are rabidly involved in their kid’s lives, micro-managing play dates and hovering at homework. Others approach parenting with the same laidback shrug we approach much of life – we have few expectations, and prefer being pleasantly surprised to being disappointed. We do our best, hope for the best, then stand back to see what happens.
We were held back a year in school when we failed to learn. We earned gold stars or we got corrected in unforgiving red ink. We did not get a participation trophy. As parents and adults, we seem to be struggling to know what to do with that experience. You see, it really hurts to lose, to be told other people are better than you. That hurt is awful. But on the other hand, in the world beyond the sheltered walls of childhood no one wins all the time. When we shield our kids from failure, they don’t get to develop the resilience that comes from crying yourself to sleep, then getting up the next morning to try again, or to try something else. We want our kids to skip our childhood pain, but still get the benefits we gained from that pain, from those losses. That is probably an impossible dream.
All the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks.
(Pump Up The Volume, 1990)
We’re a cynical bunch. We don’t really trust authority, even as we become the authorities. As children and youth, we were pretty sure the adults had no idea what they were doing. As grown-ups, we now know this for fact. This can lead us to make questionable choices, like challenging medical wisdom, or choosing political apathy over engagement. How do you parent when you don’t trust authority? That’s the basic battle we face daily. It’s a good thing we know how to fake it.
I never minded being called Generation X.
There was a soothing blankness to the title, it gave us room to define ourselves. I suppose it helps that it was popularized by one of my favorite authors, and was also the name of Billy Idol’s 1970’s punk band. It seems cool and aloof, just like we always liked to imagine ourselves. We didn’t expect the world to work out all that great, so we aren’t terribly surprised that it didn’t. But now we have these kids, these young people to care for and to raise. It would be nice for them to have a better world, wouldn’t it? This is where my generational angst lands me as a Generation X mom: cautious hope.
I don’t trust the world will get better; I don’t fully believe it is possible.
But I want it to be. So I will do what I can, little choice by little choice. I will try to mask the world’s ugliness without lying about it. When my kids ask me to do something, I will only ever promise to try. I know I can fail, after all. And I know that’s okay too.