Unpacking the head of the Statue of Liberty (1885). Image Source.
This week, my post on Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder was highlighted on one of Gen X's best blogs, Are You There, God? It's Me, Generation X. While thanking Jennifer James and checking the other links she listed, I was struck by the way Generation X remains ensnared as an echo generation, its identity projected upon from the outside by a narcissistic Boomer narrative. Jen writes: "Part of my intention is to maintain a tiny space on the Internet where evidence of Gen X society can be preserved." Why is her mission such a struggle?
Head of the Statue of Liberty, displayed in 1878 after completion at the Third Universal Exhibition, or World's Fair, in Paris. It was exhibited in Paris for several years before being shipped to the United States. Image Source: Albert Fernique (born c. 1841, died 1898) / LOC via pinterest. Published in 1883 in Frédéric Bartholdi's Album des Travaux de Construction de la Statue Colossale de la Liberté destinée au Port de New-York (Paris).
The Boomer narrative, that blinkered, one-track view of history, started as a story about 1960s' youth counterculture and fighting for liberty from the establishment. Boomers' liberties made them into libertines, who erected a monument to their own whims and pleasures around the period from the 1967 Summer of Love through 1969. The entire world now seemingly turns around that temporal pivot. Sometimes, it is also treated as a historical bottleneck. For the post-war period, 1967-1969 becomes a shorthand for the social, political and economic history of what happened in developed countries, and everything must go through that chokepoint, as it relates to the Boomer story. But what if everything didn't go through that chokepoint? What if that is not the way things happened? What if other histories ran concurrently from the 1940s through to the present that go unacknowledged because they don't fit the generational story? What if this is not a story about generations at all? What if you can find millions of individuals who don't fit the generational idea, and what if constructing a whole new social order around social alignments based on horizontal categories like 'age' is fake? If any of these suggestions are possible, then the history of the 1960s needs to be radically overturned and rewritten.
On 4 December 2013, the New York Post published a photo of a narcissitic woman taking a selfie - and she had someone meta-photographing her doing this - with a suicidal man threatening to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The man was saved by NYPD police officers. Image Source: NY Post via Guardian.
Boomer historians and scholars made their names overturning patriarchal interpretations of history and society. Ironically, their recourse to Postmodernism to attack establishment views leveraged them into positions of power and created a new establishment. With that mentality, many Boomers still try to retain credibility through relentless anti-establishmentarianism and anti-patriarchal reflexivity. But the blame game becomes odd when fingers of blame now point at the Boomer establishment.
How does the anti-establishment attitude persist? The politics of many countries now involve a 50-50 pitched battle between right and left Boomer camps. They are fighting for final supremacy in their own generational ranks over the spoils, over what remains of the very establishment they seized and gutted. But because left-wing and right-wing Boomers are evenly matched, all they can do is polarize and demonize their opponents (as they once blamed their elders) but to greater and greater degrees. This all-or-nothing thinking is unsustainable. The working reality results in stained orthodoxies, secret sell-outs, backroom deals, and cynical compromises. It is an exhausting circus that solves none of the problems it identifies.
The civic-minded began to walk away from the Boomer binary slugfest. Endlessly battling one's evil opponent does not reflect reality; it reflects an over-idealized youthful construction of the way reality was supposed to be, as imagined in the 1960s. This Boomer narrative of historical rebellion for the sake of personal profit, legitimization, identification, and gratification has ceased to be relevant. Members of other generations, and some Boomers, opted out, seeing these meta-narratives as a hyped waste of time and energy. Innovators began building new institutions to work around the captured moribund system, and did their best to ignore the elephant in the room. As The Guardian pointed out in late 2014, the younger generation found that "there are other ways in which they can be politically active," and moved on.
But those innovators still face the bellowing of mainstream media, mainstream politics, mainstream employers - the malaise in those quarters started with the youthful 1960s' rebellion. That idealistic rhetoric, was actually about seizing power. By the late 1990s, grown-up hippies were finally in control, and the history of the 1960s became a story of manifest destiny. By 2000, that story excluded voices of non-Boomers, or of those who did not align with Boomers' expectations and values. These are the new, silenced members of the downtrodden and underprivileged. Boomers did not exactly silence these alternate voices (well, in some cases they did). Rather, these 'others' simply don't have big roles to play in the one story that comes out of that 1967-to-1969 bottleneck.
The problem is not that the Boomers brought in needed changes in that time period. They accomplished incredible things in a short space of time. In the 1960s, CNN notes:
- An unmarried woman could not own a credit card
- A married woman needed her husband to cosign to get a credit card
- It was not until 1974 that the American Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal to deny credit to a woman on the basis of gender
- In the USA, women could not serve on juries in all 50 states until 1973
- Women could not attend most Ivy League universities until the 1970s
The problem is that some of the answers Boomers devised became entrenched, bound to their own personal ascendancy as individuals or in groups. They stopped listening, if they ever did, to members of other age groups. Any criticism of the Boomer revolution was automatically treated as a form of social recidivism. Anyone who questioned the story of Boomer-led cultural progress became a villain associated with the old powers that needed to be swept away; any alternative must be an aspect of anti-environmentalism, totalitarianism, cynical corruption, social psychopathy, or money-grubbing capitalist corporatism and exploitation.
Oddly, Boomers went easy on Gen Xers. In that case, they simply thought that Gen Xers were failures because they could never reach Boomers' incredible achievements. The same attitude was later applied to Millennials. Why was it so inconceivable that 'progress' could be understood in terms unrelated to the Boomer generational story? The reality was that Generation X simply had another view of history, a different understanding of reality that was not Boomer-centric. Incredibly, Generation X's automatic failure from birth does not provide the crux of that view.
The problem is that Boomer activists decided - in a trend that coincided with the streamlining of mass media, which created a grand illusion of their collective identity, and of the imprint of their concerted generational action - that the path they chose was the only possible path, then and now, when it was not. They viciously attacked dissenting voices as sources of evil fascism; they rooted out alternatives in the name of creating a new orthodoxy with new mantras. In this cliquish history, the 1960s revolution was fatally rooted in a seam of narcissism, which now infects the course of technological progress. The 1960s' Boomer change and revolution created a touchy-feely myth about the innovative self. Before Generations X and Y can move forward with innovations like Bitcoin derivatives, they should question the magical story of the transcendent ego that drives innovation and progress.
I responded to Jen on her blog, and reproduce my comment here, slightly edited, because it reflects on some of the silenced or little-discussed realities in the Generation X world; these facts are the part of today's history. They are outcomes of Boomer policies:
Gen X is part of a deep transformation of white collar professions via social media. I think you've talked about civic media a fair amount, but I discovered the hashtags #postac and #altac on Twitter - new paths being followed PhDs who are coming out of an imploding Ivory Tower and are moving into the Knowledge Economy. I think their experiences are reflected in other professions ... publishing, fundraising, PR and marketing; accounting; law; teaching; arts and culture; medicine and so on. Boomers captured the last bit of high ground in the old system. Xers either are on that high ground or in the shifting sands below; their position depends on their age and what happened to them through the recession. People in the shifting sands, i.e. innovators, look like they're in a precarious position now, but in fact they will probably come out better in the long term, because jobs and families no longer operate the way they once did. The economy has transformed. So have culture and society.
You talk about parenting a lot here, as part of your personal experience. But that does not reflect the general Gen X generational landscape. The Boomers' sexual revolution was necessary in some respects, especially the emancipation of women, but Boomer social policies were paid for by Gen Xers. The statistics on that are horrific. 43 per cent of educated Gen X women are unmarried and childless. ... This is heartbreaking and it has not been about choosing career over family. It is a result of being fed a load of bullshit Boomer messages about social revolution and emancipation, while also operating in a Boomer-dominated real world that makes financial security nearly impossible and emotional balance difficult.
The problem is the Boomers' my-way-or-the-highway myopia; they made certain choices, came up with certain ideas, ideologies, solutions they decided as the only possible way to solve problems they encountered. They still do not consider alternatives. This is why there is a violent backlash in men's rights movements. Men are angry and do not know where to turn. The number of Gen X men who are unmarried and childless is 32 per cent. This is a disaster.
This has been labeled as Gen X opting out with their typical negativity, again, it was not about opting out. It was about trying to survive in a devastated landscape after the party was over, when values had been turned upside down and discarded, babies thrown out with the bathwater, radicalization adopted for the sake of radicalization, with no regard for social damage or consequences. Gen X is the echo on the other side of the Boomers' mirror. Not perceived, labeled from the outside, we paid and pay the real costs of Boomers' wild-eyed experiments, while they cynically reap the benefits. Xers' internal experience is almost never grasped by Boomers or Millennials with sympathetic imagination.
I also feel that the Silent Generation is neglected. Both generations developed very different answers to modern change. Because Boomers are so self-centred and only perceive their linear narrative in history in which they are the heroic stars, these are 'alternate histories' to the monolithic late 60s which simply.do.not.exist. But the alternatives do exist.
We need to rewrite history from 1945 forward and tell the whole truth about it. It did not converge at a bottleneck in 1969, after which there was nothing but a post-1969 reality. What about 1961? 1989? I wrote a blog post about how the Silent Generation came up with social alternatives in the early 60s that Boomers simply take as precursors to their own youth movement. In fact, many Silent Gen had a very different path and proposed other solutions for economic and social improvements. The post was called The Silent Generation's Separate Peace.
This was based on my experience of being a Gen Xer who is the child of Silent Gen, not Boomer parents, so I saw what the Silent Generation actually accomplished. Just because it isn't discussed in the media, doesn't mean the legacy of the Silent Generation didn't happen. And if you talk to them, you find out they don't think much of Boomers, either.The Silent Generation's Separate Peace was a response to another blogger, Kate Sherrod, whose post on the same subject concluded that the Silent Generation's core achievement was Boomer avoidance. Silents built a legacy of change in spite of what Jeff Gordinier calls the Boomers' endless hammering "kitsch" about who they are and how they changed the world. What does the Silent Generation's alternate history - a legacy and set of achievements, which is a separate, distinctly non-Boomer set of events that has existed from 1945 to the present - look like?
For starters, Silents absolutely rejected egoism, personality cults, and monuments to the self and mass generational identity, as solutions to social problems and bourgeois ennui. The Silent Generation were well aware of social problems. But with personal memories of the Second World War, they accepted that the western world had broken in two and they lived with it. The Allied establishment coming out of the war attained a victory, bound up with staggering monumental failures. The Silents understood, post-atomic-bomb, post-Holocaust, that developed and developing worlds faced terrifying pitfalls. But they did not assume they had clear or easy answers. Perhaps the Cold War allowed them polarized heroes and villains, but likely not. The Cold War was murky.
Silents' soul-searching led to anger and confusion, but not egoism. The Silent Generation on both sides of the Iron Curtain were not naïve about the differences between 'official' polarized and 'real' murky Cold War realities. What is commendable is they hung onto the latter and tried to improve them. They tried to identify and patronize the best parts of the old establishment, and build those parts up as much as possible. They remained committed to high achievements in the sciences and arts. They preserved the best of the old system and handed that forward to the Boomers. Under the tenure of the Silent Generation, despite many problems of the receding old ways, the system did still function. The ideals of social welfare and public arts and broadcasting reached the pinnacle of their potential, a brief flowering when they actually worked. Social experiments were initiated, but within limits. For the briefest moment, perhaps five or ten years, in some places, it almost looked like a blended harmony between old and new, public and private, government, community and the individual which made the best of all worlds. Everything was held in a rough, tricky balance. That is an over-simplification. The Silent Generation had a conservative streak which accepted Greatest Generation initiatives, such as 1980s' economic liberalization in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. For all their criticism, satire and debate, the Silents basically accepted a certain framework of pre-existing authority, the conventions of the establishment. In continental Europe, it was harder to retain pre-1945 conservative nostalgia. In those cases, Silents aligned with a post-war élite social welfare establishment. Their social liberalism focused on enlightened social engineering, but there was still an acceptance of basic structure and order in society, of preserving a functioning system as a trust when it came to them and handing it forward.
In one area of establishment authority, however, the Silents were cautious. The Silent Generation developed a view of technology that was democratic, egalitarian, and anti-egoistic. That view stiffly maintained that no matter how advanced computers got, they were still machines that one must still be able to manage if things got out of hand. In other words: even if you go to the molecular level in computing design, do not forget your screwdriver. Computers were not to become intimate nano-sex objects, technological prosthetic dildos or gadgets that mimicked drug apparatuses, which could be embedded under one's skin or screwed into one's skull as a personal fashion statement. No. No. No. Computers are marvelous inventions, not mirrors. They must be treated with care, caution and creativity; they should not have become consumer luxuries and addictive obsessions. But that is what has happened.
Why rewrite of 1960s' history? It is not to attack or dismiss Boomers, to label them, stereotype their individual members, or judge what they tried to accomplish. A reevaluation of history through the 1960s would consider other paths that co-existed and co-exist, unheard 'other' voices that have nothing to do with this one generation's big story of collective achievement. That history would ask what the Silent Generation, Generations X, Y, and Z have accomplished or will accomplish, independently from Boomers. More importantly, it would ask what post-1945 history would look like if generations were not a meaningful label. Finally, that other history would ask how the principle of freedom might be available for individuals and groups - if individuals and groups were not defined in the ways we have come to expect.
See all my posts on Generation X.
See all my posts on 60s' Legacies.