Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The 99 Per Cent, Generation Catalano, and Why Generational Labels are Fake

Jared Leto and Claire Danes in My So-Called Life. Image Source: Wiki.

Over at Slate, Doree Shafrir recently identified another nuance in generational labeling, and ferreted out a group between Generations X and Y, Generation Catalano.  I'm critical of generational labels because they are not accurate; they falsely create groups; they are vehicles of control; and generally they are the source of a lot of problems.  Boomers live and die by labels and labeling.  As a result, generational and other kinds of social labeling, especially self-labeling, in the Boomer-led reality is hard to avoid these days. Anyway, this self-defined 'Catalano' niche group evidently mirrors a similar grey area cohort between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, known as Generation Jones.

Generation Catalano was named in an impromptu Tweetfest last month in honour of the character Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto) from the 1994-1995 American ABC television series My So-Called Life.  Leto is actually a Gen Xer, but never mind that. Interestingly, one of Generation Catalano's hallmark experiences is that they were the absolute, very last, generational group to experience adolescence and pop culture before the Tech Revolution hit full force. They argue that pure Gen Y Millennials were fully immersed in the Tech Boom.  As an Xer, that one observation about the Tech Revolution made me really sympathize with Generation Catalano.

But before I get to that, first, some background. I'm going to apologize to my Boomer readers now: I'm going to make some generalizations about Boomers, but only to show just how bad demographic generalizations are.

The definition of this in-between 'Gen Catalano' group was also prompted by an angry comment from a Gen X blogger, Mat Honan, regarding the early 1990s recession and the current economic downturn (one of my friends sent me that link last month - thanks -C.).  There is an incredibly deep anger among Gen Xers that they have been hit hard, twice, once in their twenties and again in their thirties and early forties.  Many of them feel that Boomers are responsible through speculation and mismanagement for both economic disasters.  And they also feel that the Boomers used both recessions to disenfranchise Xers in corporate, professional and public life.  The basic view (which of course gets plenty of counter-criticism) is that Boomers got fat on the economic booms, created the recessions, forced Gen X to absorb the shocks, and then surrounded Gen X with negative publicity so that it looked like Gen X somehow was responsible for their own unemployment, due to lack of strong character and vision, which the Boomers always felt they themselves had in abundance.  The worst part of this picture is the feeling on the part of Xers that Boomers are totally oblivious to the damage the latter have done; their narcissim recasts all their actions, all their iconoclasm, all their grand designs, upheavals, revolutions, reforms - and recessions - in a benevolent and superior light.  And if it doesn't, they can always blame someone else.

As my friend -C. put it, "Generation X were unemployed in the early 1990s not because we were slackers [a Boomer label] but because we graduated into a recession. We weren't unemployed because we were lazy. We were unemployed because of a crash the Boomers created."  This is why generational labeling - creating a false image in the early 1990s that an entire generation of people were inherently cynical and had bad attitudes when they really did not - has been such a terrible social evil.  It was a fictitious tale of failure, concocted in the press and in pop culture that in no way accurately reflected the opinions and experiences of Gen Xers. It was a Great Lie.  And a lot of people believed it, including a lot of Gen Xers.

Despite my dislike of generational labels, I do use them on this blog. It's hard to talk about these matters without using generational labels because everyone has accepted them.  For Gen Xers, using the labels only rubs salt into old wounds.  It isn't just that times were and are tough. The recessions were and are intrinsically connected to a giant process whereby Xers feel they were and have been brutally sidelined, belittled and marginalized in society.  As a result, they sure aren't keen on Millennials doing any stereotypical ego-building at their expense right now.

Yet at the same time, Gen Xers are haunted by completely a contrary impulse, namely, that lashing out in defensive self-righteousness is not who they really are; the labels aren't accurate - the labels aren't real.  And they're right (you can see a recent report on myths about Gen X here).  When Xers bitch to high heaven, they're playing a false social role that has been set out for them by their predecessors.  Beneath the labels, Xers' collective experience, if that can be defined at all, has little to do with Boomer-shaped realities.  Rather, it is an experience which embodies the constant acceptance of, and reconciliation of, paradoxes.  Xers have to tie the knots between then and now - between what came before and what has come after the Cold War, the tech revolution, the turn of the Millennium. They are the only generation that straddles past and future exactly. And so far it's been a thankless task.

In the case of the Xer article I mentioned above, Honan's anger was directed at Millennial writer Noreen Malone, who, with bloody-but-unbowed optimism, thought that Gen Y could punch on through the Great Recession better than their predecessors, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That's exactly the kind of thinking that drives hard core Gen Xers crazy, and makes them think that Millennials are still drinking the Boomer Kool Aid.

In the early 2000s, the Boomers greeted the rising Gen Yers - who are their children - with rapturous predictions about how Millennials were uniquely gifted and talented.  Millennials were told they were special. They were the kids who would change the world.  It was easy hype to swallow.  You can now see Millennials haltingly come to terms with the fact that they were labeled dishonestly. Malone sighs, semi-ironically: "the cold truth is that not all of us are brilliant [and] we are not all big thinkers."  I have news for you Noreen: the members of your generation were never any more brilliant or had any more big thinkers than the members of any other generation.  You were never any more special than any other age group. When you stop believing Boomer hype, you see what you really are and of what you are really capable, as an individual in a community with people of all ages.  And that truth is better than any candy-coated bullshit about a generation that was going to change the world.

Gen Xers ask Gen Y to look at what is happening to them with some parallel recognition of what Generation X has so far endured.  Generation X is looking for common ground with the Millennials.  And believe it or not, there was a lost time in the 1980s when Xers similarly sought agreement with the Baby Boomers. In the latter case, they got absolutely nowhere.  And with Gen Y? So far, there has been little consensus, due to the fact that Millennials spoke of leap-frogging over Gen X in the early 2000s under Boomer mentorship. 

Millennials did this until the Great Recession hit and Boomers began to show their true colours. Then Gen Y began to find out about the world of their parents' reverse mortgages, of enduring unemployment that the Millennial generation never created - oh, and of being told by their Boomer parents that they weren't so special after all.  Were Millennials surprised?  They shouldn't have been. This is the mentality of horizontal loyalties.  When the chips are down, loyalty goes to one's horizontal alignment first, in this case, a common age group.

Generational thinking is the same as any other group stereotyping put to revolutionary 'good use.' I'll digress a bit historically here, to discuss what I think is the origin of demographic definitions. Generational labeling is likely rooted in the horizontal social alignments of equality and fraternity touted in the French Revolution. The revolution was a huge and badly needed attack on vertical power structures of the kind that, over a century earlier, placed a monarch like Louis XIV at the top of society and allowed his absolutist will to become total law. It wasn't as simple as that by far, and absolutism was actually innovative and adaptable. But that is the basic picture of early modern vertical hierarchy.

Prior to 1848, perhaps prior to 1830, there were still vertical social loyalties in Europe such as paternalism (which, while hierarchical, involved an aspect of caring and collective duty for members up and down the hierarchy), honour, loyalty, community and family.  Because they are associated with vertical hierarchical power structures, these concepts have been almost completely obliterated over the past 150 years. Vertical social alignments are now regarded by Boomer power brokers in western societies as the ultimate social evils. Their connotations of vertical power are defended only by the most regressive conservatives.  But an overapplication of contrary principles has not been all that great.  All that did was create a new power monolith.

Generational thinking is part of a system of horizontal social alignments - conceived of as virtuous by Boomers, because creating loyalties according to the factor of 'having a common age' looks to them like a big, rational, democratic leveler.  Yet when that horizontal leveling concept is overused or abused, as the Boomers have abused it, it is pernicious.  It makes cooperation across vertical power lines (say, across age and gender differences) extremely difficult. Generational labels have created ugly, invisible walls between the Boomers and their now-elderly predecessors, and between Boomers and succeeding age groups.   As is evident with the 99 per cent protests, horizontal social organization enables new vertical power imbalances, while ceaselessly claiming to diminish them. Instead, the conditions of generational hyper-organization erode the values that could have furnished the bases for vertical social agreements. 

For example, in families, people of many ages could at best happily cooperate and work for each other's mutual benefit. The current recession appears to have reinforced family ties. But the post-Second-World-War picture that the Boomers envisioned of the family is one of simple evil hierarchy, internal discord, sexism, dishonesty, sexual repression or aberration, and internal competition. And this is why 'the family' became one of the targeted hot spots of Boomer theorizing and social experiments over the past forty years.  If you follow a blog like Jen X 67, you can see that Gen Xers with families have been trying to institute a correction to Boomers' world of free love, radical feminism and divorce.

Gender equality is another horizontal alignment. Boomers conceive of cross-gender consensus as an insidious support for paternalistic, sexist hierarchical power that favours men.  They turned 'men' and 'women' into two self-serving armed camps, with each regarding the other as fair game - a competition between narcissistic enemies that are fatally attracted to each other.  Boomers simply don't understand that non-horizontal social loyalties, say between men and women, do not have to be predicated upon - or at the very least, suspected areas of - conflict, inequality and lack of freedom. 

If you want to see an alternative to Boomer-led thinking on gender, consider a blog like The Art of Manliness, which bolsters masculinity without basing it on sexism or inequality (as Boomers would expect).  That blog argues that men in our society can be strong, and that the sexes can cooperate, without threatening female emancipation and without constantly thinking about the archaic dangers of vertical hierarchy.  And while gender power imbalances remain a big problem, the kind of alternative presented in The Art of Manliness is worth considering.

Common class is another horizontal loyalty that has been overused and perceived as being the seat of unassailable virtue.  The Boomers dedicated themselves to creating one, great, equal, middle class.  That's evident in policies like educational reform, which opened the universities to over 50 per cent of the population in all developed countries after World War II.  These policies were undoubtedly beneficial; but they also drove a lot of people deep into student debt, without overhauling the liberal professions adequately to accommodate new graduates. Thus, common class definitely improved working and living conditions for labourers.  But broad socio-economic fraternity is not necessarily synonymous with equality, freedom or prosperity, as Boomers thought.

Boomer-sponsored generational conflicts destroyed vertical social consensus in the workplace and in the running of the economy.  If you think Boomers are benevolent masters and truly believe in workplace equality, look at what they did in the Great Recession when their backs were against the wall.  Boomers reconfigured workplace rules to entrench their own positions, while debasing regulations that governed job stability for their younger underlings.  They fired a whole generation of young Gen X parents and threw them out of their homes.  They brought some Millennials into X positions, but with little or no pay and even less security. They forced their successors into insecure contract-based and piece labour.  They turned the liberal professions into McJobs, while protecting themselves with the last vestiges of security still institutionally extant in those sectors.  Those securities were once grounded in the vertical values of mutual support that used to grease the wheels in professional job cultures (if you want to see an eloquent Gen X argument about how Boomers wrecked traditional professional conduct within the legal profession, see here). By dismantling the security of the liberal professions and gutting professional cultures in the name of their own short term - and unequal - gain and protection, the Boomers took us right back to the sweatshops of 1830 again.

Having created nasty workplace hierarchies and having thriven in that unequal atmosphere, Boomers cloaked their failure by insisting that they were still levellers and democratizers.  Incredibly, they saw themselves as mentors, while they created propaganda about non-Boomer evil hierarchies to explain the loss of prosperity.  They projected their responsibility for mishandling the economy and the middle class professions onto the banking and industrial complex and corporate moguls.  In the Boomer mentality, there is always an evil, conservative 1950s father figure who is really to blame.  But no one is really driving the bus right now, except Boomers - on both sides of the political tracks.  They can't blame Daddy.  They are Daddy.

Now, the banking sector has a lot to answer for, as do the big corporations.  But I would suggest that Boomers are running those areas, as well as the areas of social and political counter-argument.  The raging debate between big government and fat cats is a falsehood which conceals the fact that Boomers' ingrained thinking about the virtues of horizontal loyalties is to blame for a lot of these problems.  Until we see that Boomers have created hierarchies masquerading as equalities, we will never get anywhere.  Nor will we solve some of our worst problems unless we recognize that some hierarchical values that once mitigated inequality, such as mutual responsibilities across age, gender and class lines, were not necessarily bad.

Think about it this way: when was the last time 'bosses' or leaders of industry or economic life were ideally conceived of as benevolent figures who cared as much for their employees as they did for themselves?  When was the last time employers and employees were depicted not as two sides of an irreconcilable power divide but as partners working for a common cause, which would have had them sharing common interests, and a basis for common stewardship of the economy and markets? That idea of mutual respect and general adherence to the common good is actually an anti-class sentiment, and it is not a Marxist communalism.

I've blogged about two examples (here) where Boomers did work to bolster vertical social loyalties in the name of something larger than themselves.  One example was in Germany, where when the Great Recession hit, Boomer managers took deep pay cuts in order to preserve Gen X jobs and prevent mass layoffs.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than what happened in North America.  The other example was in Japan, where senior Fukushima plant workers selflessly sacrificed their time and health to stave off nuclear disaster, taking over shifts from younger plant workers with young families.  But these examples are few and far between. It's hard to find vertical alignments in our society that aren't instantly dismissed outright as anti-democratic, paternalistic, archaic, or somehow morally flawed. 

End of digression. To get back to generations, one glance at the magazine covers below shows how awful collective horizontal labeling can be.  This generational message came from Boomers, who see themselves as innovators and ground-breaking optimists.  They do not see that the message they projected upon their successors is filled with heart-crushing negativity and failure.

'Lost Generation' propaganda. The myth that the Boomers perpetuated included a message that no succeeding generation could ever reach their heady heights.  They had set the bar so high and their example was so blindingly bright that their successors (at first that was only Gen X, but now Boomers include the Millennials) were crushed under the weight of impossible expectations. This myth turns on recession conditions, in which younger members of society are inherently blamed as being somehow personally, permanently flawed, broken, hopeless because they are unemployed or underemployed.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  When, when, when will Boomer media leaders stop labeling their successors as losers and failures? Failing that, maybe they could just - retire? This is: Time magazine (16 July 1990) versus New York magazine (16 October 2011).

Imagine a world where, during the early 1990s recession, Boomers had not devised a picture of generational alienation and gen wars.  Imagine if they had generally decided to cooperate with those younger than they were. Imagine an order where some of the mitigating decencies of old vertical orders had been retained, with mutual support and collective responsibility across age lines. And then imagine the 90s' tech boom happening, but without the greed and every-man-for-himself rat race that has characterized real Boomer work cultures. Imagine if the tech boom had happened, but in a different economic environment, without the early 2000s' speculative bubbles that gutted the world economy. It's an impossible ideal, I know.  But in that ideal world, the magazine covers above would never have been published.  These covers (and they are typical of the Boomer message created for succeeding generations since 1990) reek of Schadenfreude. These images create a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the ruin of the people who are going to have to foot the Boomers' bills.  These are magazine covers from two big recessions.  They bookend an era of greed masquerading as Boomer virtue. In an ideal world, the completely false, negative horizontal group stereotyping that caused, and is still causing, so much damage would never have been considered a social good. Even false positive horizontal stereotyping, as was done with Millennials in the early 2000s, would have been rejected.

X-Y squabbles aside, it's fascinating that the Boomers are slapping Gen Y with the same 'failed hopeless generation' publicity that they did to Gen X in the early 1990s.  To get back to the new so-called 'Generation Catalano,' this exchange prompted some soul-searching by the people now in their early-mid 30s, who feel that they fall in between X and Y:
Last week in New York magazine, 27-year-old Noreen Malone (a former Slate staffer) wrote that her generation, the Millennials—battered by the economy and yet still somehow convinced that they'll "do better" than their parents—were "hoping for the chance to put on a tie and report to their cubes." In response, Gizmodo writer Mat Honan, who turns 39 this week, posted a screed on his blog that read in part: "Generation X is tired of your sense of entitlement. Generation X also graduated during a recession. It had even shittier jobs … Generation X is used to being fucked over."

I'm older than Noreen but younger than Mat, and neither characterization rang exactly true to me (most demographers place me and my peers at the tail end of Generation X). I was born during Jimmy Carter's presidency, a one-term administration remembered mostly for the Iran hostage crisis, the New York City blackout, and stagflation. The Carter babies—anyone born between his inauguration in January 1977 and Reagan's in January 1981—are now 30 to 34, and, like Carter himself, the weirdly brilliant yet deeply weird born-again Christian peanut farmer, this micro-generation is hard to pin down. We identify with some of Gen X's cynicism and suspicion of authority—watching Pee-Wee Herman proclaim, "I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel," will do that to a kid—but we were too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn't stop me from buying the soundtracks). And, while the proud alienation of the Gen X worldview doesn't totally sit right, we certainly don't yearn for the Organization Man-like conformity that the Millennials seem to crave.

So, half in jest, I posted on Twitter: "I'm not Gen X and I'm not a Millennial either; I'm some low-birthrate in-between thing. WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ME." To my surprise, replies flooded in: "I was thinking the same thing today. I vote Generation Jem." "Generation I Watched Saved By The Bell during its first run." "I'm born 77, I claim the Xers, just because it's better than the alternative."

But what seemed to be the best moniker for our micro-generation was a Teen Vogue editor's suggestion: "Generation Catalano." Jared Leto's Jordan Catalano was a main character in the 1994-95 ABC series My So-Called Life, a show that starred Claire Danes as Angela Chase, a high school sophomore struggling with the thing that teenagers will struggle with as long as there are high schools: who she is. "People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even,'" she says in a voice-over in a midseason episode. So even though the themes of the show are in many ways timeless, today, My So-Called Life also seems like a time capsule, and not just because of the Scrunchies. There's no texting; Jordan leaves a note for Angela in her locker. There's also no Facebook or instant-messaging or cyberbullying (just regular old bullying).
Will Generations X and Y find common ground?  Maybe Generation Catalano knows the answer.  And maybe that answer is yes.  That can only be a good thing.

See all my posts on Generation X.

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  1. Before I came into contact with you, I was only vageuly aware of Boomers vs Gen X. Yeah, I knew it was there, but as an abstract concept. I never really worried about it much.

    I do certainly have conflicts with *my* Silent Generation-but-almost-Boomer father (wonder what the label for *that* transition is), but that's between him and me, not about our generations. And to do him credit, for his part he would, if anything, blame Boomers for ruining schools so that Gen X/Y/fill in the blank came out of the starting gate at a disadvantage. -J

  2. I'm always reading about how the Boomers are so greedy, and were so dominant over us, but honestly, I don't think I've ever even noticed. I had always assumed we were disaffected because of the enormous mess we were born into. I was born in 1970 and my first memories of the world included serial killers running wild in California, Vietnam vets coming home and being treated like crap by their peers, terrorism from both the Middle East and the hippies right here at home, the American auto industry being a joke, the streets being filled with litter, and a generally brown haze covering the entire world. I've suffered from a great deal of anxiety and depression throughout my life as a result of the world I spent my early childhood in, and as easy as it would be to blame the Boomers for that, I know that in reality, it was the last 200 years of industrial revolution that colored my world, not just a single, older generation.

    Something that I don't generally see in print but would like to see more of, is the fact that the world changed so dramatically in the late '80s and early '90s just as our generation were coming of age. Things got brighter and cleaner, clothes were nicer looking, cars were finally starting to become aerodynamic (which annoyed the hell out of me as a kid during the oil crisis), organic foods slowly became more common, and people had become extremely aware of the impact they were having on the world. Basically, everything just got better. These improvements are what made the later generations the happy carefree people that they are. And the coolest thing is, we haven't been anything like the Boomers, we've let them be and we've helped them along and we've basically made them partners in moving forward in the world. I really hope that people will remember our actual legacy, and not all the tripe about being held back by greedy ex-hippies.

  3. Thanks for your comment, spacejunk. I think that the point is that Gen X didn't have a clearly defined universal generational identity or collective experience, but Boomers did try to define Xers' experiences in the 1990s. Ironically that created a Generation-X-wide experience, namely, the gap between externally imposed reputation and self-perception.

    The Xers were defined from outside with values and stereotypes that were completely different from Xers' actual perspectives and experiences.

    And as I said, Xers' only other common trait is that they bridge past and future, but how they do that varies from individual to individual. Your perception of changing living standards is one example.