Turn Up That Music 

The Gen X-Millennial generation gap

Every 20 years or so, Time depicts people in their 20s as "lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow." This time, the target is the millennial generation (Americans born between roughly 1980 and 2000, with Baby Boomer parents). According to the Boomer-run media, 20-somethings/Gen Y/millennials are narcissists.

Whatever. Back in 1990, Time was smearing Gen X as shallow, apolitical, unambitious shoe-gazers.

"[Gen Xers] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes."

Back then, we Gen Xers defended our collective honor by alternating between the "we do not suck, at least not in the way you say we suck" and "anyway, if we do suck, it's your fault, old farts" arguments.

You know what's wrong with young people today? Not much. Not according to me or my friends. We're fine with younger people.

We like Gen Y. We don't chafe, for example, at working under a younger boss. We ask them for advice. OK, mostly about tech stuff. Mostly, we like the same music and movies.

Maybe the millennials hate us, but if they do, they're doing an excellent job hiding it.

Sometimes, though my Gen Xer cohorts let slip a complaint about our younger friends and colleagues:

Why are millennials, um... well, there's no other way to say it: kind of boring?

Millennials go along to get along in corporate America. When they get laid off, they don't get angry--they adapt. They reinvent themselves.

The Generation Gap of the 1960s and 1970s referred to the inability/refusal of "tune in, turn on, drop out" Baby Boomers to relate to their stodgy "we survived the Depression and won World War II so turn down that goddamn rock 'n' roll" parents. Though decried at the time as sad and alienating, the dynamic of that demographic divide was as natural as could be. The young were loud, obnoxious, demanding and politically radical. The old were reserved, quiet and conservative.

William Howe and Neil Strauss' landmark book Generations, which traces the identities of American generations through popular culture and politics back to the colonial era, depicts dozens of epic clashes between old codgers vs. youthful insurgents. The young fight to be heard. The old yell at them to shut up. The old get older and quieter, the young mature and gain influence and replace them.

That's how it was 200 years--and 20 years--ago. Just as their parents looked down on them, Boomers looked down on us Xers.

The Gen X/Y divide breaks this pattern.

Millennial hipsters (who don't dress hip--hipsters are dorks) are militant nostalgists. They've revived the ancient traditions of our grandparents: martinis, old-fashioned cocktails. They golf. They wear clothes from the 1930s. They watch go-go dancers. (Feminist radical lesbian ones.) They grow beards--retrosexual Civil War ones. They open restaurants--really good restaurants--whose menus and harken back to the 19th century.

Steampunk could never have been a big Gen X thing. We're scrappy and stripped down. They're baroque.

Millennial pop culture is about flat effect: mumblecore movies and all-attitude-no-plot TV shows like Arrested Development, emo-influenced music, every member of every band dressed like they're showing up to roof your house. Even their taste in cars is boring. And kind of dumb.

Boomers' countless faults aside, let's give them this: They knew what they wanted. They loved. They hated. They wanted revolution. Which was one of the things Xers hated about Boomers: They came so close to revolution and they friggin' gave up. Gen Y revolution? It's hard to imagine such a generation shooting anyone or blowing anything up. That, I think, gets close to the mystery of the millennials. They've been horribly screwed--even more than us Gen Xers.

Millennials are mired in student loan debt. They will never make much money or get any government benefits or get much of anything out of the system. Why aren't they pissed off? Writing in The New York Observer, Peter Hyman argues that Gen X and Gen Y shouldn't be as cozy as they are. That it's our (X's) fault that Y hasn't made its own mark:

"The old generational identities that once defined us have broken down, and the net result is a messy temporal mashup in which 40-somethings act like skateboarders, 20-somethings dress like the grandfather from My Three Sons, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk."

And it's up to Gen X to fix it (like everything else, apparently): "I know guys whose style of dress and off-duty interests haven't changed a lick since college. They devote their free time to movies about comic-book heroes, to video games and to fantasy football. No, they aren't hurting anybody. But perhaps what we really need to do is put on suits and take our wives out for expensive dinners, like our dads before us."

That burns. I'm wearing skinny black jeans and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt as I write this.

One problem with writing about generational politics is that it requires sweeping generalizations. You can point to a million exceptions. And of course, there's absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. These things simply are. Another is that you risk pissing people off... people you like.

We Xers think you millennials are awesome. We just wish you'd act your age.

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