Among the detritus to survive my late adolescence are a few cases of cassettes, dozens of paper books, a crate of vinyl albums, and many plastic albums filled with CDs. Typical Gen X ephemera. Today, scanning all of that and creating digital versions would require about 20 gigabytes of storage.
Back then I would have needed to spend around $15,000 to buy a bunch of hard drives to store that stuff, roughly the same amount as my student loans. I probably shouldn’t say that so loud that millennials might hear, but it would have seemed like a lot of money at the time.
Today the local electronics store gives you 32-gig SD cards free with a coupon. Which is insulting. I lugged this essential information around for three decades and you tell me it fits on a black chip of plastic smaller than my (admittedly curiously broad) thumbnail?
I hate the concept of generations. Maybe it’s because I’m Generation X, and I hate popular things. But that’s not a correct characterization—I enjoy things, dammit. I have been to therapy and I am capable of like. I tweet. I leave others’ yums unyucked. I am glad you like Coldplay. I welcome feedback. It’s cool that you believe in astrology (sound of grinding jaw).
A generation, at its footnoted best, is a sociological tool intended to make sense of behavior across large cohorts—i.e., if geography can influence a culture, then so can time: market crashes, earthquakes, war, the VMAs. Certainly a noble horseman of the Khan had a different worldview than I do, and drank more horse blood. But that’s not what generations represent right now. Generations are drama.
Oh poor millennials. “They are largely self-absorbed and extremely focused on personal appearance. But they are vaguely aware that identity is primarily a construct of culture and family conditioning, variables over which they have little control.” Actually that’s a description of Generation X as drawn by marketers trying to sell them stuff at Lollapalooza. In 1958, teen researchers were talking about the “young phone addict” developing his personality. And so on, back to clay tablets, where I’d guess a dude named Timgiratee complained that teens don’t buy enough barley.
Anyone can make a pop generation. Do it with me: Subtract 20 from the current year and round to the nearest multiple of five. Give it a name, like the Double Zeros or the Naughties, and describe the universal qualities of youth (Jealousy, Sex Drive, Openness, Narcissism, or JSON) as the side effect of new technologies and trends. “The critical thing to know about Naughties,” an imaginary critic might say, “is they’re obsessed with their communication devices and social status. They will never invest in low-yield bonds.”
Worse, I found myself starting to buy in. After 20 years of never giving the tiniest hoot about my own generation, and as a person of a certain age in a management capacity, I fell prey to the 20 or 30 articles a day about dread millennials entering my feeds. I’ve plopped down in a conference room to moan over the youth with their crying and social media and their refusal to prioritize my exact goals. Why won’t young people simply submit to my whims and admit I am right? I am only trying to profit from their labor.
The pop concept of generation is about placing us in a box of singular, predictable, manageable identities, branding us so that we might more readily hate each other, and then stepping right into River City to market to the carnage (“and that stands for pool”). Don’t we have enough of all that? My children are roughly the same as I was, just less into computers. My grandfather grew up on a farm between the wars, trapping raccoons. Later, together, we watched Knight Rider.
One of the things that is joyful about the current youth, for me as a mid-old, is that they are creating a new world of zillions of identities, in an age of chaotic recombination and Finstas. One day a furry will win major public office in a fursuit, and wear their suit to the chambers, and that’ll be that. The world is unruly and will not behave. As someone who struggled (still struggles) to figure out what I was even about, I’ve always believed that people had the right to define themselves, and it’s thrilling to see it suddenly in practice, even if sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable with all the drama.