Questions of generational difference: or Gen X in my 40s

Questions of generational difference: or Gen X in my 40s

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2011, Larry Edward Kamphausen explores, from his North American Gen X perspective, the nature of difference and continuity among generations.

On generations: Boomers and Gen Xers

When we speak of generations, we speak of the passage of time marked by the birth, coming of age and then aging of a certain group of people born within a particular block of time.  We have come to see generations as having certain characteristics, almost persons themselves.  A generation has taken on the role of an actor in the world. We expect that a new generation will have a personality radically different from preceding generations. I have a Gen X suspicion of this generational thinking.  (Yes, that suspicion turns in on itself, as does that sentence.)  I suspect this perspective on generations because I experience it as based in the previous generation’s experience.  From my experience as Gen X, our current sense of generational difference is marked quite radically by the experience of Baby Boomers.  Yet I am also conflicted about all this.  Maybe I can’t speak for my entire generation, or anyone else’s for that matter.  What then follows is my conflicted paradoxical and anecdotal take on our cultural fascination with generational difference, heightened by a Boomer rejection of the ethos of the preceding generations and feeling of alienation from their parent’s generation.

If one came of age as I (and Gen X) did in the 1980s, the Boomer generational conflict and belief in changing and transforming the world seemed to be a failure, based on an unwarranted optimism concerning the nature of the world.  To some degree, I held the Boomer critique of the status quo and assessed that if one wanted to change the world, it was best done through detached resistance, or maybe ignoring the status quo entirely in favor of creating a world from what one found ready at hand. From my perspective, the world was much more like what is found in Punk or Goth scenes.  (Here we find a blurring of the generational lines because, technically, those in the early Punk and Goth Rock scenes were younger Boomers, but these bands had appeal with Gen X, and subsequent generations as Goth subculture continues).  Within Goth, there was both Punk anarchy and rebellion and the mining of the past, combined with an anti-utopian sense of the future, in which we must create pockets of utopia from the detritus of the world (not unlike the world imagined by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s early films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children).  For me, there was neither a radical disjuncture from the world that preceded our generation, nor an identification with the past.

On generational conflict

In some sense, I received a scripted version of the conflict between generations and between parents and children.  The script was found in rock n’ roll, through which Gen X was already receiving a tradition from the Boomers.  Yet there were important differences: youth culture was becoming club culture and rebellion was becoming more about world creation and not world revolution. We were about self-creation out of the bits and pieces of the world at hand.  If we rebelled, we rebelled to make sense of ourselves in the world, not to change the world.  There was conflict between us and our parents, but there was nothing earth shattering about it. I, to be sure, hardly rebelled; rather, I chose my own path and tinkered with what I found about me in the world in which I came of age. As I have aged, whatever conflicts I had with my parents in growing up have been transformed into friendship. Sure I come to some differing conclusions, but they’re based on similar reasoning and outlook. My parents’ generation were also tinkerers. They also knew a broken down world.  The shiny veneer of the 50s wasn’t their reality, passing away like everything else.

On generational difference

A quality of previous generations with which I don’t identify is nostalgia for high school.  I have, and Gen X has, very little nostalgia. Our youth kind of sucked. We were waiting to be adults in a world that wanted to delay our adulthood. For the sake of the freedom it afforded us, we colluded with that delay, but we did it to be free adults, to form our adulthood into something that wasn’t our youth. I know very few people born after 1965 who view high school with nostalgia. College was a revelation: as my professors treated me as a responsible adult who could do the work and get some form of passing grade or not do it and suffer the consequences, no one checked up on me. I could come to class or not. All the monitoring and coercion of high school was gone.  (I hear this is changing as colleges now seem to be in the monitoring and cajoling business like high school was.)  I, and only I, was responsible for what I did in college, and I was encouraged to take up that responsibility, to take what I learned from the professors and make something else of it.  I’m not really even nostalgic for college as it simply is what has allowed me to continue to move forward as an adult in the world.

Unlike Boomers, I wasn’t (we weren’t) terribly interested in changing the world.  What I was (we were) interested in was being adult, creating the world in which we inhabited, for good or ill.  This quality also perhaps also separated us from our parents’ generation: they had expected to inherit a world, and they struggled with having to create the world which they inhabited. Yet, at the same time they understood that one had to tinker with what was. I think my parents understood this aspect of becoming; that I would take both what they had given me and what I found in the world, and create something both recognizable and unique.  I think that perhaps my parents and I did this better than many Gen Xers and their parents.

An interlude of questions

This constant qualification moving back and forth between my own experience and that of my generation raises the question: is the difference I experience just my own personality, the make-up of my particular family and our commitments that happens to coincide with others simply because we live in the same world?  What meaning do those patterns of generations really have? Do we entrap ourselves in looking for and finding these broader patterns, rather than interpreting our lives along more particular realities of persons and their interactions with the world? Or is generational conflict simply a reality of aging, an impact that should be mollified with time and age, and disappear as that the distinction between one generation and the next finally blurs?

On the reality of aging

When I was 18 or so, the differences between me and my father were not so much an issue of generational identity as of age.  At eighteen, I was looking at a life that completely spread out in front of me and I could hardly imagine myself at 40, let alone at almost sixty. Now, at 42 years old, I can begin to see where my father was then and the distance between us doesn’t feel as great. Reflection upon my age brings me closer to my parents and perhaps their generation. I don’t mind getting older, but I haven’t aged like my parents, and the world I helped create is different from theirs. And yet my parents don’t seem so radically different from me anymore.

As I get older, the past seems less distant and the future less hopeful, though not without hope.  Or perhaps more to the point: as I age, I find myself seeking to encompass a period of time greater than my life span. I neither want to live now, nor for a future that I will inhabit. I want to inhabit a world that is past, is now and will be.  Newness exhausts me. The past bores me. The flow of time, the past that lives on and becomes a future, excites me.  How much of this is my age (newness did once excite me, and I was interested in the future) and how much of this is my Gen X sensibility?

Final questions emerging out of Gen X tinkering

I tinker. Gen Xers are tinkerers. At moments, grandiose transformations and totalitarian reforms still call to me. Yet in the end, I prefer to sit and tinker. I seek to transform the world through its own material, not by remaking it in its entirety in or through revolution, violent or non-violent.  I come from a family of tinkerers in which I observed that the world is created from the world.  As I have aged, I have indeed realized that there is no world but the world that we create from what is and has been.  The facts of the world are those who are in it.  One doesn’t need a revolution for something new to spring up in the world, one simply needs to take the materials of the world and be in it, and then the world has a Christian Goth pastor who is an iconographer and Prior of an intentional Christian community based upon the tradition of Christian monasticism.  My identity exists for others because I tinkered and simply lived my life. Is this my own perspective or simply the way things are or is it a unique belief that I share with Gen X as the product of a generation?  I don’t know. Does it matter?  Or is marking generations used simply to recognize the passing of time and the desire that we all have to matter in the world and to belong to something?


Image: still from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children.