In 2016, I helped co-found a podcast called Gen X Men with two good friends. The genesis was a deep conversation over beers one night in a Philadelphia bar. The central question that arose, and which became the basis for the show, is this: what will be the legacy of Generation X?
My friends and I are in our early 40s. Our generation, born roughly (no pun intended) between 1965 and 1983 (depending on who you ask), also includes people in their 50s (if you can friggin’ believe it).
My first reaction to the question was, I think, a natural one: “Damn, when did we get old enough to start worrying about legacy?” Of course, to my flannel-wearing, grunge-listening self of the mid-1990s, being 40-plus definitely sounded old. It was also far away, in the then-distant years of the early 21st century.
Well, the future ain’t that distant anymore.
My second thought was: “What have we accomplished as a generation?”
That is definitely the tougher question.
Handle Generational Stereotypes with Care
Generational classifications, like any human construct, are the proverbial double-edged sword. As a high-level tool, they are helpful in establishing the historical context of a generation. People born at a specific time in history are indeed shaped by the circumstances of the era in which they live. And they, in turn, eventually shape history itself, forming a sort of “symbiotic relationship” with history.
So, I think we can agree: human beings—to a greater or lesser extent depending on the individual—are influenced by the events of their time, and we should take this into account when considering their behavior. Our temporal environment does indeed leave some marks on all of us. Whether we like it or not, the point in history in which we exist has some influence on our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
However, a generational classification is just the macro view of people. We cannot forget the other side of the human equation: the individual. Have no doubt, the high-level generalities of generation break down at the “micro level” of each unique human being.
It’s a logical fallacy (specifically, a fallacy of division) to categorize an individual strictly by their generation. To do so is to commit an act of egregious stereotyping. Period.
As stated above, we should take into consideration a person’s generation, but not to the exclusion of the individual’s unique developmental circumstances. One’s generation is nowhere near the sum total of one’s being.
Yet, how often do we judge others (and find ourselves judged) based on the broad strokes of a generation? For instance, I myself have stooped to complaining about Baby Boomers as an undifferentiated whole. I, like all human beings, fall short of logic and tolerance from time to time.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from co-hosting the Gen X Men podcast, it’s to be very wary of cramming people into the narrow confines of their generation.
All that being said, I’m going to try and tread lightly as I issue a challenge to my generation.
An Open Challenge to Generation X
So what does all of the above mean for Gen Xers? Here’s what I suggest: it means we need to work together as individuals to harness the best traits we share as a generation. We need to use the famous Gen X rebellious independence, self-motivation, creativity, and healthy skepticism to try and leave a positive mark on our small segment of history.
If it’s inevitable that we may, for good or ill, be judged as a whole, then let’s make the most of our limited time here. Let’s do things to make it easier for future generations to look back on us with pride.
So, I ask again: what have we accomplished? Are we making the most of the gift of life?
We have reached middle-age at a crisis point in human history. Will we be remembered as having helped advance the long, slow march toward tolerance and justice for all? Or will we fall into the complacency we frequently bash the Boomers about and keep the world running on autopilot?
Yes, some from the older generations considered us slackers in our youth, but we know the truth: we were rebelling against 80s excess and the chains of the traditional path to adulthood, though many of us still wound up in the daily grind of nine to “whenever.”
Gen X has a history of progress and promise. We are the first generation to “Rock the Vote.” Captain Planet taught us about saving the environment. But maybe we’re getting complacent now. Maybe we’ve carried our skepticism for too long. Sure, it helped us break free of expectations, but for many of us, it’s devolved into cynicism.
If you feel like you’re part of an underestimated and overlooked generation, it’s time to let go. Yeah, I know many of us were the much-lamented “Latch Key Kids.” Mom and dad weren’t around enough because they both had to work in the wake of the recession, A.K.A the 80s economic hangover.
Let go of the bitterness. It’s all well and good when you’re an angst-ridden kid. All human beings of every generation must go through a “lost” phase. It’s part of becoming an adult.
But it’s time to find ourselves. It’s time to move on, and take our place as the movers and shakers of our time. We’ve reached the age when our elders need us to take charge, and our idols are dying off.
It’s a time of uncertainty and opportunity. Will we pick up the reins, or drop the ball?
Let’s do more than fight over who comes out on top of the post-Baby Boomer power vacuum and stop worrying about whether we’re going to get Social Security. We don’t have to be like everyone before us and just “keep our heads down” to toil until we die. Let’s look beyond the confines of the daily rat race like no other generation before us and take the long view as only Gen X can.
We don’t have to give up that patented Gen X rebellious side completely. But we need to be rebels with direction and purpose now. Because time is slipping away from us. We can’t take forever to make our mark.
Yes, we’re sandwiched between two bigger generations, but that doesn’t mean we’re the hapless “baby busters” fated to be irrelevant in the annals of history.
If this sounds like tough love and a kick in the pants, it’s not just for you but also for me. We all need to beware the complacency trap. Otherwise, a few more decades will pass by in the blink of an eye, and we’ll have even less time to make a positive impact.
It’s Time to Generation Up!
This challenge isn’t just for men. It’s for all of Generation X.
I may not know our collective future, but there’s one thing I DO know: no generation should wait for their legacy to miraculously appear. We need to create it for ourselves.
Time won’t stop for us, folks. But to mangle a few lines from Emily Dickinson, Death definitely will stop for all of us someday. What are YOU going to do between now and then?
Do I even have to remind you of what Robin Williams said in Dead Poet’s Society? Seize the day, Gen Xers! Now more than ever, it’s time for us to “generation up”! Let’s do something worth being remembered long after the last of us has tap danced off this miraculous ball of mud and possibilities.
The only generational fate we share is the one we make for ourselves. Gen X, don’t coast passively into old age. It’s time to make sure we take our destiny into our own hands.
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