Open Letter to Gen X

Gen-X: The Insolent Unsilent Minority First in a series of essays exploring my generational history. I. Who Are We?

Other than that Psych 101 class I took my first year at Saddleback Community College in the mid-80s, I received most of my psychology education binge-watching Criminal Minds and focusing on Dr. Spencer Reid (The Wife focuses on Morgan, for some reason?) One segment of dialogue I vividly remember is from the episode “Unknown Subject” in 2012.

Jennifer Jareau Evanescence, Linkin Park, and Nickelback.

Derek Morgan So Herman Scobie's into that nu-metal goth stuff.

Jennifer Jareau Yeah, and his tramp stamp probably spells out *Massengill*. This guy doesn't even have any Rage Against The Machine. I rock.

Dr. Spencer Reid How old were you when you started listening to that band?

Jennifer Jareau I was probably a teenager. Why?

Dr. Spencer Reid You know, 14 is when we start to make our own musical choices. Our cognitive development evolves at that age and we start to form our own cultural identity.

Derek Morgan We stop listening to the music that our parents put on and we start listening to the music that our friends listen to.

Dr. Spencer Reid And those musical experiences imprint on us. Our hormonal surges as teenagers may make the choices seem more personal and passionate. And later on in life we might experiment with other musical selections, but no music ever impacts us as much as that which we listen to at age 14.

Jennifer Jareau Herman Scobie's what, 30?

Derek Morgan If that.

Jennifer Jareau Okay, so mid to late '90s is when he started to take music seriously, stuff like this.

Derek Morgan And the Piano Man's songs were all early '80s.

Dr. Spencer Reid Which means the signature doesn't fit. Herman Scobie's too young to be the Piano Man.

I believe that exchange supports my premise for this personal essay. This Open Letter to my generation. I believe culture is comprised of five elements that I write about here. That dialogue exchange hits on two of those elements – Music and History.

As Dr. Reid so elegantly points out, we start to form our own cultural identity at the age of 14. So, we begin charting our individual history at that point, as opposed to a collective family history that we have been, and will continue to be, a part of. And an important part of that identity is music, and it will form a basis of one’s identity for a lifetime.

I love my musical history and am proud of my appreciation for all genres of music. Between the ages of 12-13½ I was living in a culture dominated by Country & Western music, literally riding horses with my Dad to The Country Palace to see live country music (so that he would not get a DWI.) This is me at 12 years old. I made the eight on that one!

Mostly Outlaw Bands. And, damned if it ain’t true Dr. Reid! I find myself listening to the Outlaw station on Sirius most of the time. Waylon, Willie and the boys.

The year I turned 14, 1978, was bifurcated for me. It started in Flora Vista, NM in a triple-wide trailer on a hog farm with my dad and ended in South El Monte, CA in a crappy apartment on a gang-infested street with my mom. Two years after that ride above, I was a long-haired rocker in SoCal.

My mom also had a major musical influence on me. She was totally into, and still is, classic rock. Especially Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. I remember her yelling out one time “Where the fuck is my Zeppelin 8-track?”

My grandparents loved Big Band, Swing and Jazz, and listening to KUSC Classical while playing cribbage with Grandpa Smitty was a rite of passage. I cannot be the only member of this cohort, that when shuffle is hit, its Metallica to Mozart to Madonna. Boston to Black Sabbath to Bach. Post Malone to Charley Pride to Snoop Dog.

I pissed off my metal friends by listening to Devo. I pissed off my punker friends by putting on Rush. I pissed off my prog friends by listening to Conway Twitty. I pissed off my cowboy friends by putting on The Bee Gees.

I bought my first two cassettes at age 16, in the summer of 1980. I got my first car as a gift on my 16th birthday that year. A 1976 Ford Pinto. Yellow, Green and White. Tri-colored for conflicting eyewitness reports. Freedom explored. I was with Richard Karst and Mark Hogan, my oldest and dearest friends. Both are now gone. RIP my friends.  

They were both into vinyl, but not me. The Sony Walkman had just come out the year prior, and I had bought one with birthday money. Life changing. The two cassettes? RUSH 2112 and .38 Special Rockin’ Into The Night.

Those albums are still two of my most favorite and sentimental. Whenever I hear any song (like right now setting the links) from either one, I am transported back to the mall, and the record shop, and three obnoxious long-haired teen-agers hanging out harassing girls.

I have developed an obsession for the history of Gen X recently. I have written about my obsessions before, and where they take me. Here we go again. Much has been produced about this cohort, and how we compare to other generations. I am in up to my eyeballs, and here are some things that I knew I knew but did not know why.

I have a middle-child complex. So does Gen X. We are so in the middle; it is painful. Our generational cohort did not even have a name for 30 years. Either Latchkey Kids or Lost Generation. Gee, thanks. How the hell did we get lost, mom and dad? Whose idea was it to get divorced?

We are broke and getting more broke by the year. I wrote about it here. I ran across an article in the Ladders and the following phrase perfectly captures our financial condition:

The scariest Generation X characteristic is that they are financially screwed.

We are what is known as a sandwich generation, from a great piece in Investopedia. We are caught in the middle of young-child-rearing and adult-child-boomeranging and aging-parent caregiving. And we will be the first in history to be worse off than our parents for retirement. And will consequently probably have to work into our late seventies, if not eighties. Fucking great!

What and who is Gen X? We were born between 1965 and 1980. Those like me born in late ‘64 are the oldest, and some born in 1981 or 82 might be the oops child of older boomers or the trophy wife’s first with the old guy everyone will mistake for grandpa.

A good friend, born just a week before me, described himself as a boomer. I said what? No way. He then gave me the best explanation of Gen X I had ever heard. And it remains to this day the best I have ever heard.

Gen Xers have Boomer parents. Boomers have Greatest Generation parents. His parents fought and won WWII. My parents fought and split up. The resulting child-rearing and upbringing methods were night and day. And had vastly different outcomes. Boomers had “normal” childhoods. You know, the kind filled with sexual repression and obsessive authority.

I discovered during my research that my mom actually belonged to the Silent Generation, those born between 1925-1945. She was born in the last year of this span. And I was born in the first year of Gen X. Weird. I never knew of this cohort. I always thought my mom was a Boomer. This so makes sense, especially after reading the following paragraph:

As a birth cohort, they never rose in protest as a unified political entity. Because "following the rules" had proven to be successful for Silents and had led to incredible and stable wealth creation, it was common that their Boomer and Gen X children would become estranged from them due to their diametrically opposite rebellious nature, vocal social concerns, and economic hardship unknown to the Silents, creating a different generational consciousness. For example, the Boomer children were instrumental in bringing about the counterculture of the 1960s, and the rise of left wing, liberal views considered anti-establishment, those of which went directly against the "work within the system" methodology that the Silents worshipped. Gen X children grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them and a resultant bleak view of the future, contributing to their generational disaffection, in contrast to the optimistic outlook of their Silent Generation parents.

“Children should be seen and not heard.”

That phrase defined my parents childhood and their children’s upbringing as well. Researchers discovered that it applied almost universally to members of the Silents. And it was one that I heard literally millions of times as a kid. Such an inspiring and motivating exhortation for an impressionable young mind. This seems a natural root cause for denial, lack of self-awareness and low self-confidence. At the very least, it makes free expression subject to punishment. And it makes the manifestations of discontent taboo.

Like the Silent Generation, Generation X has been defined as an "in-between" generation. The group's earning power and savings were compromised first by the dotcom bust, and second by the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession. In terms of social and political power, Generation X is sandwiched between the baby boomers, who came of age during the Vietnam and Reagan eras and the millennials of the Obama era.

In almost every aspect, Gen X is the overlooked child, who has grown up into the forgotten man and neglected woman. Certainly, there are many notable success stories of our cohort. Good for them. Not everybody found that much success. And THE major trait of a Gen Xer is a rejection of the traditional yardsticks of success in society.

Why do you think Kurt Cobain blew his head off? He was considered a spokesman of Gen X. His parents were solid Boomers.

From Wikipedia When Cobain was nine years old, his parents divorced. He later said that the divorce had a profound effect on his life, while his mother noted that his personality changed dramatically; Cobain became defiant and withdrawn. In a 1993 interview, he elaborated:

I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn't face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.

Yup! For how many Xers is that their life story? Check out how his mother described him: defiant AND withdrawn. That is kind of oxymoronic, no? And kind of explains our whole lives. We are sick of the bullshit and do not want anymore. And we want to yell at the top of our lungs, quit fucking crushing me!

When I was a kid, we referred to divorce as “The D-word.” It was not spoken about in polite society. Ironic how we did not live in polite society but followed its rules. As kids, we knew each other’s parents fought and yelled at each other. Some moms I knew got beat. But nobody left. Or if they did, they came back. Repeatedly.

I remember the feeling of guilt now, when so many parents “stayed together for the children.” So, it was our fault you stayed together. And hated each other. Then it must be our fault too when you split up. And hate each other more. Convenient way to elude blame and move on. For parents.

Richard came home from school one day and discovered that his Mom had blown a hole in her face with his Dads .357 Magnum Pistol on their bed. On a Tuesday. Turns out, instead of the big D, they stayed together for the children. Nice how that turned out. He was 14.

That is a mighty big imprint. One that I am sure Richard never got over. And we never talked about it. Ever. Not even once in a drug-induced haze. Ever. And his Dad moved on. With his life. And new wife. In the same house and the same bedroom. It was cleaned up. I mean the bedroom, of course.


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Next: Open Letter to Gen X

Gen X: It takes a village to crush souls.

Second in a series of essays exploring my generational history.

II. Who raised us?

The most impactful characteristic of Gen X psychology was the total and complete lack of parental supervision. Because of mom working or divorce, or most likely, both, and because dad was usually drunk, we had a lot of unsupervised free time. And we used the hell out it. Probably abused the hell out of it. Interestingly, I also grew up within a village mentality amongst my friend’s parents. It was an unspoken rule that if any kid messed up at a friend’s house, those parents had the right to smack us upside the head or give us a kick in the ass.


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