The Gen Xers are driving me crazy

I'm in my late 40s, and some of the younger people I work with make no sense at all to me!


Cary Tennis
November 30, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm in my late 40s. My interests and personality traits span those of the baby boomers (activism, idealism, community) and those of Gen Xers (technology, new music, adaptation).

I work in a trendy Internet firm with people who are 15-25 years younger than I am. I love working with the younger 20-somethings, but I find myself increasingly frustrated with the Gen Xers -- those from 28 to 39. The stereotypes seem to be true: They're cynical, selfish, noncommittal, addicted to pop culture, oddly nostalgic, smart but not wise, suspicious of sentimentality but hypersensitive to criticism.

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To work effectively with this group, I've had to tone down my natural openness and honesty (it's interpreted as weakness) and tread lightly in any political discussion. (Most of my 30-something co-workers are resigned and apathetic libertarians.) I avert my eyes during their flames and outbursts. I ignore their gross misunderstandings of history and their lapses in logic. I'm not intellectually superior; they're much quicker and brighter than I am, but it's an odd sort of knowledge -- broad but not deep.

So, my co-workers drive me nuts, but it gets worse. My beloved Internet is filling up with blogs, columns and essays by Gen Xers who don't seem to have any framework for their arguments and who are militantly post-feminist (embrace your inner slut), post-hippie (I care only about my family -- fuck the community), post-vegan (I raise my own meat, slaughter it lovingly, then serve it up to my foodie friends).

I don't want to quit my job and go work for a nonprofit like all the other boomers. I love this brave new world. My hardcore hippie friends seem naive and outdated.

Does every generation decry the upcoming one? Or are the Xers some sort of aberration -- a blot on humanity that will be overcome by the millennial generation (who, by the way, seem to be a fine, innovative, idealistic and hopeful group of kids)?

Cautiously Optimistic Boomer

Dear Cautiously Optimistic,

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Your observations are keenly stated. I do not know how to answer your questions. But it is a topic of endless fascination.

That is one reason Salon published its bracing exchange on the topic of contemporary generational differences in 2002. Of particular interest to you may be this memorable letter that I recall simply as the "I Hate You Guys" letter, and this one, fondly recalled as the "We're Sick of You" letter.

What was interesting in that exercise was the animosity. It wasn't just that certain Gen Xers thought differently or wished to live differently -- they think we suck. A certain cohort live in overt and uncomplicated hostility toward the generation they think of as boomers and hippies.

You may feel that like a good child of the '60s you must try even harder to empathize, to understand. That may not help.

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I continue to believe that at the heart of this is the difference between us, the last high modernist generation, and them, the first postmodern generation. See Fredric Jameson on this.

Since you sound like you are pretty smart, I predict that if you begin to read about postmodernism you will get a sense of what I think is going on between generations. Here is a précis, or summation, of Jameson's "big book on postmodernism," "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." It touches on many of the differences in perspective that one encounters today. It is a dizzying sensation to find that someone only a few years distant in age has a radically different conception of the world. But that is the change that seems to have occurred. And without a shared intellectual basis, how can you talk about it? Perhaps you can say, "You are obviously a postmodernist and I am a modernist and each of us takes certain truths -- or untruths! -- to be self-evident," but where does that lead you? This is complicated material -- that's part of the problem. It's not simple to understand.

I don't know what you can do about it. Our cherished world of consensus, my friend, is gone! Maybe it will come back. I don't know. I always liked that line from Theodore Roethke, "A lively understandable spirit Once entertained you. It will come again. Be still. Wait."

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But now I'm not so sure it's worth waiting around for. This may be as good as it gets. Mind you, I had a sleepless night and seem to be running a fever, so this could all be the ravings of a disturbed mind -- which sounds so very '60s, doesn't it?

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