One day, I hope, I’ll have kids. I hope to do a good job; I hope they’ll turn out happy and well-adjusted and that they’ll someday say “Dad, you were alright.”
But I also assume that at some point they’ll say, “Dad, you and your generation fucked up.”
We had a good run of it, we Millennial, because we were born at a time when society had gone so far off the rails that we were raised to be afraid of just about everything. From child-snatchers, nuclear terrorists, marijuana as a gateway drug (the full force of the War on Drugs was upon us) to gangs, serial killers, car accidents, and teen pregnancy, our teachers and parents put the scare into us as much as they possibly could.
We grew up with a backdrop noise of Boomer-induced cultural insanity that had actively worked to destroy their community centers and Xer-influenced nihilism and absurdity that believed there was no such thing as community.
By the time I was born, in 1984, America was a land of subcultures, yuppies and hippies, drug addicts, racists and the people who loved calling other people racists, Republicans and Democrats, sell-outs and “too true to live” artists. Nothing was perfect, but nothing ever could be, either.
We were never led to believe some perfect world had slipped away before our eyes; we were raised in a distinctly imperfect time with deep, open flaws. There were no Good Old Days for us, just tales of them, and so we couldn’t become jaded because our expectations were low from birth.
There was a disconnect between living in the 90s and experiencing the 90s. The 90s were billed as a terrible decade. That wasn’t the reality of the time, though.
Racism was on its backfoot; feminism, children’s rights, worker’s rights, pretty much everyone’s rights, were on the offensive. America was richer, safer, and in many ways more moral than it had ever been in its existence. But people still felt the need to shit all over the decade anyway.
As one of my former co-workers put it, you simply needed a brain and some hands to fall ass-backwards into money. What I saw in that time was that those who cooperated were rewarded. If you did what you were told, you’d be just fine, and being fine by 90s standards was a damned good thing.
Those were my formative years, and my brain got wired with a simple system of cause and effect: Do what was asked, conform to a certain moral compass, and you’ll have that house, job, wife, etc., that everybody wants.
In other words, don’t rock this already-leaky boat. We need rowers, not rockers. I learned the lesson well.
What the Boomers and X-ers had in common was a general moral center: racism, sexism, and other inequalities were bad; individuality, sincerity, and genuineness were good. The Boomers felt ultra-guilty about selling out; they’d gone from Flower Power to the Reagan Revolution in just two decades. It’s no accident that so many Boomers converted to fundamentalist Christianity, seeking a way out of their self-imposed guilt.
X-ers, however, were born into a world already going to shit and figured there wasn’t much point struggling against it. But between them was a common moral thread that they passed down to us Millenials coupled with the knowledge that the world wasn’t perfect.
I never did develop that deep distrust of government that’s typical of Boomers and X-ers. I grew up with Watergate, Vietnam, and Jim Crow firmly in the past; they were as dead to me as slavery, sins passed into infinity rather than part of my own experience. The government of my youth evicted Iraq from Kuwait with an all-volunteer army, ended genocide in Bosnia, and liberated Kosovo. If anything, the lesson of the 90s was that the government wasn’t doing enough – witness Saddam’s tyranny or Rwanda’s slaughter. And of course there were the poor, the sick, within our borders that were seemingly being left behind by a selfish society.
And while others saw corrupt politicians dealing out paychecks to themselves, I saw a boring process of old men yelling at one another in louder and louder voices. Politics was both dull and corrupt and drove people to vote in ever-smaller numbers. All anyone could agree on was that we had the wrong sort in power.
For those of us growing up in the mid and early 90s, we were stuck with the crescendo of X-er cynicism that washed over pop culture. This was the height of snark, of cynicism and irony, of pointing out we’d failed as a moral nation as soon as a Starbucks opened up down the street. All this culminated with depressing concerts, tattered clothes, and nihilism painted on teens’ faces with extra-dark mascara. Before emos took the trend and gutted it, Goths were trying to remind us we were all going to die and we needed to focus on that as much as possible.
I was right on the edge of the Millenials; some of us were stereotypes of ourselves while others fitted better culturally with the X-er mindset. Star Wars, while chic now, was cool only with some of us; somebody who could use a computer was still derided as a nerd. And Jesus help anyone dumb enough to pitch a show like Glee back then. The X-er impulse to spot the smallest imperfections in a dance number, in anything too earnest, would have torn that apart in its first week. For us path-findinger at the frontlines of generation, we rebelled against this cynicism by growing cynical against it.
By virtue of what teens do, instead of going out of our way to show how sad life was, we started to focus on enjoying things. If we liked to dance, we danced; if we liked a song, we sang it. The cat-calls of the back row bothered us increasingly less; meanwhile, the back of the bus came to be dominated not by some kids selling weed wearing trenchcoats but by environmentalists and pro-gay marriage liberals. The keys to that kingdom were adherence to the morality passed down by our parents and teachers but never fully practiced by them; those who stepped out were shunned, held up as examples of What Not To Do, and being a rebel faded in importance.
I was seventeen when 9/11 happened. Far from having the Boomer-induced pang of guilt that perhaps we had this coming, most of us responded with a resounding “Let’s fuck their day up.” Many volunteered; no draft was needed to fight this War on Terror. Iraq was not our Vietnam. Mistake, yes, but fought by volunteers who we as a generation were uniform in calling heroes. “Baby killer” was an ugly slogan for the out-of-date or deeply ignorant; regardless, they were to be quietly ignored and defriended on Facebook, the favorite tactic of our generation. Confrontation had gotten the Boomers nowhere fast; unconsciously, I’d learn not to copy their all-too-public passionate outbursts. (Or ridiculous attempts to make the Pentagon fly.)
We had rebelled against much of what came ahead of us and ended up, by accident, acting much like our grandparents. We didn’t value the same details, but we valued the same rules; we ended up voting for Obama as they did Roosevelt, volunteering for military service, overseas postings, and NGOs as they once fought World War II (not to equate the serverity of World War II with our Great Recession; what we have in common is that both generations plunged into the challenge of the time rather than try to avoid it, as the Boomers did with Vietnam). We gave up on the idea of being original because we’re well aware nobody’s all that original.
I guess it’s made me less worried about what’s real and more worried about getting something done. I still squabble with my peers, but often I don’t care that much about what we’re squabbling over. The world is broken; I’m fine with that. Maybe we can fix bits of it.
For me, that’s good enough.