Reading some random thing I wrote in 2012. I was terrified at the persistent feeling that I was lapsing forever out of that magical time period of being a young adult in a big city, and had yet to do anything at all with my life. I was recently married, and had to accept that the young, single life in SF was never to be for me. I felt something akin to death when I went to SF for a conference that year. And, I was right. It was a death of self that was long overdue. I had been holding out for a bloke to drop out of the sky, who would be my affluent wingman taking me with him to the city to pick up chicks and network with the power players and heavy hitters. I can say with some certainty that I almost loved that self of mine–that persona who wanted so badly to be loved by the millennials in the workplace, even though he was six years older than the oldest of them, and probably seemed every bit the creepy old dude who had lingered too long at a shit job instead of getting married and cashing out to either be a complete IT Schlub or the perennial clueless middle manager.
I mostly chose the former, as my young self who could do anything he wanted died a slow death. Only for a brief moment, in a singular time and place, did everyone seem to love him, and I didn’t examine closely why that was. It was, of course, because I was younger than most of the people I worked with at the translation company, and they were happy to have a young man around who wanted to go drinking with them after work.
And so, some five years later after I left the translation company and had a string of mostly bad luck when it came to making friends, I died. The man who took my place couldn’t have been more different. He was as uncool as a man of the early 21st Century could get. His idea of a new indie band was going to be some band like Mumford & Sons, long after the rest of the world had heard their songs play on high rotation on the “alternative” radio station for months. His trip to the movie theater, which took place about once every six months, was generally to see some dude like Daniel Craig or Jason Statham beat and blow people up. His music was jazz and classical. His career arc consisted of trying not to get fired. He had no need for a damn foosball table and beer on tap and all that crap that young kids think they need to do their jobs. He had years of practice at planting his ass in his seat at 8 AM, clocking out at 12 PM, back in at 1 PM, and then out again at 5 PM. When his ass was in that seat, he worked. He didn’t spend the entire day yukking it up with another dude he was bromancing, or get excited about new, big ideas that looked and sounded an awful lot like the old, big ideas.
You might have worked with this guy while you were still thinking you stood a chance at making something of yourself–you were going to create that unicorn startup or at least ride the coattails of your bromance bro who was starting that unicorn startup. When you walked by that old man, you snickered and guffawed because you were glad you weren’t him, and you also hated it when you had to talk to that old guy (who was actually about six or seven years older than you, but man he carried himself like a total geezer and there was a shitload of gray in his hair). That guy had never seen a single Judd Apatow movie! He didn’t know who Arcade Fire was! He suggested going to some shit barbecue place that was most definitely not the real deal. He probably drank Budweiser and had never tried a local IPA.
Nobody wants to reach the end of peterpanhood without getting to have been a somebody of something. Our culture is terribly confused about what the best age is for someone to be. Barack Obama is one of the younger presidents. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both going to be 70 or 71 when Obama leaves office. During his presidency, W surrounded himself with old guys who were middle aged during the Nixon years. We don’t like the idea of someone who is 40 having their finger on the nuke button. We don’t really see someone like Rubio being old enough to lead the country. We love the Mark Zuckerburg stories, however, and every company has its share of mouthy little prodigies who have been preparing for a climb up the corporate ladder since they were eight. We all want to look like we are still in our 20s, but want to be taken seriously like someone who is in their 60s. But, we think being grown-up means being more raunchy–movies with more sex jokes and crude humor are what distinguish them as being adult movies.
If we become especially precocious in high school, we find parents and teachers doing everything they can to push us back down and keep us in our place until we graduate–after all, the primary function of K-12 is to teach you to keep your ass in a seat and your mouth shut for hours at a time. Then, we are suddenly thrown into an environment where the stakes of our future are much higher, but we are allowed to do whatever we please.
My personal experience as a Gen Xer has been one where all of the Baby Boomers who greeted me in the workforce when I got out of college were inclined to do as little as possible to help me find my feet in the workplace. They felt threatened. Now that they are retiring, they are scrambling to mentor people to take their place, and they go straight for the new millennials who haven’t been tainted yet like us Gen Xers have. Also, a lot of Gen Xers seem to be the products of early Baby Boomer “starter” marriages and families, while their younger Millennial siblings were the product of the Boomer parents getting a second chance to get things right raising children.
Being a practically invisible Gen Xer does have its advantages, though. While article after article comes out with much hand wringing about what to do with these Baby Boomers who want to retire without passing on their wisdom and new Millennials who want to have things their own way, we overlooked Gen Xers can generally just go about our business of living our lives and doing as we please without any sort of pressure or expectation on us for how we should succeed. Will we see in eight years (with the expectation that the next President will be re-elected for a second term and NOT declare martial law to make him/her a dictator) a series of at least two Gen X presidents? Technically, Obama is just within the age range of being Gen X, but he is for all intents and purposes, a baby boomer. We could see at least two Gen X presidents because the youngest baby boomer in eight years will be 63, and the oldest Millennial will be 42.
However, I expect that we won’t see more than two Gen X’ers before the Millennials take over most of the offices of Governor and Congress. If you thought Clinton, Bush and Obama have lessened the amount of gravitas that comes with the presidency and Trump is turning it into a mere reality show, just wait until the millennials arrive. Peterpanhood will be alive and well in the oval office. It may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it likely will be.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you what to do about it. At the age of 40, I don’t feel myself to be even remotely the adult my dad was at 40, or for that matter, some of my fellow 40 year olds. There are those people you look at and just say, yes, he’s definitely a grown-up, or no, he’s aged like a grown-up but he carries himself like a young man. The timber of the voice changes. The willingness to participate in certain kinds of humor. Sometimes the fire is gone, but something heavy remains. This is true for both men and women, really. The changes in women’s voices are more pronounced by physical changes, independent of how mature they are on the inside, but you can also look at women who seem to have never stopped being girls and immediately sense how they aren’t as “adult” as other women.
What seems to be happening to me, is that the youthful timber of voice, the lightness of self, potty humor, and lack of confidence, seriousness or gravitas–seems to be sticking with more and more people longer. Listen to Anderson Cooper talk. He certainly seems to be a man who wishes to be taken seriously, but even with his white hair, he seems more boyish than mannish. Look at those two dudes being groomed to replace BIll O’Reilly–boys. The same goes for Marco Rubio and some others. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to grow up more quickly because of wars, depressions and early death. You simply couldn’t wait until you were 35 to get married and start a family, because you were practically dead by then. The post-WWII generation of the Baby Boomers saw some of this peterpanhood rise up, thanks to new technology and an infusion of cash into our economy. If it wasn’t for Vietnam, they might have taken even longer to grow up.
My generation, GenX as they might still call it, was the first generation to grow up into adulthood without the draft being instated. You could go volunteer to fight in a war, or not. We were the first generation to be raised by mothers who could make a choice whether they wanted to have us or not. We saw almost all of the technology we grew up with get replaced by technology in which most of the millennials are natives. As latchkey kids and kids who survived the pill and abortions, we sort of felt ourselves to be collectively a test pilot generation, to be cast aside in favor of a more evolved generation. GenX had the spotlight for a few short years, perhaps from the late eighties until the late nineties–and then we were forgotten. Young people may have a nostalgia now for the nineties, but they have no interest in actually being from the nineties or living in the nineties–just a sampling of what the nineties had to offer is plenty.
And so, we sort of fumbled our way into being grownups. Some of us are still fumbling. But, peterpanhood was never worn by us as well as it is worn by your average twenty or thirtysomething today. We might have shown the way, but the kids today are doing it right, and doing it well. I can’t say as I blame them. I would be doing the same thing. If I was graduating from college today and Employer A had a foosball table, and Employer B did not, I would want Employer A, for sure. I would have little or no interest in starting a family as long as I could look in the mirror and declare myself to be young, and I was surrounded by peers who validated me as such. As long as Madison Ave is marketing to me as a young adult, selling me Coke and Vodka and athletic gear and everything else–I am going to want to be young and single, damnit. The only catch is, of course, that our biotechnology hasn’t caught up with our media technology. You can watch a video you made of yourself on your iPhone from 2010 like it was yesterday, but your organism has aged six years, whether or not the signs are visible.
The media technology has played a huge role in turning us all into little Peter Pans. The more devices we could procure to faithfully record A/V of us doing everything, all the time, the more we are surrounded by artifacts that don’t age like we do. Previous generations have had to watch their film and video age along with them, and so an old polaroid from 1974 looks every bit its aged as does an old dude who was twenty in 1974. But, now with the ability to capture an HD video of yourself instantly and abundantly, you are going to have a much harder time disassociating yourself from the face in the video with the face that is slowly and mostly imperceptibly aging before your eyes in the mirror.
Millennials getting old–now THAT is going to be the horror story of this century. The utter shock and dismay when the first one turns 40. Blogs about going gray and having trouble peeing. Instagrams of saggy parts. I mean, people in their twenties and thirties (and some in their forties) already have been blogging for years about subjects like fatherhood and motherhood and shitty workplaces as if they were the first people in the history of humanity to ever experience these things. But the biggest horror of all: when millennials discover that there is a generation coming up after them. About the same time the first millennial turns 40, someone from the next generation–whatever that is–will be graduating from college and entering the workforce. Look out, a shinier, newer, better model has arrived!
What is a GenXer supposed to do? That’s just it. We are just fumbling through our lives without the mentors, the helicopter parents, the constant feedback and validation and trophies. We probably wouldn’t want you to follow in our footsteps. Go make some new music and start some new fashion statement instead of recycling everything from every other damn decade. Or not. Who cares? It’s time for a beer.