Part elegy for an era and part psychic forecast for the future, Lisa Chamberlain’s cheekily titled, Slackonomics varies between drawing harsh lines and sharing hazy visions. The book sets out to chronicle both the struggles and achievements of the uniquely situated Generation X.
In the introduction, Chamberlain says that when she initially shopped the book, publishers wanted to her to include a self-help component. Sidebars would offer advice for the financially flustered, ominously denominated Generation X. That version of the book didn’t sell, but the current one offers more in the way of self-affirmation than self-help. In recounting the creative accomplishments and economic innovations of Gen-X, Chamberlain’s deftly researched book gives a group of people once lumped disparagingly with Reality Bites and dot-com disasters a multifaceted, fresh and potent identity.
Over coffee on New York’s Lower East Side, Chamberlain shared that she wasn’t entirely sure of her intention for the book when she began writing. “Each chapter I started new, started fresh,” she said. That methodology is apparent to the reader, but rather than yielding a choppy text, it produces an imminently readable collection of insights. The book is a kind of build-your-own momentum story. The narrative backbone is amorphous, but then again, so is Generation X. They learned their lessons in a piecemeal fashion, and a close reader will learn the lessons of this book using similar self-motivated ingenuity.
Those lessons are not just for the age group that lived through them. In fact, the most important lesson of the book is the one that answers the pressing questions: Why do we care about Generation X? And why now? Chamberlain’s initial intention was to write a book for Gen-Xers. To that end, it’s a time capsule for those that lived through it. Gen-Xers will love references to old Internet cartoons, a serious analysis of Melrose Place, a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the rise of friendship, and a recurring tribute to Ethan Hawke.
However, it also plays a contemporary strain. “The economic whiplash started with Generation X, but it’s continuing to be a clue as what exactly is going on,” said Chamberlain. Generation X shouldered the crash of the ‘80s, and anyone living in the present day can glean valuable insight into an unstable job-market. Understanding how this group operated is a preview of possible survival.
It’s also a preview of possibilities for America. Generation X is growing up, Chamberlain explained, and the once hands-off group will be authority figures. “Generation X is going to step into positions of leadership and have influence on all sorts of policies, intentionally or not,” said Chamberlain. The decisions they make will be largely compelled by the experiences they have, and understanding Gen-Xer’s worldview will provide perspective for anyone who will live with those policies.
Slackonomics suggests that Generation X is trained by experience to makes the decisions that will put both energy and dollars back into the economy. Chamberlain writes, “Right now the political process is pretty much bankrupt and ripe for some serious Creative Destruction, which, by definition happens from within.” By “within” she means the entrepreneurial spirit brewing in Gen-Xers. They were forced to be enterprising in their approach to career, finances and family, and the paths they forged may soon be traveled by the country at large.
Generation X couldn’t afford the Baby Boomers’ decadence on a personal level, but dwindling resources now make it necessary for the entire world to live more frugally. “Waste and stupidity are luxury items,” Chamberlain said. “And we’re not going to be able to afford either one.” She continued, “The issue is learning to live with less.” It’s an issue that Gen-Xers have fully explored and one that Chamberlain excavates and exposes in Slackonomics.
Each chapter of Slackonomics is a self-contained story elucidating an element of economic disappointment and the resiliency and rebirth that combated it. Primarily through culture, creation and pure, old-fashioned scrambling, Generation X climbed out of instability and devised a structure of its own. It’s one that’s unconventional but holds a great deal of potential in a world that’s changing faster than we can process it.
Generation X is notoriously removed from politics, but their distaste has the possibility of morphing a compromised system into a fruitful one. Chamberlain advocates turning the “vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.” The Gen Xers who have notoriously shunned corporate life may be the ones who can find alternative for old patterns. In Slackonomics, Chamberlain’s cast of real and fictional characters show us myriad possible methods for getting the job done.