The Mute Generation: How Gen-X Lost Its Voice

Just who is the voice of my generation? Are we even doing that anymore? When I was a kid I seem to remember there was a search on for a golden avatar, one who could speak for all of us, who could define and defend our place in the world and explain to future generations what we were about and why we made the choices we did.

Other generations had celebrity voices. Bob Dylan still carries the flag for Baby Boomers. The Beats had Allen Ginsburg. The Lost Generation had Ernest Hemingway, and the GI generation had Frank Sinatra.

But that’s just not how Gen-X rolls. I guess the whole “voice of a generation” concept is pretty ridiculous to begin with, but in the case of my cohort, it’s downright laughable. I mean, we’re the ones who came up with the idea that cool is only cool until it crosses the line into popularity. Then it immediately starts to suck, and will continue to suck until enough people forget about it that it becomes unpopular—and thus cool—once again. It’s like we’re so opposed to the naïve collectivism our Baby Boomer parents indulged in, that the very notion of mass appeal is suspect.

While there’s a lot of truth in the idea that social movements tend to get commercialized and eventually neutered by their own success, Gen-X’s habit of shunning artists and even whole genres as soon as they become popular has a huge downside. It’s marginalized us, fractured us, balkanized us into a loose collection of cultural city-states.

Go ask ten baby boomers what it was like to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and they’ll all give you a similar answer: it was a revelation, a milestone, an awakening, etc. But take a similar poll on any of my generation’s analogous moments (as if there are any), and you’re likely to get a chorus of snarky replies, the most common being, “Yeah, after that he/she/they pretty much sucked.”

We are a cynical bunch, and with good reason. I know every generation feels like its got it harder than the ones the came before, and I’m not trying to throw any pity party here because Gen Xers have mostly done alright for ourselves. But it hasn’t been easy. We grew up under the vast and impenetrable shadow of the boomers all our lives, with the tech-enhanced Millenials nipping at our heels, and we’ve watched as every act of cultural rebellion we deployed got turned into just another way to make someone else a lot of money: Skateboarding–bought. Punk Rock–sold. Street Art–coming soon to a shopping center near you.

It’s only recently that I’ve made my peace with the boomers, and it wasn’t even by choice. For years I fought against everything they stood for, from The Eagles to George W. Bush. But I find myself lapsing into surrender lately, owing simply to the cruel logic of time and demographics. I’ll be 40 this year, which puts me too far down the path of cultural irrelevancy to make much of a stink about anything anymore. Combine that with the forgotten status of my generation itself, and sometimes I feel I’ve almost ceased to exist.

I wasn’t always so apathetic. I remember writing a furious and unprintable letter to Time magazine way back in the early ’90s over an article proclaiming that in actuality, I belonged to something called “The Slacker Generation.” It was a half-assed rebranding of Generation X, in which my peers and I were publicly shamed for supposedly not contributing to society as much as our parents had, who had by this time given up on trying to levitate the Pentagon and were now hard at work running the world. (Into the ground, I might add, but oh that’s right, I’ve made my peace…)

I was barely old enough to vote but by that point in my life, I was on my fourth lousy job. I’d scrubbed boat hulls under frozen, toxic waters, scraped the steak gristle from a thousand dishes, photocopied immaculate business reports that nobody would ever read, and had finally landed my first white-collar gig: telemarketing junk bonds to public school teachers. I’d been through two of my parents’ divorces, a recession that left me and my mom homeless for a while, was a high school dropout with no money to go to college, and was terrified of being vaporized in a nuclear war — something preceding generations knew all to well.

If someone asked me who my generation’s voice ought to be at that point in my life, enraged over the unfair “slacker” tag, I would have made the obscure nomination of Mike Muir. Never heard of him? Sure you have—the guy from Suicidal Tendencies.

They were that Southern California thrash band with the song about how the kid was just sitting in his room, minding his own business, when his parents come in and say, “Mike, we’ve been wanting to talk to you. We’ve been noticing you have all these problems lately and we decided, you know, that you should get away, that you should go some place where you can get the help that you need.” And poor Mike, he’s put up with so much from his parents—like the time his mom wouldn’t get him a Pepsi—he snaps.

“Wait a minute, we decided? My best interest? How do you know what my best interest is? How can you say what my best interest is? I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities, so how can you say I’m crazy?”

Mike’s ensuing spazz attack conveys perfectly the impotent rage of adolescence—that time in life when you’re stuck between the dim cocoon of childhood and the harsh, blinding world of adult reality, and neither one seems worth living in. It also conveyed, at least to me, the frustration of inheriting a world that was clearly in decline.

But now that I have my own kids and can get my own Pepsi, I guess I’m glad we didn’t choose Mike Muir as our generational spokesman. Aside from the fact that Suicidal Tendencies only had one great album, it’s simply not enough to define one’s generation based solely in opposition to the one that preceded it. Because if that’s all you’ve got, then it’s just something you borrowed, and that puts you in serious debt to the very thing you’re trying to oppose.

Besides, generations die off anyway–what kind of victory is that? I suppose you can switch from hating your parents to hating your kids, and I do see a lot of grouchy, get-off-my-lawn sentiment thrown at Millenials lately, but on the whole, I think Gen X-ers are smarter than that. We know our place in the timeline is transitional, and we have little choice but to be OK with it.

If you took a poll to try and pin down Gen X’s standard-bearer, the name that would come up the most is probably Kurt Cobain. But I’ve never been comfortable with that. I hated grunge when it came out (mostly because I was already into punk and suddenly couldn’t find any decent flannels at Goodwill anymore), and while Cobain seemed a talented and righteous enough dude, he made it pretty damn clear he didn’t want to be a spokesman for anyone. In fact, the more people who tried to make Cobain out to be the voice of our generation, the more terrified of the idea he seemed to become, culminating in his depressing and uninspiring death.

Same deal with Tupac. He was a visionary with the potential to unite not just the demographically dominant white part of Gen X, but for the first time ever, the entire multi-racial shebang. Now he’s just a morbid hologram that someone’s (again) figured out how to make a lot of money from.

In any case, ours is not a generation of martyr-lovers. It cuts too close to who we are. As I’ve said, we are a transitional generation, a lot like a middle child—the Peter Bradys of the modern world. We’re the ones who changed the diapers of our younger siblings and will be stuck with the task again when our parents get old enough for Depends.

We ushered in the Internet age, but won’t be around long enough to see where it leads. We’ll take the fall for climate change and still glorify the culture that brought it to us, because scraps from the past are all we have. The future never did belong to us.

Like I always do when I’m out of ideas, I asked my wife who the voice of our generation is and she immediately cited Jon Stewart. A great choice, I thought. It suits us perfectly: a fake newsman who is ironically a better journalist than most “real” reporters; a guy who sarcastically skewers everything without dirtying his own hands in the process.

I love Jon Stewart. But isn’t his success in “the biz” part of our problem? Someone as smart and principled as Stewart ought to be running congress, not sniping from the bleachers at the morons who are actually there, making awful decisions because they’re either too dumb to know better or too jaded to care. Sometimes I think that our generation’s insecure disdain for all things “mass” has led us to essential forfeited our place in power because we are simply too cool for school.

Why would Jon Stewart waste his time and talent on something as square and loathsome as politics? Why would any of us?

There’s a sociological theory that labels generations like ours “Nomad Generations”. It simply means we’ll never be able to agree on anything long enough to set a proper course for ourselves. We sure didn’t choose to be called “X”, like we’re the brand that leaves unsightly stains on your teeth. The one thing we all do seem to agree on is that the world is a complete mess, but somehow, collective action eludes us.

As Individuals, nearly every gen-Xer I know does whatever he or she can to make their little slice of the world a nicer, more equitable place. It helps, I guess. But if there’s one thing we all share, I’d say it’s a deep sense of dread and guilt about the future, the sense that the end really could come on our watch and there’s not a damn thing we could do about it.

Oh well, we’re old enough now—and for sure jaded enough—to give up on achieving much more as a generation, anyway. Like the boomers before us, we’ll take up the task of exhuming our cultural triumphs and displaying them as trophies and artifacts to whomever cares to pay attention. It’d sure be nice to look back in 30 years and say we stopped the seas from rising or figured out the Middle East, but hell, what are ya gonna do?

I just hope the next generation will be wise enough to learn from our mistakes, and that we’ll be big enough to admit to making them. Judging from the way younger artists are bending and blending cultural genres, mixing and mashing media into complex, new structures, not getting hung up on superficial differences, I see a lot of hope for Millenials. Then again, someone might decide to make Justin Beiber the voice of their generation and they’ll all march off the same cliff we’ve been alternately warning them about and jumping off since about 1970.

If so, have fun with that, kids. Bet you’ll wish Mike Muir was still around when you have to fight off the corporate-owned attack drones and the mercenary cannibal death squads.