Sunday, August 4, 2019

The mysterious vanishing of Americans 40 to 60 — and why we were named Generation X

What does Billy Idol have to do with my generation, besides delivering a few rock anthems for the 1980s?

For people born between 1961 and 1980, the name Generation X, or Gen X, was given to us years ago by the experts. It seems to have come from writings analyzing social trends, including a 1965 book called Generation X, which focused on popular youth culture in Great Britain. Douglas Coupland wrote a bestselling book called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture that came out in 1991. Coupland had given credit to his book’s title to Billy Idol’s late-1970s punk rock band, Generation X.

The next time you go out and about, take a 365-degree look around you. Millennials (ages 23 to 38 during this year) and GenZers (ages 7 to 22) are out doing things in vast numbers, with Millennials nearly as big in population as Baby Boomers — and GenZers following right behind.

But what’s happening to my peers in Generation X? We’re there, but in smaller numbers; and many of us are somewhere else — such as working long hours.

The birth numbers went down quite a bit starting in the early ‘60s after more than a decade of historic growth, according to birth records. My brother and sister, both born during the Baby Boomer days, had about twice as many students in their elementary school as I saw when I attended the same school in the 1970s. Me and my peers filled desks in one classroom, while theirs crowded into two classrooms.

For those of us born after 1960, coming of age had all the elements our parents and their parents had experienced — transforming from childhood and adolescence to adulthood with all its hormonal intensity and drama. But for us Gen Xers, it was taken up a couple of notches.

What do I mean by that? Well for one thing, being divorced is much more common for those of us in our late 40s through our 50s than it was for our parents — and even for our older relatives who rode the first wave of the Baby Boomer generation.

Many of us have tried drugs, and some of us fell into the dark abyss of addiction to alcohol and other substances.

We talk openly to each other about topics that were taboo not long ago — being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, more recently, transexual; being on medications for depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions; marriages crossing over lines in race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion; and leaving behind the politics, religious beliefs, and social rules of order that our families had taught us about. Sure, the hippies and activists started it, but we were out in the trenches living it — whether we liked it or not.

We took on a philosophy leaning toward cynicism, skepticism, and sarcasm. I like to think we were becoming pragmatists, but some had become nihilists. The world could be a dark and ugly place, as far as we were concerned, with depression and helplessness sneaking in. The glory of the post-war years and landing on the moon had gone to the sidelines.

On the positive side of the experience, people my age have been privy to a few benefits. These include searching for meaning and purpose in our work and overall lives; we’ve also been given a lot of freedom to make our own choices in life.

And we had a lot of fun. Girls just want to have fun, and boys had their share of it, too.

When I reached my mid-40s, I started noticing that some of my peers were disappearing. They were isolating quite a bit. I had done some of it, too, but doing that much of it would drive me nuts. I needed to get out more and connect with others; but for some, isolation was becoming the new norm.

So where did my generation go? Many of them work most of the time, sometimes putting in way too many hours. They might be self-employed working from home and on the phone all the time; or camped out at a Starbucks freelancing and putting in hours serving a mobile app firm like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash, or Instacart.

Many of us have found our economy to be changing quite a lot, with less full-time jobs with benefits and more work being sent to independent contractors. We need the money, so we work as Uber drivers, and freelance writers, and project workers, and get some of our work through temp placement agencies.

There’s also those of us Gen Xers looking to transfer over to a new occupation, which I’m in the process of doing. It means going back to school and training, and competing with much younger workers to start up in the field. If you get the job, there’s always the challenge of relating in the office and at lunch to topics of discussion that may be quite different for you in your 50s than for those in their 20s and 30s.

One thing I’ve found out in my class and in job interviews — don’t make a big deal out of the age differential. We may have more of an issue with it than younger folk.

Quite a few women in Gen X had their kids later — maybe in their 30s, compared to our parents who were having kids in their 20s and sometimes younger. That means parents could be in their late 40s or 50s, and have teenagers wanting to party and go on vacation to Europe or somewhere else expensive. Raising kids and making sure they can leave home and have lives of their own costs quite a bit these days.

We’re also staying at home a lot and watching Netflix, or Amazon’s Prime Video, HBO, or a DVD or Blu-ray — something that can turn into “binge watching;” or we might surf the web to read the news and the latest on special interests and topics; or to play a game such as online poker. There’s always accessible and free porn video, which can become quite a problem for some.

It may sound depressing. But it’s helpful to get a snapshot of what shaped the world views and life choices of people like me.

Pivotal events for those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s:

  • Marriages and families unravelling — parents getting divorced, and uncles and aunts. It was the first time ever for divorce to be so accessible, after new laws loosened up the old rules. It became a traumatic event for their children in a lot of instances. It later started becoming the norm for us to go through our own divorces, with kids facing real challenges in spending time with both parents.
  • There was lots of marijuana available, and alcohol was plentiful at parties. Some people went off into the nether regions with cocaine and other hard drugs, and it got ugly. 
  • Watergate, the OPEC oil embargoes, and the end of the Vietnam War all took place in the 1970s. The glory days of World War II and the economic boom of the ‘50s were coming to an end.
  • Sex started happening at an earlier age, but was severely threatened by the STD crisis in the ‘80s and beyond — AIDS, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Then there was the question of birth control and who should be responsible for it.
  • TV news became disturbing. Along with vivid color footage of casualties in the Vietnam War, there was the scary Manson family on trial for multiple murders. A few years later in 1978, more than 900 people died one day in a mass suicide-murder in Jonestown, Guyana, with most all of them being loyal followers of Rev. Jim Jones. 
  • Serial killers became well known such as the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, the Freeway Killer, and Richard Ramirez. 
  • Attempted and actual assassinations became common. Shooters like Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (who’d been a member of the Manson family) attempted to take out President Gerald Ford. John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman. President Ronald Reagan was hit by John Hinckley, Jr., soon before Pope John Paul II was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca. All of this took place just a few years after the pivotal assassinations of JFK and RFK, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, in the 1960s.
  • Careers started changing quite a bit. We started seeing that we wouldn’t be working for one employer 35 years, then retiring and doing a lot of bucket-list things like traveling overseas to see the Great Wall of China. We’d be jumping from job to job.
  • A new wave of riveting, shocking, and popular horror films came out, from low budget (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Dawn of the Dead”) to big budget (“The Exorcist” and “The Omen”). These movies represented the mood of the time.
  • Some of us were enthralled to watch “Helter Skelter,” a 1976 two-part TV movie based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor in the surrealistic criminal trial. The actor who played Charles Manson was haunting to watch, and his career never recovered from it.
  • The role of women in the workplace and in the family was changing. Some of that came from the feminist movement that took off in the ‘70s, and that had been fueled for years by women going into the workplace — from Rosie the Riveter to years later with women going into academics, medicine, law, engineering, and other tough, competitive fields. It’s getting a little bit more equalized in the workplace, but it still has a ways to go.
  • Along with feminists, the ideals of other activist groups from the ‘60s and ‘70s continue to this day — based on equality in race, gender, orientation, and religious beliefs. These issues have become sources of heated debate and conflict just like they were a few years ago. It all started with the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it’s taking place these days in a very polarized and tense political system, long before Trump took over the White House.
  • A darkly humorous statement became popular in the ‘70s: “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” That was during a time when conspiracy theories were becoming common; and news reports gave some credence to paranoia — whether that be about the FBI tracking and harassing John Lennon and his left-wing politics in the early ‘70s, or the CIA being entangled in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, or some other embarrassing news for the country. 
  • The Francis Ford Coppola-directed film from 1974, “The Conversation,” set the stage appropriately. In the film, Gene Hackman plays a skilled wiretapper, Harry Caul, who comes to realize that a murder was committed during one of the tapings he’d done. Then he gets wiretapped. The film ends with him tearing up his apartment, including prying the floor boarding with a hammer and chisel looking for microphones; and then finally sitting there in the wreckage playing his saxophone, after he’d gone completely over the edge.

Being cynical and skeptical became our ethos. TV shows like Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and Second City TV became our relief valve and shaped our perceptions of where humor, satire, and commentary could be going. Mad Magazine was big and later, National Lampoon was a must-read that led to a series of popular movies. The first of them, Animal House, became a movie that many of us males watched a dozen times on video.

You could make fun of anything, and the unspoken rules of the game were coming to an end.

The music helped quite a lot, too — from the early days of metal with Black Sabbath, and the creation of punk rock by Iggy Pop and the Stooges that was taken to a new level by the Sex Pistols, and soul music transforming into funk, R&B, and hip hop. There was some great music to listen to on AM and FM radio, but it all eventually split off into separate segments by the late 1980s that didn’t cross over as well as it had in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Billy Idol was very sharp about tapping into the punk image, and wrapping it around rocks singles with hooks — and some cool videos to back it.

Everything was changing, and we were feeling it; or sometimes not feeling it with lots of alcohol, drugs, sex, TV, fast food, and eventually living most of our lives at work. Change was continuing, but it was too much, too soon.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had to face the fact that I really am older than young people are today. I had a little bit of it when hitting age 40, but it wasn’t that much different than being 35. But getting into my late 40s and 50s, the game started changing.

That included getting my first colonoscopy at age 50 — something I used to think I’d never do.; or at least didn’t want to deal with until later. Now I’m grateful I had it done and got through it. I’ve started to accept the fact that I am aging and actually will die someday. Not long ago, that seemed to be something like science fiction — it had nothing to do with my reality. That all changed not long ago.

A while back, I’d gotten used to having people assume I’m older than I actually am (now in my mid-50s). I started going gray in my late 30s, which is the norm in my family. I’m regularly called “sir” by a lot of young people, and “boss” by Latino males (the same as “jefe” in Spanish); although I have seen a couple of young men called “boss,” with both working in jobs that had some authority in the matter.

I suppose I should feel honored by the tributes, but mostly I feel old; especially when I’m the only person around my age in a place packed by people in their 20s and 30s.

Some people my age, and others through their 60s and 70s, don’t like to talk about aging. They don’t want to identify themselves that way (“Don’t call me old!”), and have done quite a lot to restore their youthfulness. It seems to have a lot to do with celebrities looking much younger than they are, but not just the usual celebrities. Business leaders, local politicians, car dealers, and real estate top sellers, stay looking youthful as well. It does require that a lot of expensive work needs to be done, and sometimes it can take away the distinct features of that person’s face and identity.

You may notice a few truly older people out there. There might be 80-plus year olds out grocery shopping or going to church and brunch, but hardly any 40, 50, and 60 year olds, depending on where you’re looking.

A few years ago, I had a cousin visit my house after having moved away years earlier. He commented on how the street life in the neighborhood had completely changed from when were were kids. We used to chat with neighbors and get invited to a barbecue party over in their back yard. Children would be riding their three- and two-wheel bicycles down the street, racing and yelling. A couple of old timers might be sitting on a porch drinking beer, and complaining about the country going to hell in a hand basket. Then there might be a group of mothers standing in a driveway, trading information and gossip on the trouble their kids were getting into.

You don’t see that anymore when you drive through a neighborhood. It’s empty, except for the occasional delivery drop-off by UPS or Amazon; or the busy man or woman walking their dogs at a fast pace. Maybe a group of teenagers could be riding by on their bikes and laughing.

It’s nothing like it used to be. I suspect that 40-to-70 year olds are inside watching TV, talking on the phone, sifting through emails and texts, and doing online shopping for gifts, electronics, and groceries. Talking to their kids as they come home from school is happening for some. For others, maybe they’re not coming home at all or until much later — out on a business trip or working late.

Some of us are feeling the effects of aging in knee and ankle injuries, or finding out we’re pre-diabetic. Or we’re trying out new meds to deal with depression.

I know I’m getting older when I’m shocked to find out one of the youngsters I know is 35 years old. What? She looks like a college student.

I was also shocked to find out that one young man who looked like he’s about 28 is now 40 and the father of two little girls. What?

About three years ago, I put in a lot of hours driving for Uber and Lyft. That’s where I first started noticing distinct generational differences. Young riders certainly had a lot more tattoos than people my age, and were much more open to trying out new mobile apps and social media; and they talked from my backseat about a lot of things I had no clue as to what they were talking about, like an anime TV series from Japan, or new dating apps with names that were hard to remember.

They also had a lot of connectivity with their smartphones, and had much to tell their partner, friend, or co-worker about their peer network. It went beyond lightweight gossip and storytelling. I heard a lot of analysis and criticism about their social networks, but I was certainly impressed by how many people they were staying in regular contact with — and some of the insights they had to share.

But in the end, I found out that they’re a lot like us middle-aged Americans; and those approaching old age. Age doesn’t really matter as much as being human, dealing with the classic issues that have been around for quite a long time.

We’re driven by core survival needs, and when that’s stabilized, by going to the next level. That means finding meaning in life; work we can enjoy much of the time and find some value in beyond paying bills; spending time with loved ones; traveling to places we’d always dreamed of going to; and pondering what happens after we die.

We’re all striving to fulfill many of the same core, deep spiritual needs and desires.

You may have some questions about the lifestyle. For those of you fast approaching middle age, here are a few experiences to look forward to:

  • You’ll go to a doctor appointment and wonder why this college student is in the room to see you. A medical student observing for a class assignment? Nope, it’s the doctor you’re there to see!
  • You’ll be insulted to find out you can join the American Association of Retired Persons at age 50. What?
  • You’ll be watching a movie or TV show and see an actor on the screen who used to be very hip, slick, and cool years ago. Now he’s playing somebody’s grandfather!
  • You don’t really want to hear that the Apollo 11 moon landing was 50 years ago. Yes, 50 years ago!
  • You’ve got to face a very tough decision. Do I dye my hair or go gray? Well, George Clooney, Richard Gere, Helen Mirren, and Jamie Lee Curtis certainly look good; yet so do many other celebrities who’ve had some very good work done on their hair, skin, makeup, jewlery, and outfits. They don’t look a day over 39!
  • You remember things that young people will laugh about — 45 and 33 RPM records; pet rocks; telephone numbers with a word prefix (Davis 4); eight-track tapes that sometimes got swallowed into the tape player; green stamps and huge department store catalogues; and 35-cent per gallon gasoline.

Not that many years ago, we Gen Xers had a lot of fun. While it was an intense time of change, we also did our share of partying in the 1980s. That had to be reined in when we started seeing some of our peers die young or ruin their lives. 

All of the generations are impacted by living through an intense time of change — robotics will be taking many jobs and fixing the machines will be high-paying jobs that require a lot of technical know-how. You can do just about anything you can think of on your smartphone, including becoming very distracted and getting hit by a car crossing the street while lost in endless texting.

Many other changes are in store in how we get around, make a living, communicate with loved ones, and live a meaningful life.

We Gen Xers are facing aging and the fact that we’ll die someday. The days of youth and living forever are officially over. Now I know why old-timers like our grandparents told us to make the most of each and every day.

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