Showing posts with label Generation X. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Generation X. Show all posts

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Opting in, opting out

The New York Times Magazine has a story this week entitled, "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In."  It's about the high profile, highly educated women of Generation X who, after working in high powered jobs, made the specific choice to stay home with their children - and are now regretting it.  Or not.  Or something.  I'm not sure what the point of it is other than to express, again, that women aren't happy, even when they have choices or have had full agency to make choices because they can't have it all. 

Well, duh.

Life is hard.  Life isn't fair.  Life doesn't come with a guarantee.  We make choices.  No one ever promised you a rose garden.  Pick your cliché, they're all true.

The first woman they profile, Sheilah O'Donnel got divorced after about a decade at home - in the custom home her husband had built for them.  She decided being a stay-at-home mother was disempowering and disenfranchising and skewed the balance in her marriage and caused all kinds of problems in her relationship with her husband:
At her peak, O’Donnel was earning $500,000 a year. But after her first two children were born, O’Donnel’s travel for work became more difficult. She gave up a quarter of her earnings in exchange for working three days a week, but felt marginalized, her best accounts given to others, meetings often scheduled on her days out of the office. “I felt like a second-class citizen,” she said. Even with the reduced schedule, the stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on her marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick.
So O'Donnel - a la Mary Chapin Carpenter - got the heck out of Dodge and now has a small apartment and a midlevel sales job.  And no husband.  Whee!

The Times profiles two other women, whose stories I was more sympathetic to because they didn't actually break up their families for seemingly frivolous reasons.  The tone of the article seems to be, "You'd better work, honey, because men are unreliable.  It's just safer to support yourself."  Which harkens back to that 2nd Wave feminist idea that women should - must! - all work outside the home because then we are all equal, equal workers, indistinguishable. 

I'm not saying that women shouldn't work or that girls shouldn't be trained for a vocation or learn valuable skills.  I went back to work last year, and it turned out to be a very good thing because my husband is getting laid off in a few weeks, and we will have at least some income to live on until he finds another job.  And, of course, life does sometimes intervene.  Accidents happen, work peters out,  people die or become incapacitated, spouses sometimes leave.  Skills are good to have. 

My point is, Sheilah's husband wasn't the one who stopped being cooperative, who stopped supporting his family.  But somehow, the Times puts Sheilah in the victim role here.  It also really bothers me that feminists frame the working/staying home dilemma entirely in terms of how it affects women.  What about the children?  Sheilah was home for over a decade; did her children not benefit from the time they spent with their mother?  Did Sheilah not benefit from spending time with her kids?  That, to me, is far more important than what the pillows in her new apartment are like. 

I stayed home with my son because I wanted to be with him.  I wanted to know him.  I wanted to be the one from whom he learned his numbers, his letters, his morals, his values.  Not everyone can or even wants to stay home, but I went through a huge effort to have him in my life, and I wanted to be with him.  Now, it's true, he won't remember those years.  Already he doesn't remember how things were when he was a baby.  But I remember, and it's a blessing to me.  Yeah, I had to sacrifice my career as a librarian, such as it was, and, yeah, I had to become financially dependent on my husband and it did change the dynamic between us somewhat and sometimes I felt, I suppose, lesser, being a non-working person in a society that values everything in monetary terms.  But I had time with my son.  I invested my energy in him.  Will it pay off?  I hope so.  There are no guarantees in life.  He's happy, he's secure.  I gave him that, and I feel proud of it.

When I read stories like Sheilah's, I can't help thinking of my grandmother, a teacher and farmer's wife, who kept on keeping on when her husband was struck by lightning and rendered bedbound for the better part of a year.  She kept making dinner, running the farm, raising her boys.  She went back to work to keep money coming in, and you know who never complained that she wasn't fulfilled?  My grandmother.  She went and read to her mother-in-law who had had a stroke and needed the company.  She taught Sunday School.  She was grateful to have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep and a family who loved her.  Great woman, my grandmother.  God rest you, Amy Coleson Pettigrove.  He cracked the mold the day you were born.

Everything runs right on time, years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines. He thinks he'll keep her
Everything is so benign, safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind. He thinks he'll keep her

For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay
Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage

Today is my 15th anniversary.  I've kept the house clean, made healthy meals, repaired things that broke, shuffled my kid to school and basketball and scouts.  I've taken the dogs to the vet and taught myself to cook and garden and make medicines, prayed for my husband when he was away and traveling unsafe roads, and listened to him when he was tired and discouraged and scared. 

And all I have to show for it is: a clean house, a healthy family, rambunctious dogs, a happy and secure kid, a pretty little garden, shelves full of canned goods and herbs, and a loving and appreciative husband.  Poor me.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 4: nomads and crises in popular fiction

I mentioned before that while I was reading The Fourth Turning, I happened to be concurrently doing a Lord of the Rings marathon and listening to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  All of them concern crises and their resolution and therefore made a triple whammy of an impact on me.

Popular fiction seems to be getting darker and darker lately.  In the past decade there has been an explosion of paranormal - not just vampires and werewolves, but fairies and elves, witches and wizards.  The immense popularity Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse and Stephanie Meyer's Bella and Edward (in either medium) didn't arise out of nothingness.  Before her came Anita Blake and Harry Dresden and a host of other authors writing stories about human characters confronting supernatural beings more powerful than themselves.  You can't go into a bookstore nowadays without seeing cover after cover of tough tattooed heroines with knives staring out into the spooky void.   I don't feel fully capable of armchair analyzing our collective psyche, but the emergence in such numbers of antagonists who are both not human and also unsympathetic to human interests may indicate a powerlessness we feel, the inability to confront or deal with forces larger than ourselves.  I think there's a reason these sorts of stories are being embraced now.

I mean, I know that The Lord of the Rings couldn't be made before the CGI revolution.  There is just too much in the story that requires the talents of special effects magicians.  But the first photorealistic CG creatures were unveiled in 1993 in Jurassic Park, and not a half decade later Peter Jackson was putting The Fellowship of the Ring together.  He started filming in 1999.  Yes, this is a great story, but the timing was right; this new generation of nomads was hungry for an epic film about a motley collection of nomads taking on the challenge of destroying the ultimate evil against all odds.  Collapsing human societies and allegiances, the fading away of culture, wisdom, and order - it resonates with Gen X and anyone else who senses the approach of another crisis.  Tolkien was of the Lost generation.  He wrote his story after his generations crisis was over, and it certainly conveys the terrible effort and cost a crisis will take to survive.  But within the story he also embeds some intergenerational conflict.  A much older Gandalf mentors Frodo Baggins, hoping he will succeed but not truly believing he will.  Frodo, an orphan and a hobbit does not seem to have what it takes to do what he must.  And yet he prevails, although it takes nearly everything he's got and he is never the same after.  He returns to the shire and attempts to live quietly and productively until he is granted passage to Valinor where he hopes to find peace.

But it is not Frodo who pulled evil out of obscurity.  It was Bilbo, his uncle, who found it while having an adventure and brought it home.  Once in the world again, it had the potential to fully restore the power of Sauron and bring about the end of human civilization.  To Bilbo the ring brought long life and prosperity, but he was not the one called upon to destroy it.  Frodo was the one who had to trek all the way to Mordor and chuck the foul thing into the fires of Mt. Doom, losing much of his health and sanity along the way.  Two hobbits, one ring, entirely different outcomes.  Even as Bilbo is traveling to leave with the elves, he reveals that the terrible nature of the ring is beyond his understanding.  To him it was only ever "my old ring."  And Frodo loves him too much to point of the husk of a hobbit he now is because it fell on him to destroy it.

And then there is Harry Potter, orphaned and alone, untrained in the arts of wizardry until he is called on by his birthright to attend Hogwarts.  Harry is another nomad, growing up with the Dursleys who abused and neglected him.  The adults who will require him to defeat Voldemort and his cohort never bothered to check up on him all years he lived in the cupboard under the stairs and blithely send him back there every summer for a new round of punishment.  Harry repeatedly battles and defeats the enemy despite the almost continuous distrust and disrespect the Hogwarts students and staff show him.  Child neglect is pretty common in children's literature - how else would young protagonists have the agency to have adventures? - but it's really egregious in the Harry Potter novels.  There are a handful adults who help him to eventually defeat Voldemort and the Death Eaters for good, but most of the time Harry is on his own or aided only by his friends, Hermione and Ron, and a few classmates.  At the end of every book, Dumbledore will call him in for a conference and explain why exactly Harry had to stick his neck out again for an ungrateful world when Dumbledore was about 70 million times stronger, more capable, respected, and trusted (as well as being an adult).

The interesting thing about the Harry Potter books (and movies) is that they seem to have a solid audience with Generation X.  I can't quite put my finger on why...but something seems to resonate.

The Hunger Games is another story of a nomad taking on the evils of many previous generations.  Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, the poorest district of Panem, a country formed from the ashes of previous powers in a post-apocalyptic North America.  She is the daughter of a coal miner and a healer.  Her father died in a mine explosion when she was twelve, and her mother fell apart and did nothing to keep Katniss or her little sister Prim fed and cared for.  Watching her family starve, Katniss finally takes to the woods that surround her village and tries to remember what her father taught her about hunting and gathering food.  It is against the laws of the Capitol, but it's that or die.  When Katniss is 16, her life changes dramatically.  In retribution for the uprising of the 13 districts, the Capitol every year has a reaping - one girl and one boy are chosen by lottery from each district and sent to the Capitol where they are displayed, interviewed, and briefly trained.  Then they are thrown into an arena and expected to fight to the death.  The winner is guaranteed a life of prosperity and comfort, the other 23 die mourned only by their own loved ones.  It is all filmed, and all the citizens in all the districts are made to watch it and know that the Capitol owns them body and soul and they can do nothing about it.

The year she is sixteen, Katniss's little sister, Prim, is picked to be reaped.  Knowing that she will surely die as she is only twelve and has no survival skills, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  The Hunger Games is the story of how Katniss survives and, in doing so, defies the Capitol and sparks a new revolution.  The last two books in the series explore how the revolution proceeds and what waging that war does to Katniss, her family, her friends, and her allies in the Hunger Games.  It's riveting reading, although the last book is quite grim and has a high death toll.  Imagine post-Mt. Doom Frodo as a futuristic seventeen-year-old bitterly angry girl, and you get the picture.  After I finished listening to it, I went back and mentally restored the life of at least three characters because I couldn't live with the ending as it was.  It was too sad.  Look for this story at a theater near you in about three more years.  It incorporates many of the evils we now fear - a Big Brother totalitarian government, a survivalist economy, a cowed, helpless citizenry, war, and reality TV.

To end on a more positive note, last week I watched another, more upbeat Gen-X-takes-on-evil movie (for about the 10th time) - Die Hard.  I love this movie, not because of the action or the attractive cockiness of Bruce Willis, but because it so clearly shows and lampoons the asinine leadership structure of the modern (late 1980's) world and how Gen X reacts to it.  John McClane, despite being written by a Lost-generation writer and portrayed by Boomer-generation actor, has a very X mentality.  He injects himself into the drama at Nakatomi Plaza not because he wants to save the world, but only to save his wife, a woman who has in effect left him and taken their children so she can pursue her career in a Japanese corporation.  He takes on an unknown force with limited resources and no initial understanding of the situation to save someone who has not adequately appreciated him in the past.  His antagonist, Hans, has no higher ideals for his "terrorist" attack either - he's in it for the money and for the knowledge that he has pulled off a supremely elegant, high-tech bank robbery.

What I love about this movie is that every single person in charge (with the exception of Hans) is portrayed as a I-know-better-because-I'm-higher-positioned moron.  John is the only person on the floor, the only person with any direct knowledge of the situation, and they ignore all of his info, all of his warnings, to play it by the book.  He has one friend, Al, who believes him, and that's it.  And Al can't even do anything for John except verbally defend him.  John gives good advice, the police and FBI ignore it, people die.  No one learns anything.  I don't know how many jobs I've had in which I felt similarly in the know and similarly ignored, but watching Die Hard is pure therapy for me.

Add to this a scabrous, bottom-feeding media whore who doesn't mind endangering people to get famous, and you've got a celebration of cynicism.  And, yet, despite no help from those in charge, John McClane prevails and with only two hostages dead, one the victim of his own proud idiocy and power mongering.  Yay!  Yay!

Yet after he's proven himself a hero and saved a whole group of strangers, McClane goes back to his regular life and being a cop again.  And am I the only one who wondered if Nakatomi filed a civil suit for damages?  Nomad story, through and through.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 3: the Gen X nomad generation & the third and fourth turning

 In part 1 of my thoughts on The Fourth Turning : What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe I mentioned that the titular fourth turning was "a crisis which, after bloodshed and/or destruction, results in the reestablishment of authority."  In previous fourth turnings in American/British history the generational deck was stacked so:

  • The indulged Prophet children of Highs, born in the aftermath of one Crisis, foment the next Crisis upon entering elderhood.
  • The abandoned Nomad children of Awakenings become the pragmatic midlife managers of Crisis
  • The protected Hero children of Unravelings provide the powerful young-adult soldiers of Crisis
  • The suffocated children of Crises come of age afterward as Artist youths. [pg. 267]
To sum up, it is the authors' contention that the Boomers (with the help of the Silent Generation) create the Crisis and Gen X is the one who will navigate it.  The authors have this to say about Nomads in young adulthood.
"Nomads come of age in a society strong in choices and judgments but weak in structure, guidance, or any sense of collective mission for young people.  Lacking a generational core, they are defined by their very social and cultural divergence.  Aware that elder leaders don't expect much from them as a group, they feel little collective mission or power.  Yet their accelerated contact with the real world gives them strong survival skills and expectations of personal success.  Acting as individuals, they take entrepreneurial risks and begin sorting themselves into winners and losers.  Their culture develops a frenetic, hardened quality, provoking next-elder Prophets [Boomers here] to accuse them of lacking a principled inner life.  Young Nomads shake off these criticisms and do what they must to get by." [pg. 210]
What is important about this definition of Nomad young adulthood is that it is the isolation, lack of acceptance, and general disillusionment/cynicism of this generation that will enable it to make the hard choices down the line.  I know I've mentioned this before but I have a kind of closet nerdy obsession with social history of the Eastern Front.  That terrible crucible offers us many lessons on what humans are capable of for good and for bad.  Take, for example, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which did not occur until the ghetto was nearly emptied of Jews.  All of the elderly were gone.  The children were dead.  Mothers and fathers, who had had responsibility for those elderly parents and young children were dead too; they had cooperated in the Nazis' terrible agenda because they had so much to lose - not only their own lives, but the lives of people they loved and felt responsibility for.  As long as there was a chance that by following the rules, they could shelter their children or save themselves, they felt compelled to obey.  And they all died, cooperative all the way to Treblinka.  But that last remnant, they fought.  There was no one left to shelter, nothing left to lose but a lives they knew were gone anyway, so they did what they had to do, and they took out a lot of Nazis.

The dead people were the ones so connected to their families or communities that they would not imperil them by rebelling.  The fighters and survivors were the disaffected ones, the ones who had disconnected from their families, seen the situation for what it truly was, and were willing to make the hard calls and put their lives on the line, not to save themselves, but just to take out a few of their enemies.

Strauss and Howe describe Generation X's young adulthood:

  • "13ers are the oldest marrying, with the highest-ever rates of teen sex, abortion, and venereal disease (including AIDS) 
  • One 13er student in six knows somebody who has been shot.
  • Unraveling 13ers, males especially, have been hit with a one-generation depression.  From 1973 to 1992, the real median income for young-adult males fell by 28 percent, more than it did for the entire nation from peak to trough of the Great Depression. (During those same two decades in which youth incomes were plunging, real median income for seniors rose by 26 percent.)
  • Where the boomers were the most alibied and excused criminal generation in U.S. history, 13ers have become the most incarcerated.  Roughly one-third of all 13er black males are either in prison, on probation, or under court supervision.
  • As the youngest-copulating and oldest-marrying generation ever recorded, 13ers maneuver through an unusually long span of sexually active singlehood...They have always been the physical center of the abortion debate - first as the surviving fetuses of the most aborted generation in U.S. history, later as the pregnant unmarried woman faced with the 'choice' of what to do.
  • [Politically] Never knowing anything except institutional decline, 13ers are deeply skeptical about grand policy visions the assume with somehow only add to America's fiscal debt and social chaos...government is viewed by many 13ers as a morass that his far too complex, far too tied to special interests, and far too enmeshed in ideology to get simple things done...More than three 13ers in four do not trust government to look after their basic interests." [pgs. 235-9]
While not the Warsaw Ghetto, this social/political/economic environment is practically guaranteed to produce a significant number of disaffected people.  They approach the coming Crisis tired, disbelieving, cautious, and toughened, but - the authors believe - uniquely suited both for surviving and making the brutal calls necessary.

  • "They will vote against their own short-term interests if persuaded that the community's long-term survival requires it...13er voters will disregard motive and ideology, and will simply ask if public programs get results that are worth the money.
  • 13ers will strike a hard bargain with elders they will collectively perceive as lifelong hypocrites with a weak claim on the public purse.  So long as the Next New Deal hits Boomers hard, 13ers won't mind if it's projected to hit themselves even harder.
  • As the Crisis rages on, the era's stark new communitarianism will require 13ers to rivet new grids in place...13er power brokers will reconstruct the social barriers that produce civic order...[they] will sweep aside procedural legalisms and promises legislate by old regimes, much to the anguish of the octogenarian Silent...To critics, the new style of 13er urban leadership will appear unlearned, poorly rooted in values, even corrupt, but it will work...many 13ers will feel that emergency action is necessary to re-create the kind of secure world they will feel was denied them in childhood.
  • Many of the traits that were criticized for decades - their survivalism, realism, lack of affect - will now be recognized as vital national resources.  The emergency will melt away much of the Unraveling era's old fuss about political correctness.  
  • As the Crisis resolves, the society will be fully in 13er hands.  If all ends well, their security-minded leadership will usher the society away from urgent crusades and into the next High.  If not, 13ers will be left with not choice but to yank younger generations by the collar, appraise what's left of their society and start anew." [pgs. 290-3]
There is a lot more interesting stuff in The Fourth Turning regarding how other generations approach and weather the Crisis, but my main interest is in my own generation.  I do not have the history background necessary to say if the pattern Howe and Strauss describe is hard and fast, but their concept of the four turnings, of order changing to disorder and back, is a much better future to envision than it all just going to hell in a handbasket and a new Dark Ages emerging from the corrupted, conquered New Rome.  We certainly have all the elements in place for a new Crisis.  I don't relish navigating it, but if at the end of the tunnel we could have community, stability, discipline, responsibility, and mutual values again - with moral relativism crushed beneath the jackboot - well, it might be worth it.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 2: Gen X's childhood

As I mentioned in part 1 of my examination of The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe described Gen X's childhood as "left unprotected at a time of cultural convulsion and adult self-discovery."  Later in the book they expand on this:
"As the media standard for the typical American family changed from My Three Sons to My Two Dads, divorce struck 13ers harder than any other child generation in U.S. history.  Where Boomers had once been worth the parental sacrifice of prolonging an unhappy marriage, 13ers were not.  At the end of the High, half of all adult women believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the sake of the children, but by the end of the Awakening, only one in five thought so.  Best-selling youth books like It's Not the End of the World tried to show that parental divorce wasn't so bad, but left children with the impression that any family could burst apart at any time.  In The Nurturing Father: Journey Toward the Complete Man, Kyle Pruett promised that family dissolution "freed" parent and child to have "better" and "less-constricted" time together.  By 1980, just 56 percent of all 13er children lived with two once-married parents, and today this generation's novels and screenplays bristle with hostile reference to parents who didn't tough it out."
I read Strauss and Howe's 5-page description of the built-in craziness of childhood in the 1960s and 70s nodding the whole time.  Someone is finally saying it: Gen X had a shortened, unsettled, unstable childhood and it permanently affected the way we see the world.  Permanently.  Affected.  Permanently.  Latchkey kids were left unsupervised daily and many of the rest of us were allowed to do adult things far too early.  Illegitimacy got a good running start, and

"[i]n the middle 1970s, the distinction of occupying America's most poverty-prone age bracket passed directly from the (elder) Lost to the (child) 13th without ever touching the three generations in between.  By the late 1970s, the child suicide rate broke the Lost's previous turn-of-the-century record.  Through the Awakening, the homicide rate for infants and small children rose by half, and the number of reported cases of child abuse jumped four-fold."

Does anyone remember this?  You'd think, from the coverage in the media, that teen suicide was just discovered in youth.  Oh, no.  Gen Xers broke the record back there, but it's all just lost in the ether.  Reading all of this I realized for perhaps the first time that other generations hadn't had this experience.  I mean, I knew that divorce and illegitimacy climbed and climbed through the 60s, 70s and 80s and that families fragmented and got poorer in general.  What I never considered was that for the first time in history, that fragmentation was largely an optional choice that the generations before us could and did make.

Families have always broken up.  Death was an ever present companion in human society, and it was not at all uncommon for one or the other parent to die and then remarry to keep the family solvent and functional.  These arrangements sometimes worked and sometimes didn't, people being people.  There have always been kids who were raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles.  Because their parents died.  As in, keeled over, went 10 toes up.  But with the advent of modern medicine and especially drugs like penicillin, the incidence of parental death was drastically reduced.  Boomer kids feared polio, not smallpox or typhoid or tuberculosis.  The kids in Gen X experienced family breakdown, then, because their parents flaked, because they put themselves first, because the kids in our generation weren't "worth the parental sacrifice of prolonging an unhappy marriage."

Wow.  Thanks.  The adults around us preferred to deal with the divorce epidemic by producing after-school specials and writing stuff like It's Not the End of the World rather than pressure Silent and Boomer parents to stick it out for the kids.

And you may ask me, "grerp, why are you so angry about this?  Your parents stayed together.  You weren't a child of divorce."  And that would be true.  My parents didn't divorce, and I had a stable, protected childhood.  But my friends had parents who divorced and went through that nightmare in front of me.  What do you say to someone you know and care about when their parents pancake?  "Gee, I'm sorry your family is toast, and you only see your dad every other weekend, and your new stepmother treats you like an interloper?"  "I'm sorry your mom decided having a new boyfriend was more important than seeing you every day?"  One of my friends crashed and burned in college over her parents' divorce, and she was 20 and not even living at home any more.  What can you say when you watch someone's family fracture and you see your friend mourn it while being told nothing truly terrible happened?  It happens all the time, after all.

My teachers got divorced.  The guidance counselor at my middle school got divorced and then killed himself.  He had lived in my neighborhood, three doors down.  It says something when the person who is hired to shepherd the youth into making better decisions decides checking out permanently is better than staying around for his young daughter.  Seriously, where was the adult behavior?  It wasn't there in real life, and it sure wasn't there on television where Three was Company and divorced moms took it One Day at a Time because they had no road map for this brave new world.

I would be interested in reading a list of the novels and screenplays Strauss and Howe referenced above:
...this generation's novels and screenplays bristle with hostile reference to parents who didn't tough it out.
They are right, that sentiment exists in Gen X's thoughts and words.  The song Wonderful by Everclear expresses a child's anger and betrayal in the clearest, boldest, most unapologetic way.  Art Alexakis wrote it when he got a divorce as a way to work out what he was putting his daughter through, but also, clearly, as a way to process his own feelings about his parents' divorce years ago.

I close my eyes when I get too sad
I think thoughts that I know are bad
Close my eyes and I count to ten
Hope it's over when I open them

I want the things that I had before
Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door
I wish I could count to ten
Make everything be wonderful again

Hope my mom and I hope my dad
Will figure out why they get so mad
Hear them scream, I hear them fight
Say bad words that make me wanna cry

Close my eyes when I go to bed
And I dream adventures that will make me smile
I feel better when I hear them say
Everything will be wonderful someday

Promises mean everything when you're little
And the world's so big
I just don't understand how
You can smile with all those tears in your eyes
Tell me everything is wonderful now

(Na na na na na na na....)
Please don't tell me everything is wonderful now

I go to school and I run and play
I tell the kids that it's all okay
I laugh alot so my friends won't know
When the bell rings I just don't wanna go home

Go to my room and I close my eyes
I make believe that I have a new life
I don't believe you when you say
Everything will be wonderful someday

Promises mean everything when you're little
And the world is so big
I just don't understand how
You can smile with all those tears in your eyes
When you tell me everything is wonderful now
I don't wanna hear you tell me everything is wonderful now

(Na na na na na na na....)
I don't wanna hear you say
That I will understand someday
No, no, no, no
I don't wanna hear you say
No, no, no, no
I don't wanna meet your friend
And I don't wanna start over again
I just wanna my life to be the same
Just like it used to be
Somedays I hate everything
everyone and everything
Please don't tell me everything is wonderful now

I don't wanna hear you tell me everything is wonderful now

Art Alexakis is not a man who has it all together.  He is not much of a role model, and his wisdom is limited.  But he has managed to clearly express what Gen X kids felt then and still feel now and get it out to the general public with whom it resonates.  In one internet forum a commented said about Father of Mine:
"First song I ever heard during which I had to stop my car because I was crying.  Very powerful and descriptive of a lot of kids of divorce.
Alexakis wrote that song when he was 35 years old.  Not fifteen.  The pain stuck around.

As a generation we've been hearing for years and years about how divorce was so necessary because of all those women trapped in loveless marriages with horrible men.  How could they be condemned to a lifetime of unhappiness?  Too cruel!  Legal, no-fault divorce freed women from mistakes that went toxic.  No one could possibly have wanted them to stay with men who [insert action here].  The inhumanity!

And it is true that many women did marry bad men who treated them, well, badly.  And they were unhappy, some of them very unhappy.  But the flip side of that situation, the one we never talk about, is what happened to Art Alexakis.  His father, who by Alexakis's account was not a good husband, who took his anger out on his wife physically, who - by our modern standards - would be a get-out-of-marriage-free kind of husband, walked out and didn't look back.

And everything did not get better.  It got worse.  Way worse.  The family struggled financially and broke up further.  Both Art and his brother George got addicted to drugs, and George overdosed at age 21, after several stints in jail.  Art tried to kill himself, became a juvenile delinquent, went to jail, barely survived, married and divorced multiple times.  Perhaps Mrs. Alexakis was glad to see the back of Art's dad, but the Alexakis' kids outcomes nosedived, and for 1 of the 5 Alexakis kids it actually was a long, drawn-out End of the World.

Gen X is made up of kids who were told by word and action that the happiness and well-being of the adults in their lives was more important than their happiness or well-being.  And many of us are tired of the unhappy housewife meme.  We are tired of being told to be grateful for the freedom, to be glad we didn't grow up in the oppressive climate of the 1950s.  Plenty of Gen Xers (and Gen Ys) would have traded the "liberation" given them for Mom and Dad living in the same house and dinner being on the table regularly at 6 PM.  We can't appreciate rebellion against security and authority because security and authority were scarce resources in our childhood.

I'll continue this series with other thoughts gleaned from The Fourth Turning, but just for the above, the explanation for Gen X's anger, apathy and cynicism, I am grateful to the authors.  We don't feel the way the Boomers feel because we didn't grow up the way the Boomers did.  Even those of us growing up in stable homes could feel society splintering all around us, and we wondered if and when our parents would decide to chuck it and go find themselves.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 1

As I mentioned a post or so ago, I read The Fourth Turning : What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe over Thanksgiving and found it very interesting.

To boil it down to its basics, the book is about an 80- to 100-year cycle that has taken place throughout American history, dating back into English history, wherein, in the course of four generations, society swings from focusing on community and doing what is best for the community to focusing on individual freedom and doing what will most allow personal freedom to flourish.  This cycle has four definable eras, or turnings:

  1. The High - "an upbeat era of strenghtening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays"
  2. The Awakening - "a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime"
  3. The Unraveling - "a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants"
  4. The Crisis - "a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one." [pg. 3]
Strauss and Howe also identify clear four generational archetypes:

  1. A Prophet generation is born during a High
  2. A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening
  3. A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling
  4. An Artist generation is born during a Crisis [pg. 19]
The way a generation forms - physically, spiritually, politically, ideologically, emotionally, sexually - depends on which generations come before and the environment they have created for it to develop in.  
"This dynamic has recurred throughout American history.  Roughly every two decades (the span of one phase of life), there has arisen a new constellation of generations - a new layering of generational personas up and down the age ladder.  As this constellation has shifted, so has the national mood.  Consider what happened from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, as one generation replaced another at each phase of life:
  • In elderhood, the cautionary individualists of the Lost Generation (born 1883 - 1900) were replaced by the hubristic G.I. Generation (born 1901 - 1924), who launched American into an expansive era of material affluence, global power, and civic planning.
  • In midlife, the upbeat G.I.s were replaced by the helpmate Silent Generation (born 1925 - 1942), who applied their expertise and sensitivity to fine-tune the institutional order while mentoring the passions of youth.
  • In young adulthood, the conformist Silent were replaced by the narcissistic Boom Generation (born 1943 - 1960), who asserted the primacy of self and challenged the alleged moral vacuity of the institutional order.
  • In childhood, the indulged Boomers were replaced by the neglected 13th Generation (born 1961 - 1981), who were left unprotected at a time of cultural convulsion and adult self-discovery.  Known in pop culture as Generation X, its name here reflects the fact that it is literally the thirteenth generation to call itself American."  [pg. 17]  

The authors go back through history, generation after generation, showing how the the boom-to-bust cycle occurred over and over, illustrating how when certain generational archetypes - heroes and artists - are in mature adulthood and elderhood, authoritarian society spreads its wings and establishes institutions, and then when prophets reach adulthood, having grown up under secure, predictable, conformist, authoritarian governance, they rebel and demand consideration be given to the individual.  This demand, eventually given its head, leads to an unraveling of societal organization and expectation, which in turn leads to a crisis which, after bloodshed and/or destruction, results in the reestablishment of authority.

Each generation plays its part.  It is born to play a certain role, and it does not shirk.  Heroes beget Prophets, Nomads raise Artists.  The cycle continues.

The title of the book, The Fourth Turning, refers to that fun fourth part of the cycle, the Crisis which features war, death, poverty, and destruction.  That is what part of the cycle we are coming up on now.  During previous fourth turnings American society has experienced stuff like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II.  Wars and economic troubles happen in other parts of the cycle too, of course, but the reaction of the leaders during those times is different because the generational deck is stacked differently.  The combination of old Prophets and middle-aged Nomads in charge tends to result in total war, not insert/extract conflicts, and Depressions, not recessions.  The prolonged Unraveling that proceeds the Crisis leaves everyone feeling that society is going to hell in a handbasket, and they might as well solve the problem once and for all, cost be damned.  To win a total war, however, you have to have the willing participation of every member of society, which means the funeral bell tolls for individual freedom and self-actualization.
"A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail.  This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. 
People support new efforts to wield public authority, whose perceived successes soon justify more of the same.  Government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside. A grim preoccupation with civic peril causes spiritual curiosity to decline.  A Sense of public urgency contributes to a clampdown on bad conduct or antisocial lifestyles.  People begin feeling shameful about what they earlier did to absolve guilt.  Public order tightens, private risk taking abates, and crime and substance abuse decline.  Families strengthen, gender distinctions widen, and child rearing reachers a smothering degree of protection and structure.  The young focus their energy on worldly achievements, leaving values in the hands of the old.  Wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.
Eventually, the mood transforms into one of exhaustion, relief, and optimism.  Buoyed by a newborn faith in the group and in authority, leaders plan, people hope, and a society yearns for good and simple things." [pgs. 103 - 104]
In other words, if it all doesn't go up in flames, after the Crisis is over, things are much more stable for everyone and society resets itself into a working model again.

There is, of course, a whole book's worth of additional detail and information.  I will talk about my reactions to some of it in later posts, but that is the basic premise of The Fourth Turning.  Thoughts?

Addendum: Thoughts on The Fourth Turning, part 2: Gen X's childhood