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.  


  1. I, like you, grew up with good parents who loved me and each other. But so many of my friends did not. And such HORRIBLE things happened to them. I remember when my first friend came out about having been sexually abused... by the time I was out of my 20s I had heard a similar story from a majority of my friends - including some of the males. We were undersupervised, all of us - and we did exactly what you'd think we did with our spare time.

    Angry at our elders? Oh YES. They had it all... and they threw it away to chase "freedom".

    I read the 4th Turning some years ago and it resonated with me in a big way - glad you're reviewing it.

  2. Sean sez:

    Lived it and was recently reminded when my mother visited. She had an affair, got divorced and flaked out for a year and a half when I was fourteen. Didn't see her. Didn't hear from her. Nothing. Then my dad dumped me on her.

    She was a total wreck so I just moved out. I pretty much put this part of my life in the closet except on occasion to tell my own children how some lesson or another.

    Then mom comes to visit and it's a constant parade of how some dude or another didn't pay child support. Heh, neither did she to my dad nor he to her.

    I don't even care about the child support bit so much as the total disregard for their not wanting to take care of me. You see, she's really good at pointing out parental failures (and so is dad for that matter) but when I still needed parents they were too self absorbed.

    My parents weren't chasing freedom as much as they were running from responsibility...

  3. Speaking of musicians, don't forget Kurt Cobain; he was truly devastated by his parents' divorce in his childhood and we saw how his life played out.

    Just curious, how would we pressure people to stay married? I agree with you that couples with children should "stick it out" and put the kids first; if your kids turn out troubled and messed up, I don't think any amount of other successes in your life can make up for that failure.

    Parenthood is not for everyone; we need to push that idea more. For many women, it seems to just be another item on their to-do list so they can keep up with their girlfriends.

  4. What I remember from my childhood in the 70's was the adults had checked out. The social freedom of the 60's was pretty much limited to some college students; but people saw that and figured they would enjoy the sex, drugs, free love, and lack of attachment, and their spouses or children were not going to stop them.

    The more aggressive children used the lack of supervision to create chaos; the less aggressive children suffered from it. My own parents stayed together, divorce would have been out of the question, but as she reached the end of her life I think my mom was pretty disappointed. My father had serious employment difficulties and they had heavy economic stress. My father coped with it by drinking and withdrawing, my mother coped with it by adhering rigidly to Catholicism. I don't think their problems excuse their lack of care and attention to their children; a little bit of protection and encouragement would have gone a long way. As messed up as I am I'm the most normal one of the bunch.

    The people who encouraged all this will never be called to account. Society will reorganize itself eventually but I don't think it will be better.

  5. Anonymous - since we have now more or less institutionalized every sort of "freedom," I don't think you can effectively pressure people to stay together, certainly not on the personal level. There are 5 people who will tell them to do whatever feels right for every 1 person who says, "Suck it up and stay together for your kids." Really traditional families pressure effectively - sometimes - but only because they manage to get their kids to care about their approval and value the intact family unit. The Boomers (and some of the later Silents) dismantled social pressure to conform to expectation on purpose because as a generation they hated conformity and they thought they knew better. They were born under a system that worked to discourage divorce and family dissolution, and they firebombed the system. So we don't have it to use anymore. The reinstitution of that kind of pressure now would require the kind of authoritarian measures most people would file under "tyranny."

    Hearth - I agree with you; there are so many terrible stories.

  6. On a related note, I also feel angry about the fact that all that divorce in the 1960s and 70s affected Gen X's ability to form and maintain their own healthy relationships. So a significant portion of them didn't have solid families when they were children and they don't have them now as adults. It's hard to believe in the sanctity or stabilizing value of marriage or know what kind of partner to seek when the adults in your life give you such terrible examples.

    I don't think you can blame the Boomers, etc. for everything that goes sour in Gen X marriages. People make their own choices, and you can't say that Boomers forced Gen Xers to cheat, take off, or behave selfishly. But 1) they actively worked to destroy the idea of conformity to societal expectations for societal good and 2) they produced kids, nearly half of whom had no idea of what a stable, self-sacrificing, long-term relationship looked like. So even if your parents pulled off staying together, there was a good chance your future spouse's didn't. When marriage started being more work than fun, they saw this as pathology instead of what marriage often is. Divorce, rinse, repeat.

    1. I am very puzzled, because I'd always thought I was part of the boomer generation (b. 1958). But you're describing mine and my siblings' lives. Parents too self-absorbed to even remember they had kids; divorcing almost on an angry whim. The feelings of being adrift, of being forgotten, of being the lowest priority below being free and being "happy" (whatever that means at the moment), describes what I and countless peers went through.

      I feel huge resentment towards a culture that fed and celebrates to this day the "my constant state of joy is far important than any promises or commitments"; the determination NOT to do that to my kids; the inability to find someone, *anyone* who had a good example of how to work through marital potholes instead of throwing in the towel at the first sign of bumpiness - you're describing mine and my siblings', my classmates' lives.

      What is your definition of baby boomers? I've always known I was at the trailing edge of what is considered the boomers, but did someone move the yard markers when I wasn't looking? As you know, that happens to this generation as well.

  7. Yes--I'm a child of divorce, although my parents stuck it out till I was an adult. I think that's better, however, it is still awful.

    I suspect that the Baby Boomers had no idea of what the fallout of divorce would be like, for their kids OR for themselves. Many have remarried only to get divorced again. Many are about to enter retirement with few assets. How could they have fully realized what it would be like long-term? My guess is that they thought of it as a tradeoff. Awful option A= stay in an unhappy marriage. Possibly better option B=get divorced and pursue a better life for everyone involved.

    But the negative fallout is unmistakable. The advantages of sticking it out, for everyone involved, were way underestimated. Our Generation (X) has had their eyes opened, and I think many of us made better mate choices as a result. The fallout for us has been too much singleness, delayed marriage, and as you said, lack of role models either for ourselves or our partners. I suspect, however, that those marriages that do happen are stronger and less likely to end than those of the Boomers. We as a generation suffered, and we as a generation are having to make corrections, and forge a better way of choosing spouses and making it work.

    I, for one, would never divorce my husband--even if I wanted to. I vowed not to for one. For another, it would be the death of a family. I wonder if I would feel so strongly about this if my own parents had stayed together and I didn't have firsthand knowledge of how divorce affects people.

    1. "I wonder if I would feel so strongly about this if my own parents had stayed together and I didn't have firsthand knowledge of how divorce affects people."

      This is why I know in every cell of my body that my Husband would never divorce me. He was the oldest of three children when his father decided that being a monogamous spouse didn't look nearly as fun as joining the party in the 1970's. He has first hand experience of the instant poverty and absent mother (she had to go to work) movie - just add divorce!. His father didn't even really want to see his three children every weekend and barely every other weekend. His father also remarried, had two more children he ditched and recently remarried again to a woman who was divorced and her children are adults.

      Knowing that my Husband took marriage very seriously made me feel safe enough to have children and stay home to raise them, "giving up" my career (happily - I couldn't quit my job fast enough once my first child was born). I knew that it would be up to us to make ourselves happy together or live together miserably for the rest of our lives. When divorce is SIMPLY NOT AN OPTION you have a great incentive to work to be happy together.

      This makes your children happy as they see loving and stable, happy Mom & Dad. Even if you fight, your children know Mom and Dad are never leaving.

      My parents were the couple that had a few rough spots (that lasted years) but they never divorced. I am pretty sure that if they didn't have us children they would have gone their separate ways but they didn't. Now they are the picture perfect middle aged couple. Being with them now, you would never guess at some of the trials they worked through. I think that is the missing wisdom from Boomers - they never told us that if you stick it out things usually end up better than if you cut and run.

  8. My parents are still going strong after 36 years and I'm very happy for them. Still I can't really agree with the notion people should stay together for their kids. Wouldn't that make the kids feel really guilty? Wouldn't that make the parents possibly resent their kids?

  9. Younger boomers were affected as well, nothing like X'rs. I was the youngest in my family, and tended to hang around with other youngests. In the 70's it got ridiculous, every year someone would come back from a Christmas holiday with the news that their 40-something or even 50-something parents were divorcing. If that news tore up 20 year old college aged women and men, it had to have been worse, much worse, for people younger.

    I recall wondering what in the world the parents were thinking. What 'better deal' was out there, waiting for some 45 year old woman, or some 50-year old guy? I used to see some of them at the bars and clubs, the guy with the bad toupee, gold chains, John Travolta shirt throwing money at wannabe disco queens. What did they gain? I didn't know of any truly bad marriage situations, maybe it was all hidden, along with the necessary abortions...

    I guess that if the 1920's was the Lost Generation, the 1970's and into 1980's was the Disposable Generation. Between abortion and divorce and day-care and latch-keys, isn't that the label that fits?

  10. Still I can't really agree with the notion people should stay together for their kids. Wouldn't that make the kids feel really guilty?

    It is solid Boomer mythology that kids aren't happy if their parents aren't happy. Kids don't care if their parents are self-actualized. Kids care if dinner is on the table on time. Kids want to live in the same neighborhood with their same friends. Kids want things to be orderly and predictable and unchanged until they're ready for it to change. Yeah, they care if their parents are so unhappy that they scream at each other night and day, throw punches, or pull a knife. That sinks in. But that doesn't mean they want their parent to get divorced. They want their parents to cut it out and start acting like adults.

    As for parents resenting their kids - yeah, they do sometimes. Big deal. They made the choice to have kids.

    The thing about marriage is that it's not static. There are periods during a marriage when it's very hard to be unhappy and periods when it's just the opposite. Having little kids is a very stressful time for many because of money and time constraints and exhaustion, but if you tough it out, you might find that it gets better. Lots of people do. They won't find that out if they get divorced, however.

  11. So true--in fact, studies have shown that, of people who stick it out when they want to throw in the towel, the majority are grateful they didn't divorce when asked 5 years later.

    How much happier is a person really going to be if they get divorced and remarried? Every person has faults, and every marriage has ups and downs.

    I DO think, however, that some couples are just much more compatible than others. Despite the pain of protracted singleness and multiple relationship break-ups, my hope is that Generation X is paying that price on the front end, so that they are less likely to pay that price by divorcing later on.

  12. Wow grerp. I'm speechless. Outstanding post.

  13. I think the issue here that isn't raised is how the women's movement discarded marriage and encouraged divorce and hatred of men and boys.

    The genie is out of the bottle - a lot of "professions" have business models that hinge upon the continuation of high rates of divorce, and government programs as well have built in financial incentives for, e.g., states to maximize the cash flow of child support.

    God help my daughters - no one knows what type of "family life" will be the norm in their future.

  14. Anonymous (not the one above me):

    Yes but sometimes it is the men who leave or have affairs. My mother, for example, would have stayed married for a lifetime. I would guess that one reason my father did leave once the kids were grown is knowing that my Mom could support herself. So perhaps feminism even influenced men to think it was OK to divorce.

  15. One factor I think needs to be considered is not just what generation one is but your parents' generation in respect to yours.
    As a GenXer, I see a big difference in:

    GenXers with Boomer parents
    GenXers with Silent Gen parents.

    As one of the latter, I relate better with the Silent Gen cohort than with annoying Boomers.
    What is your experience with these types?

  16. Powerful stuff, grerp. Like you and several other GenXers here, I grew up in a 100% stable household, unlike so many of my friends. My dad had been the product of an ugly divorce (parents split when he was 5, he went with his mom and his older brother went with his dad), and I marvel at what a great parent he was despite the awful example he'd been given.

    I've read several excerpts from The Fourth Turning through John Maudlin's newsletter, but you're the one who's inspired me to go pick up a copy. Thank you.

  17. I'm in Generation Y

    My mother separated from my father when I was 8. I lived mostly with my mother after that age. I didn't realize how much damage it did at the time, but as a grown man, I see how much my emotional growth was stunted by the lack of a father figure in my teen years.
    Maybe at some point in the future I will forgive her, but it's hard for me to envision a world in which I do not resent my mother for what she did.

  18. Lord Somber, as an Xer child of Silent Gen parents (married late in life) I think about this distinction among my peers quite a bit - I think it's real.

    For instance most of my close friends have either Silent Gen parents or first-generation (very strict Ukrainian, Puerto Rican or Italian) immigrant parents. I have a tiny bit of trouble relating to those of us with Boomer parents completely.

    My parents divorced. Well, my dad left us actually. It was exactly as Anon 12:29 described. He decided my mom could "go it alone." It ruined my brother's life (I was older, and maybe tougher).

    This post is excellent, thanks, grerp. It made me cry! I remember friends having nowhere to sleep sometimes, cos mom's boyfriend was there ... could they stay with me? And creepy things happen when you're a 17 year old girl and Mom has a succession of boyfriends, sometimes. Creepy things happened to us. The girls AND the boys.

  19. I lived this first hand as one of the last of the Gen-x. Physically abusive, selfish father. My mother worked outside the home and went to college and night and occasionally worked a second job. We were latch key all the way. No supervision whatsoever. Although my dad was abusive I still didn't want my parents to divorce until I was a teenager and then I was done living with my dad. That is when my mom finally divorced my dad. Which theoretically was great but the divorce was very ugly my mom had to work two jobs and I never saw her anymore. I was still in high school. I needed her help. I became suicidal fell in with some not so great kids. It was a psycho mess. If anything I got out of that book was that someone truly understand all the horrors of Gen X. The lyrics by Everclear to "Father of mine" always makes me cry. As well as Good Charlotte's "emotionless".

  20. Lord Somber's observation rings true to me. My parents were born a few years before the Baby Boom, and stylistically always seemed to get along better with couples older than them.

    As a part time coach of high school kids, my first-hand experience is that Baby Boomers have done a uniformly disastrous job of raising their kids. They've prioritized friendship and self esteem, creating an entire generation of kids who've never been told "no." It is amazing, too, how many of the parents will fight their kids' battles. (I cringe at the thought of my dad calling a coach to question a decision.)

    My wife and I will be happy to be "friends" with our kids once they're out of the house.

  21. OK, people, we need to stop blaming the Boomers for the divorce mania. As TFT points out, it was the SILENTS who put in place the no-fault divorce when they reached middle age. I think the generatinal motivation was that they were too young to share the "glory" of the Greatest in WW2, and too old for the "free love" of the Boomers. Much of their legislation was of the me-too variety.

    The Silent Generation will be the best-treated generation in American history. As a group, I read once, they will pay no net taxes (they paid into SS when the rates were limited to as low as $60 a year), given the level of benefits they're getting (Medicare) that they were never taxed for. (Although my father points out that he paid in good $35-an-ounce dollars, and is getting back greatly devalued money.) The Boomers, and especially the Xers, then appear to be nothing but milch cows for this group. OTOH, it's hard to blame the Silents: they were overprotected as children (a "good" generation, they had the lowest rates of delinquency, premarital sex, etc.) and probably just figured that children grew up secure by osmosis.

    Grerp wrote: "We can't appreciate rebellion against security and authority because security and authority were scarce resources in our childhood. " Yes, this is why Boomers think I Love Lucy is funny, and Xers think that there's nothing funny about a whiny, incompetent woman who cannot run a household. When you had a secure home life, you can laugh at the crazy antics of Lucy; when chaos was your daily existence, there's nothing funny about it.

  22. My parents are war babies - 1943 and 1944. They do not identify as Boomers and I don't think ever have. The Fourth Turning sticks the war babies in with the Boomers, however.

    Judy Blume, who wrote It's Not the End of the World, was a late Silent. Boomers got divorced in waves when they were still young, but they weren't the ones writing the literature of divorce apologetics or promoting acceptance of it on television. Phil Donahue and his cohort - they were Silents.

  23. I too have always seen the war babies (my parents were both born in 1943) as the tail end of the Silent Generation and not as Boomers. I think this is more accurate since the baby boom didn't actually begin until GIs started returning from the war.

    I find it interesting though just clear the demarcations between generations really is. There is a bit of fuzziness within a year or two of the commonly drawn lines, but no more. For example, I was born in 1980, the very end of Gen X. I think of my brothers-in-law. One of them (my wife's younger brother) was born in 1986, just six years after me, but I have a lot of difficulty relating to him; our general worldviews are very different and we have very few shared cultural experiences. On the other hand, my other brother-in-law (my older sister's husband) was born in 1965. He's 15 years older than me, but I relate to him much better. Even though the gap between us is triple the age gap between me and my wife's brother, it doesn't matter. The generational changes seems to happen rapidly over the course of just a few years.

  24. it's hard to blame the Silents: they were overprotected as children (a "good" generation, they had the lowest rates of delinquency, premarital sex, etc.)

    Those stats may or may not be true, but "overprotection" being the cause? A lot of these people grew up during the Depression -- and had to grow up quick. Just the opposite of being "overprotected."
    I don't see as much maturity (wisdom?) in current Boomers than I saw in Silent Gen people when they were the same age.
    Who had to grow up quicker?

  25. Great post. One of the best you've written here, I think.

    My parents were silents -- we also had the latchkey thing going on as the 70s moved into the 80s. My parents stayed together and never divorced, but that wasn't the case in the extended "family and friends" networks. The divorces were like a plague running through families at the time, and they dead-on *ruined* many kids lives, blasted and destroyed on the altars of their parents' fundamental irresponsibility and selfishness.

    Yes, the platitudes were well circulated among us as well when we were kids. It's better for everyone to be happy. It makes no sense to keep families together where the parents are unhappy. Things will be better for everyone after the divorce. And so on.

    But what the Silents and Boomers who were peddling this nonsense to us didn't realize very well was that the other social changes (women working, for the most part, in droves) was leading our generation to be the most "early independent" generation in a long, long time. A generation of latchkey kids learns how to be independent, in both good and terrible ways. Being alone and "responsible" for yourself every day for hours on end at age 10 leads to the development of skills to survive. Skills that harden you, that make you skeptical, and probably eventually cynical. Skills that encourage survival of you above all else, due to necessity.

    And so, no, we saw the BS lies being peddled about the destruction of the families around us as being the bald-faced lies that they were in most cases. Most of the divorces I saw did not involve seriously abusive relationships in the traditional sense of substance or physical abuse. Most were marriages that were going through tough periods, and many were at that time due to the economy then as well. People
    got into bad fights, and decided to opt out of the whole thing *because they could*. And they then cooked up a whole lot of post-hoc rationalization nonsense about how this act of selfish irresponsibility was actually "good" for the kids. We knew better. We watched and observed and drew our own conclusions. And those were, and remain, very different from the pathetic spin that the Silents and Boomers tried to force down our young throats.

    We learned to survive. We're a cynical bunch, overall, I think. We're more self-focused, as well, in a more direct way than other generations are. And, yes, many of us are quite angry. That anger was suppressed for a long time due to the survival instinct which many of us adopted as kids. But from what I can see, it's popping up here, there and everywhere now. It's starting to impact everything from social relations to politics. And the strange thing is, when I speak to them at least, that most of the Boomers and Silents have no clue at all just how angry the 13ths are at *them*, and *why*. They tend to see it as a reprise of their own youthful rebellion against their parental generations -- but this is different. It isn't youthful, for one. And it isn't based on rebelling against parental restrictions. No, this is an anger based on sheer disgust. Disgust at how our generation was treated by these narcissists.

  26. People like MsJess say things like "I can't really agree with the notion people should stay together for their kids" because the pro-marriage folks present it as "staying together for the kids". Really, people who are having difficulties in marriage should fix their marriage. "Staying together for the kids" implies drifting along with all the problems remaining unresolved, until eventually, maybe when the last kid is in college, the explosion happens, and is even worse.

    Another problem is that people rarely get useful advice on how to fix their marriage. Athol Kay provides good advice for couples where the sexual attraction has faded, but how many couples in trouble will find him? How many people get *good* advice on how to fix money problems in a marriage?

  27. The book's definition of a boomer starting in 1943 and ending in 1960 is different from the more common 1946-1964. I've come to see it as correct, however. Essentially a boomer is anyone too young to remember WW2 but old enough to remember when Kennedy was shot: these are the bookends that define that group.

    As to: "A lot of these people grew up during the Depression -- and had to grow up quick. Just the opposite of being 'overprotected.'" Well, yes and no. An older silent born in 1926-1930 would have seen the societal chaos of the Depression; and younger silent from 1937 to 1942 would only have a memory of the triumphalism of the War years; they would have been steeped in it. The book talks about how Silents were shielded from the vagaries of the world; this would not have been the case for older Silents. As parents, the book says that Silents were the only generation where college-educated women had more children than lesser-educated ones, which might have contributed to the modern educational complex.

    And Nova, yes, it's very hard to have a teenage rebellion against parents when they've not bothered to actually do any guiding. The GenX rage and cynicism, as the book points out, will gome in handy in the Crisis: with no deep investment by society in our protection or well-being, we have no great attachments to the trappings of the welfare state. WE will cut, unmercifully, as the need arises; we will be hated for it; we will go into old age in poverty for not having the resources that were stolen from us to pay for the Silents, late Greatest, and early Boomers; and we will leave behind a society better off for our sacrifices.

    IT was the book that helped me understand why I felt so close to my Lost Generation aunt growing up. She had been part of a generation similarly abused by society, denied the chance to find a husband and family by the cruelty of WWI and the madness associated with that. Xers are the new Lost; may we perform our role well.

  28. That anger was suppressed for a long time due to the survival instinct which many of us adopted as kids. But from what I can see, it's popping up here, there and everywhere now.

    I think the reason you see anger cropping up more now is that we finally feel free to be angry. We couldn't be angry or were not allowed to stay angry as children because Boomers and Silents were our parents and teachers and the people we were supposed to love and respect. And then they were the people who wrote letters of recommendation, hired and fired us, and loaned us money. So we listened to the platitudes: "Someday you'll understand." Now we're getting middle-aged, and the Boomers and Silents are waning in power and influence. And what's more, all that advice they gave us - well, it's becoming clear that that advice was good, but it had an expiration date ("Valid through the end of Boomer youth"). We went to college, we took out loans, we paid our dues in unexciting jobs because that's what we were supposed to do to succeed, to get comfort and prosperity later in life. But unlike the Boomers at middle age we still have the loans and we haven't yet gotten into that better strata of jobs because there are a lot fewer of them and, in the current economic climate, Boomers are still hanging on to the ones that are left. But we know that when they vacate that last position, it will be shipped off to Asia. Why play the game anymore?

    In a sense GenX is lifting its collective head, shaking it, and saying, "God, was any of it true?"

    But I don't want to knight my generation either. If the coming troubles, particularly the economic ones, were a bit further down the line, a lot of this anger would be still dormant and we would be content in the same way to let Y or whatever comes after that deal with it. That's the way humans are.

  29. Grerp. I can't wait to read this book. Thanks so much for reviewing it.

  30. Good post, grerp. I guess my dad was an older silent (1931). The combination of faith, frugality, old-fashioned duty, and the additional racial factors my dad grew up with were all passed on to us kids.

    I'm 39 and my oldest is 16. Most of the moms I see in the neighborhood and around her school are about 10 years older than me. They joke that I'm "just a kid." At the same time, I've been told I have an old soul once or twice. I've been warned that I expect too much of my "teenagers", a phase of development that has only recently (1950's?) been recognized as a separate syndrome from young adulthood.

    How we were parented matters, and it certainly affects the way we parent our own kids. I think I'll be reading that book, grerp. Thanks for the review.

  31. grerp:

    The reinstitution of that kind of pressure now would require the kind of authoritarian measures most people would file under "tyranny."

    Which leads me to wonder, how can it ever possibly be reinstated, short of following it to its logical conclusion (the collapse of our society), and waiting for it to be reinstated by some future society that supersedes ours? And how long will we be waiting?

    And the further thought occurs to me that the last time a major free republic, that had at one time held up freedom and virtue as a high ideals, collapsed due to its own growing decadence, it took nearly 2,000 years for a similar society of comparable significance to come along.

  32. On "someday you'll understand": Indeed, John Fogerty wrote a song on this very subject using those very same words, appropriately titled "Someday Never Comes":

  33. I don't know. If the parents are willing to make the sacrifices and efforts necessary and are observant to their children's needs I guess the kids will come out OK, whatever the parents decide, but on average riding out difficulties and investing in keeping the family intact will be better for the kids on all levels. I mean, if the kids are the most important, it should not matter if you are the unhappy parent in a marriage or if the other parent is the unhappy parent after a divorce. So most of the time the "divorce to become a better parent" idea is just a rationalization for gambling with your kids' long term happiness to have a better chance of own happiness, that might or might not follow a divorce.


  34. No, this is an anger based on sheer disgust. Disgust at how our generation was treated by these narcissists.

    Digust too at how much they threw away and squandered.

    I found Strauss and Howe to be profoundly uplifting. Especially the parts about GenX childhood - I felt like someone finally explained it all. I'm one of the older GenXers, and my parents straddled the line between Greatest and Silent (Dad was one of the last Greatest, Mom one of the first Silents, and I could see traits of both groups in each of them). All my grandparents were Lost Generations, and I feel a lot of empathy with their lives.

    My parents stayed together - over 6 decades of marriage ended - no, make that interrupted - only by death. They'll be together again. But I saw my friends go through divorce in their families. When my best friend's parents divorced while I was in High School, I never looked at his mom the same way again. I'd spent a lot of time at their house over the years, and she was "nice." Always made me feel welcome, etc. His dad was gone a lot because he worked his butt off, but was a decent guy from what I saw of him. Then one day, they were divorced and he was living someone else. Kicked out.

    I couldn't figure out what the hell she was doing. I remember listening to my friend try to work his way through how miserable his dad was - it had been entirely the mom's decision. She just sort of drifted along for a few years, not much in the way of boyfriends. Eventually she was just another old lady, living alone with cats. Even when I was 14 I thought it was incredibly stupid and wasteful, and could see how it was going to end for her. I remember thinking "who's going to marry her now?"

    And wasteful is what the Boomers were, and that's what my anger is about. They were handed an incredible civilization - the highest humanity has ever achieved. And they squandered it. Squandered the money, the physical infrastructure, and the social capital. Squandered all of it. We're broke, our roads, bridges and dams are falling apart, our schools suck, and our society is completely dysfunctional. Thanks, you jerks. Not only am I facing an impoverished elderhood, but I've got to send my kids out into an decaying civilization. That's what I'm most angry about. Ruin my life, fine, I can handle it. But you screwed it up for my kids too, and for that I'll gladly send the Boomers to Hell.

    One thing I've noticed about myself and how I was impacted by my formative years is that I am far more willing to chuck something that isn't working and start over from scratch than to plow along and try to fix it. Emotionally, I just have a really hard time investing in something that's acquired even a little negative emotional baggage.

    I work at changing that - I don't want to be so dissmissive. And I've improved, I'm better. But it's still a part of my and probably always will be. Part of the cynacism Novaseeker mentioned, I think. But ultimately, I think that and other traits I share with my fellow GenXers will come in handy, because I definitely will have no qualms about scrapping anything and everything about the Welfare State, and any other part of society or government. Boomers threw away everything they didn't have any use for and screwed up the rest, so I'm okay throwing it all out and starting over, even if I get screwed in the process.

  35. the statistic I've been reading/hearing is that 80 to 90 % of all divorces are initiated by women.

    80 to 90 %.

    that's some kind of hatred, ladies.
    80 to 90 %.

    and it's all yours.

    don't blame men for your divorces - you're the one's making chaos out of the family.

    Just SAYIN.

    so maybe you can pull-back on your hatred of things "not you".

    p. Gibson

  36. This is one of the most amazing and profound things I've ever read and it really hits home.

  37. Another Gen-Xer here, born in 1965. My wife and I once went to a play with her Boomer mother and one of her mother's Boomer friends. The play was set in the 1950s and featured the usual Boomer theme of juvenile suffering in the square, sexually repressive, white, middle class home. The older ladies made approving comments and agreed "that's how it was." I was simultaneously bored and disgusted by this tired, feeble, self-congratulatory crap.

  38. I don't know how I found this post considering its 8 months old.

    I almost burst into tears reading it [and being a man, I don't cry - last were grandmothers death a decade ago, and father having a heart attack 5 years ago.]

    I hated both my parents when it happened. I hated my dad later [because I lived with my mother,] and now ... I am trying to not hate my mother. The more I learn about feminism, and the way men, and families have been destroyed by feminism, and looking back at my life I see the wake of the destruction, and I fight to keep from weeping as I realize the years I have been denied [and he too.]

  39. When I was around 30 years old, my father started having an affair, and after several months moved out of the family home.

    The process of the disintegration of my parents' marriage took several years before all the drama was over. In that period I was borderline suicidal on several occasions.

    The drama went on and on, prolonging the grief and outrage and hurt. First it was the affair and then the moving out and then the finding out who the other woman was. (She was a skinnier and younger clone of my mom. More financially helpless, too, which appealed to the white-knight rescuer complex in my dad.)

    And then there was the period where my mom struggled to get him back and didn't divorce him, for the sake of the family and because she took her Christianity seriously and, like the Bible says, she didn't think divorce from a Christian marriage was permitted by God, even if it existed in civil law.

    There was the brief period after their church pastor talked to him and convinced him of his wrongdoing and to cut off ties with the other woman. But then he got mad over something my mom did and went back to the other woman.

    Then after my father used money from my mom's family inheritance to buy the other woman a house -- you read that right, a big nice house, in a good neighborhood, and way better than mine -- she gave up and divorced him.

    And then the drama went on, with the divorce process: discovery, court dates, the judge's decision, various family business entanglements, alienation of relatives. My father's remarriage, with the fresh outrage of it being a very "churchy" ceremony, as if all was holy and hunky-dory about it. I went to the ceremony, but was felt sick through the whole thing. After that the drama settled down to a steady low-key stream of mutual blame and terse extended-family exchanges. On and on and on and on, for years and years.

    I was an adult in my 30's during this process, with a wife and children.

    My unwillingness to hurt my wife and children was why I did not commit suicide during this time. Had I been unmarried and lacking that reason, I probably would not be here today.

    The despair and hurt were bad enough that I regularly gave my wife a "read out" on my emotional weather -- I figured she needed to be able to "read the gauges" on my mood, and if I was in too dangerously deep a funk for too long, she could get me medical help or whatever. I don't think my "willingness to live" meter ever dropped below 15% for very long, but it was pretty bad all the same.

    (I'm an extremely analytical person, so I thought about my depression problems in terms of the "health meter" on a video-game character. Sorry if that's a little bit weird, but hey, it made sense to me.)


  40. ...continuing...

    Today, my mother is single but dating. (Enough loneliness will cause a person's scripture interpretation to change dramatically, it seems.) My dad is married to the other woman and is doing quite well.

    But the family's all screwed up. There are no holiday trips to "Gran and Grandad's House" like I had as a kid, because they're too different houses, and I have to explain to my kids the role of these two unrelated persons -- my father's wife and my mother's boyfriend -- and help them be polite to these folks, while simultaneously teaching them about the sanctity of marriage and so on. (Cognitive dissonance rolls downhill to the grandkids.) So instead of my parents being role models for my children, they're examples of how not to do it.

    I normally am fine with all this. I don't have bad depression about it any more, not for years. I have forgiven my father; we're on decent terms.

    But when I think about it, I become bitter, as I'm sure this post demonstrates. The family is permanently shattered, reassembled with duct-tape in a cobbled-together lopsided way with missing pieces and pieces that don't fit. It sometimes feels like it's more trouble than it's worth.

    I write all this to re-affirm, for anyone who is listening: Divorce can mess up the lives of adult family members as well as children, in a long-term way. Life goes on, but much that could have been beautiful or at least honorable is ruined instead.

  41. R.C. - thank you for sharing your story. Divorce is a thief that keeps on taking and does irreparable harm to families, destroying trust and relationships besides just the couple divorcing. I wish we heard more voices of adults who still feel that pain. Maybe if it got loud enough, people would start seeing divorce as it really is. (And I don't think your health meter visualization is weird; whatever gets you through.)

  42. I'm a 24-year old child of split-up parents and I'd like to say that some people should not have had children in the first place. Both my parents never finished any kind of higher education, my dad was an addict and my mom the only child of a decent yet incredibly alienated father and a mother who left her when she was 1 year old only to return when she 'felt like it'.

    When my mother and father got together both their parents said it was a pretty lousy combination and it wouldn't last. Yet they decided to have three children anyway (my father started cheating on my mother during her first pregnancy...I blame both of them. Her for having two extra children and him for being such a dishonest man)

    There should be some sort of social or legal rule to discourage people that do not have the means or intention to raise their children and provide them with the stability and resources they need. Now it's the opposite. If you screw around the government rewards you with all kinds of patches and aid.
    And you get to be a victim, too, which seems to be some form of honorary citizenship these days.

    (Please forgive me for my English, Dutch is my native tongue)

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  45. Another thing is how GenXers were demonized, sometimes literally, as kids and young adults. There were so many movies where GenX kids were portrayed as demonically possessed, as worshippers of a demonic corn cult, as psychopaths, or as violent criminals. Or else we GenXers were portrayed as victims, such as the mass hysteria about Satanic cults abducting children and sacrificing them. It was a strange time.

    About the role parents played, there was increasing divorce rates. But it was part of a whole host of problems. The 1970s was after lead toxicity had been rising which did lead to increased violence. And it was also the decade when the average American income began to decline, just as the social safety net was coming under attack and union-busting became a popular sport, along with rising inequality and all that goes with it. The floor fell out from most people and many families didn't survive the increasing stress and pressure.

    My parents are still married. They made an intentional decision about that. Having both grown up in families that constantly fought and divorced in the case of my father, my parents made sure to create a stable home and refused to fight in front of my brothers and I. But they were fortunate to be in a good economic position to not experience the worse aspects of economic problems that mostly hit the working class.

    There was another area where my parents did fail to provide what I and my brothers needed as children. Because of the kind of economy that had developed, my parents moved us around a fair amount. By the time I was in 8th grade, I had lived in 4 different states. And that created a sense of instability and anxiety. I was devastated by the last move when I left behind so many close friends and I don't think I ever fully recovered from that. I was taught the world was a place not to be depended upon.

    Still, it wasn't entirely my parents fault. They maybe should have known better. Their own parents didn't move them around as children and so they should offered their own children the stability that gave them a foot up in life. Nonetheless, the times were changing. My dad did feel under much stress because of his job. He quit one job because he thought he'd get fired otherwise and the job after that was so stressful he feared it would send him to an early grave.

    It was a different economy than earlier in the 20th century. My grandfather worked in the same factor for about a half century. Such lifetime job security was already disappearing by the time my parents entered the workforce. And because of the economic insecurity, it became more common for women to work and so not to be at home. Such economic stress by itself, as research shows, increases the divorce rate.

    There was an entire shift in society. And keep in mind that those in power at the time who were forcing this shift to happen were of the preceding generaations --- older Silents and G.I.s and some younger Losts. Around the 1970s, the young parents were reacting to a world they grew up in but didn't create. Their reactions weren't always helpful and what might call it irresponsibile, but it made more sense at the time under those conditions. All of American society was fracturing and that doesn't lead to the best behavior from individuals.