Mailvox: the bitter generation

An Xer explains why Generation X is bitter and cynical:

As an X-er, I faithfully followed nearly all the advice given by my boomer parents, and it got me diddly-squat. Gradually I came to understand why: Nearly all the advice they gave me would have been terrific advice for someone with a typical boomer life trajectory, when mistakes could easily be erased and every tree looked like it would grow to the sky. Taking on ruinous debt for a fuzzy degree just so you’d have a diploma with your name on it was probably great advice in the 1960s and 70s. Buying more house than you really needed or could reasonably afford would have been a killer investment strategy in 1982. Everything boomers did was a dumb gamble that improbably succeeded, and they never wondered why; they just accepted it as a convenient law of nature. To this day, I still get these kinds of useless tips from my boomer parents, though by now I’ve learned to ignore them.

This is the great theme of the boomers’ life: They could always take a lot of wild, irresponsible chances on everything, because nearly every bet they made seemed to pay off handsomely, at least within their lifetimes. The completely predictable and obvious long-term costs were always way, way over the horizon — a problem for somebody else. The bill, if it ever came due, would be paid by their posterity, and who cares about those losers? They don’t even like the Beatles, and they’re too whiny and lazy anyway.

Which leads to the root of their endless narcissism. Many boomers believe the incredible advantages they enjoyed were not hard-won gains of previous generations that could easily be squandered, but the inevitable fruits of their own virtuous awesomeness. It never occurred to them that they were both the beneficiaries of and the caretakers for a fragile legacy, and that an economy where anyone with a pulse who was willing to bust their ass could enjoy a solid middle-class life was a historic anomaly that had to be carefully safeguarded. No, it was all just a well-deserved reward for boomers because of their own industriousness and moral goodness. Those whiny kids could have the same thing if they’d just work harder, is how boomers see it.

The cynicism of us X-ers comes from the fact that we grew up really believing this stuff, so finding out it was a lie was kind of a rude awakening. We fully expected that following the rules and ticking the right boxes would automatically give us the exact same life our parents had enjoyed, and we didn’t even have a hint that it might not be true. It also stings because, as another commenter alluded to, X-ers are old enough to have actually seen and gotten a taste of that vanished world; our younger cohorts know it only second-hand. They never lived through it, so the loss doesn’t feel as bitter for them.

I’m not bitter about it, but I, too, was somewhat snake-bit by Boomer cluelessness about the changing world. When I wanted to drop out of college halfway through my sophomore year to sell my 16-bit, 8-channel, stereo 44 KHz sound card that an engineer and I already had working in both hardware and software, my parents aggressively lobbied for me to “stay in school” and “get my degree” because, as every Boomer knew, college degrees are so important. Which, in retrospect, made absolutely no sense in light of how they wanted me to continue working for my father’s company after graduating, which I’d already been doing every summer.

So, instead of selling 200 million dollars worth of sound cards more than two years before Media Vision did with a vastly inferior product, I now have a BS in Economics with a second major in East Asian Studies and a minor in History. None of which has ever profited me so much as a single dime.

The responsibility, of course, is mine. It’s on me, not them. I should have ignored their advice, dropped out, and ploughed ahead to pursue the opportunity while the window was open. But I didn’t, because I trusted what I assumed was their greater experience and wisdom and because it is always easier to take what passes for the normal path in one’s social circle. And that is why Generation X is so little inclined to pay any heed to Boomers now. We listened to them and we took their advice in our youth, and now we see how doing so led us astray.