Talking About My Generation

There’s been a lot of chatter on the radio and on the interwebs recently about Generation X. Generation X, as defined by wikipedia is

“is the generation born after the Western post–World War II baby boom ended.[1] While there is no universally agreed upon time frame,[2] the term generally includes people born in the 1960s through the early ’80s, usually no later than 1981 or 1982”

Seeing as I was born smack dab in the center of that particular period, I am a Gen-Xer through and through. Like the rest of my cohorts born in 1971, I turned 40 this year. Oh-my-god, ring the bell, the Gen-Xers are now middle-aged. The media has turned its eyes upon us and find out that – to their great shock – we’re happier than we should be. They expected the latch-key kids from broken homes who lived through the recessions of the late seventies, early Eighties and the Nineties to be depressed and following the previous generation’s path to self-destruction. What they found, apparently, was that Gen-Xers got married later, but stay together more. They dote on their kids, but at the same time, work more hours per week than Gen-Y or the Millenials (the two generations that followed Gen-X). No arguments here. I’m still smack dab in the middle of that demographic (for the most part).

But these studies miss one critical thing. A generation is more defined by the events which occurred during it’s formative years than these studies give credit. Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation was defined by brave soldiers from World-War II and D-Day. The Baby-Boomers were defined by the anxiety of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I postulate that Generation-X’s formative moment occurred on January 28, 1986 – the day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and to this day, that event affects our definition of what happiness is.

I can remember exactly where I was that day. I was 15, at home in my parent’s kitchen. We lived on a small family farm in rural Southern Ontario, Canada and I raised chickens to sell eggs for spending money. Don’t laugh – those chickens paid for a lot of my first year of college. The doorbell rang and one of our regular customers came in to buy eggs, and told us to turn on the TV: the Space Shuttle had blown up. I watched that television the rest of the day, seeing those 73 seconds play over and over. I didn’t know how much it would affect my life at that time, but I knew it would.

I was a space nut. I wanted to be an astronaut. I went to college three years later and majored in Space and Communication Science. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the chances that I would actually become an astronaut were slim (for many reasons), but I could see the future sitting on that launching pad. We were just getting used to these launches becoming routine. Our expectations had been set. The incredible had become normal, and we were going to build upon that. The shuttle didn’t just have seven courageous people on board – it had the dreams of all the generations to follow. Seventy-three seconds later, those hopes were the eighth casualty of a faulty O-ring.

It took 32 months before another Space Shuttle flew. In the grand scheme of things, two and a half years doesn’t seem like a big deal. But for a generation teetering on the edge of the computer revolution, thirty-two months was enough time for the big dreams to turn into small ones. Dreams went from building spaceships to building microchips. Focus turned from looking outward to big goals that had a long term vision for generations to come, to looking inward, and doing little things to make money today.

I don’t want to diminish the accomplishments of the last 25 years. The microchip and the personal computer have revolutionized the world. Businesses saved billions by making their enterprises more efficient through reduced overhead and waste, better reporting and reduced product fulfillment time. Capital was made more fluid and mobile. The gains in productivity in the US in the 1990s were driven by the computer revolution through the reduction of costs as manpower was replaced by megahertz.

But those incremental improvements came at an additional cost that is perhaps not so measurable. Businesses now expect their projects to have a return on investment measured in weeks or months, not years or god-forbid, decades. The attention span of executives is miniscule. In an age of 24 hour investment channels and day trading, it has to be. Executives who don’t pay attention to the daily stock price don’t last long enough to see grand visions come to fruition.

What does this have to do with Generation-X? How does the seminal moment in our history change what happiness is to us?

We were the generation that saw that shuttle blow up at an age when we were still making decisions on what we wanted to do with our lives. Our first exposure to taking massive risks was catastrophic failure. Our memories are filled with what is possible, but also with the consequences of taking risks. We see incremental change as somewhat more palatable. We do the small things that we hope lead to big changes. We took jobs that weren’t what we wanted to do, but made us money and offered some stability. Our most brilliant students didn’t go into science, they went to Wall Street. We found fulfillment in the distractions offered by technology, and in technology for technology’s sake instead of as a stepping stone to a bigger goal. We don’t ask for the big ticket items. We play it safe. We’re less likely to make waves, and we’ve been okay with that. We’ve been satisfied. But I wouldn’t say we’re happy.

Recently I’ve started to sense that this feeling of satisfaction is diminishing. You can see it with the Occupy protests. At first I thought this was a movement driven by Hipsters and anarchists. But as I’ve listened more – not just to them, but to my own nagging thoughts and the thoughts of those around me who are my age – I’ve grown to appreciate that the complacency of my generation is fading. We’re still protective of what we have – we have the responsibilities of having kids to feed and college to save up for.  But we’re not happy with the corruption in both politics and commerce. We’re trying to find the balance in working for the corporations that sign our paychecks and supporting the valiant fight against the corruption inherent in the system.

Gen-X wants their dreams back. We want to look beyond the next quarterly profit statement, beyond the next election and beyond the label for the next generation. We jumped so quickly on the Barack Obama bandwagon back in 2008 because Obama had a long-term vision for America and the world that wasn’t based on fear. We sat on the launch pad with him at the beginning of 2009, our hopes ready to lift off and to chart a new course for a lost generation. And then John Boehner and the corporate-bought Republican Congress and their obstructionist approach became the faulty O-ring in the American system and destroyed not only President Obama’s ability to govern, but the average American’s faith in the system.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. American democracy is no longer working because it no longer exists as it was originally envisioned. It stopped working because a generation became too complacent, too risk adverse and allowed a select few to command too much power. 

My generation learned the wrong lesson from the Challenger disaster. We gave up real dreams in exchange for having new cell phones every year, and gave up our freedoms to make marketing networks like Facebook more valuable than companies that make rocket engines, and called that progress. We should have honored the sacrifice of those brave astronauts by forcing our leadership to pursue goals worth having. We should have been active in ensuring our voices were heard over the disproportionate cries of the lobbyists. We need to support the Occupy movement, even if we have responsibilities that prevent us from being active participants.

But reforming American democracy to eliminate disproportionate representation is not an end goal. There has to be something more. We need leaders with vision and guts: the vision to see where America could be in 100 years and the guts to present that vision to the country. We need citizens willing to dream big again.

Hopefully, the end game to the occupy movement will be a world that can move forward, unburdened by corruption and cynicism; that a new generation of brave leaders will emerge from the crowds, and build something that all generations will be proud of. And if it is done right, we can return to the dreams from before those horrible 73 seconds, and begin to expect the incredible to be routine once again.

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