Bring Back the Generation Gap!

Hoodie-wearing, pop-culture-obsessed Gen Xers need to grow up already

Illustration by Michael Byers

Even when we make an effort to avoid new information, it finds us, thanks to the constant stream of social media and the omnipresence of digital devices. Sure, some of this is self-imposed. And, yes, one could move to a remote cabin in Montana and do nothing but read the works of David Foster Wallace and annotate old perfect-bound issues of The Baffler, but there isn’t much money in that kind of thing these days.

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Besides, if one were truly to unplug, one would run the risk of missing out on what Jezebel editor in chief Jessica Coen refers to as “eye-opening intergenerational experiences.”

“Whereas once it might have been easy to slowly disconnect from pop/youth culture and fade, blissfully ignorant, into irrelevance, now ‘disconnecting’ means literally to deny yourself the full experience of a dominant cultural medium,” said Ms. Coen, who, at age 33, splits the difference between the Millennials and Generation X.

Some of my peers on the brink of middle age do succeed at ignoring the noise. Stephen Metcalf, a Slate contributor and author of the forthcoming Junk, about the unexplored relationship between Reaganism and pop culture, feels the greatest gift he’ll give to coming generations is his out-of-it-ness.

“I’d love to not seem like a used-up husk,” he said. “But realistically, if it hasn’t been on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, I haven’t heard of it.”

As an aspiring fuddy-duddy, Mr. Metcalf suspects that Generation Xers aren’t the only ones who are suffering due to the loss of the generation gap. “There’s no more ‘gap’ in the traditional sense,” he said, “but isn’t this just another theft, courtesy of the Boomers? Isn’t the Alternadad taking away his kids’ turn at self-definition?”

Take rock concerts, for example, those smoke-filled dens of electrified wizardry which young people used to seek out in defiance of their parents. Now they’re family outings. If you’ve been to venues like Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center recently, you’ve probably seen second-graders rocking out to Canadian power trios and aging British quartets right alongside their guardians.

One wonders what the result of all this generational commingling will be. Will our children be forced to go to further extremes to rebel? Or maybe they’ll become archly conservative boors in response to all of this enforced hipness—the mature grown-ups we’ve not yet had the guts to become.

It would serve us right.

I know that I’m part of the problem.

My nearly 5-year-old son is well versed in the lore of the Ramones and could offer a dissertation on the original Star Wars trilogy. His younger brother recites the lyrics to Beastie Boys songs like they were nursery rhymes. I have introduced them to the cultural totems I once cared about, but I wonder if I am shortchanging them in the process. Not to mention infantilizing myself.

(This topic was covered some in Neal Pollack’s Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America, in which he takes his toddler to the Austin City Limits festival, among other generation-sharing adventures.)

But maybe that’s the key. There does seem to be a deeper fear of growing up for men and women of my generation—an insecurity about what comes next. Many of us can’t say with confidence whether we’ll have a job in 10 years. Or what our bank accounts will look like in 20. Retirement will be, for many, an impossibility. So perhaps as long as we act like kids, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are still young, that we have at least one more chance to get it right. Even if, in so doing, we abdicate our roles as serious, solid citizens. As adults.

I know guys whose style of dress and off-duty interests haven’t changed a lick since college. They devote their free time to movies about comic-book heroes, to video games and to fantasy football. No, they aren’t hurting anybody. But perhaps what we really need to do is put on suits and take our wives out for expensive dinners, like our dads before us.

My father was 45 when I was born—the age I am now. Though he was always youthful and athletic, even to the end, he was a child of the Great Depression, a first-generation American Jew who grew up poor and scrappy in a shared rental duplex on Detroit’s west side. He seemed to have become an adult the day he graduated law school.

In his early 50s, my father was a dark-haired force of nature in double-breasted suits who was as feared in the courtroom as he was generous outside it, and my view of what adulthood is supposed to be is modeled on this snapshot of him. He seemed older and more respected than I can ever imagine being.

When my father wasn’t working—and he was almost always working—he was reading the evening papers, listening to baseball games on WJR radio or watching old cowboy movies. The things I was interested in—punk rock, BMX bikes and National Lampoon—were simply not on my father’s radar. I didn’t take this as a lack of interest. He was loving and warm and present. He just seemed too adult to have an idea that things like Black Flag or Foto Funnies even existed.

He had his interests and I had mine. The difference was that, like most of my generation, I became defined by those interests. And have been ever since.

Perhaps what is truly lost with the erosion of the generation gap is this sense of actual adulthood—the maturity to stop caring what my interests in pop culture say about me; the comfort in being seen not as an equal, but as an elder (even if my younger co-workers stop asking me out for drinks). As Mr. Rushkoff told me, “Maybe that’s the generation gap we’re longing for—the permission to let go of the search.”


Bring Back the Generation Gap!