Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Generation X: History's Forgotten Orphans

The G.I. Generation, also known as “The Greatest Generation,” grew up in the United States during the deprivation of the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II. Faced with the struggle of economic collapse and the Mother of All Wars, they held their heads high, fought their way through, and gave birth to the Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boomers, often called “The Me Generation,” were the healthiest and wealthiest generation of that time. They took pride in banding together during the war in Vietnam, and the change that they were fighting to bring about. They were certain that their actions would bring a new level of greatness that the world had never known. They began with the task of rebuilding the world that their parents had saved, and ended by carrying us into a new age of modern technology that would forever change the world and put the entire universe at our fingertips. In the midst of all of that, they gave birth to Generation X.

Author Douglas Coupland is credited for coining the term "Generation X" in his 1991 novel of the same name. He said, "The book title came not from Billy Idol's band, as many supposed, but from the final chapter of a funny sociological book on American class structure titled “Class” by Paul Fussell. In his final chapter, Fussell named an “X” category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.

The two words most commonly associated with Generation X are “slacker” and “whatever” due to the disconnected perception people have of them. They had no great wars. The dot-com boom carried the economy on a mighty wave that looked as though it would never lose momentum. There was no real hardship to speak of for them to persevere like the generations before them were forced to endure. They wandered aimlessly, nameless and faceless, in the shadow of greatness until feelings of insecurity painted them into a corner and forced them to search for an identity of their own.

The stage was set, but the bar was raised too high. To exceed the expectations set by previous generations simply wasn't possible. Instead, they opted to take the avenue of creative thinking. Searching for the cracks in an impenetrable wall that was gifted to them, in hopes of reinforcing and even improving it for future generations, when none were found, they attempted to correct what the wall was guarding. They looked within themselves for signs of corrosion of their society and, in doing so, stirred up a hornets' nest.

Without a single feather in their victory caps, they were quickly smothered by the guilt of living comfortably in a society with so many flaws. These flaws were always there, but previous generations had bigger things to worry about. They were easily put to the back burner without question. Now, with a war that was over before it even started, and plenty of food on the table, we could no longer ignore the elephant in the room. Issues such as the environment and racial relations quickly became a cancer once they were put in the spotlight.

The wall that was built to protect us quickly became a prison.

People scrambled to join the ranks of every cause they could. While the masses were frantically trying to purge their guilt, the fringe began to fray more and more. Without a common thread to link them together, it quickly snowballed into a decaying society fueled by disdain. People were at war with themselves, but it was fought with misdirected anger. The creative thinking that got the ball rolling in the first place became the first casualty of the war. Without that intellectual guidance, people resorted to the level of savages. A “You're either with us or against us” mentality took hold. There was no tolerance for gray area thinking. 

Leon Trotsky coined the term “politically correct” to refer favorably to those whose views remained in sync with the ever-shifting Bolshevik Party Line. The term resurfaced several times since, but always with connections to the importance of free speech. Today, it carries a much different meaning, as it has become the equivalent of calling somebody a Communist during the McCarthy era. People throw it around as an insult and hang it on the necks of their opposition as a sign of shame. Yet they all live in fear of stepping out of its bounds. 

The pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction. Blind tolerance is just as much of a problem when there is no accountability. There will always be people who will try to use the system against itself, and they can't be given a free pass for the sake of being tolerant. That line of thinking now has children idolizing drug dealers, murderers, and thieves, while those who study and learn are mocked for their efforts.

The problem with political correctness is that it forgets the importance of persuading people to ignore taunting and name calling, and to refrain from physical retaliation like we learned in the nursery rhyme that we were taught early on:

Stick and stones
May break my bones
But names will never hurt me.

It may sound foolish and childlike, but think about the meaning behind it. Words are given far too much power, yet they should have none at all. Words should be used to teach, not to harm. Case in point, the word “nigger” was recently removed from Mark Twain's book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How could a single word be so terrible that we need to butcher a literary classic? What the people who made this decision fail to realize is that having the word in there is a sign of the time in which it was written. We have come a long way since then. When we make mistakes, the way to correct them is to learn from them. Hiding them doesn't fix the problem. If we erase the mistakes of our past, there's nothing to show we've improved.

What Generation X failed to realize when we set out to find the cracks and imperfections of our predecessors was that it was, in fact, us. They fought and worked hard so that we wouldn't have to, and in turn made us soft and weak. Our failure is theirs.

The lesson learned is that the harder we work to make things better for our children, the more we are setting them up to fail. Our love creates weakness, but neglect will only usher in the doom a little faster. Our best option is try to do our best and hope that when the bottom drops out from under us, that from darkness will come light, and force a new wave of heroes to rise up from the ashes armed with the knowledge of our failures to help them avoid the same inevitable fate that keeps the cycle of life rolling forward into the future.

With any luck, they will become that next great generation that history remembers, making us history's forgotten orphans.

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