Generation I Don’t Know What

Reading about generation theory always makes me think. I was born in 1981, which, depending upon who you ask, either puts me at the tail end of Generation X or as part of the opening salvo of the Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y). While I recognize that these generational labels are only vague approximations, both date-wise and as far as describing the behaviors of individuals go, the problem I run into is that both official generations of which I am supposedly a potential part seem to be built upon the idea of growing up during a time and in an environment I didn’t mature under. Let me explain.

First you have Generation X, generally thought of as the children of the Baby-boomers. Well okay, so far, so good–my parents are Baby-boomers. Thing is, my parents started having children later than most people in their generation; I won’t go into too much detail for my mother’s sake, but suffice to say she was going through menopause at the same time my younger sister was going through puberty, and hopefully that paints the picture well enough that you can make out the details for yourself. While I certainly qualify as part of the generation that came after the Baby-boom, however, I don’t really share much in the way of what we’d probably call Generation X’s foundational experiences. I was way too young to have any opinion on Reagan at a time when such an opinion was meaningful. I don’t remember the Challenger disaster (I was five). I don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall (I was eight). My clearest memory of Desert Storm, which happened when I was nine, has to do with a new episode of The Wonder Years being pre-empted for news coverage of the invasion. Heck, the USSR fell apart when I was ten, so I mostly missed out on what I’d think of as one of the fundamental experiences of Generation X: being scared that the Soviets would bomb the crap out of us.

MTV was not a big part of my life; I have vague recollections of the time when MTV played music videos, but most of my memories related to MTV are of Beavis and Butthead, Aeon Flux and Singled Out.  (Oh, and the bit from Cartoon Sushi about an anime that runs out of money for animating the lip sync when people talk.) Arcades weren’t a big part of my life either, except for a scant period during the fighting game craze of the 90’s; otherwise, they were already dying their slow death by the time I was old enough to go to them alone. I was never “grunge” and I was too young to feel disaffected enough to like Nirvana when Kurt Cobain was still alive.

Then there’s Generation Y, who seem to be thought of as the generation that grew into maturity around the turn of the century. Well that sounds promising–I graduated high school in 1999, after all. But here again I seem to run into some problems. When I think of Generation Y, I think more of people my sister’s age. Personal computers (that you had in your home and everything!) had become commonplace by the time my sister hit high school; in fact, I’m told that people my sister’s age (which is to say, people six or seven years younger than me) never had to learn to write in cursive because it was assumed they’d just use computers for everything! I know, right? I was still turning in hand-written essays in high school because having a PC in your home was still a luxury at the time. What’s more, the Millennials grew up with the internet, and to my way of thinking that’s one of the big sticking points in trying to lump my apparently post-GenX group in with my sister’s age group.

I did not grow up with the internet. Like I said, for people in my age group, it was rare to have a computer at home, and even if you did, the modern internet as we think of it just plain didn’t exist until I was in high school (and even then it was little like today’s internet). I spent a lot of time in libraries as a child, where I read these things called books. Maybe you’ve heard of them? This absence of the internet during one’s formative years seems a pretty major distinction between people my age and people my sister’s age. Sure, people my age were young enough that we soaked up the internet when it hit its stride, but we remember life before it, and that seems to me a pretty major distinction. I’ve said elsewhere that I think the internet is probably one of the major turning points in human history. The generation I’d think of as the Millennials are those who matured in a world where the internet was already commonplace.

And it’s really not just the internet that I think sets whatever the hell generation I am apart from the Millennials. Again, when I think about my childhood compared to the childhoods of people half a decade younger than myself, we really grew up in fundamentally different worlds. I spent a lot of time playing outside, where I was often unsupervised for hours at a time. My friends and I would hike off into the woods or ride our bikes across town, without an adult to be seen or heard. Compare that to the helicopter parenting that’s become so common with the Millennials. Nor were we “trophy kids.” I may have gotten a certificate of participation or two in my day, but the feel-good lukewarm bullshit of everyone getting a trophy no matter how much they sucked was still a few years down the line when I was a kid (and thank Eris for that).

For more proof that my generation and the Millennials grew up in different worlds, look at all the bureaucracy and paranoia present in public schools nowadays. The Columbine shooting happened about a month before I graduated high school. When I was in school, teachers generally weren’t afraid students were going to come into class and blow everyone away. Hell, when I was in elementary school, we’d bring our plastic toy guns and gear from Army Surplus to school and play war during recess, “shooting” each other from our pine needle “forts” and throwing pine cone “grenades” at each other, and none of the adults would bat an eyelash. I’m pretty sure kids nowadays would get expelled for that sort of thing.

I don’t want to get into a side-discussion of whether the world I grew up in was “better” than the world my sister’s generation grew up in; that’s all highly subjective and beside the point. But I don’t think there’s any denying that the world we grew up in–or the culture, or the generation, or whatever word you want to use–was different, in part because of the sudden explosion of the internet in the late 90’s, which has fundamentally changed Western civilization in ways we’re yet to fully recognize or understand, and in part because of the changing cultural mores and theories in child development that became popular at the time. At the same time, it doesn’t seem practical to lump me or my peers in with Generation X, who were children of the Cold War (and consciously aware of it at the time the Cold War was still going on) and are generally involved in their own careers and have families of their own at this point; that distinction seems to belong more to my older cousins, generally in their late thirties or early forties.

I belong to a generation somewhere in the middle, a group that grew up with eighties music but not a lot of fear of being nuked; kids who grew up on Star Wars but never saw any of the original movies in the theaters (at least not before those godawful special editions) and were old enough to know the prequels were crap as soon as they came out; we played the hell out of Mario and Sonic when we were kids, while Pac-Man and Galaga were old hat, and when console games started coming on CDs when we were teenagers, it was kind of a big deal. We were already adults when 9/11 happened, albeit young ones, and though the needless wars since have certainly shaped us, there was already an average of twenty years of life experience hardwired in our brains beforehand, so it’s probably disingenuous to suggest 9/11 was as foundational for us as it was for people just now getting into their twenties. What should the sociologists call us? I don’t know. But neither “Generation X” nor “Millennial” seems to do the job, at least not under the definitions I’m finding.

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