December 3rd, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Is Watchmen a Generational Thing?

One of the things that kicked off my last two days of ethical ruminations was a vitriolic review on Slate.com of Watchmen: Absolute Edition. thesigother spotted something that seemed odd to him about the guy's review: his assumption that only young people are nihilists, that mature people are idealists and optimists. This seemed weird to TheSigOther, for the same reason I grinned when I read it: TheSigOther and I are around the same age, after all, and we grew up hearing almost exactly the opposite, namely that it's perfectly reasonable to be some kind of starry-eyed idealist when you're a kid, but that mature people are more worldly and don't fall for that kind of thinking.

In a book that I will continue to hype until everybody in America has read it, William Strauss & Neil Howe's 1990 best-seller Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2059, they gave the most cogent, coherent, and actually useful definition of a "generation" that I have seen yet. You can disagree with them about their labels for the generations, about the boundaries, about their theory of a cyclic trend in types of generations, but it's hard to dispute their definition of the term "generation" itself. A generation is a group of people who, because they were roughly the same age during major life-changing external events, experienced those events through the lens of a person that age. That commonality of life experience doesn't affect them all the same way, so they don't all grow up exactly alike -- but the experience of going through that type of event at that age does have predictable results, and those who react differently know that they're weird by the standards of their generation. To analyze broad trends in history, Strauss & Howe also created the term "generational constellation." The generational constellation is the pattern of currently living generations. What type of generation is recently retired, which type of generation is at the peak of their power, which type of generation is in young adulthood, and which type of generation are the children currently growing up? So with that in mind, and with no apologies for using their range of birth dates and generational labels because I find them just darned handy, let's look at the current generational constellation:
  • Elders: Silent Generation. (Adaptive/Artist) Currently 63 to 80 years old, they were too young to have gone off to World War II, and grew up wishing they had. They were too old for the Counterculture of the 1960s, but that didn't stop them from (in many cases embarrassingly) trying to be part of it. Like all adaptive/artist generations, obsessed with emulating whichever generation is most popular, inclined heavily towards compromise, and mostly not respected by anybody else.
  • In Power: Boomers. (Idealist/Prophet) Currently 46 to 62 years old, as children and young adults they were the leaders of a backlash against the secular pragmatism of their G.I. Generation and Silent Generation parents by pursuing spiritual ideals above all else, predominantly in the counterculture among the earlier half of the generation and in Christian fundamentalism in the latter half. Like all idealist/prophet generations, to them everything is a matter of principle, consequences mean nothing, caring about consequences means that you're unprincipled and therefore evil, and if you're not with them, you're against them.
  • Young Adults: Generation 13. (Reactive/Nomad) Currently 26 to 45 years old, as children they were often at best ignored, frequently viewed as major inconveniences, and almost as often feared or hated by their Silent/Boomer parents. Whether as latchkey kids or street gang members, they grew up cynical, distrustful of authorities that they knew couldn't be counted on to protect them, self-reliant, and acquisitive, like all reactive/nomad generations.
  • Children: Millennials. (Civic?/Hero?) Currently somewhere around age 6 or so up to age 25, they have been the beneficiaries of a public backlash against the rotten upbringing that Generation 13 got. Coddled by society's increasing obsession with safety for children, beneficiaries of an educational system increasingly held to high standards by parents and politicians, but most of all, like all civic/hero generations, they were/are being raised to trust each other, to work together, to trust moral (Boomer) authorities to make the right decisions, and that they have a collective responsibility some day to Save the World, just like their G.I. Generation grandparents or great-grandparents did.
I'm too lazy to do the Internet stalker thing, but I predict with great confidence that the author of that review is in his early 20s. If I'm right, then when he was a (millenial) kid "everybody knew" that teenagers are bitter, cynical, sullen, and depressed about the state of the world and adults are idealistic. On the other hand, when TheSigOther and I were (13er) kids, "everybody knew" that teenagers are fierce idealists, and adults are pragmatists.

Watchman: Absolute Edition is the 20th anniversary re-issue of a book that came out when Generation 13 were kids. For us, it's part of our childhood. Now that we're adults, there's a market for hard-cover special editions of things that were meaningful to us in our childhood. For us, Watchmen resonated, it matched our view of the world. Not for nothing is Nixon in his 4th term as President in the Watchmen universe (because a government hero murdered Woodward and Bernstein), given that those of us on the leading edge of Gen 13, the people they call Gen X, grew up with the Watergate hearings interrupting our afternoon TV cartoons. The latter half of the generation, Gen Y, had roughly the same experience with Iran/Contra, and I'm sure it didn't give them any sunnier faith in the competence or morality of authorities and their so-called heroes like Ollie North.
Brad @ Burning Man

The Boom, Gen13, and Me

In the replies to yesterday's journal entry, my friend on whom I've had a crush since I met her, cuglas, said, "From the heart of the Baby Bust, I would say anyone born before 1961 is at the trailing edge of the Boomers which make them a transitional group that's trapped between a group of highly idealistic older kids and deeply cynical younger kids. I've seen lots of the youngest Boomers who identify more with Gen X because they're not nearly as idealistic as older Boomers, but they still have enough of the characteristics to qualify as a Boomer. With due respect to Brad, I would never consider him a member of Gen X. He's a cynical Boomer -- he's part of that transition group."

Don't think I haven't waffled on this question ever since I read Generations and its first two sequels. After all, I grew up thinking of myself as a Baby Boomer but weird, because until Strauss & Howe laid out their case, I was used to hearing the claim that the Baby Boom birth years were 1945 to 1964. But it never really fit. For one thing, I was way too young to really remember the Sixties, certainly not the counter-culture part of it. But for another, even when I got involved in idealistic semi-revolutionary movements and sub-cultures, from Wicca to Earth First to the suddenly-explosively-growing polyamorous subculture, I was roundly despised by my next-elders for concentrating too much on the practical and mundane, for concentrating too much on how things are or have been and not nearly enough on how things could be.

On the other hand, real 13ers like my dearest friend in the whole world kukla_tko42, and if there's anybody in this world who understands me at all (despite my extensive documentation, go figure) it's her, misunderstand me just as frequently from the opposite direction. A few weeks back, she wrote a series of posts in which she went out of her way to give a specific and appropriate compliment to everybody on her LJ friends list, and here's what she wrote about me: "Brad is the most generous person I have ever met. Bar none. If I had two dead rats, I'd give you one. Brad would give you his last dead rat. Seriously. He'd never expect you to give him a rat in exchange, either. Brad's generosity is genuine, and absolute." This blew me away, and I still can't wrap my head around it, because from my point of view, everything I have ever done in my life was tainted by selfishness.

Yes, I've helped an awful lot of people in my life. But I always did it because doing so makes my life better. Kukla remembers a long series of people who would have been homeless if I hadn't gone out of my way to lend them a spare room; she overlooks the fact that with the exception of one guy who I'd really miss if anything happened to him who was being hunted by a ruthless killer at the time, they were all beautiful women. She remembers that I gave away hundreds of dollars worth of liquor and food every six to eight weeks for three years; she overlooks the fact that to me, that was a trifling sum at the time and well worth it to me because unless the parties were at my house, I was never invited. From my perspective, I wasn't giving away free food and free liquor, I was renting a social life for the trivial sum of around $150 a month. Even when I was strapped for cash but still making sure that at least some of what little cash I had was going to feed other people, they were people who were in some way enriching my life. And on some level, especially when things were really getting desperate the time before last in the late 1990s, my "generosity" ramped up because I had come to understand that my reputation for "generosity" was the only thing keeping me alive.

Cuglas really is right in one sense, the sense that I'm a cusp baby. "Real" boomers consider me deeply cynical; "real" 13ers consider me freakishly generous and idealistic. But no, in hindsight Strauss & Howe were right to change their mind, at least in my case, when they shifted their estimate for the first birth year for Generation 13 from 1961 to 1960. If I were a real Baby Boomer, I wouldn't be (as I put it the other day) worshipping at the Church of Whatever Works.