— A new generation emerges to define the times. Generation X: We’re up.
So much has changed since that turbulent Tuesday morning in 2001. It’s as if everything we knew then about each other and the world around us now belongs to some loose recall of details, swaying independently, suspended in a place forever altered by a convulsive moment—whose ripple transcended the next decade and a half (and counting) and leaked into every single detail within the lives we live today.
It began an era defined by evolutions in: technology, military, the economy, sports & entertainment, politics, travel, industry, news & information, trade, consumerism, employment, and more. And yet, as almost everything will do, the memories of that moment fade with each passing year—mostly because life, as once described, however briefly, by Robert Frost, simply … goes on.
Memorials and ceremonies set for today will fall more within the rhythm of daily routine—part of a pattern of behavior and habits we now “look up from” on occasion—versus any great piece of theater evocative of years past.
And so it is—we live the lives in front of us, and hope that on some level, we’re mindful enough not to repeat the mistakes of previous eras. Which includes avoiding new and/or future ones.
In doing so, we face the challenges of our time. This time. We find hope and reassurance in the notion that, despite what has come and gone, we’re still here—and we possess the ability to continue to be here because of things like accountability, innovation, resourcefulness, self-actualization, and responsibility.
Consider this: there is literally a group of young people who will graduate from high school this school year who were toddlers when it happened. Imagine how different today’s world is to them than the world many of us see (just 15 years later)—set against a backdrop of both pre- and post-9/11.
And imagine how different it will be in another decade and a half—a blip on the cosmic calendar no doubt just as indebted to the speed of change and progression, and just as exclusive in form and function, as the one we claim today.
Who will you be in 15 years? What will you care about? Where will your passions lie? In what way(s) will you have “… left the place a little better than you found it?”
That said, when you look back on your life some day, what will stick out to you? What will stick out to all of us, in relation to who we were as a society? When I’m eighty years old, what will I think of my generation? Who were we—how did we operate? Will I take pride in the society I was a part of, or feel a sense of remorse for the many flaws we failed to improve upon as a collective unit? My grandparents were a part of the Greatest Generation. My parents: the Boomers. I’m a steadfast member of Generation X.
We’ve been called everything from amoral to nomadic to the Unknown Generation. We seemed to be the byproduct of an awakening of sorts—a reactive generation—in this case: the Boomers, and their post-Vietnam attempts to recreate the normalcy of their own post-war childhoods.
The culture at large, and especially traditionalists, didn’t quite know how to coin us, and/or what to expect, so they stamped us with that lovely X and, I’m assuming, hoped for the best. The first president most of us recognized was Reagan, perhaps Carter. The first music would have likely been some type of rock (now quite classic).
As we came into ourselves as kids, and then teens, we were too young to know or care about labyrinthine government practices, even though our parents had just been through one of the most tumultuous political/military fiascos in American (and Vietnamese) history.
The Iran Contra Affair was also swirling about—both events surreptitiously linked to the seemingly endless chest-beating contest we’d been having with the Soviet Union for the better part of the century—a contest we would be just old enough to see finally end, officially, in 1991 (and renew itself a little over two decades later). Not that we were very interested, having slept through both U.S. and World History for most of the previous decade—like the majority of junior- and senior-high kids. Many of us wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone why it was even called the Cold War, let alone what it was all about or what it represented.
But we wouldn’t have to wait long to have our young political attitudes adjusted, confirmed, changed, or entangled even more than they already were. Just as the bulk of our group was either exiting or entering high school, we all got to see war as theater, along with the rest of the world, for just the second time. Vietnam was the first time you could come home from work or school, grab a sandwich, flip on the tube, and see who was getting killed and what was getting blown up—but this … this was a whole other form of entertainment.
The Gulf War (Saddam 1.0) was the new America—bursting with pomp and firepower, resources and advancement, audacity and disconnection—perhaps the early ingredients for the same, though much more dispersed and dynamic, characteristics we see in our young people today (Gen Y and Z)—who now, along with much of the country, watch(ed) Shock and Awe (Saddam 2.0), as well as the current cache of Mid-East dramas with merely a passing interest from any number of digital devices.
War was officially theater by 1991, and not just in the historical sense, but literally. We watched it like a movie, and grew desensitized accordingly—especially since it was so swift—buttressing a lust for entertainment in all things that started to simmer like a social St. Helens—set for eruption a mere decade later.
Our country had shown that it was at the top of its game militarily—though our domination in the Persian Gulf, at face value, wasn’t much more than your run-of-the-mill butt-kicking from one rich, corrupt, and organized country to one broke, corrupt, and disorganized country. But it was the knockout punch we’d been looking for, but never found, in ‘Nam. So, the balance was somewhat back to where it needed to be (for Americans). The only problem was that everyone now knew how dependent we were on fossil fuels (particularly oil) and to what lengths we were willing to go to protect that dependency.
While many Kuwaitis were throwing flowers at the feet of Desert Storm soldiers, the groundwork for 9/11 was already churning in the minds of many fundamentalists in that part of the world, who considered our very presence that far east a posture against their beliefs—however sacred or spontaneous those beliefs ended up being. And we were made aware of it in no uncertain terms in ‘93, when the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time by terrorists—with links to both Al-Qaeda, as well as the “masterminds” of the sequel eight years later.
And then a near-decade passed, and the WTC bombing passed. After all, it wasn’t like the buildings toppled over—and besides, MJ was taking the Bulls back to the Finals; the Cowboys were quickly becoming the team of the ‘90s; Tyson was back, and hungrier than ever—so to speak; and Bill and Monica were redefining the modern interpretation of sexual relations. O.J. was scurrying around Southern California like a nervous rat. Friends and Seinfeld and Titanic and The Matrix and Jurassic Park, and then South Park, and X-Files and Roseanne and Al Bundy had everyone glued to chairs and couches. Pokémon (the original version) and boy bands and The Spice Girls and The Unabomber and Grunge and Hip-Hop and Dolly the Cloned Sheep and Harry Potter and John Bobbitt had us all hanging out a little longer beside the water cooler. Cell phones and iMacs and SUVs and Tonya Harding and the L.A. Quake and Waco and Oklahoma City and Columbine and Heaven’s Gate and Area-51 and the Internet and Viagra and Y2K had us all intrigued, stunned, terrified, indifferent, bombarded, distracted, placated, and then … 9/11. And then that.
When the dust settled on that day in 2001, both literally and figuratively, we were left bewildered, enraged, uninformed. I was twenty-six—my generation somewhere between six years older or younger than me. Who were we in relation to this? How did we contribute to the conditions, if any, that led to this? How was our way of life, the life of America, going to evolve after this? And what, if anything, could we do about it?
Our parents, the Boomers, were, effectively, in charge of most things—at least professionally. We were coming into our own as adults, but what had we done up to that point that was in any way memorable or timeless, or something that modern life couldn’t do without? Who was Generation X and what were we to become now that the obvious oversights of the previous ten years had literally come crashing through our lives?
In a socio-existential whiplash of sorts, we were all essentially force-snapped back into reality by 9/11—having been, yet again, so fascinated with ourselves and the seemingly tireless machine that ran our little worlds that we quite efficiently failed to look up and think about the certain causes and effects steadily simmering over the latter half of the nineties.
We weren’t as immediately connected politically, socially, technologically—at least not to the extent that we are today—to the world around us. But by all accounts, we didn’t necessarily have a reason to be. We also weren’t so invested in particular avenues of interest in the way that we are today, and thus, so divided, so tribal.
International conflict was in abundance—as it always is. Social unrest festered just about anywhere you cared to look. But leading up to and right before September 11, many of us were just sort of going through the motions—perhaps waiting for something monumental. Outside of a little voting snafu you might remember, now nearly 15 years past, Generation X saw very little in-house turmoil other than what is considered a normal social and political ebb and flow of the day—however oxymoronic such a designation is. But that isn’t necessarily uncommon with humans in general; we tend to be reactive when we’re not threatened. We also tend to rest on our laurels, most of us, opting to let a select few take charge and tell us how we’re going to live—which is odd in a way, having such an extensive history of proactivity on many fronts.
But comfort zones are comfortable for a reason, and just as easily as we can get up and fight for what we believe in, we have an amazing capacity to homogenize, fall into routine, and turn away from reality—a disturbing and increasingly prevalent aspect of modern life. My generation was relatively unremarkable during the first quarter of our lives—having neither an enormous cause to represent nor a hardship by which to be defined.
I imagine it may have been similar for people my age in the 1920s, living in a time where consumerism was booming, America had survived a war and grown in many capacities as a result, and society seemed to be quite pleased with itself and the emerging opportunities and outright fun that were resulting from this new modernism. And then, as everyone was slapping each other on the back and smoking and drinking and buying everything on credit, the stock market crashed—and a generation was changed overnight.
So, by the time I was old enough to open my eyes and look at the world that my generation had in some ways inherited, and understand myself enough to find a place in it, or at least my own rhythm, not much made sense. I became an adult through turmoil, by way of trauma: terrorist attacks, war, economic upheaval, paranoia, political disorder, and an overall national identity crisis.
We went from sitting shocked as the towers fell to driving around in vehicles emblazoned with American flags to arguing with and fighting one another all over again, all within about a year’s time. We were told by our leaders to go out and buy whatever we could because that was a good way for those of us who weren’t in the military, or who had survivor’s guilt from 9/11, to support and sustain the country—to do our part.
Many of us had never experienced anything like this, and were certainly unprepared by the previous two decades, so we went along with it (which set in motion the perfect conditions for corporate opportunists, and inevitably, the economic collapse of 2007 and beyond).
But then, a shift occurred—a multi-layered shift. Perhaps, as a result of our now-heightened urge to spend, technology obliged us with vigor—providing upgrade after upgrade, one toy after the next—a new necessity every month that came with its own steady payment plan. Whether we were still holding on to a post-9/11 duty to financially support the country or we simply couldn’t locate the monetary shut-off switches that had been flipped on during the chaos, my generation opened up its wallets and went wild. (Indeed, we certainly went along with it, and oddly enough, still do, with relative abandon, today.)
Yep, there was a war going on, a couple in fact, and a few in the batter’s box—where they still sit, on the edge of their seats. We turned thirty and got jobs and money and bought cars and clothes and gadgets and got married and had kids. We learned the difference between fixed-rate and balloon and the significance of points and ARMs. We started investing (before 2007) in property and gaining weight and getting stressed and talking about “stability” and “long-term” and money markets and, well, we were becoming every other generation—except for one thing. The world around us was in disarray: is in disarray. We became teachers, bankers, managers, secretaries, cops, counselors, construction workers, writers—we plugged in to America and started contributing. But we were also plugged into the world at this point, thanks to technology, and because of it, connected to a larger viewfinder and the resulting wisdom gained—an insight that now swims within our thought processes in a way that is different than all other generations before us.
Necessity is the mother of invention, but then, so are accidents. We are the first, and only, generation to have become adults with a working knowledge of high-speed technology, and yet still maintain a precious link to the times when such luxuries were not a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. We understand and appreciate the convenience and function of it all, finally, as experienced thirty- and forty-somethings, and not self-absorbed, stimulus-starved youngsters. Such a badge can only be worn, and/or properly comprehended, by us.
We keep a wary eye on our bosses, and their bosses—because our skepticism towards people in high places has, unfortunately, now been confirmed again and again—across myriad stages. With the help of the digital age, we have an intimate view of some of the most disturbing aspects of life on earth, but also some of the most inspiring. We know now, without much dispute, that the industrial effect of our ever-broadening presence on this amazing planet is taking its toll, and will need to be addressed and readdressed on a consistent basis as populations increase and the demands of an infinitely diverse world move steadily toward one another—no matter how big, loud, and flamboyant opposing arguments become. We’ve come to understand a world that seems to be in a constant state of conflict—politically, ideologically, geographically—and a country where everyone points fingers at everyone else, no one is to blame, every single cause has an immediate swarm of critics, and nothing gets done. My generation has come about at a time in America where the word “change” has been added to the list of things you can’t discuss without nearly coming to blows—though nothing symbolizes our way of living more than the need for that word, on so many levels.
This country was established on a need for change, on innovation, on adaptability, on vision. And yet it seems that once those traits allowed for us to become strong and independent and industrious and great, we simply sat back and admired ourselves—expecting that nothing would ever change or need to change. Nearly seventy-one years after the first economic collapse, and all but sixty years after Pearl Harbor, America absorbed yet another blow in 2001, and again in 2007, that turned everything upside down and reminded us that change is not an option—it’s an evolutionary necessity—and that not learning from history only means you’ll relive it in a new way.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what we will absorb next—or whom we will absorb it from: ISIS, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, China, etc. Perhaps it will be self-inflicted—as corporations continuously devise ways to separate Americans from their money within a capitalistic model that continues to serve a select few while turning an indifferent eye towards any consequence or impact on its customer base. Or maybe we die on the vine, unable to adapt to the need for alternative energy—sucking every last drop of fossil fuels from the land like desperate addicts on the wrong side of a syringe. And then there’s that. A nation in crisis, as hundreds of thousands turn towards hard drugs as a way to escape whatever reality has devoured them in modern America. Or perhaps Mother Nature will beat everyone to the punch, and start to show us the true meaning of one of our most cherished idioms: You reap what you sow.
This next ten- to twenty-year stretch will be our moment—will be our time to shine—our chapter in the history books where it will be said that the people most capable of altering the course of America, did—for the better. We possess the fleeting combination of youth, insight, experience, and passion. In the span of a lifetime, it will be gone in a blink. Now is the time for Generation X to step up and shed its awkward roots—to become, like the many generations before it, the definers of its time.