To begin, it sucks being born on the cusp. The definition of cusp, “a pointed end where two curves meet”, makes this clear. The cusp is an uncomfortable place and I was born squarely on that point – my birth year falls into the dead zone argued by researchers – some claiming I’m a Baby Boomer, others that I’m Generation X. Its no wonder I’ve never felt like I really fit anywhere. Like there isn’t any breathing room because members of those two big-ass generational curves are taking up all of the oxygen.
Add to that the fact that I’ve always thought of myself as a late-bloomer. My whole life has been one long game of catch-up: to my siblings, to my classmates, to my coworkers. Fashion trends? My brand-new clothes are inevitably so last year. Social trends? If I notice them they’ve progressed so far past the tipping point they’re lying on the floor ready to be walked over by the next new thing. I have always thought this the likely reason I feel so comfortable with people who are younger than me – I’m marginally ahead of them in life experience!
Taken together, these two factors have had me, since moving to Minneapolis, thinking a lot about generational differences. Minneapolis is a happening place, a city with a young population. It has been named one of the best cities for new college graduates to find employment. It certainly appears that Millennials have already been handed the keys to this particular kingdom – but more about that later. Suffice it to say, my Gen X butt has been handed to me a few times since moving here. Or, as Jeff Gordinier describes it, I feel as though (along with the rest of my generation) I’ve been “shuffled off to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers”. (X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking)
“We’re equipped. We’re wary enough to see through delusional ‘movements’; we’re old enough to feel a connection to the past (and yet we’re unsentimental enough not to get all gooey about it); we’re young enough to be wired; we’re snotty enough not to settle for crap; we’re resourceful enough to turn crap into gold; we’re quiet enough to endure our labors on the margins.”
According to Gordinier, Generation X, smaller than either generation it is wedged between, was destined to be marginalized from the start. Our formative years were marked by national failure – the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency. Our coming-of-age was marked by the stock market crash of October 1987. In fact, he says our generation was destined to be “bushwhacked” by bad economic conditions repeatedly. By way of comparison, Gordinier claims, “the Boomer and Millennial viewpoint is ‘I want to be in the fucking spotlight’. Gen Xers are uninterested in the spotlight. They’re more interested in dodging it and doing good work quietly. I think theres a sort of comfort in the margins.” (from Helaine Olen’s interview of Gordinier on AlterNet)
The more I’ve read about Generation X, the more I’ve been forced to reconsider how well I fit. Turns out, I was most uncomfortable with the slacker stereotype of Gen X (because I’ve never been a slacker). The rest of it sounds…well, familiar. Gordinier believes that Gen X is “doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking.” Gordinier’s book, ultimately, takes a positive view of the generation, as does this somewhat hokey clip from Karen McCullough:
Most of the literature finds praiseworthy attributes in Gen X, including creativity and innovation on a large scale – after all, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia (to name a few) had their genesis in Gen X.
But that still doesn’t mean I’m happy about being Gen X, despite finding I actually fit in. Dodging the spotlight and doing good work quietly, acting and being comfortable in the margins, is an apt description of me, my professional life and my choices. And while I have been most comfortable in the margins, it turns out that it has perhaps done me a disservice to live there. That kind of life does offer internal satisfactions – I have earned respect from people who matter to me, feel I have made a difference to those I’ve served, and believe I’ve continued to learn and grow as a person. What taking comfort in the margins does externally, though, is create room for others to take advantage of or take credit for, misunderstand or belittle, your work and accomplishments. And forget the Millennials’ obsession with building their personal brands; margin-dwellers are the opposite of branded or self-promotional. We’re a generation of wall-flowers, hoping that our quiet good work will speak for us.
And perhaps it does, though often not loudly enough to be heard over the cacophony of “spot lighters”. It is one thing to choose to operate on the margins, and another thing altogether to feel you are being pushed there by people or forces that don’t value what you have to offer.
Where is this generational navel-gazing taking me, you may wonder. Many of my age-mates and fellow Gen Xers, who grew up being overshadowed by Boomers and bitching about it, now complain about Gen Y, the Millennials. Incessantly. I am not one of the complainers. But in this city abounding with Millennialism, Gen X sensibilities always seem to be a step behind. There’s no denying the energy created by Millennials – and the desire to be part of that energy is contagious. It all leaves me wondering whether I can adapt – use my late bloomer qualities to flower in this zeitgeist. Can a person switch generational affiliation? I can’t change my age, but is it possible to change my way of thinking to be more Millennial? And do I want to?
Note: In my next post, in an attempt to answer those questions, I’ll be introducing you to some awesome Millennials I’ve met and sharing what I’ve been learning from (and about) them.