Generation Y: Counterculture, Cynicism & Progress

John McGovern

Generational pride may be one of the most faulty forms of camaraderie. Peter Carlson from the Washington Post writes, “The media’s insatiable need to pigeonhole disparate humans into a ‘generation’ with a single unifying personality is almost as idiotic as stereotyping people by the hue of their epidermis.” The most common generational difference discussed is the one between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. The former had more economic security, lived during a more prosperous time and, therefore, had more opportunity. As a result, the latter, though at times it may be exaggerated by the media or beaten to a pulp by representations in pop culture, experienced a great deal of disillusionment about the future of the nation, as well as the direction of the planet.


Furthermore, blanket categorizations are often implicitly about a certain demographic: the white middle and upper classes. Unfortunate and discriminatory as this may be, it is those from these classes who, as a result of their privilege, have a great deal of power and the responsibility that comes with it.


But what makes the generic Gen. X world-weary cynicism so interesting has nothing to do with the specific cultural artifacts that represent it or, to a lesser degree, the socio-historic circumstances that created it, but rather the questions that it poses about human progress. Is higher intelligence a genetic mistake? Is human progress a myth? At first, the connection between those lofty questions and generational differences seems scant. While numerous countries still possess vast arsenals of nuclear weapons, environmental catastrophe looms, and a plethora of other serious problems face humanity, it’s no wonder that obsessions with “the end of the world as we know it” abound, or that seemingly innocuous discussions can quickly revert to paranoid rants about the end of times.


A superpower, the U.S. was at the height of its prosperity from the postwar period until the early 1970s. Baby Boomers, as it turns out, are often associated with the progressive movements of the ‘60s. Xers may have been born during the period of “Great Prosperity” depending on what rubric is being used, but by the time they reached adulthood, the economic golden age of the U.S. had ended. This explains all of the cynicism and pessimism about the future of society and the world in general. But those moods are not only a generational phenomenon. Becoming even more ingrained into the culture, they persist today. And considering that the ‘60s are considered as the high-water mark of progressive movements, it may be revealing to investigate the cynicism fueled by the regression of those movements. The reason the questions these phenomena pose may be larger than mere national concerns is that economic disparity between the upper and lower classes, which began with the demise of the Great Prosperity, has taken place not only in the U.S. but across the globe.


Popular culture often depicts Generation X as a bunch of “slackers,” hippies with less idealism. The armchair philosophies of boho misfits in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, or the sardonic rants of New Jersey townies in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (which was supposedly inspired by Slacker) epitomize the so-called slacker generation.


Elsewhere, the cynicism of writers like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk is often cited as a standard Gen X. attitude. It’s not a coincidence that American youth counterculture, and the progressive movements associated with it, reached its influential peak at a time when the middle class was at the height of its prosperity during the late 60s and early 70s. Nostalgia for that golden age and its cultural values continues to pervade U.S. culture. Peace signs and tie-dyed shirts didn’t come out of nowhere. In addition, classic rock icons from the era -- The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, etc.-- are widely regarded as untouchable and immune to criticism. Many of these figures were talented, but their images are kept enshrined for more than their mind-bending guitar solos and sonic, psychedelic voyages.


Today, the average American has less money, as wages for most of the population continue to stagnate. In the 60s, it was not too difficult to drop out and tune in without risking future economic turmoil. Gen. X and the generations since are not so fortunate (relative to the rest of the world, of course, they were), and their worldviews, dreams, expectations, heroes, and fashions vary as a result. As Martin Amis wrote in his novel Money (1984), “I came of age in the Sixties, when there were chances, when it was all there waiting… In my day, if you wanted, you could just drop out. You can’t drop out anymore. Money has seen to it.” So why, then, should anyone care about the differences between different generations? Are these categorizations just an easy way to simplify complex socio-economic, political, and cultural shifts? Besides, do discussions of this kind focus too much on the culture of the middle and upper classes? Does it all just come to money?


In short, by looking at the changing trends in youth counterculture, greater trends in the culture in general will be reflected.  Why, then, the emphasis on counterculture? Since the 60s, counterculture has become removed from the progressive movements it once was, if not directly, closely related to. How it has deviated from that moment, therefore, may be informative.


Many cite Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X as the source of the generation’s nickname. The book follows three 20-somethings who, disillusioned with their lives and their failure to live up to their youthful aspirations, move in together and work service-industry jobs. Elvissa, a friend of the three ragtag protagonists, tells Claire’s (one of the three) successful, sports car-owning lover Tobias, “Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don’t count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you’re really alive.” This is an important distinction. There may be an ideological draw to living a thrifty lifestyle- the ‘starving artist’- that flirts with poverty, but there’s also a feeling that this choice is an authentic one. For many middle-class Gen Xers, they might not have had as much opportunity as the Boomers, but they were still born into relative privilege, and therefore, they reaped certain benefits of that privilege, like education. Like the poster boy of the postwar U.S. youth counterculture, Jack Kerouac, and his bible On the Road, most of these characters are broke during their adventures, and this is why it feels exciting and rebellious. If Dean Moriarty had a trust fund, it wouldn’t work as well. The connection to some of the questions posed earlier is simple: the artistic peripheral of a culture will often hold a mirror up to the mainstream culture.

Purchasing power influences the degree to which a young American can “rebel,” however, throughout U.S. counterculture there is a deep connection to authenticity, which in turn is connected to money. Throughout U.S. postwar youth counterculture, this idea is a recurring trend; rebellion cannot be purchased, it must be lived. There’s a latent critique of capitalism somewhere in that idea, but most of the major figures of American youth counterculture were, after all, youths and, therefore, not mature enough to comment on Das Kapital. Yet, it does not take a master scholar to realize that economic security, conspicuous consumption, and comfort in general will often stifle creativity or, in the case of activism, display a lack of principle. The list of artists and geniuses that were broke for formative years of their lives, though many may have been fortunate enough to miss living through a major war, is long. To squat, squander, wander and create, instead of maintaining a steady 9 to 5 job, may not be a practical choice for your wallet or, perhaps, your physical and mental health. But it certainly fulfills the task of proving that you’re really alive.


Twenty-plus years later, Coupland’s novel stands as a remarkable example of the standard view of the generation whose  now antiquated name it coined. Loaded with jaded slang that is heavily influenced by the rise of the tecno-corporate world, the book has the smug, faux nihilistic feel of a Fight Club dialogue or a Nirvana song. It’s entertaining, at times enlightening, and directionless. Members of generations that follow will relate to the woes and irony of it. However, its particular brand of snark feels a bit worn out and gimmicky, as irony has become more embedded into popular culture. This also reveals how Gen. X was the last generation that could be defined in a cohesive manner with relative ease. A pre-digital generation was much easier to label and stereotype.


Lisa Chamberlain (Slackonomics) writes that, “the predominant if not always explicit message of the time was that 1960s era idealism caused the social and economic chaos of the 1970s and should be rejected in favor of narrow self-interest.” Indeed, a recurring theme in Gen. X literature and culture is a concern with progress. To some, the popular struggles for racial equality in 60s, women’s rights, gay rights, and the prominence of the left in general, demonstrate that social change (i.e., progress) is possible. Others may argue that this is too idealistic, a determinist stance that may point to the animalistic nature of mankind (Chamberlain notes the popularity of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene during this time period) to explain why popular struggles have not been nearly as successful since the late 60s.



In Democarcy Inc., Sheldon S. Wolin writes, “Small wonder that ever since those days, conservatives and hawks have waged their own relentless ‘culture war’ against the 60s. The effort to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ involved more than a wish to exorcise the shame of military defeat; it aimed to discredit the democratic and constitutional impulses of that era as well.”


Having pride in one’s generation, just as it is with one’s nation, class, ethnicity, or race, is to feel a sense of accomplishment based off of a coincidence. George Carlin put it best, “Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a fu**ing genetic accident.” A good deal of the conversation surrounding generational differences reverts to nonsense.


Baby Boomers are to blame for the government’s debt, Xers want to philosophize instead of work, and the Millenials waddle in a perpetual pool of inanities via the endless distraction of social media. The clichés go on and on. With no inquiry as to why each generation has certain dull, repetitive truisms repeated about them (that is why we think of Millenials as pop-star loving halfwits and so on), the conversation remains in the ever threatening arena of pop cultural triviality and its quest to subsume everything. If we’re going to talk about generational differences, the place to start is economics, politics, and history. So when we talk about our elders or those that were born after us, the most pressing and the most interesting questions deal not with who’s more moral or temperate or wise, but more objective matters.


Author Bio:

John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Mafleen (Flickr); dullhunk (Flickr); Jimmy Shag (Flickr).

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