Generation Guilt

What is it about self-deprecation and Gen X’ers? Is it that we can’t abide success with the recent election of one of our own as president? (And please don’t start with that Generation Jones™ stuff here. I’m calling Obama a Gen X’er; if I’m wrong, History will tell me that, not the viral marketers. But I’m digressing again).

One thing that escaped me until recently (but seems rather obvious now) — our generation’s tendency to cast the proverbial jaded eye on everything includes casting that eye back on ourselves.

Susan Gregory Thomas runs with this theme in a lengthy piece for Babble (link via JenX67’s blog) in which she asks of our generation if  “you, I, and the rest of us may be more responsible for this mortgage meltdown than we’d imagined” (at least, more than we’d like to admit; of course, as Americans, we’re all responsible at some level, but there’s my own self-deprecation again).

Author Thomas more or less admits as much as I’m parroting here: we collectively have a guilty conscious, justly or not. Or at the very least, we’re hyper-aware of not repeating the mistakes of our parents — perhaps to a fault.

She notes our tendency to be strong, protective parents, with a magnet-like attachment to the homes and families we’re creating. The banks must have taken notice, too, she says, and they preyed on that need for security and our collective insecurity.

Generation Xers, the parents of the majority of young children now, are by all accounts the most devoted to family in American history. And we’ll do whatever we have to do to keep them from having the crappy childhood that we had.

According to marketing research, nearly thirty percent of Generation X parents volunteer at their children’s schools or extracurricular activities. Again, according to marketers, we panic about child-care and preschool, spending more money on them than any other household necessities. We leave the workforce if no decent child-care is available. We sneered at Yuppies’ conspicuous consumption, but credit card market research reveals that we spend twenty percent more on luxury goods than Yuppies ever did — especially if it has anything to do with home. We yearn for home. We’ll spend whatever we have to get it.

(Time for a Neil Howe & William Strauss aside: the generational authors predicted this in their past research into the cyclical nature of generations, saying that a generation of largely neglected children tends to become overprotective as parents — a pretty obvious conclusion, of course, but Strauss and Howe connected the dots to reason how Gen X’ers, as mostly children of Baby Boomers, would likely raise their own kids. This mirrors, according to their research, how the Eisenhower-Truman-Hemingway “Lost Generation” was raised as a neglected generation only to grow up to become overprotective parents of Silent Generation children (though perhaps not Hemingway himself, but here I am digressing from my digression)).

Author Thomas goes on to connect the dots herself about our own insecurity, and how we both played the game and then got played by the banks:

What this seems to mean is that the collective feeling was, basically: screw stocks, invest in a home, pay for it when you get back on your feet. This seemed like a no-brainer for phoenix-like Gen-Xers. After all, in spite of the pronouncement of a much-cited 2004 study of generational differences that Gen-X “went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history” — and that half of all Gen-X children’s families split, and forty percent were latchkey kids — we’d always not only landed on our feet, but kicked some serious booty, too.


Evidently, we were so sure of our own phoenix-like capabilities that it didn’t strike us as odd that the banks should be so magically sure of us too.

In a Psychology 101 way, it kind of makes sense. One of the notorious legacies of Generation X’s home-alone childhood is an abiding suspicion of authority. All this has been well-documented, i.e. we hate ass-kissing the boss, so just let us do our thing because we rock as self-starters. But when the whole house bubble started to swell, the dynamic shifted: Enter the banks, as approving parents.

They gave us a home! It’s almost as if we became giddy children, finally getting the apology and consolation prize we’d always secretly hoped for: You didn’t get a real home as a kid, but you worked hard, succeeded on your own steam, and now we’re going to give it to you and your children. The 1980, 1990, and 2000 GSSes reflected our self-satisfaction. A whopping 66.4 percent of Generation X affirmed the statement: “People get ahead through hard work, not luck.” Welcome home. You earned it.

Which leads her to the obvious and damning conclusion, the Angel Heart-like reveal (as she calls it in bookends to her piece.).

Now, we were ready to start spending even more. The Harvard report’s analysis was that Generation X’s unprecedented confidence in its own grit, coupled with its equally high trust of banks, would translate into “higher likelihood of investment and consumption,” and further, that “members of Generation X may be more likely to use banks for refinancing activity, leveraging home equity, and generally sustaining high levels of consumption.”

I’d add that the confidence in our own grit was in part a by-product of our own skepticism and self-doubt. It’s not too different from the old saw that says that which does not kill you makes you stronger. Our own grit and self-confidence necessarily was borne of our own self-deprecation, as if we told ourselves we weren’t good enough, which had the fortunate side effect of making us work harder to prove to the world that they were wrong about us — and, more importantly, to prove something to ourselves.

But now, in the hour of our economic discontent, here we are. That grit, that hard work, has produced a crash not unlike coming down from a sugar high. “(B)elt-buckling times invite dark nights of the soul. And I’m looking at it, at the very least, because I can’t afford to go shopping,” Thomas writes.

Is all that will remain in it’s place is the lingering self-doubt that motivated us to begin with? I think not — I have more faith in my generation than that. Still, it’s going to be a hell of a hangover.


2 Comments on “Generation Guilt”

  1. Wek says:

    I had a Gen Jones troll drop by a post I did not long ago. I understand them not wishing to be associated with babyboomers, but they’ve been rather hostile towards us Xsters.

  2. The Icepick says:

    True that. Wouldn’t be surprised if the more hostile ones are late-Boomers (that would be true to form for the Boomers), but even us Gen X’ers can be a critical (and self-critical) lot.

    Either way, can’t blame them for not wanting anything to do with Boomers, but I don’t get their thing. Half of them are classic Boomers if you listen to them (their idealism, their narcissism), only the later Boomers got Watergate, second-term Nixon, Ford and Carter instead of JFK, LBJ, first-term Nixon and Woodstock — maybe they’re upset because they were too young to get laid during the Summer of Love.

    The other half are really early Gen X’ers, like Obama. The idealism certainly crosses over into these early years (see: Obama and Hope), but it is balanced in these early X’ers by a sense of pragmatism (see: any of Obama’s brilliant campaign and political moves in 2008).

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