Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland, 1991, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 183 pp., Paperback
Reagan’s children must be proud of him. With AIDS and acid rain, there is not much left in the way of life and love and possibilities for these short-changed children of the ’80s… In addition to a huge and terminally crippling national debt, and a shocking realization that your country has slipped to the status of a second-rate power, and that five American dollars will barely buy a cup of coffee in Tokyo, these poor buggers are being flogged every day of their lives with the knowledge that sex is death and rain kills fish and any politician they see on TV is a liar and a fool.
Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine
I asked a friend of mine recently to confirm a hunch: that our generation’s moral compass is broken. He agreed that he felt as though ‘something deeper’ was missing. Perhaps the thing most common between my generation of 25-35 year olds and those of ten years ago – Generation X – is the lack of narrative, the absence of a grand myth that explicates our collective beliefs and values.
The narrative of the American Dream completely faded from Post-War America by the mid-eighties, replaced gradually by corporate capitalism. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall had more to do with the triumph of capitalism over Soviet socialism, and less to do with democracy over tyranny. And while many children of the 60s could replace the myth of America as the Promised Land with their addled version of Peace and Social Progress, those who later didn’t buy the market’s myth and rejected its truths were offered nothing at all.
We had used up all our tricks. All the good stories were already told. America and its Promise were consigned – along with religion, nationalism, and other ideologies – to the dustbin of has-been narratives.
In the early 90s, when Generation X was published, America and its Affluent Society were still setting records in wealth production, but popular economic expectations were not optimistic. For Generation X in particular (those in their late twenties and early thirties at the time), there was only a feeling of cynicism; being short-changed by their well-off parents is a consistent theme within Coupland’s book. Generation X was written as globalization was beginning to impact the middle class of the wealthy countries; it coincides with the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, the growing gap between the rich and not rich, people working longer hours for less money, the higher cost of living and overwhelming loss of individual space.
Coupland’s story revolves around three late twenty-somethings, refugees of post-yuppie North America relocated to the deserts of California, working low-wage, uninspiring jobs to support a lifestyle that revolves around telling each other stories about their dead-end careers, failed relationships, dysfunctional families, and the gloomy future. The three protagonists – Dag, Andy, and Claire – describe their landscape of strip-malls, anti-depressants, soul-destroying office environments and ubiquitous advertising in a way that many readers under forty can identify with. It is the phenomenon that explains the popularity of the similarly-themed Fight Club. Coupland supports these descriptions with sidebar definitions and insightful commentary that expose the irony of his characters’ world.
Coupland uses the character’s constant storytelling to show a generation stuck with meaningless careers with no value other than making money and buying things, where the fortunate gain the privilege of drowning in a cubicle sea. This complete loss of occupational satisfaction is compounded by the fact that the cost of living is higher, and that Coupland’s generation will have a harder time buying real estate than the other post-war generations. At the same time, the characters feel relentless pressure to become part of the consumer society that is centred around malls, even though they’re acutely aware of the loss of individuality this causes. Even the promise of technology is in doubt, with the dawning realization that what is new may not just simplify their environment but totally change it, often for the worse.
The middle class parents of Coupland’s characters are seen as quietly disappointed at their children’s lack of ambition, while the children see their parents’ expectations leading towards a suburban mediocrity filled with designer wallpaper and insincere spouses. The fallout of this inter-generation value shift is illustrated by depressing family affairs that inevitably culminate in fights around the holiday dinner table. Nor does this generation have any Leave It To Beaver delusions about marriage, aware as they are that most of them will end in a divorce.
Perhaps it is worth turning to Hunter S. Thompson again to see how Generation X’s parents saw themselves when they were young:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Today’s late twenty/early thirty somethings – sometimes referred to as Generation Y – share much in common with Generation X. We also exist in the absence of a common narrative, cope with a higher cost of living, deal with the loss of individual space, are highly self-aware, and have an appreciation of irony. But we were more fortunate in several ways. We had the Clinton Boom of the late nineties to raise economic expectations, and we weren’t as exposed to the threat of nuclear extinction as those ten years older than us; the generation Reagan predicted "might see the end of the world." At the same time, we weren’t born onto the tail end of a wave of optimism that the Generation Xers were, and it is perhaps this stolen hope that makes them as cynical as Coupland portrays. By our time, the optimism – attacked from a Dallas book depository, at Kent State, by Reaganomics – was stone dead.
Coupland’s heroes seem to give into a kind of catatonic cynicism, opting out of the world with a sense of detached bitterness, almost as though they were owed something that they knew would never come. The Generation Y that produced the anti-globalization movement lacked their feeling of thwarted entitlement, and has chosen to attempt to reclaim our world and space. There was less sense of entitlement, irony is less chic, and there is a bracing sense of self-reliance.
More than anything, Generation X lays bare the lack of narrative that is experienced by many in the lost generations of X and Y. The heroes of Coupland’s Generation X tell each other stories, unconsciously trying to create or rebuild a myth that will give meaning to life. The importance that they attach to having meaning in work, a phenomenon that is characteristic if not new, may possibly be attributed to the fact that very little else – religion, country, ideology – provides purpose. Perhaps Coupland’s characters are part of the "Me" generation, not out of selfishness, but because they have been left to themselves to create a narrative instead of inheriting one like previous generations.
Or perhaps, the Generation Y in me wonders, they’re just self-obsessed, Beat-wannabe losers in an extended bitch session.
1274 w. May 2, 2004
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