Generations
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In the Saddle Again

 

In a lot of ways we’re back in the 1970s again. One of the things I remember about my childhood was the insistent belief that the end was just around the corner.

This feeling seemed to disappear in the 1980s and ’90s. Although I never felt optimistic, never felt like I was in the winning team, it seemed like culture had shifted into high gear. We were a global village. The Internet brought us together. Money grew from nowhere. It was an age of optimism for lots of folks.

But I’ve been noticing a cultural shift toward the apocalypse again. Movies like The Road, shows like Lost, doomsday prophecies on the front page of newspapers and “the end of the world” is big business again.

My original thesis was that we had been in a bubble since the early ‘70s, propped up by cheap credit, cheap oil, and an insatiable consumer class. This theory assumes the threats are real -- that peak oil and overpopulation will destroy our civilization -- and that we had been lulled asleep.

The critical mass of mostly Boomers (and then Gen Xers) had been seduced by shows on house flipping and forgotten the perilous situation we were in.

But this moment could also be a cultural hallucination, a sort of mass hysteria. This isn’t to say that peak oil isn’t real, but that the idea of peak oil -- that it is an end to everything -- might be a projection of some kind. In some ways I think sociologists have shown that the doomsday cults of the 1970s were a result of the failure of the hippie utopia, so could it be possible that the collapse is a cultural reaction to -- What? Boomers retiring?

Maybe. I mean, as a marketer, I know what a large segment Baby Boomers have been.
When I talked about the generational conspiracy in 1998 I only had a vague idea that culture was listening to them instead of us, but after a decade of white papers and best practices I’m pretty certain that that was the case. And it wasn’t some evil plot; it was, for the most part, pure economics.

There were more of them and they had more money (or credit).

But as Boomers leave, they’re taking everything with them (in the imaginary). The vast cache of money that was collected after WWII appears to have vanished in 20 years. Oil reserves that looked impossibly deep now near their end. The world can't go on.

My knee-jerk reaction is to blame the markets for this ideological pessimism and say they’re overreacting or to point fingers at Boomers and say they’re projecting doom because they can’t envision a world without them.

But in reality, I think we’re doing it. It’s easier for us to imagine barbarism in the streets than to envision a reality where we have no one to blame but ourselves. We loved ourselves as losers and now we’re afraid that we might not lose enough.

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Losing the Loser

 

I didn't love Greenberg.

I think that our generational character was better captured in Say Anything, Slackers and the Before Sunrise films. In those movies we were pictured as tender, tough and even a little naive, not the social predators older Boomers were afraid of or the drop-dead losers of Reality Bites or -- later -- Greenberg.

(Those were masochistic mirages -- the id fear of our worst tendencies. Masochism and irony will be our greatest obstacles as we move ahead.)

Gen X middle age IS going to happen, of course, but I don't think we've held on to adolescence or are the do-nothing losers media still wants to paint us as... I'm proud of my cohort who struggled against an irresistible tide of futility, debt and meanness on a scale that's difficult to comprehend.

In a very real sense we are exactly what this age is going to need.

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