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As Generation X Turns 50

As Generation X Turns 50
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Some movies improve with age. Both Fight Club and The Big Lebowski are adored now, but neither were critical favorites when they debuted. On the other hand, there are movies to which time and age have not been kind: Bill Murray’s’ Meatballs and — I argue — 1994’s love letter to Generation X: Reality Bites.

That latter, oft-celebrated but mediocre film got more love than it deserved. Lelaina (Winona Ryder), the valedictorian of her college class, camcords (remember those?) her friends in a mock documentary of post-education life at the apex of grunge. The movie begins with Lelaina giving an ad-libbed valedictorian’s speech at graduation because, like, she either forgot to write one, or lost her notes, or something. Meaning: valedictorian speeches are totally empty because they represent adherence to the way things are always done…or, you know, like…tradition.

"And they wonder why those of us in our 20s refuse to work an 80-hour week, just so we can afford to buy their BMWs. Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains, what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is… The answer is… I don’t know."

Each generation is represented by a rebellious counterculture. I grew up on a steady diet of James Dean, Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper/Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, etc. These guys rebelled against something, whether it was Vietnam, or the strictness of their Greatest Generation parents. But Gen-X really didn’t have much to complain about. Children of the Boomers, we really never knew Vietnam other than from our TVs. The late ’60s and ’70s were just a steady stream of bad sitcoms, station wagon excursions, and consumerism.

Us ‘elder’ Gen X’ers had already graduated college and were climbing the socio-economic ladder when Reality Bites hit its celebrated societal mark.

It was then that we realized that the rebels of our youth were now being replaced by kids a few years younger than us, who complained about such scourges of society as the emptiness of gainful employment. So, for many, Reality Bites felt like a long list of jaded ideological complaints fueled by apathy and laziness. Not how I wanted the world to view my generation.

Sure, I was just as upset when Nike used The Beatles “Revolution” to sell sneakers. On the other hand, consumerism may just provide you a job and a living so you don’t have to sponge off others in your flannels and Doc Martins.

Now, we are all grown up. Many Gen X’ers (like myself) are barreling towards 50. Once that was old. Now, it’s the new (fill-in-the blank).

Bloomberg Business ran an article this week called Gen X Was Right: Reality Really Does Bite.

The members of Generation X have plenty to be grumpy about. For starters, no one talks about them anymore. It’s all millennials all the time. There’s another reason Americans born between 1965 and 1980 are gloomy: Gen X’ers are in even worse shape financially than the baby boomers who preceded them or the millennials who followed.

It goes on to explain that Gen X’ers are a financial mess due to wages not increasing, extreme levels of debt, no meaningful retirement savings, and a series of badly-timed crises that hit them hardest:

They entered the workforce during the recession of the 1990s and then, just as they were getting their footing, the dot-com bubble burst. As the housing market picked up in the 2000s, some bought homes at high prices only to see real estate values plummet during the financial crisis.

They were the hardest hit generation during the Great Recession, losing almost half their wealth when the stock market slumped, compared with about 25 percent for baby boomers, according to a 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts survey.

The last quote tells a jarring story about Gen X, which is usually only quietly discussed between spouses or close friends. Many had to cash in what remained of 401(k)s to survive the Great Recession and have not yet recouped any semblance of a realistic retirement plan. With kids going to college, many are paying as they go, or relying solely on scholarships, community college or — worse yet — massive loans that won’t be repaid in our lifetimes. Retirement is coming, and quick.

What happens in the next 20 years as we physically slow down? What happens if/when we get sick? What happens if/when we have another financial crisis?

The answer is simple. The answer is… The answer is… I don’t know.

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