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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Thoughts From Six Feet Away: Talkin' 'Bout My Generation!

“Every generation blames the one before, and all of their frustrations come beating down your door.” -- “The Living Years,” Mike and the Mechanics.

When I was growing up, I became aware of something called the “generation gap,” a way of explaining the tension between different generations of people. Generally, the sticking points of these debates revolve around child-rearing, values, and surprisingly, taste in music. I’m ashamed to admit that I have become guilty of this myself, morphing into the parent I swore I’d never be, one who clutches my metaphorical pearls in response to what the kids call music these days. As time passed, I also learned that each generation tends to have a label, and this is how we identify each other. And that’s when I first heard the generation that described me and my contemporaries…Generation X.

Not particularly imaginative, is it? In our society, ‘X’ tends to denote an unknown, generic quantity, and at the risk of causing bad math flashbacks, it describes a variable. In algebra, we were perpetually trying “solving for x,” hoping it would lead us to answers. Ironic, really – when speaking to others my age, we don’t seem to have it figured out any more than we did in the early 90s, when the treasure trove of prosperity and answers that were promised to us were yanked away like Charlie Brown’s football. We were the first generation with a college degree to work at a coffee shop. People called us “latchkey kids,” often spending hours at a time home alone, entertaining (and often raising) ourselves. We “followed the plan” (get a degree, get a good job, start a family, retire, die) that we were told led to success, only to find it was a lie. A college degree didn’t guarantee prosperity and working hard led to burnout far more often than it led to wealth. It’s no wonder we grew up a bitter bunch, but it made us resilient and able to adapt. I firmly believe that the trials of 2020 were Generation X’s shining moment – we washed our hands, put on our masks, stood 6 feet apart, and got vaccinated when we were eligible. Most of us did it without complaint – after all, we’ve done what we were told our entire lives, no matter how little our instructions made sense. But now that the smoke is clearing from the COVID crisis, Generation X has a message for the world…

We’re tired of refereeing the disputes between our parents and our kids.

On one side, you have the Baby Boomers, a generation that believes in better living through suffering. Emotions were seen as a sign of weakness (“Dad never told us he loved us – he showed us by going to work every day.”). Obsessed with the status quo, their mantra of “that’s the way it is” was even the catch phrase of the greatest news anchor of the time, Walter Cronkite. You seldom knew what was going on in the world outside your county, unless it was mentioned on the evening news, an anemic 30 minutes of your day. You stayed at the same job for 40 years. Technology advanced over decades, and you could even choose to ignore it if you wanted to. The hospital bill to have a kid would be a couple thousand dollars, and college tuition at Indiana University in 1960 was $7 per credit hour. These are the “good old days” of which every one of them waxes nostalgic, and if you sit still long enough, they’ll tell you just how great it was.

On the other side, we have the “post-Gen X” generations – the Millennials and the Gen Zs. They are fully aware of the world’s problems because there’s nowhere to hide from them. Glued to handheld devices, information bombards them 24 hours a day. Presented with access to the world from their pre-teen years, few know how to control their technology because their parents fell down the same rabbit hole. Don’t believe me? The next time you go to a restaurant, look around at how many families are all on their handheld devices individually and not interacting with each other. This constant bombardment of humanity’s low points has led to crippling anxiety at a generational level. Nearly every patient I have between the ages of 16 and 25 admits to feeling overwhelmed most of the time. Debt is the only result of “following the program” – conservative tuition rates are hundreds of dollars per credit hour. The bill for a routine birth at a hospital is around $30,000, making health insurance a necessity. Technology advances in years, if not months, and you risk being left behind if you don’t embrace new technology as it comes. They’re concerned about the future of the planet, and they demand proof of claims over intuition through experience. Finally, they have the courage to shout to the rooftops a lesson us Gen-Xers learned, but were afraid to admit – working hard without purpose really doesn’t lead you anywhere except the grave. These days, the average person will change CAREERS 2-3 times, so having one job for 40 years is a dated concept.

See where the conflict arises? The Boomers insist that our kids just aren’t “following the plan” right, and they just need to work harder. They call the Millennials/Gen Z crowd “lazy” and blame us for not raising our kids right (I think of all the hours we spent alone during our formative years when they say this, but I digress). They also claim our kids don’t spend enough time outside and waste their lives on video games. Here’s the thing, though – there are far more numerous obstacles to “playing outside” these days, ranging from drug dealers and pedophiles to cancer-causing UV rays. By and large, we don’t know our neighbors anymore, since the backyard deck has replaced the front porch as the place where a family congregates. Bottom line, the Baby Boomers only know how to “follow the plan” and are like a carpenter who only possesses a hammer – they tend to see their problems as nails. Also, here’s the bad thing about nostalgia – you tend to selectively favor the good times over the bad. Those “good old days” weren’t good for everyone, and you need only see which groups are dissatisfied with the world to know who they are. The Baby Boomers love to say things like “suck it up” or “the world’s gone to hell,” forgetting they were told the same things by their parents (the dying off of “The Greatest Generation” may be the true tragedy of all of this). It reminds me of The Breakfast Club, when the janitor reminds Mr. Vernon that the kids haven’t changed, he has.

On the other side of the coin, the Millennials/Gen Zs see the Baby Boomers as callous and uncaring, so much so that they’ve developed a snappy response to the incessant lectures they get – “Okay, Boomer.” That comment can be a little harsh (especially when the try to use it on us “non-Boomers!”), and they can be guilty of viewing the past through their lens of “enlightenment,” which is patently unfair. They debate issues with their feelings, rather than logic, which makes them surprisingly close-minded for their age. They preach love and acceptance yet vilify those who disagree with them. They mistake information for knowledge or, even worse, wisdom. They rightly demand that information be factual yet can be naïve when it comes to realizing that they are vulnerable to being manipulated by someone who knows how to tell a story “from a certain point of view,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi used to say. They insist on doing things their own way yet blame others when things go sideways. And while this may just be a byproduct of youth, idealism takes a back seat to pragmatism. None of us want people to go hungry or be homeless, but there are practical realities that have to be addressed for that to occur. As those of my grandparents’ generation used to say, “If wishes and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”

At the end of the day, we are caught in the middle. We wanted to be more present for our kids, but they ended up more dependent on us and lacking basic survival skills. But you know what? They care about each other, and they don’t bully their peers like we did. They care about the future of the planet, and they see the big picture when it comes to doing work that gives them purpose. I’m willing to carry them a little longer, if it means that they end up stronger for it. They will learn how to manage their anxieties, once they can better handle the flow of information bombarding them. There’s still an awful lot of good in this world – there’s no point in dwelling on the vegetables when there’s a whole table of desserts on the other side of the room! The Baby Boomers have much wisdom in their experiences, but there’s a difference between leading someone and dragging them to a spot. Both sides could stand to have a little empathy. And as Einstein once said, the problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them. The world has changed and adopting the “old ways” will not solve every problem, no more than the need to burn everything down and start over is. And finally, like Rod Stewart said, “There ain’t no point in talkin’ when there’s nobody listenin’.” If the generations on either side of us continue to yell at each other, we have reached the point where we have stopped mediating. If you need us, we’ll be over here…adapting and going with the flow.

Just like we always have.

As always, be excellent to each other, and…

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