I’ve been reading a lot about generations lately. You know, those broad categories of lumping people together to explain their behavior away, marginalize their individuality, and sell things to them? I work in marketing… or, at least, I can no longer pretend the work I produce isn’t used for those explicit purposes. And in the course of designing presentations about what matters to consumers, interpreting behavior, and finding ‘ownable spaces’ for brands to insert themselves, I think I’ve inadvertently discovered a lot about what it means to be young, what it means to get older, and just how important generations can be in shaping attitudes and worldview. What responsibilities come with each stage of life? It's one thing, as a kid, to say that the world is screwed up and feel like there's nothing you can do about it. But when we look in the mirror and see a 'grown-up,' there should be a shift in what we expect from ourselves.
Marketing loves the idea of generations. It’s a solid entity that can be studied, poked, and prodded. And they love NEW generations. Because schlepping the same stuff to the same kind of consumer gets boring after awhile. A new generation is fresh meat. It’s a Freshman, all green and stumbling on its new legs. If a savvy business can identify with the new class in the right way, they can feed off of their buying behavior for the next 15-20 years. Right around the time I took a job with a company who’s business it was to carve out spaces for brands in the psyche of a consumer, the Millennials were taking over as the ‘target demographic.’ That much bemoaned term that mostly just means anyone with buying power. And there’s no market more coveted than young, enthusiastic consumers who love ‘stuff’, and have money. At the time, most Millennials were still in college or just entering the workforce so there was the implication that they were coming of age in terms of purchasing power. GIRLS hadn’t yet premiered on HBO. They hadn’t yet dealt with the idea of turning 30 or buying a house… the ‘learnings’, which is a fancy way of communicating ‘any tangible evidence we can find to manipulate you’, were mostly that Millennials were engaged and diverse. They have multi-racial friend groups! and it’s not even a thing! They are tech savvy! They wear bright colors! The marketing world was losing its collective minds over the new kids. And it showed in hiring practices. New staff members were hired with no discernable qualifications (a French degree and no experience) because they would help bring a fresh perspective. Millennials were the shiny new toy that every industry wanted to play with. But because it actually mattered in a client situation that the person speaking for your company had at least a basic working knowledge of the industry and what their role was, or didn’t spend all day whispering in corners with others of their ilk, making fun of people who showed up and did their job, or that employees earning a paycheck probably shouldn't just break out into yoga poses in the middle of meetings and talk about how work was really killing their vibe, or blast Ellie Goulding when anyone over 35 left the room, you get the idea... reality hit. Uh oh, they're not just brightly hued bobbleheads here to unlock the secrets of the new consumer landscape. They're here as a tweaked out representation of how we f*cked up. But I digress...
It happens to us all, this end of the affair. When your stitching starts to show and you're Woody in a world obsessed with Buzz Lightyear. When the marketers stop courting you and start humming about what the toddlers of today are going to want in a Vodka brand. The only one this never happens to is the Baby Boomers, because they’ve been the biggest blessing to a consumer-driven culture than any other generation, and continue to be. Their idea of status and social standing is firmly cemented in buying power and accumulation. There’s a ton of them and they can't get enough of seeing themselves represented. There’s a ton of Millennials, too. And chances are, when everyone gets through this phase of calling them awful and entitled, they will continue to be a huge consumer target. They define themselves by brands. They embrace everything about the culture of being a consumer, albeit in a totally different way than Boomers. They don’t have that disdain for the machine as they just see themselves as an inevitable part of it. They accept their fate but where GenX wanted to kick the world in the shins, Millennials want to put glitter on it and give it a mustache. They’re too busy maximizing to wallow like Xers. (Boy, do we love to wallow)
And wallowing is precisely what I feel like I’m doing lately, tossing all this around in my head and obsessively reading material on the subject. Before, I hated the idea of lumping people born during a 20 year span together in one dismissive bunch. But becoming something you never really truly saw yourself as (an adult) sets the mind in motion. For the first time, I’m kind of interested in ‘talkin’ ‘bout my generation.’ I’m curious as to what has shaped us and what our middle-child syndrome with Boomers and Millennials means now as we arrive at middle-age. Where I feel like those on either side sort of relish the media attention, the doting, the discussion always framed around them, X never cared much for anything that sought to define us. The terminology was never very flattering, anyway… ‘the lost generation,’ ‘the baby busters,’ ‘the slackers’. But I’ve become very proud that during our brief moment in the spotlight of consumer culture, we basically said ‘no thank you.’ We were jaded before student loans even hit and we didn’t want or need the attention of the establishment. I think we had a healthy mistrust of those that lauded the peace, love and protest of their youth and then espoused the merits of a yuppie middle-age with the same sense of pride. With the exception of my brief stint as a Mallrat in high school (voted Biggest Credit Limit, which now, is so ironic) the concept of ‘dissent’ guides most of my life choices and the more I read on GenX, the more I identify with the generalizations made about it. Even its dismal and haphazard name that used to seem insulting, now feels like a worn-in leather jacket. Just right.
It’s become very apparent, through all that I’ve been reading, that a group of people who had no use for definition, share a more similar connective tissue than we’d probably like to admit. This generation of ‘every man is an island’ has unwittingly aligned on behaviors it would have maligned marketers for studying. And even though we’re not joiners, even though we have a tendency to go to our own dark malaise-lined corners, put our heads down and just do what we have to do, it might be time to recognize the influence we have has changed. Jeff Gordinier says "Generation X has marinated in the fat of boomer mythology for so long now that we're like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix when he's hooked up to all those tubes and wires in a tub of gelatin. We don't even notice." He goes on to say, "Since Xers grew up in the leviathan shadow of the boomers, a sense of apartness played a role in forming our identity from the start. 'Our little group has always been and always will until the end,' as Kurt Cobain put it."
I’m on the tail end of being an Xer at (basically) 37, but collectively, the group is now into their 40s and even 50s. We are going to become the establishment whether we self-identify as such, or not. And I think the country could benefit from a little dose of Xer pragmatism if we could just stay conscious and not fall down the same rabbit hole of complacency that zaps passion and vigor when the bills just have to be paid. Joan Didion says in “On the Morning After the Sixties”… "We were silent because the exhileration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate." I don’t know about you, but that about sums it up for me. We were a generation of depressives right out of the gates. But adolescent angst was at least a force for some pretty good music… Now it seems like we’re settling in, perhaps begrudgingly so and with a lot of huffing and puffing for some, to a life concerned with the same trappings and material worship that inspired our discontent as teenagers and young adults. And this is where I’m having a personal crisis. I surrendered my youth to a combination of frustration with the established system (I went to Art School) and a desperate need to fit within it (donating 12 of what should have been my most vibrant years to a nasty eating disorder). I’ve achieved a little chunk of the success society tells me I should have (decent income, nice place to live with a dishwasher and a doorman who will pick up my dry cleaning, a fiancé, a dog…). But now, where to? Keep working, keep accumulating, turn into the sort of person that has to protect their own interests at any cost because so many things depend on that comfortable life working out?
I’m concerned because there is a fundamental truth that the younger generation will always find fault in the elder – they have to in order to self actualize and grow – and the older generations will inevitably start mumbling about ‘kids these days’ at some point. It’s inevitable that when we catch a glimpse of our own mortality we grapple for comfort, safety, and for something to make it all seem ‘ok.’ But for a generation that recognized the fleeting importance of everything at such a young age, I would think there would be much more will to drive the car down a different street now that we can reach the pedals. Action on a grand social scale has never been our thing, but instead of complaining about Millennials (which, I’m convinced just feeds their fire), let’s maybe do something with the time we have as the ‘older and wiser’ bunch. If GenX stays in their own corner clipping coupons and going to book club because the fight is pointless (even if it is), we become a self-fulfilling prophecy and fade into oblivion. If we suddenly take to the streets with lofty messages of unity, well… that would just be disingenuous and totally not our thing. But we have to start at least recognizing that our presence, however marginally impactful it may be, has power and can have purpose.
Maybe we’ll never be a target demographic again – frankly, I doubt we want that or would buy into it if we were. I’m proud of my skeptical eye and the sneer I keep handy for unbridled optimism. I create brands, but honestly, my skin sort of crawls at the thought of being one. I'll recognize that people need to approach certain things categorically but it seems rather gauche to refer to oneself as such. But maybe that’s the thing we can dust off and re-contribute in the second half of our time on this planet. We can elect people that don’t tell us Utopia exists, (we know it doesn’t) but instead that it’s our responsibility to make the world better NOW, not in some smoky nebulae called ‘the future’. We can reject the hateful rhetoric of those bent on power at any cost. We don’t have to make big gestures to act. We don’t have to ‘Save the World’ – that sort of talk always makes me a bit nauseous - but we can take measured steps to improve it. We don’t have to be afraid of each other. We don’t have to watch the news. We can live and act in an enlightened evolution of the things we disagreed with as kids. We might have to go through the motions of being ‘adult’ but we don’t have to let that turn us into a stereotype of what it means to get older. I’m worried that because our generation is so used to shuffling along, that we’re going to shuffle right into old age still complaining about the things we did when we were 15 but not having done much about it aside from 'getting back to work' with our heads down and our backs broken. We’ll probably still be listening to the same music, though, because it was awesome. But for all the moaning and groaning, are we setting a better example now that it’s our turn to do so?
We can do more than blindly adopt technology that drives human beings apart under the guise of bringing them together. (Amazing how kids of divorce sort of passed along isolationism as ‘connecting,’ hm?) We can still carve out new space and hope for more than ‘LOOKING GREAT AT ANY AGE’. We can say "to hell with the Jones’" and whatever keeping up with them means. There’s still time to want more than spotless countertops and size 6 jeans. We can be more than our fucking khakis.