Tags: The | Curse | the | Xers

The Curse of the Xers

Friday, 06 February 2004 12:00 AM

To go beyond all the outraged wailing and shocked gnashing of teeth over the MTV Super Bowl halftime show and understand what is really going on culturally, the place to begin is with William Strauss & Neil Howe's 1991 book, "Generations: The History of America’s Future - 1584 to 2069."

Strauss & Howe explain American cultural history as a repeating cycle of four generational types: Idealist, motivated by abstract goals and principles; Reactive, motivated by a cynical practicality; Civic, motivated by a community spirit and can-do optimism; and Adaptive, motivated by the desire for compromise and consensus.

The cycle began with the children of the Elizabethans in England, who grew up to be an Idealist generation migrating to the Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay Colonies of the New World in the first decades of the 17th century.

Strauss & Howe then proceed to recount almost 400 years of American history through these four generational lenses, giving example after historical example in an ultimate demonstration of the French aphorism, plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Every generational type has its assets and liabilities. This is most clearly demonstrated in times of major war, which often occurs at the end of the cycle. The Idealists in their 60s and 70s provide the moral leadership, like Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Roosevelt; the Reactives in their 40s and 50s provide the practical leadership, generals like Washington and Patton (and as the generation of extremes, the traitors like Benedict Arnold); the Civics in their 20s and 30s do the actual fighting (as in the Revolutionary War and the “Greatest Generation” that fought WWII); while Adaptives are youngsters whose job it is to keep quiet and not disturb the adults doing serious things.

Idealists are most dangerous when they are young and prone to drive the country off a cliff in a moral crusade, like the Civil War, or the lunacy of the Black Power-Chè Guevara-Ho Chi Minh-Jane Fonda-Woodstock 1960s.

Civics are most dangerous when they are old and become Greedy Geezers demanding the country bankrupt itself in paying tribute to them for their patriotic sacrifices.

Adaptives are most dangerous when their compulsion to compromise precludes moral clarity with grave problems festering and never solved, like all the fruitless efforts to straddle the gulf between freedom and slavery in the 1850s, or today’s unwillingness to confront the unfunded liabilities of Social Security.

Reactives are simply dangerous, period. They are the generational outcasts. Nobody wanted them when they were kids (remember how having children was so uncool in 1970s?), and they are the ones who infuriate everyone else when they grow up.

As you have already guessed, today's Reactives are the Xers.

The generational lineup in the 20th century is: Civics (the GI generation), born 1900-1924; Adaptives (the Silent generation), 1925-1942; Idealists (Boomers), 1943-1960; Reactives (Xers) 1961-1981; Civics (Millennials) 1982-2005?. The biggest clash comes between older Idealists and younger Reactives, as right now.

Xers despise Boomer idealism, so they do everything they can to flaunt themselves as scoffing smart-asses. Wear baseball caps backwards. Elevate black thugs and hoodlums into pop stars. Sing the most unmelodic and lyrically offensive music it is possible for human imagination to conceive. Sing it in public while grabbing your crotch. Make television commercials portraying cruelty as funny (“The bad news is you’re going to jail, the good news is I got a great car insurance rate from Geico”), and horse farts and a talking chimp who proposes bestial sex with a woman as even funnier. Rip off a woman’s clothes in an act of simulated rape in front of 90 million people, then lie that it was unintentional when criticized.

And yet, before we all work ourselves into a froth of Xer disgust, we should remember that those soldiers on the Person of the Year Cover of Time Magazine were Xers. The soldiers who marched from Basra to Baghdad, overthrew Saddam in three weeks, and found him in a spider hole, were Xers. The American soldiers fighting the War in Iraq have proven they are the heroic equal of those of the Greatest Generation in World War II – and they are Xers.

The generational bottom line is that Xers aren't like the rest of us. Xers are a generation of edges, of extremes. Like other Reactive generations, they are the heroes and the bums. They are the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and Benedict Arnolds; the Babe Ruths, Lou Gehrigs and Al Capones; the Michael Jordans and the Mike Tysons; the Special Forces teams fighting in Afghanistan and crap singers (oh, excuse me, “rap” singers) on MTV.

The folks who actually designed the Super Bowl ads, who put together and performed the halftime show (not the folks who own and manage the ad agencies and MTV), are Xers in their 20s and 30s. It is this Xer age group that dominates the commercial and popular culture right now, which is why it is continuously, monotonously and insultingly smart aleck. But this is not going to last much longer.

Over the coming years, young Millennials (or Generation Y, as some insist on calling them) will be pouring out of their teens and into their 20s to seize control of popular culture away from Xers. Say goodbye and good riddance to crotch-grabbing it's-cool-to-be-a-smartass sleaze. Say hello to music you can actually listen to (i.e., that’s actually music), TV shows you can let your kids watch, and baseball caps worn normally.

Trust me on this. American culture has not disintegrated, we're not going to keep heading down into a bottomless cultural barrel. We're in the bottom of a generational cycle that our country has gone through before and will again. Our nightmare of degeneracy will soon be coming to an end.

Just remind yourself, though, before the next spectacle of Xer cynical ridicule drives you apoplectic, of all the Xers risking their lives right now in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we have the luxury and freedom to get mad at what's wrong with our culture. Some day years from now, one of them may need to become another Patton or Eisenhower, and we'll be quite thankful Xers are who they are.

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To go beyond all the outraged wailing and shocked gnashing ofteeth over the MTV Super Bowl halftime showand understand what is really going on culturally, the place to begin is with William Strauss & Neil Howe's 1991 book, "Generations:The History of America's Future - 1584...
Friday, 06 February 2004 12:00 AM
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