Two days ago, a student told me that because I was born in 1974, therefore I am a member of something called “Generation X”. So yesterday I googled around for a while to find out what that means. In the process I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the music of my generation is not so bad.
So while cooking and cleaning up my house yesterday, I built a playlist of Oasis and Radiohead and Pearl Jam. Listening to all this great music, which I apparently missed, has made me wonder where I fit in the world. There are whole “generational” experiences associated with that era of music that I didn’t have.
What generation am I? According to one schema, popularised by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, Generation X is everyone born between 1961 and 1981, roughly the first round of children born to Baby Boomers. According to another, I’m from the “Baby Bust” generation, the period from 1967 to 1979 when birth rates tended to decline. Whatever the precise category, sociologists and newspaper columnists were saying we were slackers, “reluctant to grow up”, apathetic, cynical, disaffected, distrustful of authority, and generally ridiculous.
Another phrase I found to define my generation is “latch-key children”, that is, kids who carried their house keys on their persons because when they got home from school their parents were not yet home from work. My mom was always home so I was never one of those; but I shared with latch-key kids the experience of playing mostly outside, climbing trees or scaling the rockfaces of the Elora Gorge. We had games of Capture The Flag, riding around the village and the farm fields and parks outside the village, on our banana-seat bicycles, over a territory which measured something like three by nine kilometers. I might have been among the last “free range” kids, who could play outside with almost no supervision. But don’t misread me: I have very little nostalgia for that time. I was also the target of some very severe bullying from other kids back then, and the main reason I went on to my PhD was so that no one would ever push me around like that again.
One marker of generational membership is one’s age when certain society-changing technologies became available. I first got internet when I was an undergrad, and I got my first mobile phone during my PhD. (I organize the history of my life by what degree I was working on at the time.) But maybe a greater sign of your generation is the way in which you grapple with what your predecessors left you. I remember early in my Masters degree days having long conversations with my peers about how the baby-boomers in academia were refusing to retire “on time”, with the result that by the time we graduated there would be no academic jobs for us. As it turned out, when the boomers did eventually retire, the economy crashed and therefore universities hired us as adjuncts and sessionals instead of as real profs, and a lot of us dropped out of academia altogether.
To this day, I still feel as if a defining experience of my generation is of having been screwed by the Boomers. Boomers were in charge of the economy and the body-politic when the economy crashed, when global warming and climate change became more evident and nearly irreversible, when the the social-welfare safety nets that the Boomers themselves benefited from were gutted, when well-paying industrial jobs were exported overseas, and when we were put massively in debt by student loans. To this day the boomers refuse to let go of political power: it’s noteworthy, in my view, that both current candidates for the US presidency are boomers. And it’s the boomers telling the younger generations that their problems are their own fault because of “entitlement” or a supposed lack of individual initiative.
The end result of all this is that here in my early 40’s, I can’t help but feel out of place. And this is partly because of what happened to my demographic, and partly because of my own life decisions. I look back on my life and I see a certain pattern: a series of movements from one social world to another because of a feeling of non-belonging. As a kid I became a consumate recluse because I did not feel at home among the bullish and narcissistic asshole kids at my primary school. In my teens I made a point of not listening to most pop music, nor punk nor metal nor goth, because the kids who did listen to it were too cool to give me the time of day. I didn’t feel like one of them, so I didn’t listen to their music. After that, I entered the pagan world because I didn’t feel at home in Christianity: the doctrine of original sin seemed to me obviously wrong. I pursued higher education because I didn’t feel at home among the party-going upper-middle-class “preps” of my late teens and early 20s; nor did I feel at home in the factories and warehouses where I got my first real jobs. I entered left-wing activism, especially in labour unions, because I didn’t feel at home in capitalism: at the time, I felt that the local economy was a rigged game, designed to keep me out. I went to live in Newfoundland, then in my father’s country, Ireland, because I didn’t feel at home in Ontario. Then I went back to Ontario because I didn’t feel at home in Newfoundland or in Ireland– also because I couldn’t find jobs out there. I sometimes feel out of place when I am single, but when in a relationship I often feel like an imposter, as if I don’t really deserve to be loved; consequently I’ve never held a girlfriend for longer than about two years, and I’ve come to prefer living alone. I don’t feel fully at home in the pagan world anymore: I’m tired of the infighting, and the competition for attention, validation, and ideological purity. Finally, although I own a house here in west Quebec, and although I love my job and I love the Gatineau Hills National Park– still, whenever I go anywhere else in this city or in Ottawa, I still don’t feel fully at home. It’s partially the language barrier, but its also the culmination of all those movements in my life, where no matter what was going on around me, I felt as if I didn’t belong.
I’m not asking for counselling or “help”; I’m certainly not asking for commiseration or pity. I’m asking whether anyone else has a similar experience. I would like you to reason with me about these feelings. I’d like to know if it’s my generation, or if it’s just me. And I’d like to know where I fit in, if I fit anywhere at all.