Generation Ex

Some get a decade; we get a moment

July 13, 1999

This time it's personal. High school student Reese Witherspoon leaves teacher Matthew Broderick cursing his so-called life in Election. No shocker; couldn’t be a teen film if the kids didn’t have all the options and the adults weren’t a pitiful mass of stifled redundancy.

What hurts is that the emblem of slow rot is Matthew Broderick. Wasn’t he just a teenager a minute ago himself in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of those John Hughes films that we, the youth of today, survived puberty with?

Oh, wait. That came out in 1986. Broderick is 37, and we’re not youths at all, even if it still seems to us as if we are because our place in the culture is recognized so damn late.

Once upon a time there was Generation X. I do mean once. In the World Almanacs I grew up with – kind of a pre-web thing – a generation is 20 years, maybe 25.

We got three.

Nirvana sold a few records in 1992, Clinton was elected, and the rotation seemed complete: boomers assumed political power and we post-everythings were going to inherit the counterculture or, better yet, steer the consumer culture. Finally: we were already well into our twenties. Yes, there was groaning as underground went mainstream— that's part of the drill. But admit it, my fellow Neverminders, it was a kick seeing our own ilk moping up all the attention. (though alternative stuff is not so much self-loathing— for every Kurt, Courtney, Tupac, and Trent there's a Beck, Breeders, Busta, and Bagge— as larger-than-life in a defensively small way.)

In a blink it was gone. Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, Dawson's Creek and Felicity, Teen People and Columbine, Venus Williams and Derek Jeter. Alternative rock dead in the water. Hordes of Star Search, Menudo, and the new Mickey Mouse Club alumni given everything, just as the '60s dinosaurs were. We'd always been Born Too Late. Suddenly we were Born Too Early as well. It was official: our crew— roughly 25-to-39-year-olds, though culture never breaks neatly— were the needy middle child of the latter 20th century. Caught between domineering elder sibs and spoiled youngsters.

So farewell my never-really-a-generation. We invented college rock and Lollapalooza, before that turned into cute little Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20. We had women in rock, too, before Liz Phair became Alanis Morissette, who became pedophile's delight Britney Spears. We championed rap (well, some of us), in the days when it was a genre of smart alecks instead of coddled thug-impersonators with Bill Gates dreams. We reclaimed insecure Jan on The Brady Bunch. We watched The Simpsons. We were the most ironic cast of Americans to date until we went and saw through the promise of irony. No hopes whatsoever! You know the routine.

It all comes down to numbers. Population: the less-than-fabled baby bust that lasted until boomers started breeding in full. And economics: coming of age after 1973, when the U.S. economy slipped badly, we grew up hearing that on average we'd be worse off than our parents. Better dressed for success than any cohort in history, we had it instilled in us that collectively we'd never amount to anything. Our diminutive, ripening demographic was ignored and felt even more ignored: witnessed liberalism kicked in the teeth by Reagan, endured the 1960s as a mandatory rerun, studied postmodernism and identified with the footnotes.

What are we supposed to do now? The stock market is over 10,000, Clinton is a distinctly lesser monster than Ronnie, American triumphalism has been restored, and ready to lap it up is a once-more-humongous teen population that advertisers can't stop salivating over. Thanks for letting us warm the bed for you, kids.

The group we mostly resemble is the Silent Generation, born in the 1930s, too late to be ennobled by the Depression or fight Hitler, too early for rock and roll and the heights of postwar prosperity. When Clinton was elected they winced for a different reason: it meant they'd never get to elect a president, despite holding their breath every four years since JFK. Like them, we've never shown the slightest ability to assume power.

But marginalized minorities have a lot of time to sit around telling jokes. So we've taken over comedy, coronating the nebbish so that the Silent Generation's Woody Allen becomes rule instead of exception. Compare, for example, the Adam Sandler­Mike Myers­David Spade­Chris Rock Saturday Night Live casts with the rampaging likes of John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. It's the difference between having tasted the revolution and having repeatedly watched Planet of the Apes week on The 4:30 Movie. To proudly slur my own: we've all become a bunch of wussy Jews and Canadians.

Now Myers and Sandler are big-deal movie stars, and The Spy Who Shagged Me and Big Daddy perform exorcisms of our insignificance; fantasies as much as Election, but of a universe we actually dominate. It's a trivial universe, but we'd be fools not to take it. The salvation of Sandler in Big Daddy isn't ultimately the kid he wants to adopt— it's a woman he meets who shares his love for Styx. Austin Powers has claimed back the '60s, proving in the name of freedom that things were just as insipid then as they are now. Myers even beats up on our younger tormentors, scapegoating Seth Green as the doctor's kid, Scott Evil. Boomer pop like "American Woman" and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is defanged by the credless likes of Lenny Kravitz and Everlast.

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