According to Vice, Generation X has "ruined the world." As someone born in the early '80s and who was a teenager in the '90s, I've often felt more lumped in with the last dregs of Gen X—encompassing those born between 1965 and 1980—than as a harbinger of the Millennial Generation. My existence beginning at the cusp of a generational shift, I took a particular interest in Theis Duelund's article, especially as Duelund blames Gen X for the perceived nihilism and narcissism of the Millennials.
Generation X has a lot more to do with our current shitshow than they believe. I’m not blaming them for the way the world looks—that’s on the Boomers—but our big brothers and sisters in Gen X screwed up our cultural priorities by teaching Millennials that self-obsession is the highest mark of cultural capital.
Writing as a Millennial defending his generation to a world that sees young adults today as the most narcissistic ("selfies," etc.) and useless ("selfies," etc.) generation ever, Duelund's piece is definitely worth a read. The man makes a number of intriguing points, but his fixation with and depiction of the 1990s—"the best decade this part of the world has ever seen," a time when capitalism seemed to be working—is a bit strange, and prevents his conclusions from building into lasting statements.
For Duelund, the 1990s just is—in his article, the '90s simply popped into existence, completely untouched by the decades preceding it. There is not a single mention of the 1980s or how the '90s might be seen as a reaction to a decade (and generation) oft remembered for the line "Greed is good" or the works of Bret Easton Ellis, particularly Less Than Zero and American Psycho. (I can't think of a much stronger statement regarding outward appearance and presentation than the business card fetishism of the latter novel.) Stranger still, Duelund admits that Millennials seem to be in the throes of '90s nostalgia and that "Pop chanteuses trying to establish personal brands have found 1990s nostalgia an unusually rich vein to mine." Of course, some of the success of '90s nostalgia is due to aging (and far more economically affluent) Gen Xers reliving their glory days, but much of it has to be laid at the feet of Millennials who want to emulate the slacker identity perfected in the '90s. But there is no mention that Millennials are also echoing the fashions of the 1980s, dressing like extras from Pretty in Pink and listening to New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen. Even in this micro-age of '90s nostalgia, this '80s revival is still going on. (Have you heard that new Twin Shadow song and/or most anything featured on Pitchfork?) Hell, some young people today look like refugees from a '70s film and soundtrack their lives with neo-psychedelia from the likes of Tame Impala, the Black Angels, Chris Cohen, and [insert band from Austin's Psychfest here]; others appear to have wandered out of a '60s sit-in (in dress and/or philosophy), speaking about "revolutions" and "the Man," seeing in Edward Snowden and the Occupy Movement a return to a vocal and active countercultural moment once thought relegated to the past.
Where Duelund sees his generation as tainted by the 1990s, he makes no attempt to show how Generation X may have been shaped by the 1970s, where the idealism and hope of the '60s died (perhaps in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles), and the 1980s, the birth of the yuppies and the Reagan Era. He could also say that Millennials in their obsession with all things "retro" and "vintage" (from the rise in popularity of vinyl, faux-Wayfarer sunglasses, floral print shirts, and country club-style dress) have failed to learn from the failures and shortcomings of their older brothers and sisters, and their aunts and uncles, even their grandparents. As with many generations in their prime, Millennials today, like Gen Xers in the mid-'90s, seem to have no established identity—in many ways, they are still wrestling with the generational identities of the decades previous—and in the absence of such an identity seem quite willing to appropriate the attitudes, cultures, and fashions of generations past. (At least their idea of these attributes and defining characteristics.) Like Generation X, Millennials will be defined first by grey hairs decrying their self-obsession and, only later, by themselves and their accomplishments, often when their "moment has passed" and the cultural spotlight moves on to another crop of whiny, useless brats. And that day is not far off; very soon there will be thirteen-year-olds who were born after the tragic (and defining) events of 9/11, and who will truly be the first generation to grow up in a world defined the internet as we know it today, especially its social aspects.
On Wednesday, I attended a lecture by Jeremy Epstein, a former Microsoft employee and now VP of Marketing for Sprinklr. He noted that in the 1990s, the internet was not disruptive—email was merely faster mail, online shopping was faster catalogue shopping, and so on. Today, the social aspects of the internet make it far more disruptive. One only has to take a look at social media's role in the Arab Spring, the fact that Turkey recently banned Twitter use in the country, the Occupy Movement, even the outrage about "pink slime," when one woman took down an entire company, a feat unthinkable in the less disruptive internet age of the '90s. Yes, there is a growing current of disdain for "Twitter activism"—some decrying it as self-serving, others saying it's literally the least people can do and hinders any real activism and change, many feeling it is just another symptom of "peak outrage," etc.—but it is impossible to ignore the fact that the online world has changed significantly from the dial-up, Netscape, AOL-tinged '90s (and that the "real world" has been shaped by these technological trends). Much of this evolution will become part of the identity and narrative that emerges about the Millennials, just as the trends of the '90s came to define Gen Xers in all those grungy shades of grey, plaid, and coffee stains.
Instead of pointing fingers (Millennials blaming Gen Xers and Baby Boomers for failing them, Gen Xers blaming Baby Boomers for the initial failure and Millennials for being too self-obsessed to save us, etc.), the more interesting avenues to explore are "When is a generation truly defined, and by who?" and "How will the rise of the Social Age shape the definition of the Millennials?" In many ways, we get to watch this definition crystallize over the coming years—Millennials will soon be (if they are not already) the generation, just as Gen Xers were in the 1990s. As "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the Clinton era of economic prosperity and relative peace, and Reality Bites have become part of the way we imagine Generation X, so too will the gains in the fight for marriage equality, Flappy Bird, and the golden age of superhero films come to be part of the definition of the Millennials.
And, at the end of the day, that ain't too shabby, Millennials.