It is hard to go from cultural darling to elder statesman. That, essentially, is the takeaway from Alex Williams' piece in the New York Times reflecting upon how a bunch of formerly cool-kid Gen Xers feel about having one of their cohort, Paul Ryan, 42, in the totally stodgy and establishment role of vice presidential candidate, and a Republican one to boot.
Williams begins by reminding Gen Xers—generally agreed to be those born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s; the term for these post-Baby Boomers comes from the title of Douglas Coupland's 1991 book—that Paul Ryan, Romney's selected veep, is just like them. He "favors grunge music, Coen brothers movies and craft brews. He sprinkles the word 'awesome' into daily speech and, as a teenager, worked the ultimate 'McJob,' at McDonald’s." He's 42. So young! And yet, so very old. Williams wonders, shouldn't Gen Xers be thrilled to see one of their own on the ticket? It could very well be "a moment of unity, even pride, for a generation that hasn’t had much reason to come together since Kurt Cobain died."
Of course, it's not, for myriad reasons ranging from political to apathetical, and also because Gen X hasn't really needed to "come together" since Kurt Cobain died, or maybe some time thereafter (one notable example of this for X and Y may have actually been the 2008 election). This is because Generation X has kind of grown up, despite many fits and tantrums along the way, and moved on to different things, like their own individual lives. Gen X is no longer, as an age group, going to Lollapalooza and watching Reality Bites and Singles for life lessons and heating up Ramen for dinner. Gen Xers are instead getting really into food. They are taking care of their kids. They are showing off their prudent purchasing habits. They are attempting to find work-life balance or figuring out questions of "having it all." They have fun, too, but they are being...grown-ups, sort of, less defined by their generation than by their own chosen lives.
The clearest discontent wrought at any age by knowing that someone of one's own age is running for vice president (or president) is discontent over aging itself. (Baby Boomers: How do you feel about Mitt Romney? Or did you feel about George Bush?) No generation likes to think itself getting old, pushed past relevance or the point of focus, and poor Gen Xers already feel very strongly about the way Gen Y or "the Millennials" have come in and dominated all this talk of "twentysomethings" and how they live. Gen Xers, alas, are no longer those twentysomethings to whom everyone is looking for indications the future, good or bad. Gen Xers are no longer so collectively interesting, no longer so cool or topical or rebellious or surprising as an age group. Gen Xers have been around too long, they're more establishment than anti, and they're just people, at the end of the day, not a new buying-and-behaving power that society hasn't quite figured out and therefore finds worthy of constant, breathless, analysis. And then, like added insult to injury, there is Paul Ryan.
Williams, though, does the due diligence necessary for the article. He talks to an array of savvy Gen-X types now in their 40s: Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation), Johnny Knoxville (Jackass), Jordan Kurland (manager for Death Cab for Cutie), Vice's Shane Smith, and others. Wurtzel, it should be noted, recently wrote a piece for Harper's Bazaar on looking better at 45 than 25. How very Gen X!
What do all these Gen Xers have to say?
“From a vanity standpoint, it makes you feel a bit old to have a person from your generation on the presidential ticket,” said the actor Johnny Knoxville, 41, of “Jackass” fame. “And it’s embarrassing that it’s Paul Ryan. I wonder if the Germs ever felt this way about having Belinda Carlisle as their first drummer.”
Also, no, we are not ready for this, and yes, this is too soon. We are still Gen X, say the Gen Xers, the generation that made the alphabetical "Generation" name stick, even if that was really Douglas Coupland, and not the kids at all. Williams writes, "'This is the generation that has fought the hardest to maintain a state of arrested development,' Mr. Kurland said. 'How did we get to this place where we are allegedly responsible adults?'"
At least a few members of Gen X are still experiencing growing pains. So, reactions from a few Gen Xers informed that they may have something in common with Paul Ryan explain he's not really Gen X at all. He was always an achiever, a man with goals, a congressman from an early age, possessed of neither ennui nor rage. The indicator of Gen X is not to care, not to fall under the thumb of the man, and just to "find yourself," says Billboard's Joe Levy. If Paul Ryan doesn't count as a real Gen Xer, Gen Xers don't have to worry. Gen Xers are still young!
Of course, quite a lot of Gen Xers, having "found themselves," are now married and having children and succeeding in their chosen careers. You could argue that the torch of "finding oneself" has pretty clearly been passed down the line, and that talk otherwise is just a way to coddle Gen Xers. If you're still "finding yourself" by your mid-40s, you may have failed to see what's already been discovered, one could argue.
Depressingly, despite having quoted various voices of Gen Xers, Williams concludes that there may be no voice for Gen X at all:
In the end, who is to say if Representative Ryan is a worthy Gen X icon? The cohort is noticeably lacking in voice-of-a-generation types to serve as arbiters. Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix are dead. The MTV executives who gave the world “Alternative Nation” now refuse to discuss Gen X because, a network spokeswoman explained, it’s all about the Millennials now.
But I think generations of any age should take heart in the fact that a future, horribly annoying new generation will someday rise and take over, and the generation who proceeded them will be forced to find gray hairs and note wrinkles and bemoan vice presidential candidates who do or do not reflect their views as a generation. Circle of life! On the upside for Gen Xers and those who may follow in their footsteps by getting old, too: If the cultural "think pieces" are still being written about you, maybe you're not so old, after all. To paraphrase a talking point from Wurtzel, 45 is the new 25.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.