The onset of middle age used to mean that one could ease into becoming a bland old fusspot, free from the burden of remaining attuned to the microscopic upticks of the cultural barometer. You’d have bought a reliable European sedan, started making bad jokes to waitresses and receiving all your news from Time. Blissful irrelevance was the calling card.
But thanks to a confluence of factors, the generation gap that once created a comfortable buffer between youthful folly and mundane adulthood has all but eroded. Instant Internet access to the entire history of popular culture has played a role. There’s also the trend toward flat, decentralized workplaces, where those of us who watched the Nixon impeachment sit in open offices next to co-workers who were still teens when the first African-American president was elected. And not least of all is the fact that so many forty-somethings—men and women of my generation—refuse to act their age.
We now exist in a timeless culture. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues in his new book, Present Shock (Current, $27), there is no past or future—only right now. “The present isn’t so much a culture of its own as it is an amalgamation of all the periods we’ve been through,” Rushkoff said. “And this makes it difficult to belong to a particular generation.”
The old generational identities that once defined us have broken down, and the net result is a messy temporal mashup in which forty-somethings act like skateboarders, twenty-somethings dress like the grandfather from My Three Sons, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents, and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk.
It didn’t used to be like this.
“I worked at Limbo cafe on Avenue A in the early ’90s, where The Paris Review would do readings for the drag queens, squatters and smackheads,” recalled Michael Rovner, a 42-year-old former magazine editor who is now a principal in the content marketing agency Mr. Finn Content Works. “These 45-year-old swells from the Upper East Side would show up, and it always seemed like they were crashing our party. But now I’m in my 40s and younger people don’t look at me that way. I can go see Sky Ferreira at Glasslands, though I suppose I do run the risk of being called ‘sir.’”
The lines are blurred, the edge has been dulled and the traditional timelines have been jumbled. We all now feed from the same cultural trough. And while the baby boomers are busy preparing their sloops for that sunset sail into retirement (provided their 401ks haven’t taken on too much water), the graying of Gen X has been postponed indefinitely.
While the erosion of the generation gap may seem like a positive step for society—longhairs trusting people over 30, Archie Bunker making peace with Meathead—the liberation provided by this breakdown is largely symbolic. As Rushkoff put it, “Culturally, everything is just one level deep, one search away.”
“There are no longer the same generational divides, but I think that’s also because no one is experiencing much of anything in depth,” he continued.
Which is not necessarily a condemnation of our 140-character society, or the technology that wrought it. The Internet has unlocked the creative potential of humanity, and it is making people more accountable for their actions. But for me and many of my generational cohorts, this interconnectedness has also resulted in a lot of extra homework, as we’re now expected to keep up with every new ripple in the sea of culture.
You may know, for instance, that Skrillex is the EDM dude with the weird haircut that all the suicide girl baristas had last summer—a trend that, of course, has spawned at least one Tumblr. I didn’t. So I had to do a little studying, in order to communicate intelligently with my younger co-workers.
It may sound trivial, but maintaining all this awareness is tiring business. Although I feel neither old nor outmoded, I just turned 45. Assuming I manage to walk the Earth for as long as my recently deceased father did, the first half of my life is over. By even the most generous definition, I am middle-aged. As such, I tire easily.
And I’m not alone.
“It’s gotten exhausting,” said Kyle Smith, the 46-year-old author and New York Post film critic. “I have to keep up in some ways, otherwise my cultural references risk sounding like Grampa Simpson’s. But I’m also supposed to stay on top of reality TV, Homeland, everything on HBO, the latest politician’s gaffe and whatever’s trending on BuzzFeed, Vine and Twitter? I can’t do it. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And I just don’t have the desire.”
Even when we make an effort to avoid new information, it finds us, thanks to the constant stream of social media and the omnipresence of digital devices. Sure, some of this is self-imposed. And, yes, one could move to a remote cabin in Montana and do nothing but read the works of David Foster Wallace and annotate old perfect-bound issues of The Baffler, but there isn’t much money in that kind of thing these days.
Besides, if one were truly to unplug, one would run the risk of missing out on what Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen refers to as “eye-opening intergenerational experiences.”
“Whereas once it might have been easy to slowly disconnect from pop/youth culture and fade, blissfully ignorant, into irrelevance, now ‘disconnecting’ means literally to deny yourself the full experience of a dominant cultural medium,” said Coen, who, at age 33, splits the difference between the Millennials and Generation X.
Some of my peers on the brink of middle age do succeed at ignoring the noise. Stephen Metcalf, a Slate contributor and author of the forthcoming Junk, about the unexplored relationship between Reaganism and pop culture, feels the greatest gift he’ll give to coming generations is his out-of-it-ness.
“I’d love to not seem like a used-up husk,” he said. “But realistically, if it hasn’t been on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, I haven’t heard of it.”
As an aspiring fuddy-duddy, Metcalf suspects that Generation Xers aren’t the only ones who are suffering due to the loss of the generation gap. “There’s no more ‘gap’ in the traditional sense,” he said, “but isn’t this just another theft, courtesy of the Boomers? Isn’t the Alternadad taking away his kids’ turn at self-definition?”
Take rock concerts, for example, those smoke-filled dens of electrified wizardry which young people used to seek out in defiance of their parents. Now they’re family outings. If you’ve been to venues like Madison Square Garden or the MGM Grand Garden Arena recently, you’ve probably seen second-graders rocking out to Canadian power trios and aging British quartets right alongside their guardians.
One wonders what the result of all this generational commingling will be. Will our children be forced to go to further extremes to rebel? Or maybe they’ll become archly conservative boors in response to all of this enforced hipness—the mature grown-ups we’ve not yet had the guts to become.
It would serve us right.
I know that I’m part of the problem.
My nearly 5-year-old son is well-versed in the lore of the Ramones and could offer a dissertation on the original Star Wars trilogy. His younger brother recites the lyrics to Beastie Boys songs like they were nursery rhymes. I have introduced them to the cultural totems I once cared about, but I wonder if I am shortchanging them in the process. Not to mention infantilizing myself.
(This topic was covered some in Neal Pollack’s 2007 book Alternadad: The True Story of One Family’s Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America, in which he takes his toddler to the Austin City Limits festival, among other generation-sharing adventures.)
But maybe that’s the key. There does seem to be a deeper fear of growing up for men and women of my generation—an insecurity about what comes next. Many of us can’t say with confidence whether we’ll have a job in 10 years. Or what our bank accounts will look like in 20. Retirement will be, for many, an impossibility. So perhaps as long as we act like kids, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are still young, that we have at least one more chance to get it right. Even if, in so doing, we abdicate our roles as serious, solid citizens. As adults.
I know guys whose style of dress and off-duty interests haven’t changed a lick since college. They devote their free time to movies about comic-book heroes, to video games and to fantasy football. No, they aren’t hurting anybody. But perhaps what we really need to do is put on suits and take our wives out for expensive dinners, like our dads before us.
My father was 45 when I was born—the age I am now. Although he was always youthful and athletic, even to the end, he was a child of the Great Depression, a first-generation American Jew who grew up poor and scrappy in a shared rental duplex on Detroit’s west side. He seemed to have become an adult the day he graduated law school.
In his early 50s, my father was a dark-haired force of nature in double-breasted suits who was as feared in the courtroom as he was generous outside it, and my view of what adulthood is supposed to be is modeled on this snapshot of him. He seemed older and more respected than I can ever imagine being.
When my father wasn’t working—and he was almost always working—he was reading the evening papers, listening to baseball games on WJR radio or watching old cowboy movies. The things I was interested in—punk rock, BMX bikes and National Lampoon—were simply not on my father’s radar. I didn’t take this as a lack of interest. He was loving and warm and present. He just seemed too adult to have an idea that things like Black Flag or Foto Funnies even existed.
He had his interests and I had mine. The difference was that, like most of my generation, I became defined by those interests. And have been ever since.
Perhaps what is truly lost with the erosion of the generation gap is this sense of actual adulthood—the maturity to stop caring what my interests in pop culture say about me; the comfort in being seen not as an equal, but as an elder (even if my younger co-workers stop asking me out for drinks). As Rushkoff told me, “Maybe that’s the generation gap we’re longing for—the permission to let go of the search.”