Reflections on the Generation X "Midlife Crisis"

Today, a friend and fellow born-in-1969er sent me the new article by critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times, on the midlife crisis of Generation X, or more specifically, the Generation X male. Let me immediately add that I presume that this material will only be potentially interesting to those middle class American men born in the mid-60s to late-70s, and to those who are otherwise related to or affected by us.

Fifteen years ago, with the cultural conversation about "Generation X" heating up, I began trying to write a theological account of my generation. That book was published in 1998 and was titled Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. I think that book, while flawed on every page, still managed to register a claim -- that popular culture discloses an influential spirit of tentativeness, wandering, and irreverence in this generation (an irreverence shown in its negation by the creation of institution-centered pieties among some) -- that held and that finds its advancement, some dozen years later, in an analysis like Scott's. The Generation X conversation died down beginning with the popular advent of interest in the "Millennials," or Generation Y, around 2001. Still, based on Virtual Faith, readers send me their research papers, theses, and random thoughts about our generation on a regular basis, so I keep up some sense of things even though I don't write about generations in the same way now.

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But once in a while, someone from my cohort checks in publicly to remind us that my generation's existential float is still going strong. For example, in 2008 there was Jeff Gordinier's readable and intuitively on-target X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking (Viking, 2008). And for what it's worth, in this new article, I think A.O. Scott is nearly pitch-perfect in his rendition of where my cohort is now, mid-life.

Scott touches on many well-established and still-relevant markers of our generation: the lack of notable generational achievements; being caught between two giant and much-ballyhooed cohorts, the Boomers and Millennials; having basted in the suspended-animation subjectivity of 1980s hiccuped grandiosity, in which it is sometimes hard to see finally what can matter in a world that has never but imploded in new ways; the relentless adolescence; the terminal irony; indeed, the ironizing of irony in an infinitely-nested ironizing.

In other words, the still-prevailing sense that our generation is a small plane that never got off the ground, but is instead spinning donuts and popping wheelies on the tarmac.

Scott finds these themes operative in recent movies and a new novel. For what it's worth, what strikes me as most "true" about Scott's analysis is the surprising permanence of the deep sense of the absurdities of adult livelihood; I think that I mean the sense of objective craziness about the system registered in shows like "The Office," except that "The Office" becomes the type for mainstream adult work, including in church and academy, of almost all shades. (See the discussion a few years ago about "Generation X" professors here.)

Or more, an everyday tragic, muted sense for the existential tradeoffs involved in acting like the obligatory adult work (and play) world is the best of all possible worlds. I have come to feel more and more grateful for this sense, even for all the difficulties it produces. Grateful because it helps me remember and act from the essential contingency of these adult arrangements, so that I find myself drawn to those who say let's be careful about how people are being treated as they go through these systems in religion and academic life.

One of the reasons I eventually sloughed off the Generation X (and other generational) analyses was that these generational matrices seemed not-so-covertly to be stories mostly about a specific cohort, so say it with me: white, middle class, and quite often, male. But given such limits, there is still something to be said about how my "generation" is making its way, especially because we are beginning to make up the "mid-career" group in academy and church. And by most indications, we are not willing to give our lives to the institution in the way that recent generations have before us: As fathers we spend more time with our children; both women and men from this cohort resist submitting to cultures of overwork; and we typically want more transparency in institutional processes and practices. These are commitments worth fighting for. But whether my generation is up for it, I'm not so sure.

Tom Beaudoin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Cross-posted to (in midlife-crisis fashion?) Rock and Theology

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