30 September 2009

X-er Meme: Sell Out? Who, Me?

Since what I'm reading this week mostly comes down to the responses to the "Has Gen X Sold Out?" meme Maddie started (impetus provided by Jeff), and I've been tagged by both Maddie and KiKi, I'm letting the meme take over this week's blog round up.

In their answers, JNott redefines the question as "how do you keep your edge?" and Matt provides a Wikipedia-approved definition of "selling out" to guide us:

"Selling out" refers to the compromising of one's integrity, morality and principles in exchange for money, 'success' (however defined) or other personal gain.

Meanwhile, Lindy's just finding her edge (and likes it just fine, thank you very much), Maggie admits that maybe she has sold out, at least in her blogging, and Lynn gives us Xers some big props (thanks Lynn!).

But I think the real question is: would your early 20-something self recognize your thirty (mumble mumble) self? More importantly, would she like and respect her?

Salon.com recently reviewed the current season of Mad Men. The article included a quote I find incredibly relevant to this discussion:

The beliefs we hold most sacred, the ideas that define our identities, more often than not boil down to trends. It might take a few decades, but one day we inevitably wake up and notice that a big percentage of the individuals in our demographic were also smoking, dabbling in Buddhism, using formula, spanking their kids with a wooden spoon, getting divorced in middle age, reading Dr. Spock, becoming vegan, you name it. The very choices that feel fundamental to us are the ones that look almost hilariously clich├ęd and goofy in retrospect.

Would my grad school self recognize me now? What would she think? Can someone who lives a comfortable life still have an edge, or does driving a BMW automatically indicate that one has, in fact, become The Man?

I've always loved music and writing, but I'm also a pretty hard-headed realist. I made the dry-eyed assessment as an 18 year old high school senior that I lacked the talent to pursue a career in music, and I was wise enough to know that, while living in a hovel putting My Own Big Thoughts to paper sounds Terribly, Terribly Important, that would get VERY old in a hurry. Listen, there's no nobility in poverty. I've been there, and it wasn't fun. I think distance - and not having to worry about affording *both* groceries *and* the electric bill this month - allows us to romanticize how cool we all used to be back when two of our major food groups were ramen and store-brand peanut butter.

One of my dear friends and I recently met for drinks and were chatting about previous hard times in our lives, and, more importantly, getting through them. (She? Was a 35 year old single mother working full time in a low-paying, stressful job while going to law school at night AND putting her son through an Ivy League college. Me? Full time grad student with no funding, a brainless part time minimum-wage job, and a spouse working full time plus as much overtime as they'd give him also at minimum wage just so we could afford the aforementioned ramen and peanut butter.)

When I bailed out on grad school with the Master's, rather than continuing to the Ph.D., my happy and totally unrealistic fantasies of teaching political theory at a liberal arts school in some lovely, leafy college town evaporated, leaving confusion and disillusionment in their place. I literally didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My bookshelf is still littered with tomes from that time - books about the writing life, about how to make a living while doing good, about how to figure out My Purpose, etc. While sipping our martinis, I mused aloud to my friend that things really have turned out far better than I'd even dreamed - I live in one of the most interesting, beautiful cities in the world, doing work that I enjoy and that Does Good In The World, and I get to write here (and here) as often as I want, and some people even read it! On a regular basis!

Would Birkenstocked, hippie-style, vegetarian, no makeup, protest folk-music listening (often very rigid and self-righteous) me be pleased with ALL the choices I've made? No, she would definitely disapprove of at least some of them. But that kind of single-mindedness eventually becomes exhausting. I've definitely mellowed, and I don't think that's necessarily such a bad thing. (And I know grad school me would definitely appreciate the fact that 2009 me could be counted on to pick up the tab!)

My also-Gen-X spouse has recently been thinking along similar lines, too: what am I doing with my life? Am I creating anything that has lasting meaning? In other words: we're starting to hit the mid-life (scary thought!) re-evaluation, right on schedule. Of course, we'll bring different values to it than our parents (more Wikipedia):
Nomads [Strauss & Howe] are ratty, tough, unwanted, diverse, adventurous, and cynical about institutions. They grow up as the underprotected children of an Awakening, come of age as the alienated young adults of an Unraveling, become the pragmatic, midlife leaders of a Crisis and age into tough, post-crisis elders during a High.
Sounds about right. We're moving from "alienated" to "pragmatic." Does that mean we can no longer be a force for change? Hell, no. But these days, it's a lot less about being artistic slackers in thrift-shop grunge flipping off the world, and a lot more about being fiercely independent entrepreneurs trying to build something that has some roots and staying power. And if that brings with it the disposable income to donate to some favorite causes *and* afford a nice pair of shoes or two, I'm not going to complain.


David M. Patt, CAE said...

Great tome on growing up. (And the issues are not limited to Xers).

Pragmatism does not require loss of ideals. It just means you have a better idea of how to pursue those ideals and greater wisdom in knowing which ones are worth pursuing.

Anonymous said...

@David - totally agree. Remember in the early to mid-90s there was the panic about how that Internet fad was going to kill associations because those damn Gen Xers just wouldn't join? Now it's that social media fad and the damn Millennials. But really what's going on is that technology changes, and different generations go through different life stages, usually in a pretty predictable order.