Generation X, Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, describes the supposedly
listless, sullen, slacking members of its title age group as inhabitants of
"mental ground zero -- the location where one visualizes oneself during the
dropping of the atomic bomb: frequently a shopping mall." And though Coupland
wasn't necessarily aiming for clairvoyance, his choice of metaphor seems
chilling today, given that last week's apocalyptic destruction of the World
Trade Center no doubt redefined the latter half of Generation X.
Within pop-cultural parlance, the term "Generation X" seems dated. And it is,
especially in contrast to the cutesy terms coined during the teen-pop-dominated
dot-com era -- a time when a demographic of disaffection segued into a glittery
thing called both "Generation Y" and the "Nintendo Generation." But
classifying age groups in terms of luxuries like video games, purchasing power,
and musical taste now seems outmoded. After a day like September 11, 2001, our
cataloguing tools may need some recalibration.
Think about it this way: depending on what source you check, the youngest
members of Generation X are either 23 or 24 years old, and the oldest are 36;
Generation Y spans the ages of approximately 15 to 22. A 36-year-old was a
teenager during the throes of the Cold War and the arms race, and nine or 10
when the Vietnam War ended; a 24-year-old wasn't alive during Vietnam and
barely remembers Ronald Reagan's first term. That leaves a large cleavage
between the two ends of the Gen X spectrum.
Generations shouldn't be defined by pop-culture benchmarks, but by historical
events that alter the collective consciousness. Take me, for example. I'm 25.
By some flimsy measuring tool, I'm more Gen X than Gen Y, more
Nirvana than 'N Sync. But I don't really fit into either category. People
10 years older than I am, after all, remember life when nuclear meltdown loomed
darkly over each day. Sure, I have vague memories of hearing about the horrors
of The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie about post-nuclear holocaust.
But such doomsday scenarios never had much effect on my world-view, mostly
because at the age of seven, I could still disentangle myself emotionally from
things I couldn't comprehend.
That same youthful detachment shades much of my generation's experience with
American national tragedy, and I think that this separates today's
twentysomethings from today's thirtysomethings. My experience with national
sorrow began when the Challenger exploded, when I was in fourth grade.
When my elementary-school teacher got word of the accident, she collapsed into
a chair and sank her head into her arms. No one in my class could figure out
what was going on, but we obviously sensed that it was something grave. Then a
boy heading down the hall with a bathroom pass jumped through our open
classroom door and said, "Didja hear that a teacher blew up?" His squeaky voice
hit a note somewhere between excitement and confusion. My teacher shooed him
away, but in her red eyes we sensed that he wasn't lying. A half-hour of
silence followed, but my classmates and I were so astounded that the teacher
was crying -- at that age, teachers are still invincible -- that we whispered
and passed notes about it. That way, we could ignore the fact that a tragic
accident had just occurred.
The same sort of naive disengagement allows kids to feel enmity without
understanding. For us, hatred began when we heard that the Soviets were bad
people: my neighborhood pals and I often played "Americans and the
Commies," a version of cops-and-robbers. Later on, in elementary school, we
were told to revile Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, so most of us did -- not
because he was connected to a terrorist attack on American military barracks,
but because his rubbery face was so ugly. A few years passed, and we saw
Europeans partying on the Berlin Wall, an act that quelled our anti-Communist
spite, mainly because social-science teachers made us write essays about how
"the world had changed" and how "Communism had fallen." But as awkward,
obnoxious teens, we needed a new figure to hate. And since Tipper Gore wanted
to raise G-rated kids in a G-rated world -- her anti-censorship
army had already tried to snatch away our Prince and 2 Live Crew tapes --
we whined about the oppressive Parents Music Resource Center.
High school brought the Gulf War. And though images of moustached Saddam
Hussein became the bull's-eye of our rancor, I often wondered whether the
critics were right -- whether we were really bombing Iraq so that we could keep
our houses warm and our cars lubed. But eventually, noise about the Middle East
quieted down, so it became easier and easier to ignore the rest of the earth.
Instead, we pointed fingers at bad guys within our own borders: Bill Gates was
a symbol of greed, monopoly, and tyranny; Starbucks and its $4 venti caramel
macchiatos were emblems of corporate evil because they helped
close down our cool coffee shops.
But we twentysomethings never really relinquished our naïveté.
In the last eight or so years of unprecedented prosperity, years when we
were supposed to be maturing and growing up and taking
responsibility and preparing to be leaders, we had a fat cushion of
wealth, national security, celebrities, movie theaters, cell phones, clubs,
party pals, micro-brewed beers, designer drugs, and dot-com jobs. At least
thirtysomethings (the frontline of Generation X) had already felt the burn of
the early-'90s recession, when joblessness had them paying rent to Mom
and Dad. At least they knew this opulence had an expiration date. Most of us
didn't, and unmitigated prosperity allowed us to stay ignorant, screw
around, and act spoiled, jaded, and exclusive.
UNTIL LAST week, the phrase "die for your country" smacked of oppression and
backslapping machismo to many of my peers: why would you die for a label?
Before last week, I'd never seen real national unity, real similarities between
Texans and Bostonians, real brotherhood. Genuine displays of patriotism gave me
the creeps: unguarded allegiance to anything seemed so gauche, so
suburban -- unless you were a veteran or Kid Rock, or it was the Fourth of
July. Only with a wink and a snide sense of irony did it seem fitting to walk
around with an American flag on your chest. But irony, it seems now, is a
product of luxury and security -- as are sarcasm, snobbery, and criticism. Last
Tuesday's terrorist attacks struck all those public indulgences down, at least
In her essay "The White Album," Joan Didion writes about her discovery of
personal mortality after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis: "I had, at
this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what
it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did
indeed have the knife." And last Tuesday, as America realized that if we left
our windows open, the stranger with the knife might actually crawl in, people
my age were shocked to learn of the stranger's existence. As Didion elaborates,
"The improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only
to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning,
could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone."
For us twentysomethings, it meant that blaring sirens could be the horsemen of
the Apocalypse, that AP news feeds could be inextricably linked to horror, and
that even Howard Stern (who once wondered on air why the Columbine kids didn't
try to have sex with the good-looking girls before they shot the place up)
could rise to the occasion and demand that tabloid reporters use their
extraordinary skill at smoking out celebrities to hunt down terrorists.
It meant that Times Square could be eerily vacant, that MTV's Carson Daly
could hint at undergoing self-evaluation, and that the Big City -- where
friends went to chase dreams, and where everything was cooler, dirtier, and
open later -- could erupt into an epochal nightmare.
For twentysomethings, last Tuesday also meant that we could die. Personally, I
don't think I was entirely convinced that Americans under 30 were destructible
until last week. A month ago, I would've told you that of course we are
mortal, of course I could get caught in crossfire, of course I
could be diagnosed with terminal cancer tomorrow. But on some subconscious
level, I didn't believe it: I thought mortality nabbed Americans after our
children were in kindergarten, after we'd bought a house, or after we turned
But as it turns out, we're not invincible. Jobs can dwindle, cash flow can dry
up, and Asia isn't just a place to go backpacking. Anyone old enough to be
incensed and frightened by last week's calamity, yet young enough to have never
known America vulnerable, now knows for certain that everything isn't
rosy. Sadly, we had to learn this in one of the worst ways possible.
Every day, I wake up and think I've grasped the magnitude of this tragedy,
accepted the fact that we've been attacked, come to terms with the reality that
someone overseas who knows nothing about me wants me dead. But each new day
brings new videotape, new testimony, new perspectives, new headlines, new
evidence of the violent racist backlash brewing here at home. By the time this
is published, America could be at war, the stock market could have bottomed
out. Undoubtedly, the world -- still uncomprehending -- will still be
bracing itself for the future.
So where does that leave us? We could employ clichés: the end of
innocence, the future is ours, life will never be the
same, the end of ignorance, the rules have changed. But platitudes
seem garishly irresponsible, given that more than 5000 people are dead and that
we, an unprepared straggle of twentysomethings, will inherit the repercussions
of a monumental terrorist attack. Maybe we've just witnessed the end of
unbridled irony. Maybe a coddled generation that bathed itself in sarcasm will
get serious. Maybe we'll stop acting so jaded and start addressing the
problem. Maybe not. Maybe we don't know where the events of the last week
have left us, and maybe that's the least shocking thing we've learned.
For myself, the story isn't all bad. Like many of my twentysomething brethren,
I am a product of a broken marriage. And in my personal narrative, at least one
good thing came of last Tuesday's cataclysm. On September 11, 2001, for the
first time in 20 years, my 64-year-old mother told my 70-year-old father that
she loved him. Two weeks ago, I would've been embarrassed by the moment; last
week it practically moved me to tears.
Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: September 21 - 27, 2001