Gen X is best prepared for our quarantine moment - GulfToday

Gen X is best prepared for our quarantine moment


If you’ve got a webcam and an internet connection, you can still host dinner parties, happy hours, karaoke sessions and more. Tribune News Service

Christopher Borrelli, Tribune News Service

As I sit down to write this piece about Generation X and coronavirus, I’m seeing author Betsy Byars died in February at 91, from complications after a fall. I was not a big reader as a child but I read Betsy Byars, because Betsy Byars, I get now, got Generation X. She wrote about kids who wade into the neighbour’s swimming pool at night and imagine a life with attentive parents (“The Night Swimmers,” 1980); kids who handle themselves in foster homes (“The Pinballs,” 1976); kids who are stumbling through a haze of ennui and general discontent, forced to look after themselves (“Summer of the Swans,” 1970).

She wrote about a generation of kids forever expecting disaster — a generation of kids whose early 1970s was defined by endless disaster films. You say that you know another year is ending because “Elf” is all over cable? As a child, I knew another year had passed because “The Towering Inferno” was the Sunday night movie on NBC again, a beloved annual tradition that happened over many, many, many hours, for two nights no less.

So when I notice that social media lately is awash in Facebook posts and Twitter threads full of righteous people arguing why their generation is more uniquely suited to weather this pandemic, sorry but I reach for my Generation X card — which states there, in the fine print:

“Nobody loves you and everyone will leave you.” Boo hoo, you say?

Fine, who cares, never mind, like it matters, wish I was never born.

As a child, I returned home from school to an empty house, with a kitchen clock radio playing some desolate Neil Young or yearning Harry Chapin. Then I settled into documentaries about Nostradamus’ predictions for the end of world. Or “Sanford and Son.” When I rode my bike to 7-Eleven, I read closely any story in any magazine that outlined where the Soviets would drop bombs and how much preparation time I needed. (Spoiler: There was never enough.) My point is, swap in Lana Del Rey, dystopian YA fiction and Greta Thunberg’s frozen expression of disgust, and the Latchkey Generation could almost play like shag-carpeted coming-attractions of the Social Distancing Generation.

That’s not a provocation or boast or joke. (Before the coronavirus pandemic is over and socialization returns to public life, this country will go through a mental health maelstrom of melancholy that dwarfs the high-lonesome in any slouchy ‘70s sitcom theme.) But being Generation X, I’m not a joiner, and I’m not here to fight your generation wars. I do however feel weirdly prepared for alienation. I mean, I used to wonder if jail would be a good thing — all that time to read Isaac Asimov paperbacks and Lorrie Moore? In bed?

Gen X wasn’t ordered to self-isolate, we preferred it. Which is nothing to glorify. It was never pretty. Mostly it was kind of oppressive.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the teen suicide rate climbed almost 40% between 1970 and 1980. Nuclear war — and what to do when, as Thomas Pynchon famously described it, “a screaming comes across the sky” — was never far from your mind, more like an inevitability than a chance. Think the federal government was slow on coronavirus? The HIV epidemic lasted years before anyone acted. Cities went bankrupt, divorce felt more common than not, boredom abounded (see “Dazed and Confused”) and, as many critic has whined ever since, Top 40 radio played like a slow anesthetic drip.

Hard as it is to imagine this from any White House in the past 40 years, Jimmy Carter, in 1979, during prime time, told Americans they faced “a crisis of confidence.” He noted an “invisible threat” that “strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” He mentioned the assassinations of the ‘60s, the failure of Vietnam, the corruption of Nixon, he used words like “stagnation,” “paralysis” and “drift,” then warned of a broken social contract, “a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” He never actually said the word “malaise,” but it became known as his “Malaise Speech.”

It’s worth reading now, with the country sinking into collective unease.

But it’s not encouraging. It’s very ‘70s, a cold necessary reality about disaffection and the breakdown of a nation’s mettle, and the risk of a shallow, complacent culture. It’s the sort of locker room speech that leaves an earnest politician defenseless. Indeed a year later, Carter lost both the presidency and tone of the country to the hollow optimism of Ronald Reagan, forever certifying that irony and sarcasm become the defining characteristics of Gen X (while installing a gallows humour that might serve it particularly well in the coming months).

If you’re wondering if your generation is up to this fresh fight with a virus, it’s worth noting that despite dealing with the now-obviously crushing weight of existential dread, Gen X was known in its day for having it easy and not being up for any fight. They were seen as merely withdrawn, pampered, noncommittal. Each succeeding generation catches lots of criticism from its immediate elders. But Gen X: The Vietnam generation called them ineffective, the World War II generation complained they never faced a life-or-death test and the Great Depression folks saw only coddled, spoiled grandchildren who had never been touched by real struggle.

Now Generation X is playing caregiver and begging those same boomers to stay home, meanwhile sneering at Gen Zers heading to spring break and the millennials who went to bars for St. Patrick’s Day.

As a Gen Xer, it’s tempting to say such clueless disregard is exactly the dystopian vision that Gen X understood best and younger generations perfected — what is “The Hunger Games” but a protest against for the eat-or-be-eaten-ism installed by boomer parents? Except author Suzanne Collins is a late-period boomer herself. And Byars, who knew so well the alienation of a generation spacing out with “The Brady Bunch,” was born before the Great Depression.

Alienation existed before coronavirus.

You can weather this. Lonesomeness is not a generational right. The social contract was thin long before Generation X noticed just how porous it could grow. And of course stupidity is bottomless and callousness is ageless. Take it from a Gen Xer who fought hard at the “Battle of the Network Stars.” OK, fine, who just watched it in his pajamas. But no, that’s not sarcasm.

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