Andrew Potter: My fellow Gen Xers don't appreciate our great gift: we were ignored

Everyone I grew up with thanks their lucky stars that there were no smartphones around when we were growing up.

Like a crazed remix of My Bloody Valentine releasing a new album and Marshal McLuhan stepping into the frame outside the movie theatre in Annie Hall, Generation X author Douglas Coupland stormed into the pages of The Globe and Mail last week with a wonderfully pissy rant about how the generation he gave a name to had been screwed yet again. 

The proximate cause of Coupland’s anger was the waffling by government and public health officials over the AstraZeneca vaccine. When vaccine-eligible Boomers across the country dragged their feet at signing up to receive AZ, holding out for the classier (and supposedly safer) Pfizer or Moderna shot, officials across the country quickly dropped the age of eligibility for AZ to 45 and up. Gen Xers stampeded to the sign-up sheets and eagerly gobbled their AZ like a pack of sour Chews. 

But within a few weeks there was growing alarm over a number of cases of AZ-related blood clotting, including a handful of deaths. One by one, the provinces stopped administering it as a first dose to newly-eligible cohorts, and the latest suggestion is that there might have to be some mix-and-matching for second doses. In due course, the AZ vaccine was, in the parlance of our age, “cancelled.”

The whole episode annoyed Coupland for a bunch of different reasons, including the snobbery surrounding mRNA-based vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna as well as the completely ad hoc and unscientific character of the decision-making. But what pissed him off more than anything was the herewegoagain sense that his generation, my generation, Generation X, was being given the shaft. “People my age are used to leftovers,” Coupland wrote. “When some provinces began turning off the AZ tap this week, I don’t think there was even one remotely surprised 50-year-old in the country.”

Coupland was drawing from a widespread feeling that getting screwed over, neglected, ignored is just part of what it means to be Gen X. There’s even a great little 90s-era lit-crit name for it:  “Gen X erasure.” 

And just as a sense of futurelessness, futility and invisibility catalyzed the original Generation X mentality in the early 90s (as well as the music, art, film and writing that mentality made manifest), this atavistic indignation spurred Coupland to write his wonderful screed. It’s great stuff, with quotable lines in every paragraph. (I especially liked “Immunology is not a smorgasbord. How dare you make us subsidize your cluelessness with our bodies.”)

But I want to take issue with the claim that this is a case of Gen X getting screwed yet again. As a fully paid-up member of Gen X, I’ve grown to appreciate over the decades the extent to which the greatest gift you can give a generation is to ignore them. 

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Let’s back up a bit. Does Generation X even exist? Does any generation exist for that matter? Sociologists and demographers argue that the concept of a “generation,” be it Boomer, Millennial, Zoomer, what have you, is just the result of confusing cohort effects with generational effects. The idea of distinct generations might be good for selling soft drinks or cars or condos or nostalgia, but there is nothing remotely predictive or explanatory about it. 

But as I’ve argued before, this just misunderstands what a generation is, and the role they play in our ongoing cultural self-understanding. Whatever else it is, a generation is something that has its own tastes and moods and fashions and jargon, its own sense of what is in and what is out, what is cool and what’s square, and who belongs and who does not. In short, more than anything else a generation is a scene. It is about who and what you claim as your own, and who claims you. 

A big part of what helps define a generation are the battles it chooses to fight. The Boomers spent decades obsessed with their countercultural campaign against The Man, while Millennials have spent their time and energy mining the deepest recesses of identity politics. As for Generation X, our principal preoccupation was the question of authenticity and the fear of selling out. 

It is hard to underestimate the role of technology in all of this. It is commonly argued that a generation is formed by the technological ecosystem in which it grows up, and while there’s obviously something to that, what is important for Gen X is not what our technology allowed us to do, but what it protected us from. 

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In particular, what we were protected from was surveillance. I don’t know a single person I grew up with who doesn’t thank their lucky stars that there were no cellphones with cameras around when we were growing up, that there was no Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or TikTok. I can’t imagine what it is like to grow up under the glaring distributed panopticon of social media, knowing that all your friends, everyone at your school, and even your parents are watching your every move, judging your every utterance.  

In retrospect, it is obvious that the Gen X obsession with authenticity was anxiety caused by the growing rumblings of a culture in transition. The old technological ecosystem that fuelled the counterculture was gone, but the new web-enabled environment that made authenticity irrelevant hadn’t quite yet arrived. Gen X was the last generation to possess genuine subcultures that were able to remain somewhat unmolested by the digital meat grinder. 

That is why when you hear a Gen Xer talk about being the “latchkey” generation, they aren’t really complaining — they’re bragging. There’s another word for the neglect being described here, and that’s freedom

And that is why I can’t follow Douglas Coupland in describing the AZ decision-making as part of the “curse of being Gen X.” There’s no question a large amount of intergenerational condescension was involved, and there’s no question Gen X has put up with more than its share of indifference from the generations sandwiching us from above and below. But it is important to realize that all of this stems from a much broader cultural moment in which we were allowed to go where we wanted, create what we wanted, and become who we wanted, with no one really watching over us. 

If that’s a curse I’ll take it. Along with a second dose of AstraZeneca, thank you very much. 


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