Friday, May 07, 2010

Generation X Enters Middle Age

A surprisingly interesting article by A.O. Scott in the New York Times. Unlike previous generations who had mid-life crises, for those of us in Generation X, it is better called a Mid-Life Disappointment: the realization that we aren't kids anymore, and we really missed many opportunities and made some bad choices along the way. And some recent books and films reflect this:
When markedly similar characters and stories start popping up everywhere, it’s more than a trend. It’s what those of us raised on vintage postmodernism call a historical phenomenon. So an intertextual analysis of “Greenberg,” “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “The Ask” (for starters) yields a startling composite portrait of the Gen X male in midlife crisis. Earlier versions of the crisis were, by and large, reactions against social norms. Members of the Greatest Generation and the one that came right after — the “Mad Men” guys, their wives and secretaries — settled down young into a world where the parameters of career and domesticity seemed fixed, and then proceeded, by the force of their own restlessness, to blow it all up.

This pattern repeated itself in the next decades, yielding variations on a story everyone seems to know. At a certain point, Dad buys a sports car, or starts a rock band, or has an affair or walks out on Mom or quits the law firm to make goat cheese. When this kind of thing happens to Mom, it’s not a crisis but an awakening. In any case, the driving impulse is to shake off the straitjacket of adulthood and find some way to feel young again.

But what if you never gave up adolescence in the first place? What if you donned the binding garment of maturity only tentatively, and accessorized it with mockery, as if it were a hand-me-down from Grandpa or an ugly shirt plucked from a used-clothing rack? And what if, from the start, your youthful rebelliousness had been a secondhand entitlement, without a clear adversary? These are the elements of Roger Greenberg’s predicament, which is shared by Milo Burke and the three 40-somethings who journey back to 1986 in “Hot Tub Time Machine.” They all seem stuck in an earlier phase of life, which wasn’t so great to begin with: Milo’s dorm room bull sessions and sexual escapades; Roger’s rock ’n’ roll dreams; that crazy time at the ski lodge with snow, cocaine, sex and spandex as far as the eye could see.

A far better question is, "But what if the parameters of career and domesticity were tenuous and undefined to begin with?" The midlife disappointment is, more often than not, because of an inability to reach the parameters of career and domesticity that the older generation was rebelling against, but, to many of us in Generation X, seemed just fine, we never having it to begin with. This is particularly true for those who came from broken homes.
What follows that less-than-storied youth is regret, an intimation of lost possibilities that haunts everyone. There is, first of all, the squandered ambition, the professional road not taken. Milo, who was going to be the greatest painter of his time, slowly gave that up and ran aground in the world of nonprofit fund-raising. Roger balked at a record deal and lost his chance at success, just like Nick, the pet groomer in “Hot Tub Time Machine.” And then there are the former and potential girlfriends — the ones who got away but will never quite go away, tantalizing each sad-sack midlifer with visions of a bliss that might have been if he hadn’t screwed it up.

Other exemplary figures pop up repeatedly in these stories, most notably the successful friend (or, in Roger Greenberg’s case, brother) who rubs your face in your own failure and the members of a younger generation on hand to do the same thing by different means.

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