Gen-X’ers (born 1961 – 1980) had a relatively tough go of it when compared with other generations. In our early childhood we were either ignored or reviled (60’s and 70’s), and once we got to young adulthood, we were alienated and generally dismissed.
By the time we hit midlife (in just the last few years for the first Gen X’ers) we were a pretty jaded bunch. But we also had something unique from all those years attending the school of hard knocks: pragmatism. This generation, more than any other, does not have any illusions about the way the world is. We know what we need to do to get by in the world and we generally set about doing it. For the most part we don’t have high ideals or visions of world peace, but we understand how to get things done.
Barack Obama is an excellent example of this ethic. Although he talks often of ideas, hope and vision, these are more of a marketing effort to get the Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Millennials (born 1981 – 2005) to get on board with the direction. That, in itself, is a very pragmatic move. Rather than grabbing onto an ideology (as a Boomer might) he focuses instead on the goal and considers everything he needs to get done to get to the goal. Gen-X’ers are generally great marketers because they can craft the message to meet their market. I realize that there is some argument about whether Obama is Generation-X or not – more on that in a future post.
Individualism is also a hallmark of Generation-X. From our early years we had to go it alone, and most of us got pretty good at it. Later in life some of us are discovering that it can get pretty lonely without a cohesive peer group, and we are reaching out for community (see my previous article on Gen-X community). That, I believe, is the beginning of the disillusionment that also seems to nag our generation.
No Illusions lead to Disillusioned
The world that Gen-X grew up on was not desperate, not when you compare it with earlier cycles, such as the period between the Great Depression and the end of WWII. It was, however, a time of great discord and chaos. Institutions crumbled, and opinions became more varied and oppositional. It was near impossible to have a cohesive world-view, and the only one that worked well was Machiavellian: The ends justify the means. Gen-X knew better than to harbor any illusions about what was coming next, and that has led to a general sense of disillusionment.
In my own life I have played out this cycle in many ways. As a youth I was fired up about politics and ideology, but it quickly became apparent that the world had enough ideologists, and making a living should be my priority. After paying my own way through college and graduating at the age of 26, I started looking for job. My degree was in Fermentation Science, and I had several years of winemaking experience. But there were no jobs in winemaking up in Oregon where I was living, and the future started to look pretty bleak. What other skills did I have? Even with a college degree that was very vocational, my prospects were limited.
Eventually I found a position at a local brewpub that was starting up, and I became the head brewer for the place. It was a great job, and fit perfectly with my background, but I found that after just two years I was getting restless and bored with the work. By this point I had started a family (Caleb was born in 1996) and I knew I was going to be the main provider.
Thinking back through the early portion of my career I am struck by how on my own I was professionally. There was no institution or organization helping me find my way, and I am not sure if I would have accepted help from one anyway. Like most in my generation, I was used to going it alone. I certainly had lots of individuals that helped me along the way, but I never had the feeling of a team moving through life together (for more on this topic, see my post on Generational networks).
Fast-forward to today. I am 42 years old, with a wife and two kids (ages 8 and 12). I have worked for various companies over the years, taken time off, traveled the world with my family and found my own way for the most part. My career has been varied, from winemaking, brewing, teaching, programming, managing, selling and marketing. I am comfortable in many disciplines and work very independently, but I still don’t have a sense of belonging to a group with a greater purpose. Although some might think this is the perfect recipe for finding religion (and I did get laid off in January), I don’t think that is in the cards for me either.
Disillusionment is the obvious reaction to all of this. It’s not like some institution is going to fly in and save the day for me or anyone else in my generation. Depending on their needs there are companies out there who could really use my skills, but it won’t be about community. After many years of playing the market, I have not developed anywhere else to play. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
I won’t personally go the direction of disillusionment. It’s not in my nature. I see disillusionment as the combination of pragmatism and pessimism. It is a great source of depression really. My attitude is a combination of pragmatism and optimism, and always has been. Have a positive outlook, but look at everything with a clear eye. That is the gift that our generation has to offer.