After 42 years making it (mainly) on my own, I am starting to consider the wider view of community. I have been doing research on generations recently that has expanded my understanding of my own generation’s role in history. If you are a Gen-X’er (born 1961-1980), maybe some of this will ring true for you.
Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was clear that kids were not exactly a top priority in society. The string of movies about children who were terrifying (from Rosemary’s Baby to Halloween to The Omen and many more in between) set the mood for this period, when adult focus was on adult issues. Although many parents strove to provide a happy home-life, the expectation for children was that they needed to figure it out for themselves; Because, after all, out there in the “real-world” no one was going to help you make it when you grew up.
This rang true in my childhood. I was often left to my own devices, expected to play independently and just figure things out. My parents were busy with work and self-discovery, and although they set an example of looking inward, the instructions on how to go about living life were lacking. Although I can’t ever remember a time I really missed this guidance, it is another hallmark of Generation-X . Taught from an early age to figure it out on our own, we generally do just that.
This was a time of adult’s problems and issues. One example that comes to mind was the treatment of one of my hometown’s primary school teachers. I can’t remember if he was openly gay or if someone just came up with “proof”, but there was a huge debate in town and many parents were involved. My Mom was a friend of the teacher (and still is, I believe) and supported him strongly at PTA meetings and other community debates. I don’t even clearly remember how things ended up (I know he got out of teaching eventually). However the energy expended on this issue was clearly about “the kids” rather than adult rights and adult choice.
I was speaking recently to a Boomer aged friend of mine, describing this childhood experience, and she said, “Yes, we all have to rebel against our parents”. I replied, “Well, no, I never rebelled against them. There just wasn’t enough there to rebel against”. I don’t resent them for it, but they didn’t force their values upon me strongly enough for me to bother resisting. But I, like most of my generation, was pretty much on my own.
Not that I didn’t dream of some utopia with a strong community. I grew up in a small town (Healdsburg, CA) where we knew most everyone in town. We lived way outside of the town (pop. 6000 at the time we moved there in 1973) a mile up a dirt road (and you can believe I will using that on my kids when they whine about having to bike to school). Given that we knew all the people on the long dirt road we lived what on sort of felt like a commune. It’s not that I lacked idealism growing up: I remember musing with friends about how we could start a community somewhere, away from all that mainstream crap.
By the time I was 19, I was ready to get out and see the world. I traveled to Europe for 6 months (much like my Mom had done when she was 19) but came back and realized that there was not necessarily any specific life-track waiting for me when I got returned. I made my way through Junior College and then on to UC and started a career and family. And although over this time I built an impressive professional and personal network, there was rarely a feeling of community in any of it.
There are a couple notable exceptions. One was a job I had with PeopleSoft. PeopleSoft was started by Dave Duffield and although I joined after he had left the company, it still retained much of his paternal spirit. During my four years at PeopleSoft I got a sense of the belonging that my Father often talked about during his 33 years with Hewlett-Packard. But by 2005, PeopleSoft had been acquired by Oracle (in a hostile takeover) and I moved on, my view on the (un)reliability of institutions unconsciously reinforced.
The other exception has been our kids’ schools. They have attended Waldorf Schools, mainly in Portland, OR, but more recently in Fair Oaks, CA. Our family started to see the seeds of real community at Cedarwood Waldorf School. We own a home right next door to the school, and participated regularly in the activities associated there. I served on the school board and we volunteered our time and money in many ways to help the school and its community. I think this experience was not particularly unique for many Gen-X’ers: Our kids lead us to our first real chance to form a community. Some of us respond well to this opportunity, others, poorly. The experience, for most of us, is at least unfamiliar if not downright foreign.
Since we moved down to Sacramento in August of 2008, we have been forced to adjust to a new community, although it is also formed around a Waldorf school (Sacramento Waldorf School, in Fair Oaks, CA). The similarities between these communities are more striking than the differences. The same Gen-X parent temperaments are all around: individualistic, demanding, talented, insightful and tough. We’re a pretty bristly bunch in general, and just being around our own kind does not change that. But we do seem to recognize the need to pull together for a common cause, especially an important one like the future of our children. The real challenge is figuring out how to keep the focus on the common good (“the children”) rather than the individual good (“my child”). That struggle, I think, typifies the Gen-X challenge of community. With so many years being ignored or alienated, it’s hard to trust that the community will really take care of everyone.
But there are glowing examples I have seen already in our short time here in Sacramento. I helped put together a site for our friends, the Nuttings, when their Son, Elias, was going through surgery in November ‘08. The Nuttings, like us, are Gen-X’ers, but they have a unique sense of community. Working on the site gave me a window into the possibilities of community, observing how they gave without expectation and received without debt.
The wonderful thing about this dynamic for Gen-X’ers is that we have a unique opportunity not granted to many generations. While our elders (the Boomers) got solid institutions and a strong social glue (which they rebelled against) and our kids (the Millennials) will grow up protected (perhaps over-protected) and build the new future, Gen-X’ers have a different path. Our opportunity is to create community without first-hand knowledge of what solid community feels like. It is to build bonds to things we did not know existed. It is to break down walls that we have never really acknowledged were there in the first place. It is to build up belief in the face of our own skepticism.
I have always had a soft-spot for that character in a story who was tough and pragmatic, but eventually realizes that it is real connections between people that matter most. Generation X was never granted that sense of community. We have to form it of our own will, and when we have, it will be an accomplishment.