What About Generation X?

What About Generation X?

Boomers and Millenials don’t get along. Where Boomers, in the post-war economic boost, saw a general incline in the quality of life and retirement benefits, Millenials feel they’ve been given the short-end of the stick with increasing opportunities for debt and later-retirement. Meanwhile, Boomers feel their foes have become increasingly fragile and dependent on benefits that didn’t exist way back when. To each other, the stereotypes are consolidated, ruminated upon, and passed around for affirmation across social and traditional media. In the midst of this quagmire however lies a “forgotten” 65 million Americans we sometimes call “Generation X”.

Who comprises this mysterious assembly of shadows, you may ask. Born between the mid ’60s and the early ’80s, this generation saw a displacement in the values and philosophies placed before them. With the thaw of the ’60s counter-culture giving way to the commercial assembly-line of the 80s, the rise of the right, and the formation of the neoliberal left, they grew up with a somewhat despondent and disinterested outlook on life and politics. It was a time when children were raised by TVs (as both parents went to work), when walkmans roamed the Earth, and when being cool meant you didn’t care. Highlighted by the raucous fuzz of grunge in the early ’90s, the emergence of hip-hop, and indie auteurs in cinema (Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc), this generation paved its own path demarcating itself from the passions and dominance of the generations preceding and succeeding them.

Now, all this talk of generational values is of course susceptible to inferences of exceptions and accusations of generalisations. With that much acknowledged (for the sake of it), I would still agree with Rich Cohen’s point of view (from Vanity Fair in 2017) that the “shared experiences” roughly define a generation and our purpose in examining them. And as he puts it, with such flavour, Gen X was shaped by “irony and a keen sense of dread”, almost sharing “more in common with the poets haunting the taverns on 52nd street at the end of the 30s than the hippies at Woodstock”.

This is an interesting association. In poetic form, it is sometimes philosophised that trends associated with one generation skip the next before re-emerging (like fashion). To an extent, one could argue that Millenials and Boomers share in common, a sense of passion for civil liberties and rights (at least drawing a parallel between today and the late 60s). However, again as it is worth noting (along with this entire piece), this is speculative and may cause distress to some.

Speaking of “distress”, it is sometimes noted that what divides Millenials from Gen X is this sense of “fragility” touched upon so delicately earlier. Gen X, being the “whatever, man” generation, are thought to be less emotionally involved and politically fired up (for all the good and bad that comes with that). One doesn’t have to look back too far to see a time when not every chat show was dominated by politics and when the dominant subject of a presidency was an affair with an intern. Perhaps this sense of displacement and disinterest was based on how the Boomers came to adopt new ill-fitted power suits with giant shoulder pads in the ’80s, when the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s was paved over for a parking lot. Perhaps, this disenfranchisement was wrung from disappointment.

A part of me feels a little annoyed for Gen X because many of the woes of Millenials are shared by them, to some extent. For example, they only control 16% of wealth in the US despite being in the 40-55 age bracket and having both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (where Boomers control over 50%). They’ve got their share of debt and suffered through the dotcom bust and 2008 Financial Crash at pivotal times of home ownership in their age group. Plus, they’ve had to watch their beloved VHS and DVDs die tragically. They’re the first generation to be worse off than their parents in terms of retirement.

Now, many of the debt woes that plague both generations have gotten worse, like college loans. In this sense, Millenials are worse off in facing an even grimmer future. But let’s face it, they suck up too much oxygen in this room. Gen X deserves some attention too. Perhaps, their unflinching, shoe-gazing, Breakfast Club, Ethan Hawk-ish, Kurt Cobain, ironic ways have led them to sulk where others shout. Perhaps, these Boomers serving in office till they collapse hasn’t afforded them the chance to do the shouting. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly why they’ve been left in the dark but their influence may yet come (or comeback) to the forefront of our political and cultural zeitgeist.

To leave this destination-less fathoming on a note of some aplomb, I’d like to quote George Orwell (the Stephanie Meyer of his day): “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it and the one that comes after it.” So the next time you’re thinking of those unyielding Boomers or those self-righteous Millenials or whatever Gen Z is, spare a thought for that kinda-somewhere-in-the-middle-but-not-really-generation that is Generation X.

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).

As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.

1950s-1960s

With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.

1970s

The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.

1980s

A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.

1990s

The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.

Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.

2000s

The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.

2010s

With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).

Change and Consistency

Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.

What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.