We returned late last night from family vacation in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When I walked into the dark kitchen, I saw the glowing green light of the coffee pot. It was on the entire time we were gone. I was like, thank you, coffee pot, for not burning down our house.
Generation X and the American Dream
After I unpacked the car, I thought about how Fitzgerald it all was; the Lost Generation and Generation X. The pursuit of the American vacation is a microcosm of the American dream. We desire a wealth of experiences for our children. My kids will see mountains and streams! Moose and elk! Forests and glaciers! They will be happier, richer and smarter than me. They will have the American dream even if it bankrupts and kills me.
They will be more evolved than I am, even if it means I sink into irrelevance, unable to relocate physically or intellectually to their sophisticated lives. I will forge their futures, even if it leads to abandonment. I will still have Robert to keep me company, right? We’ll exchange a thousand knowing glances, but never tell each other what we’re really thinking:
These kids are our investment. There is not enough fabric to cut something out for ourselves.
Back in 1992, when we were both starting out and hoping to find good jobs, we saw only the doom in Springsteen’s song, My Beautiful Reward.
Well I sought gold and diamond rings
My own drug to ease the pain that living brings
Walked from the mountain to the valley floor
Searching for my beautiful reward
Now, in these lyrics I see only the hope of Springsteen’s generation: Baby Boomers who were at least optimistic enough to pursue rewards. The only reward Generation X has pursued is their children’s happiness. It sounds so noble, especially for a fatherless generation. But, is it? Maybe we’ve just ensured the narcissism of Generations Y and Z.
Loss of the American Dream
As I walked down the beautiful streets of Estes Park, Colorado, I wondered if my generation will be able to sustain resort towns. Nobody has any money. (Insert hashtag: #FirstWorldProblems.) While we all licked our $4.75 waffle ice cream cones, I noticed a book inside a store window, Suicide of a Superpower. But, I never really liked Pat Buchanan.
The entire Occupy Wall Street movement was (is?) about greed and the loss of the American dream. In 2011, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a columnist for the New York Times wrote:
“Go on the Web site “We are the 99 percent” and you will see…page after page of testimonials from members of the middle class who took out loans to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses and a piece of the American dream, worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up unemployed or radically underemployed and on the precipice of financial and social ruin.”
The American Dream is about discovering happiness, but, by the time the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) had fully come of age, the dream was perverted. We see this play out in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel The Great Gatsby. He never uses the term, “The American Dream,” but he writes about its disintegration; about how money cannot buy happiness. The novel takes place during the Summer of 1922, during an era of unprecedented prosperity and excess in America.
In the book, the green light at the end of a dock becomes a recurring object, a symbol of Gatsby’s unattainable dream.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The New Gilded Age
A few days ago, Jim Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic, presented his big idea at the Aspen Ideas Festival: Learn from the Gilded Age. He defines this period as the last 20 years of the 19th Century and the first 20 years of the 20th. He highlights similarities between that era and the one we are living in now: globalization; urbanization; industrialization; immigration faster than we are seeing now; polarization; Jim Crow; nonstop flow of inventions (telegraph, telephone, radio, airplane), etc.
He offers this hope:
“That first gilded age led to something better…From the extremities of farm and factory life, the populous arose. From the excesses of unregulated new global capitalism came the progressives. After centuries of flat-out pillage, the conservation movement got its start with the national parks. After a post-Lincoln era of disdain for and exhaustion with the art of politics, we had an extraordinary range of people devoted to the public process. People as different as; as imperfect, but as important as Eugene Debs and Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryant, Susan B. Anthony, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Muir, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, various Roosevelts, the young Brandeis and many more. Theirs was the response to the first Gilded Age. It would be a big idea to match theirs with ours.”
According to Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, American history can be viewed through various generational cycles that repeat themselves. There are four cycles referred to as turnings: awakening, unraveling, crisis and high. They also identify four generational archetypes: prophet, hero, nomad and artist.
The Lost Generation and Generation X are nomad generations. Both were born during an awakening, came of age during an unraveling and experienced midlife during a crisis. Generation X is still in the cycle of midlife. The crisis encompasses everything from the global financial meltdown to climate change and the War on Terror.
The Lost Generation lived out their final days during a high that occurred during America’s glory days of Superpowerdom. Generation X will graduate from crisis and enter their final turning point — their high period — around 2027. Yes, 14 years from now, when this new gilded age has passed. This makes me think the investment in my children — the one that is depleting my retirement account — might result in a beautiful reward after all.