28 Sep

Time was, one obeyed one’s ancestors and were judged by one’s descendants now it’s the reverse.

My first few months of life, so I’ve been told, were spent in a flat above Trafalgar Square. On the fringes of Empire: a proxy war in a puppet state raged and six months after I was born the city swelled for the second time that year with enraged people. The shrill, amplified speeches and chants of the young and self-righteous; the age at which we have realized how bad the world really is but not yet why it’s so tough to be good.

Freud’s theory that what happens in life’s first moment shapes us forever is, I feel, the truth. I don’t remember it of course. In my crib, new to the world, unaware, even of my body. My brain just beginning that sparkling map of self-organized impulses that becomes a mind. Processing vision, processing sound, pleasure and pain. What effect did the megaphone speeches and roaring revolutionary chants have on me?

While I’ve been alive, radicalism has been a parade of facile cultural fringe dwelling. A thousand little People’s Fronts of Judea; a combination Sex Club for Dorks and Little Napoleon training ground. To be sure there are many activists who are sincere and courageous people whether for good or ill. But most of the dots in the crowd-shots on the Murdoch’s front pages (headline screaming Anarchy) will belong to people whose main beef is with their parents. They’re cultural fringe dwellers. Ferris Beuller summed up most of my generation’s attitude to politics: we don’t care too much for politics, politics won’t get you a car. I don’t see that the generation that followed differs from us in this respect. Generation Y, excuse me, Gen Y… belabelled by a sequential letter. How insulting.

Generation rhymes badly with generalization. I remember some book by a couple of older writers who’d written a generational history of America and sought to cash in on the vogue for explaining and defining ‘us’. To boost sales appeal there was feedback commentary printed in the margins from ‘one of us.’ . This was delivered with the glib sarcasm of the misanthorpic coffee-shop slacker that’d become our overnight iconography. They made a big deal that the guy’d emailed his comments in. (Ooh wee new technology). The one thing I remember him saying was that he hated these sorts of books because it put him the same league as some snot-nosed grot he went to kindergarten with.

Nevertheless, these sorts of books had a market during the ’90s. Simultaneously, we bought them and dismissed them. We needed it having been over-shadowed by the legendary baby boomers who’d had the good fortune to be born at a time when youth had all opportunities. We grew up during the rough quarter century of a general downturn. We had all the usual apocalyptic fantasies, buried or bleated about. Our expectations were sullied by what seemed an unstoppable decline. Magically we contemplated this historical context at the start of our careers and the longest boom in history. In actuality, our bad luck was good.

The authors, familiar with the characters of generations past, compared us to that of the American founding fathers. Apparently Jefferson and Washington’s peers were likewise known for their apathy, likewise dismissed in their youth. But approaching middle-age appeared to change into people who aspired to higher virtue and succesfully. That struck me at the time true. Our road would be rocky and unglamourous. I didn’t imagine we would found a great nation. But the idea that we would party ’til 1999 and then wise up? Yeah.

Here I am, no longer concerned about what defines my generation being old enough to know that that’s impossible ’til after it’s over. And it’s not over. Probably not even halfway. I’ve seen my own time’s colonial war and taken part in my own ineffective bit of mass symbolism against it. Each generation features the same spectrum of characters only a little different, like a fingerprint. Generic and individual at once. We have no way of knowing what will happen and therefore nothing we say can fully prepare our children for life. We can only know that – given the patterns of history, of economy, of war and peace – they will have a different life experience to us. We can only know that – given the patterns of love, of work, of kindness and betrayal – they will have the same life experiences as us. Same ocean, different wave.

Gen X is a simulacrum; the name of the seminal punk-rock band, the title of a book about deliquency in the ’50s. Gen Y, it’s even more insulting. How grey such efficient generational classification? How misleading this neat discretion. Gen X, Gen Y: does Gen Z follow? It’s the last letter of the alphabet. Somehow, something tells me that if today’s newborns are collectively referred to thus twenty years hence then the alphabetical label will actually mean something finally.

X, Y, Z. Symbols of the times. Not in anyway descriptive of the millions of lives it reduces to some collective set of soundbyte stereotypes but expressive of something else. Something that has no convenient shorthand glyph that tells you what it is. Whatever something is, in the words of ‘my generation, it sucks.

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