Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Slacking As Refusal? (A Gen Xer Reflects)

In my head this is still current and nothing you say will convince me otherwise

Generational analysis has become a popular pastime among the chattering and twittering classes. This has brought the sad conjunction of the words "aging" and "Gen X." While I have been fine dealing with my own aging, it's been tough realizing that my generation's cultural touchstones and values are being met with derision by those younger than me. For example, I recently heard something criticized as being made for "Gen X ironists" and that smarted a little. I was reared by the culture of the nineties to deride selling out and think most pop music was shit, but now people younger than me think that's politically regressive or something because the masses are always right, even when they like mass produced shit. 

But hey, that's just part of getting old and I should learn to deal with it. I do not want to be like the boomers who act as if the sixties were the paragon of human experience and will tell you about it at every single opportunity. If I am honest with myself I know how angry and irritated I got at my own generation when it was in its youth. At my college there was pretty much zero political activity. My third year I started a club with some of my friends to push for progressive causes on campus. We weren't very big.

My friends and I were complete exceptions to the rule of apathy that reigned among white middle class young people like ourselves. (When doing any generational analysis these kinds of qualifiers are absolutely necessary.) Reagan was elected when we were in preschool, and by the time we had graduated from high school the neoliberal onslaught was pretty much complete. When I was in college a Democrat was president who exulted that the "era of big government is over" while he went after welfare recipients with the same gusto as the Gipper. There was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, No Alternative. 

For people from my background, there were basically two alternatives. Alternative number one was to embrace the new order and take it to the hilt. When I see people like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker my skin crawls because I knew a lot of guys of their exact type in college. They had absolute faith that their position in society was all due to their hard work, and were completely uninterested in expressing any kind of empathy for those who had it worse than them. These were the people who aspired to live in the McMansions sprouting in 1990s suburbia like mushrooms. I met these guys again a couple of years ago when I was at a birthday party for one of my daughter's friends in a much more suburban town than the one I live in. A couple of the dads at this event were practically spitting with anger about Colin Kaepernick. 

The other option was to refuse to take part in the new culture of greed and consumerism. When reading my Twitter buddy Jon Malesic's piece "Millennials Don't Have A Monopoly On Burnout" I suddenly realized that the "slacking" that a lot of folks were doing back in the 90s wasn't laziness, it was refusal. Modern American capitalism is built to suck its workers dry, chew them up, and spit them out. It's perfectly sensible to sit that shit out. Of course, that kind of thinking doesn't lead to much social change, and it may even be self-defeating.

At the same time, I have to remind myself to take pride in having opted in my twenties not to join the Paul Ryans of the world. I (stupidly?) decided to go to grad school and pursue the life of the mind. Little did I know that the neoliberal tide would soon submerge higher education, too. But you know what? I was broke in my 20s, but I had a blast. I worked like a madman in grad school, but it was work that MEANT SOMETHING to me. When I left academia I became a teacher, a job that is hard but fills me with joy on a regular basis. To get that job I had to quit being a professor, the much higher status job. I'd been lucky enough to learn that refusal can be liberating.

Whenever I think about how much less money I have because of these life decisions and get a little sad about it, I remind myself that I've spent my adult life doing work meant to do something positive in this awful, broken, capitalist hellscape. I am glad I came of age at a time when I got the validation to take that path. My generation maybe isn't much to write home about, but maybe we can pass along the wisdom that opting out of our contemporary world of "personal branding" and endless self-promotion isn't such a terrible idea.

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