Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Generationalism

I was first introduced to the concept of generationalism a few months ago. One of my subjects last semester included an assigned text called gangland: cultural elites and the new generationalism written by Mark Davis.
Before this, I had never heard of the term 'generationalism'. The book posed questions and critiqued Australia's literary and cultural politics. It asks whether there is a "backlash against young people and the way they think? Has an older generation of cultural apparatchiks, used to being at the centre and having a strong media presence, more or less systematically set out to discredit young people and their ideas, even progressive opinion generally?...Where are the 'serious' journalists under forty with columns of their own? There are a few, but not many. The field is dominated by opinion-makers who have been around for ten or twenty years, the 'usual suspects' who have nominated themselves as guardians of the nation's moral fibre...Where are the young feminists...What's happening in cultural politics?" (Davis, 1999).
This was a revelation to me. All of a sudden I began to notice who I was viewing on TV, who I was listening to on radio and whose writing I read in the papers. Following reading this book, I came across two articles that flabbergasted me. Both were derisory reports about Generation X. I think at this point I should make clear that if we are assigning ourselves to a particular generation, I am apparently part of Generation X.
Before I come to the two articles, I want to talk about Gangland. Davis stresses in the introduction that much of the book's argument "takes places in the context of the 'culture wars' over so-called political correctness, victim feminism, censorship and literary theory" (Davis, 1999). He also says that it is a book not attacking baby boomers, nor pitting the baby boomers and GenXer's against each other - the 'us and them' argument. However, when reading Gangland it is difficult not to envision an older generation pushing back a younger one.
Last month, an article printed in a Melbourne newspaper, The Age, spoke about GenXer's giving 'suburban life the push'. The premise of this report was of a generation of inner-city dwellers refusing to move out to the suburbs to have a family, "as their mothers did". What struck me about this article was the tone it was written in. Quotes such as "Three-wheeled jogger prams clogging the city's trendy cafe strips are a sympton of Generation X hitting its reproductive stride and eschewing a move to the suburbs...women born in the early 1970's deciding it's time to get on with it...although GenXers had reached the next stage of life, many were still in denial about their loss of youth- hence the rise of the three-wheeled pram...this is me clinging on to my groovy, marathon-running past...The rise of inner-city couples choosing to stay put with their first child would place stress on child care and schools there...burbs that they have been sneering at for 10 years" (Lucas, 2005). This report, admittedly, described just the situation I myself am in. I remember reading this article, waking up the next day, and still being so angry about it, I typed a response and emailed it to the newspaper as part of it's opinion letters. Sadly it wasn't printed. However, a letter echoing similar sentiments to mine was submitted by an Australian comedian, Kaz Cooke, illustrating that I was not the only person to take offence to this report.
Most of these derisive quotes were supplied by a Mr Bernard Salt, cited as a partner at accounting firm KPMG. The article also included quotes from Dr Bob Birrell, from Monash University and Professor Graeme Hugo, a population movement expert from Adelaide University. The latter two made non-derisive views, but the article only gave them fleeting mention towards the end. In the letter I submitted, I wrote that the reason for this, was probably because it made good copy as it was yet another article whingeing about Generation Xer's. I went on to say that just because my own mother may have moved to the suburbs does not mean that I had to. I posed a question asking why should we move out to the suburbs? and that I wasn't clinging to a 'groovy, marathon-running past', rather, I was making my own generational decision.
One week later, in the same newspaper, I came across another article entitled "Reality bites: GenX turns forty". The article began: "They were the slackers, the overeducated, under-employed kids who avoided everything from commitment and jobs to growing up. As the first wave of genXers turns 40 this year, Tim Elliott finds out how the 'loser generation' feels about the world now." (Elliot & Denham, 2005). The report begins with Melbourne journalist and children's author, Nick Place, sent out on assignment to see how specialists were addressing this topic. "How to talk to generation X." He describes it as being the funniest thing he's ever seen. At a conference, people got up to speak and "admitted that they had no idea who generation X were and that they couldn't define what it was but they were going to talk about how to 'speak to them' anyway." (Elliot & Denjam, 2005). Okaaay.......
This article defined Generation X as those born between 1965 and 1975. Having been born in the early seventies, I definitely fall into this category. Bernard Salt is again quoted, although this time he is cited as being a 'demographer' and his comment: "Generation X...has constantly been portrayed as the loser generation on the leeward side of the boomer mountain...many slackers have discovered that everything has a use-by date, even ennui. Stacking T-shirts and backpacking in India might work in your 20s but as the slackers hit their 30s, they found themselves craving what were clearly the essentials of any civilised middle-class existence: a house, a car, a new winter wardrobe and holidays in Byron Bay. And you don't pay for that by working at McDonald's. It's a curious fact that as the so-called 'slackers' march towards their 40th birthdays, they're working just as hard, if not harder, than their boomer parents, postponing marriage and parenthood in the process. Indeed, thanks to increased competition, Xers,...have to be absolutely brilliant to get the same job as a fairly mediocre boomer" (Elliott & Denham, 2005).
Hugh MacKay, a social researcher describes us as having revelled in an extended adolescence, "all in all, they've had a dream run. They certainly weren't the social pioneers that the boomers were and they rode on the coat tails of almost all the achievements of their parents, who bore the brunt of the gender, IT and economic revolutions. Xers...are also having children later and later and having fewer of them. As a result there is a lot of overparenting and childcentredness going on. But Xers also tend to be more 'values-oriented' and 'less materialistic' than the boomers, if only because material wealth-fashion, travel, all that - was new to the boomers, whereas the Xers were born into it and took it for granted." How's that for a backhanded compliment? Harsh criticism indeed for us GenXers.
I suppose in an effort towards balance the authors decided to include some commentary from some actual GenXers. Danny Kennedy differed from these views saying, "it was generation X who got up and challenged the juggernaut called economic rationalism and questioned the fundamental assumption that the world should be turned into a huge market. We put the brakes on that beast" Peter Fenton says, "whatever our generation produced, we're given these odious labels by the baby boomers. The natural enemy of gen X is the baby boomer. Baby boomers are selling us their houses at five times their original value! We may crave those nesting things but we find it difficult to afford a house." Finally, Cameron Daddo, "I never wanted to live my parent's lives although I respect them and don't judge them for their choices...Boomers keep their feelings very much to themselves. I think that's the main difference. I talk about everything. People in their 20s are amazingly creative but I think they're also trying to numb their feelings against the stress of life with all the party drugs. Society is so disposable and people want instant gratification. Boomers lived through a world war and dealt with hardship. They probably felt they had no choices.
Both Salt and MacKay surmise what's in future for GenXers. "Inter-generational conflict," says Salt. "there'll be a tussle over priorities as the boomers retire and demand less spending on defence, infrastructure and education and more on social security". Mackay agrees. "Boomers will retire with record debt levels and it'll be up to the next generation to support them...but, Xers have one thing on their side. They were always more creative and optimistic about the future than they were ever given credit for. That's lucky, because they'll need every bit of it".
Ominous words indeed.
In Gangland, Mark Davis talks about the "refusal of a certain cultural establishment to let go. In their determination to hang on to a virtual monopoly...on the ideas market, its members refuse to acknowledge that paradigms are clashing, changing, in almost every area of life, and they scapegoat a younger generation for the shifts. There is an unwillingness to admit that ideas can no longer pretend to cut across all times and places. 'Boomer-whinge' - a term that appears several times in this book - describes the particular set of values that underpins that refusal to let go...This is truly a community that fears being forgotten, that thought its particular truths were going to hang around forever, and is shocked that they haven't. These pundits seem to think they should be able to walk into an English department in any reputable university, twenty, thirty or even forty years after they received degrees, and find that their knowledge is still the knowledge, their paradigms the paradigms. Change is equated with decline: when we fade, truth fades; when we are gone, truth is gone" (Davis, 1999).
It is important to remember that Gangland is about literature and culture, and the articles are more general. However Bernard Salt does touch on Davis' critique when he says "That's something you see again and again with generation X...That movement away from public institutions, like the church and the mainstream media...Raised in an era of saturation marketing and mass communication- an era when, as writer Tom Wolfe put it, no person on earth was more than six mouse clicks away from one another...genXers can smell a vested interest a mile off and have championed a growth in alternative media" (Elliott & Denham, 2005).
Along with reading Gangland for my class last semester, we had a guest speaker from Text Publishing, speak to us in regard to publishing in Australia. Some of the topics we covered was on manuscript submission and how difficult it is as a writer to enter the literary mainstream. Salt hit the nail on the head by saying we champion alternative media. The way I see it, it's because we don't have any choice. 'Experience' is usually the term that is touted here. Last week I read an article about how the submissions for the Miles Franklin award grows smaller and smaller as each year goes by. Why is that? Is it because there is no worthwhile talent out there? Call this a GenXer whinge if you will, but I think this is because there is a whole generation out there who are cynical over the worth of the Australian literary establishment. You only have to go to a writers festival to be greeted with the 'ladies who lunch' brigade. The guest speaker from Text Publishing, offered blogging and zines as a possible solution. I think that is a cheap answer really. However, echoing Salt's observation; this is why blogging is so successful. This is why zines are so successful. There is another platform other than the mainstream media, to be heard.

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