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The Generation Debate

Date posted: Monday, October 31, 2011

On getting older and why the aging process is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Photograph via Flickr by Lula TaHula

Photograph via Flickr by Lula TaHula

A couple of months ago, I overheard a conversation on the subway between a woman in her late twenties and her forty-something-year-old co-worker. The younger woman was complaining to the older one about a pain in her shoulder. “I mean it’s just everything,” she was saying. Her neck, her back, her knees, they were all hurting; she had to go see a doctor.

The older woman (who was standing while the younger one was sitting) was nodding her head and telling the younger one that she could relate completely. When she was about to turn thirty everything felt like it was about to fall apart, her whole body, but then it all went back to normal again.

The exchange stood out to me because next year, I’ll be turning thirty, and, typical as it may sound, I’ve been going through my own crisis. I don’t feel old, in fact I still do a lot of the things I used to do when I was in my early twenties, and I don’t really look any different; but maybe that’s the problem—not much has changed, but I know that I should be aging so I’m constantly checking for evidence. I find myself grimacing in front of the mirror to see if there are any new lines, attributing random pains in my body (which seem to be appearing more frequently) to arthritis or impending chronic illness (maybe I’m a little crazier than most . . .), and treating every little commitment (moving to a different neighborhood of Brooklyn, for example) like it’s something I’ll be stuck doing for the rest of my life because I feel like I’m running out of the time to meander.

Perhaps what’s bringing these feelings to the surface is that later this fall I’ll be going to my ten-year high school reunion. The idea of the event makes me feel very different from what I imagined I would feel back when I was watching movies like Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, which came out when I was a HS freshman in ‘97. Obviously, at that age it was impossible to picture myself ten years into the future with any accuracy, to envision my classmates, who would (presumably) be adults with babies, husbands, suits, ties, and receding hairlines, reuniting in the Bronx Science gym (at least that’s where I imagined it would take place).

From the perspective of a ‘90s teenager, and based on the portrayals in most movies, such a jump in time signified that my ten-year reunion would thrust me into an atmosphere full of surprises with classmates that have transformed to a point beyond recognition, who work outrageously successful jobs, and have drastically altered faces and figures.

But I’m still living in New York, and while I’ve lost touch with a lot of people, I’ve also maintained contact with my fair share and continue to see many of the ones I’ve lost track of on the street. Just the other day I saw this witch-like girl from my sophomore year French class in Penn Station, and while she seemed much more normal in her business casual attire, she still had the kind of hair that looked like it could be a nice home for several birds.

For those people who live far away or whom I haven’t had the pleasure of awkwardly running into on the New York City streets, there is always Facebook, which makes it very difficult to be surprised about anyone or anything, because with the human attraction to voyeurism, and the amount of procrastination that goes on during regular office jobs, you most likely know exactly who’s married, who’s single, who’s pregnant, who has no hair left, which professional fields they’re in, and whether or not they are still living with their parents.

All of these things have not only taken away the anticipation I’d once expected to feel when I approached my ten-year high school reunion, but they also made it easy to forget (or brush aside) the fact that I am getting older—the line between then and now is too blurry. It’s only over recent months, as the reunion started approaching and I began receiving countless emails about it (from this Russian girl Zhanna who, according to her Facebook pics, also doesn’t look or seem much different than she used to) that I am becoming more and more aware of the aging thing, and going deeper into my aforementioned crisis, because for the most part, we all still look like we used to, but for how much longer?

I’m not telling you all of this because I need to vent (though obviously, I kinda do), I’m writing about it because I’ve come across some recent articles that are trying to define my generation and the plight of late twenty-somethings in general. Reading these articles has made me go back and read older ones that seem to say very similar things about Generation X as those that are being written about us now (that we’re lazy, over-privileged, coddled, expect too much from life, etc.), and I want to share some interesting pieces about this confusing time in life (approaching thirty), what it means to people now, what it has meant in the past, and about getting older in general.


1. The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright by Noreen Malone was published in New York magazine this October. The 27-year-old Malone writes about the twenty-somethings of my generation and how they’re faring in the context of the financial crisis. She discusses the over-coddling our parents have done (“you’re the best, honey, you can do anything! You’re very special!”), the expectations this has raised within us, how meandering and un-decisive we have become because of it, and how the financial crisis has (for many) ruined the hope of fulfilling these expectations. As you can probably guess by the title, she comes to a somewhat optimistic conclusion.

2. In response to the above piece, Doree Shafrir, who is in her early thirties, wrote an essay called “Generation Catalano” for Slate, in which she tries to pinpoint her generation, the one that straddles Gen X and the Millenials, and decides that the best term for it is “Generation Catalano,” because she went to high school before cellphones and the Internet and was actually in high school when Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life came out (I am a little bit younger than Shafrir, but feel like I’m on the tail end of the Catalano generation. But to me, the most important thing about this generation is that we straddled the internet—we grew up both with it and without it, we are the only generation to have an internet-free early childhood and an internet-filled adolescence. We watched it all happen.)

3. A couple of days ago, Grantland ran a piece entitled, “Beavis, Butt-Head, and Me” by David Giffels, a Gen Xer who used to write for the show, and now that it’s fifteen years later and the show’s making a comeback, he’s analyzing the aging process and how he’s part of a time where no one can really pinpoint how old they are because humans aren’t aging at the same rate as we used to (also, we are living during a time when we may never really get the chance to retire). “I’ve had this near obsession most of my adult life with trying to gauge my accurate age by measuring myself against other people of the same age,” Giffels writes. As you can imagine, I can very much relate.

4. Staying on the subject of Generation X, there is A.O. Scott’s “Gen X Has a Midlife Crisis,” published in the New York Times in May 2010, in which he discusses Gen X in the context of movies like Funny People and the Hot Tub Time Machine (where we see Gen Xers having mid-life crises), and eventually boils his analysis down to one big contradiction: “How can a generation whose cultural trademark is a refusal to grow up have a midlife crisis?” It’s a funny and insightful read.

5. Returning to my own age group “What Is It about 20-Somethings?” by Robin Marantz Henig, appeared in the New York Times Magazine in August 2010 and examines the idea that our twenties might be a developmental stage called “emerging adulthood.” From this I learned two very interesting things: 1. The concept of adolescence was not discovered until 1904. 2. Our brains don’t stop developing until we are 25 (and possibly even later).

6. Venturing further back in time to 2005 there is the USA Today piece by Stephanie Armour, entitled “Generation Y: They’ve arrived at work with a new attitude.” This was, of course, published long before anyone could smell the recession, and it is interesting for its optimism and the faith it has in the (then) early twenty-somethings, who are now in their late twenties.

7. Catherine Rampell wrote a post for her “Economix” blog last May, entitled, “ The Laziest Generation(s).” She comments about how every generation of twenty-somethings is basically accused of the same things (being lazy, etc.), and her post led me to a funny article from Newsweek in 1993, called The Whiny Generation, where a baby boomer accuses the then twenty-something Gen Xers of being too whiny, even though they have everything and have been far too coddled by their parents (sound familiar?).

8. And finally, there is an entertaining (and rather sad) piece by Kate Bolick in the November issue of the Atlantic, entitled, “All the Single Ladies” (you might have seen it make the rounds on the internet), in which she reflects on her life as an unmarried thirty-something who never pictured such a future for herself when she was in her twenties and breaking up with her perfectly good boyfriend because “something was missing.” The article discusses the trend of marrying late and taking longer to grow up, and gets into some sociological research about the increasing number of successful single women. It ends with a not-so-convincing celebration of singlehood and the idea of not settling.

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Masha Udensiva-Brenner is a founding editor of Construction magazine.

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