it’s like rain on your wedding day: a.o. scott on the ironies (are they ironies?) of the gen x man’s mid-life crisis.
A.O. Scott has a typically intriguing and well-written essay of cultural criticism in which he detects a crisis of the Gen X male’s mid-life crisis. Scott knits together, in a threadbare grunge-flannel tapestry, recent films such as Greenberg and Hot Tub Time Machine and Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask to argue that the meta-crisis for Gen X men now arriving in middle age is that they never grew up in the first place.
I think Scott has it backward. The real crisis of Gen X men is not that they can’t grow up in order to have a mid-life crisis, but rather that they were never young in the first place. That is to say, they were never young by the criteria of the baby-boomer definitions of youth (“hope I die before I get old” and all that). These constructions of youth and adolescence—forged in the 1960s and 70s—dominated American middle-class culture in the 1980s and 90s. But they were also imploding as baby boomers clung to youth into their middle years and redefined, along with corporate marketers happy to help them, what young meant.
The need to establish youth as generational difference remained an imperative for Gen X, but it no longer functioned well to establish difference. This was the experience of “vintage postmodernism” that Scott describes in the essay. (As a side note, “vintage postmodernism” a fabulously strange phrase, as if to suggest that now we live in a post-postmodern moment—and perhaps we do; and perhaps therein lies a way out.)
What happened in the 1980s and 90s was that the temporal organization of life stages exploded across biological ages, thus making it both necessary and impossible for Gen Xers to validate their experiences of youth on baby boomer terms. I think this might well apply for women as for men of this generation.
Gen X was itself a manufactured label born of the 60s impulse to define generational cohorts. This group came of age with the need to talk about their generation, but they themselves had to manufacture both the talk and the generation out of categories that no longer caused a big sensation. And they’ve been uncomfortably numb ever since.