Talkin’ Bout Which Generations?

considering second-half baby boomers, gen x & the stakes of generational identities with bruce handy’s new yorker essay & richard linklater’s dazed & confused.

I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to somethin’ else.

— Cynthia, Dazed & Confused

A nice essay by Bruce Handy in the New Yorker on “second-half baby boomers” in the 1970s uses Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed & Confused as a starting point on the finer gradations of American generational politics in the post-WWII era up to our own time. The essay has me thinking a lot about the clunkiness of generational identities and the way they exist, but also don’t exist. From the muck of birthdays and the march of history, generational identities emerge, but they are always contested, and how they get shaped and formulated has enormous consequences. This is one place where the seemingly innocent musings of pop culture collide with serious business of politics and more.

For instance, one could include “second-half baby boomers” with Gen X to create a very different narrative of post-Vietnam War America. I recall Richard Linklater’s films Slacker and Dazed & Confused resonating with Gex X during the years that punk broke. Indeed, the film was shot during the early 1990s and in this sense it is a mediation between the historical moment of naming Gen X via Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the portrayals of the 1970s as the 1960s years of the barricades gave way to a kind of kitschy but beautiful new youth culture.

At the superficial level, there is much in common between pet rocks and grunge flannel in the film as both fictional historical text and in its early 1990s context. But the superficial is hardly superficial at all. There is also much in common between Linklater’s brilliant “second-half baby boomer” meditations on his youth in the 1970s and a sense of post-Cold War confusion. Everything still (even to this day) falls under the sway of the 60s generation, with its framework of youth culture and protest, its New Left and New Right binaries, its confusing swirl of rebellion and cooptation as the Great Society came up against the limits of Cold War liberalism in Vietnam and the expansive adjustability of consumer capitalism in Woodstock Nation. Yet if you peek below the mushroom cloud and the Napalm smoke, beyond the psychedelic light show and the LSD hallucinations, a different kind of effort appears in the wake of the 1960s: a smaller cohort of Americans trying to figure out what to care about, what to be cynical about, whom to believe, and what to doubt. This is a far more fraught group of people coming of age post-1960s, at once absorbing the myths of their older siblings and parents yet quickly seeing the shortcomings and delusions of those who came of age just before they did.

Not to get all Raymond Williams here, but generational configurations use each other to formulate self-understandings. Archetypes and structures of feeling from residual cultures become the seeds of emergent cultures, with distorted-mirror continuities as well as ruptures. Or, to put it another way, Gen Xers emulated many aspects of “second-half boomers,” particularly the “fuck it” aspect, while millennials & post-millennials cast “OK boomer” aspersions on the lot of us. How we decide where continuities & ruptures exist in collective tales of generational identities has big stakes: they shape electoral politics, cultural representation, regional/national/transnational definitions, and myriad personal self-understandings.

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