Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction

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Introduction:
Bridging the Analog and Digital Generations

(some text may have changed in the final version)

When I first began shopping this book idea around, few
publishers were interested unless it contained “good
news” or a “self-help” component. At first I tried to play nice,
agreeing to team up with a personal financial planner who was
going to write sidebars about how to get out of debt, how to in-
vest for the future, etc. (because no one should be taking fi-
nancial advice from me, that’s for sure). But the original
proposal didn’t sell—thank god. Bookstore shelves are already
littered with Suze Orman-like personal finance how-tos for the
“young, fabulous and broke.” But Generation X is not so young
anymore, and when we were, “fabulous” was not cool.

With or without the self-help crap, the book I would have
written shortly after having penned an article for The New
York Observerin January, 2004, titled “Generation X: Born
Under A Bad Economic Sign,” would not have been this one.
Slackonomics will not argue that our economic situation is
worse now than some other time or place, like the Depression.
We’re living in a totally different world, with different expec-
tations and greater resources than any other country, in a
global economy that is infinitely more complex than at any
time in history. Comparing one era to another is not only te-
dious, but also wrongheaded. Claiming that life is so much bet-
ter now because we’ve got the Internet, cell phones, digital
cameras, and cheap airfare ignores other realities of our current
situation, such as job insecurity, income inequality, global
warming, and shitty health care.

The premise of Slackonomicsis that not since the Industrial
Revolution has a generation been so whipsawed by the econ-
omy, from McJobs to outsourcing, mind-boggling income in-
equality to two unprecedented back-to-back bubbles (with
more to come?). But that isn’t the whole story. In this book’s
subtitle is the phrase “creative destruction,” a concept devel-
oped by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter* to de-
scribe how capitalism renews itself through seemingly sudden
economic convulsions. Stagnant industries are destroyed and
people get hurt in the churn (think: demise of General Motors),
while creative ideas and new industries—driven by entrepre-
neurs—are able to flourish (think Google). This happened dur-
ing the Industrial Revolution, and it’s happening again with the
information/technology revolution. Creative Destruction 2.0

But even that isn’t the whole story; it’s more like the back-
story. What this book is really about is the unique cultural ex-
perience that comes from living in a time of creative destruc-
tion. All the cultural trends, lifestyle choices, and sociological
circumstances of the post-boomer generation are being driven
by two seemingly contradictory forces that define the current
era: economic insecurity on the one hand and the unleashing
of human potential as a result of advanced technology on the
other. This contradiction has deeply affected everyday life for
this generation, ranging from how we work, where we live,
how we play, when we marry and have children, to our atti-
tudes about love, humor, friendship, happiness, and personal
fulfillment.

In other words, Slackonomics is not an academic white paper;
it is written for people who, for example, understand family dy-
namics from watching “Married With Children” and “The Simp-
sons.” It is written for women who got in touch with their
post-feminist rage through riot grrrl music and Thelma and
Louise. It is written for people who might have dabbled in Cor-
porate America, but found themselves working at one time or
another in an entirely new arena or as free agents without having
exactly planned for it. It is written for people who, regardless of
whether they have taken a traditional route to marriage, parent-
hood, and homeownership, still don’t exactly feel (or look or act)
like “grown-ups.” It is written for people with a sense of humor,
who long ago developed an appreciation for the absurdity of life.
(Pardon me if this is starting to sound like an Internet dating ad.)
In other words, this book is a portrait of a generation, not a
screed; it is descriptive not polemical. It is written for people in-
terested in understanding the context that shapes our lives and
how this generation will influence the future.

Part of Generation X’s story is that the Great Middle Class
Squeeze got underway just as we were becoming the middle
demographic of the middle class. Not all Xers are in financial
dire straits. Hardly. But even people who made practical
choices have gone through lay-offs and/or career changes,
which make it very difficult to plan for—or sometimes even
imagine—the future, much less act to change or influence the
course of events, both in their own lives as well as on a larger
scale. But despite economic insecurity, or perhaps because of
it, this generation has stemmed or reversed just about every
bad social trend: (unwanted) unwed birth, suicide, and di-
vorce rates have all declined within this demographic. Gener-
ation X is better educated, uses less drugs and alcohol, and is
generally healthier and more physically active than previous
generations.

Of course, reversing social trends is one thing and redi-
recting economic forces is another. But Generation X is
uniquely positioned to correct the excesses of the baby-
boomers by taking a more practical, sustainable approach to
the economics of life, be that on a personal, national, or even
global scale. Just as this generation is taking on the primary
responsibility for paying taxes, setting policy, running busi-
nesses and, indeed, the country itself in a globalized world, to
hear people discuss the decline of the American empire is not
unusual. Whether or not this discussion is a Chicken Little
scenario, virtually no one is talking about “Morning in Amer-
ica,” and it is the post-boomer generation who will be first in
line to deal with this reality. The next twenty years will be
crucial for solving huge problems rooted in the fundamental
economics of resource allocation.

Fortunately, Gen Xers are not starry-eyed idealists, but
rather steely-eyed realists who could very well be charged
with bringing the economy back from the brink. Generation X
has always prided itself on being independent of both mind
and action, being resistant to conventional wisdom and open
to innovation and new ideas that don’t conform to any one ide-
ological camp. Xers will have to muster all the mental acuity
and ideological flexibility we can to not only wrestle with how
we live as individuals but how we will shape the twenty-first
Century.

Now I’d like to make a few notes about the term Generation
X, which is both more and less than an age group. People
who identify with the label (and even those who don’t), gen-
erally speaking, were born in the mid–1960s through the
’70s, and grew up mostly in middle-class suburbs during the
1980s. (Surprisingly, I discovered that the term is used as
much if not more often in Canada, England, Australia and
New Zealand—usually without the scorn and self-loathing.)
But Gen X demographics are notoriously fluid. As the Census
Bureau puts Xers as those born between 1961 and 1981,
other demographers say Gen X was born between 1964 and
1979.

But perhaps Groucho Marx’s sentiment sums up the Ameri-
can Gen X attitude best: “I would not join any club that would
have someone like me for a member.”

And yet, here we are. Even though the term Generation X
has been overused and reviled, it still seems to stick. People
have tried to rename this generation—without success. In the
early 1990s, one author came up with the Free Generation;
New York Magazine tried to coin the term GRUPS (because we
never seem to grow up). But these terms don’t convey any-
thing about the shared cultural experience of this demo-
graphic. Like it or not, we’re pretty much Generation X for
the duration.

So if you know the lyrics, sing along: Xers were the original
“latchkey kids.” Our mothers went off to work and/or our par-
ents divorced in unprecedented numbers. We ate sugary cere-
als and watched after school specials until MTV came along.
Extreme sports for most of us meant riding bikes over home-
made three-foot ramps without helmets (á la Napoleon Dyna-
mite). Girls renounced bra-burning feminism, there was little
awareness of homosexuality among our peers, and although
there were the beginnings of hip-hop/rap crossover hits, black
and white youth cultures were still pretty distinct and sepa-
rrate. We went to college in huge numbers and maybe went on
to earn graduate degrees.

We’re notoriously disdainful of politics (although that is
likely to change in the 2008 election as “anxious Xers” become
the new “soccer moms”). On the one hand, Xers are practical
and cautious; on the other, we have a tendency to roll the dice,
which has paid off at times, but other times not so much. We’re
skeptical, individualistic, and downright distrustful of group-
think. We’re ambitious rather than careerist, seeking to bal-
ance work and family, security and fulfillment.

But most of all, we bridged the analog and digital genera-
tions. Some of us didn’t touch a computer until college, and
few of us grew up on them, but all of us found ourselves on the
front lines of the tech revolution and globalization whether we
were ready or not.

*Schumpeter (1883–1950) reportedly said he had three aspirations: to be Vienna’s best lover, Austria’s best horseman, and the world’s best economist. He admitted to having trouble with the horses.