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GenX, 5 Years Later
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

The Times, They Are a-Changin'

Anyone notice the recent complete about-face in the popular media vis-a-vis us previously beleaguered Gen Xers? Five years ago, nay, three years ago, we were the scourge of American civilization. We were slackers and potheads, sitting around mooching off our parents, dressed in flannel, listening to strange, depressing music. We were every parent's worst nightmare: the kid who goes to an expensive private college, gets a useless degree, graduates, moves home, and NEVER LEAVES. It was doctrine that none of us had a real job - we might work at The Gap or Starbucks 20 hours a week, but nobody looked to be becoming financially independent any time soon. Apathetic, bored, alienated, lazy, self-absorbed - we were obviously the sole source of the destruction of the fine society crafted by the Boomers.

And now? Haven't you heard? We're the engine driving the economy. We're responsible for all the wonderful growth you've been reading about. We're going to save the whole planet, donchya know, with our high-tech start ups and excellent entrepreneurial sense. Sure we live at the office and rarely see the light of day, but that doesn't matter! Everyone should model themselves after those go-getter Gen Xers! We're going to rescue capitalism, and therefore life as we know it.

So what's really going on? Just as the boomer-driven media took one extreme and blew it up into condemnation of an entire generation 5 years ago, so now they are doing the same thing in reverse, assuming we're all in line to be the next Steve Jobs. Reality lies somewhere in the middle.

What possible explanation could there be for this dramatic shift of opinion?

Five years ago many of us were woefully underemployed or even more woefully unemployed. We were fresh out of college, and the economy, frankly, sucked. And many of us did have to bunk with the ‘rents - at least temporarily - or with five of our closest friends, to whom we now no longer speak. Student loans and a low-paying job can do that to you. But many of us also kept plugging away at those McJobs, resigned ourselves to giving up the dream of teaching French post-modern feminist theory, and acquired some computer skills (not excessively hard for many of us, given that we were raised with the damn things). Here in 1998, we find ourselves with better jobs, some experience, some marketable skills, and hopefully no longer living in our childhood bedrooms.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. Sure, the economy's booming, but real wages have been stagnant since we were children. You can do all right if you're a college graduate with significant computer skills and a desire for (or at least not an aversion to) high-tech employment. DINK status doesn't hurt either (double income - no kids). Hell, if you're really willing to throw yourself completely into the computer industry with all that that entails (constant, necessary skill upgrades, constant job hopping, long hours, carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain), you might even do well enough to buy a house (not that you'll ever see it).

What about the majority of people who don't possess a college degree, computer skills, and a working spouse? Or who do possess children?

They're not doing so well. Wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, while the many are barely making it. Congress just passed a bill that will make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy and even more difficult, once they've done so, to write of the debts that caused it. Much like Regan and the "welfare queens" (who were never more than a creation of his own fevered imagination), we've been fed stories about high-earning people who go on wild, luxury-item spending sprees and then just declare Chapter 7 to get out of paying for their expensive clothes and jewelry. Except of course, that's never been the case - there were already laws on the books preventing folks from doing that. What's actually happened is that Congress decided to punish individuals for the sake of the credit card companies. Of course, credit card companies contribute far more to Congressional campaigns than people just this side of bankruptcy.

But maybe I'm just bitter and/or a victim of all that Marxist political theory I read in graduate school...

b i o
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, besides being a budding writer, is a stealth geek, a manager (but NOT the Pointy-Haired Boss) at a non-profit association, a distance runner, a "rabid" Lindy Hopper, and a connoisseur of fine B-grade movies. 

Currently a resident of Washington, DC, Elizabeth grew up outside of Philadelphia and holds a Master's degree in political theory from the University of Virginia.  She fell into working with computers by accident and has since been struggling to pull herself out.  Writing for Mindjack is one of the steps she's taking to do so.

The writer of this article welcomes your comments: