What Makes Gen Y Gen Y?

[Reprinted by request from the old Impressive Most Impressive team blog from last summer. It’s rough, but still pretty cool — if I may be so bold. Though now hipsterdom is on its way out, I think we’ll see if the prediction holds

I’ve been out of commission working on an article for JZ lately, we’ll be back as soon as I get it in today]

First, to lend some concrete definition to what I’m talking about — sociologists define the Generation X period to include those (generally) born between the period 1961-1981, and whose teen/young adult experience was defined primarily by the 1980s. Generation Y, on the other hand, includes those born 1981 and onwards, and therefore has much of their formative youth experience based in the 1990s.

When my brother and I get down to talk, we almost inevitably end up touching upon a few favorite themes, one of which is the relationship between the most recent two generations in American culture, the Xs and the Ys. It’s brought alot of interesting questions to the fore, but perhaps the most intriguing is how best to deliniate the line between the two groups.

After all, the use of the term “generation” is by itself a pretty artificial construct. It’s not like people are born in great honkin’ blocks that just appear at sporadic points in the world. The idea of a “generation” just functions as a useful way of slicing up people born at different times to distinguish them.

Obviously, you can cut “slice” this rhetorically many different ways. “Technology,” for example, has been one theme harped on by countless marketing experts in their neverending rush to figuring out how to sell to the newest batch of kids. However, I think ultimately, no matter what you point to as the casual factor, what defines a generation is the aggregate result of these factors. That is, how do the commonly experienced events of a period create broad outlooks that mark one group of people from another? How does the fundamental self-identity of what generation differ from another?

I’ve been mulling over this one for awhile, and I think today on the commute I came up a good way of verbalizing the distinction that I’ve had for awhile.

Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is through the art that we could define as definitively belonging to either generation. To present a brief thumbnail list of media that comes to mind —

Generation X: Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, Pulp Fiction, Chasing Amy, Natural Born Killers, High Fidelity, Election, Mr. Show

Generation Y: Rushmore, Garden State, Death Cab For Cutie, Arrested Development, Requiem For A Dream, Snakes on a Plane, Ghost World

Approaching the problem aesthetically, we can compare what are arguably the two most archtypal film directors of the two generations: Kevin Smith and Wes Anderson.

In Smith’s work, most notably in “Chasing Amy” and “Clerks,” the central themes are (arguably) individual awkwardness and a frusturation with the social demands of living a suburban cliche. Even when the characters are engaged in a humorous moment, there seem to be flashes of deep bitterness towards. In fact, it is that bitterness from which Smith draws much of his humor. His characters are usually caught in dead end situations, and remain ambiguous as to their direction.

In Anderson’s films, the themes are still very much that of alienation (Life Aquatic), the cliche of social demands (Rushmore), and eccentricity (Tenenbaums), but taken in a quite different light. While the plight of the characters in a movie like “Tenenbaums” is certainly dysfunctional and tragic, Anderson takes pains to stress the oddity of the characters in a playful celebration of those idiosycracies. Here, rather than being at odds or resignedly accepting their condition, the characters embrace their strangeness, and, indeed, come to enjoy that. To this end, one recalls the end of “Rushmore,” where Max Fischer says,

Ultimately, I think this is also the differentiating line between the outlook between Generation X and Y. Where Generation X wallowed in a degree of embarassment and anger at awkwardness, alienation, and cliche, Generation Y loudly celebrated it. In point of fact, Generation Y internalized it as THE framework they built their identity around. The inauthenticity and ambiguity that both generations felt became a kind of authenticity unto itself in Ys. They were willing to play with stereotype and existential angst in a way that the Gen Xers only revolted against in movements like grunge. Rather than fight, Gen Y co-opted it happily into themselves.

Interestingly, this has certain consequences for that particular breed of youth hipster. In many ways, he presents a kind of transitional figure between the two generations (which is probably why members of both generations are found in that subculture). While employing irony and kitsch as their tools, the hipster still retains a deeper desire for purity that is indicative of their Generation X origins. Moreover, the constant mode of detatched irony as a mode of engagement bespeaks the deeper disdain of their marginalization characteristic of the Xers. Eventually, if this theory is right, we should see the hipster become “Y-ster,” that is, to come to accept the love of kitsch itself (in the finest Susan Sontag tradition) as the central core of enjoyment, rather than the superficial irony of the experience. The hipster pretentsion that writers like Chuck Klosterman have only now begun to criticize, I feel, augurs this sea change. “Seeing” will replace “Being Seen.”

Sam mentioned to me over dinner at the Eagle Rock Diner last night that Ghost World by Daniel Clowes was his life. Indeed, that awkward people and things were the things he liked the most. He turned his eyes to the left, and then started to relate to me the plot of a movie featuring lesbians, seances, lies, slapping, horses, and drowning. Later, we watch Plan 9 From Outer Space. Which, of course, comes in at a close second to watching “From Justin To Kelly”

One sunny day, Clancy, sporting a hideous thermal hood-thing, turns to me and remarks simply, “I’m in love with ugly things” while doing some kind of dance-thing that I will never be able to replicate.

Somewhere online, Megan thanks me for sending her a host of silly, black-and-white Victorian era erotica punctuated by a ragtime soundtrack. Meanwhile, her obsession with WFMU’s Seven Second Delay continues.

No doubt in my mind that the revolution has already begun.

In fact, I think it’s been going on for quite awhile.

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