One of the most distinctive virtues of Generation X developed out of what was initially identified as its distinctive vice: apathy.
It is a virtuous cynicism, a principled hypocrisy, a refusal to allow social norms to dictate individual sense of value.
To what was (at that time) the most narcissistically sanctimonious generation ever known, the Boomers, Gen Xers seemed to care about nothing at all. This, of course, was an artifact of Gen Xers caring nothing for those specific things that Boomers considered important and worthy of passionate unanimous commitment. Gen Xers actually did care about other things, namely exercising the freedom to care about what one actually feels to be valuable.
When Gen Xers found themselves in milieus that imposed values and beliefs that did not connect with their own values, their strategy was to protect their true inward experience by treating the performative requirements as an external game. As kids, there was more outward expression of cynicism, more eye-rolling and resistance. The game was moronic, and the contempt was allowed to show through. As adults, personal responsibilities increased and became bound up with the welfare of loved ones, public personas became more opaque, and the inner life was confined to and concealed within the private sphere. Gen X is the geode generation.
Of course, to the Boomers and their somehow even more sanctimonious, narcissistic and aggressive offspring, this privacy might seem cowardly, selfish — or, worst of all, inauthentic — but a glance at census data should show the prudence of this strategy. Gen X is a tiny generation, composed of genuine individuals. If Gen X wishes to preserve individuality against two massive ideologically aggressive and cohesive generations profoundly offended by dissent, flight might make more sense than fight. In conditions like these, where people are socially sanctioned for ideological nonconformity attempts at authenticity will come at the expense of one’s own inward sense of truth. In times like ours, individuality goes underground or ceases to exist. If, as a friend of mine has suggested, that disagreement is a form of respect, it follows that agreement can be a form of contempt, and I would argue it might be time to once again allow the contempt shine through. If there was one characteristic of Generation X that could rival apathy, it was irony.
Note from Feb. 15: Of course, it is unprincipled hypocrisy for a professed liberal to praise or condemn entire generations as a group. It is true that individuals coalesce around shared worldviews and function from them as collectivities, and that generational worldviews tend to shape the character of individuals — but it is easy to move from that position to seeing individuals as mere products of their generation and then further into the illiberal habit of seeing people primarily as examples or even agents of some collective “spiritual” being, as mere types.
I am leaving this post up as an example of what I look like when I have an illiberal relapse.