Gen. X, Gen. Y and the Art of Slacking

I hope you all will excuse me while I make rash, sweeping generalizations about, well, pretty much all of us (or at least the generations to which we belong). I think it’s interesting that the idea of the lovable, cool slacker arose in the 80s and 90s as a counter-cultural alternative to yuppies and  corporate expansion, but I’m not sure that the art of slacking has translated well for my Generation, the Y-ers, who are, if anything, hyper-motivated, helicopter-parented and desirous of “making their mark in the world.”

Wikipedia has a fascinating entry about the word “slacker.” I assumed it was a late 20th-century invention, but actually it’s been around since as early as 1790, and was widely used to describe draft dodgers in World Wars I and II. Then it fell out of vogue until 1985, when Back to the Future premiered and these lines brought it back to relevancy:

You’ve got a real attitude problem, McFly. You’re a slacker! You remind me of your father when he went here. He was a slacker, too.

That tipped off the Slacker Renaissance, starring Jordan Catalano, Bill and Ted, Xander, the Dude, Lloyd Dobler, Troy Dyer, Jay and Silent Bob, and, of course, everyone in the movie Slacker. (It just occurred to me that these are all guys–can anyone think of any famous female slacker characters? Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted comes to mind, but she also had a mental illness that was affecting her ability to be productive and happy).

Slackers were disaffected, discontent in their minimum-wage jobs but not looking for anything better, well-versed in pop culture, captivated by movies and comic books and music their Boomer parents didn’t approve of or “get.” If slackers measured their self-worth at all, they did it in terms of their relationships with friends.

Of course, there’s been a lot of backlash against the Gen. X “Slacker” stereotype, a lot of howling that it’s all smoke and mirrors–TIME‘s 1997 article “Great Xpectations of So-Called Slackers” and The Independent’s 2007 article “Generation X: The slackers who changed the world.” The former argues that X-ers were “misbranded,” the latter argues that they did influence culture in their own hodge-podge way, and both cite the difficulties of growing up in the 80s, what with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and prevalence of crack cocaine, compounded by the economic woes of the early 90s and the high divorce rate of Boomer parents, who left “latchkey kids” scattered across the nation.

I find this all just fascinating.  I can totally see how X-ers, left without many career choices in an economic downturn, would decide not only to take mind-numbing jobs but to refuse to apologize for it, to redefine their “failures” as logical, livable, even enjoyable decisions.

And that’s what brings us back to Gen. Y–not to start a “we have it worse than you” game (because I definitely don’t think that’s true), but I would point out that on the economic front, my generation really is facing a higher unemployment rate than X-ers did, and the mean duration of unemployment is now up to 35 weeks, the highest it’s been since the Great Depression.

Things are bad, in an across-the-board way–you’re out of luck if you don’t have a high school diploma, if you have a diploma but not a college degree, if you have a college degree but no applicable skills/experience, if you have a Master’s or Ph.D. but people just aren’t hiring in your field right now.

So did Gen. Y respond by picking up the slacker habits and unreliable reputation of Gen. X? Not exactly. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but I know dozens of recent college grads who are feverishly working to break into their dream industry and dozens of others who are in grad school. Sure, some of them are holding down jobs at coffeeshops, but all are freelancing or substitute teaching or applying to school or actively seeking out better employment.

Still, people knock us for being the “Boomerang Generation,” because so many of us have lived with our parents past age 18, for being “Trophy Kids,” because we were taught we were special snowflakes and rewarded for participating, and for being “frustrating employees,” because we frequently demand promotions and higher pay and flexible hours.

Older people are always going to criticize the younger generation. Boomers, in particular, have a very difficult time understanding that the global economy has changed astronomically since they were young, and their patented “graduate from high school/college, find a job, get married, stay in that job for 30 years, retire” approach is no longer applicable. My father, for example, is constantly repeating the mantra that “Anyone can get a job. They just have to try hard enough.” He absolutely believes that, because he grew up in the boom years, when second-income families were still optional and public schools still taught all the skills relevant to enter the workforce.

That disparaging attitude, plus a more pragmatic approach that advocates taking jobs that are essentially soul-sucking, translates into the abject disdain and disappointment older people express at Gen. X and Gen. Y’s “immature” decisions, which are really just rational coping mechanisms. And then individual X-ers and Y-ers (particularly Y-ers, in my opinion) internalize that disappointment until it crystallizes into self-hatred, depression, ennui, angst, etc.

If I had one wish for my generation, it would be that we would stop listening to the Boomers and perhaps consider “slacking” as a viable alternative to constantly fighting the system tooth and nail. That we would be honest about our desires and needs, that we would actively seek to find out what our passions are, and that we would be ok holding down a job at McDonald’s while doing that.

And if I had one wish for the Boomers, it would be that they hurry up and retire faster so that we can have their cozy jobs.

And now let’s all ponder the depth of this Reality Bites scene and the fact that Evian spelled backwards is “naive”:

3 thoughts on “Gen. X, Gen. Y and the Art of Slacking”

  1. I must say, as a Gen-Yer, having a Gen-X boss is awesome – he totally gets the work-life balance right, or at least makes sure his employees do: work from home? flexible hours! as long as you get your work done, who cares, right?

    *Yes, I am unbearably lucky (and boss is pretty much the only reason I’m still there).

  2. I identify with both Gen X and Gen Y. While I had the helicoptering parents that made me feel like I was super special and exceptional, I also have that slacker attitude in saying screw it to just about everything and everyone I do not care for.

    That being said, as far as the career goes, I would definitely say I’m much happier in a mind-numbing job I don’t have to pay that much attention to because it gives me more room in my head to think about the things that make me happy, like arts and crafts. It’s definitely a balance deciding if you want to be happy in your career or happy in your life. I tried the career thing throughout my 20s. I graduated college and did things I was “supposed” to do. It didn’t make me happy at all. Slacker to me is more about finding what you love to do and doing it; and also bucking the norms.

  3. It kind of wigs me out that I’m GenX and you’re GenY, but we both have Boomers for parents. It sounds like were both fed the same line about working hard and face the same suspicion from them regarding changing jobs or quitting a “perfectly good” job because we’re – egads! – unsatisfied with it.

    I was that GenX slacker in the 1990s, but never saw it as a negative. Slacking wasn’t doing nothing – it was being OK with yourself and your situation and refusing to get into a rat race with anonymous people over things that didn’t matter to us. That’s how I saw it, anyway. I’m still like that and it’s made my every employer crazy. I don’t care about being promoted or being given more responsibility or more authority. More money is always nice, but I’m OK with what I make now. I just want to do my job, then leave and do something else I enjoy. It’s an attitude that my Boomer dad and Boomer bosses find very unnerving.

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