TCS Daily

Is That All There Is?

By Ilya Shapiro - April 19, 2005 12:00 AM

With the ever-increasing retirement of Baby Boomers, the public sphere is inundated with controversies surrounding Social Security reform, prescription drug benefits, estate taxes, and other issues that, while hugely important to the nation as a whole, are most directly related to the generation whose mantra was once "don't trust anyone over 30." Yet very little is said about the flipside of this demographic shift: the gradual assumption by Generation X of the vigorous, dynamic core of American society -- and their ambivalence at this development.

Not that there's any danger of the cohort whose members spent a few years after college "finding themselves" and riding the various waves of the globalization suddenly taking over the boardrooms of the Fortune 500. Or that the Simpsons-and-Seinfeld set are secret plans to take over positions of power in media, industry, and government, rolling (gray-haired) heads from Palm Springs to Del Boca Vista. And I don't even mean that globalization and the information revolution have engineered a "great disruption" of a sort that is subverting established social and economic relations -- though that is a enticing discussion topic for another occasion.

Instead, like it or not, the doctor who treats you in the E.R., the lawyer who drafts the paperwork on the billion-dollar mergers and IPOs, the stock analyst who sways your pension fund, and the teacher who educates your kids -- and the reporter/writer/blogger who subtly influences your thinking -- are all in that age group whose name was coined by Canadian pop sociologist Douglas Copeland in a 1991 book.

And -- though it makes us sound like spoiled brats (and me narcissistic for writing about it) -- we're not happy. Or, rather, after a (relatively short) lifetime of playing by the rules, eating our greens, graduating from high school, then college, then grad school or whatever other apprenticeship takes up our early-to-mid-20s, and finally starting work in the real world, we've come to realize that there's more to life than taking an anointed spot in the meritocracy.

We were told by our parents (and Billy Joel) that if we worked hard, if we behaved, we would achieve the good life. Well, we've achieved! Achieved!! ACHIEVED!!! and now... what?

David Brooks take note: Generation X has arrived, made its presence felt, looked around, and is wondering, "Is that all there is?"

It is a conversation I keep having, or talking around, with my friends and peers -- the type of folks who 20 years ago would have been called yuppies (which label I at least am happy to wear now, if in a descriptive rather than ascriptive way). They -- we -- have everything we could ever want in this stage of life, but still we search for meaning.

Like the government lawyer who tries to have a "parallel life" as a historian. Or the reporter who's already headed up a foreign bureau and bought a condo but is looking for love in all the wrong places. Or the jet-setting consultant who makes films on the side. Or the real estate developer who used to be a filmmaker/banker/musician. Or the law school classmates who, more likely than not, will eventually be governor (or senator or attorney general) of Ohio, Montana, and South Carolina, respectively (I swear).

Of course, this overwrought tale of late-20s/early-30s overachievers' angst relates most to Purple or Blue Americans living in major cities who are at or near what we classify as the "elite" of their professions. These are the people living supposedly perfect lives (or lives on course for perfection) yet feel empty, not being able to find meaning or fulfillment in either materialism or new age spiritualism, Porsches or pilates. (Red Americans, and those with less "ambitious" lifestyles, face their own issues, which I won't presume to tackle at the same time.)

Some haven't quite found a match between vocation and avocation, or feel trapped by their jobs or paper credentials. Others feel lost without a soulmate, or in relationships held together by inertia. Some can't quite put a finger on the source of their discontent. For most it's a combination.

I wish I could conclude this column with a conclusion, but there are no easy answers or solutions. Then again, neither did there seem to be when we faced uncertainty at 13 or 17 or 22. It must just be a matter of time -- till this Gen X angst morphs into whatever kind 35- to 45-year-olds face (I surmise it has something to do with marriage and children).

At least my generation doesn't have the Boomers' concerns; after all, we have the certainty that Social Security won't be there for us.

Ilya Shapiro a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last contribution argued that markets are hip, man.


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