On a walk we pass a group of young people dressed in the 90s style kids are into at the moment: puffy coats, baggy jumpers, jeans cut off above the ankles, white socks and copies of trainers I recognize from my youth. A couple of the boys even have floppy hair parted in the middle. One of them looks eerily like a friend I had in Canada. There’s a woman with them talking about wildlife management: must be a biology daytrip. It’s odd to see young people imitating the way we dressed while wearing Bluetooth headphones and taking videos on their smartphones.
It’s not a great style to copy is it really, I say to S. when we’re back home. But we Gen Xers didn’t have much to work with. The idealism of the 60s, the rock-star fantasies of the 70s and the balls-out tackiness of the 80s were being recycled in various ways, but many of us didn’t really believe in it – it didn’t feel true for us. We were starting to see through how the society of the baby boomers worked. We were a small generation up against a mass of self-centred people busy shoring up their social capital at the expense of the rest of the world. Many of us instinctively felt we were fucked, so we withdrew and became self-centred in our own ways while the boomer generation passed over or assimilated us. We became apathetic. For the committed slackers, even ‘Generation X’ itself was a lame corporate label. Yet it was fitting for a crossed-out generation. It meant: ignore us, we don’t care, at least until we’re absolutely forced to conform. We were hard to market to: what do you sell to people like that except Nirvana CDs?
And yet I watched former classmates become bankers, marketers, programmers, tech developers, compete for jobs, disappear into the vast corporate world and devote all their time to helping the boomers continue what they started. No wonder so many of our successors, the millennials and Gen Z, seem so flighty, so prone to fads, self-branding and burnout.
The apathy of those years never really left me. It mingled with the anxieties provoked by school, girls, the need to impress and succeed, but it never left. It grew into a general feeling of pointlessness. Even during fits of worry about an exam, a date or a wasted day, there was the sense of something neutral, indifferent, hovering over everything, levelling all the events of life. I looked for ways to give this feeling substance, to turn it into something you could live by. I read novels, went to plays, galleries, lectures, museums. I started reading about religion and going to church. When I finished school I went to London to do a degree in religious studies, but the feeling stayed with me and I dropped out after a year. After a year of manual work in Denmark, I went to Norwich to study art history and literature. I discovered more and more works of art, people like me, with similar interests. And when we were taught to view the works we studied with suspicion and take them apart, unpack their constitutive elements, it made sense to me. It was how I’d felt all along: so-called meaning happened along arbitrary horizontal lines; one element along the line, however important the artist or author thought it was, could in principle be replaced with any of the others; it was almost impossible to mean something. Meanwhile life still felt like a kind of photographic negative. But of what? What could the positive possibly mean now?