In Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save the World from Millennials, Matthew Hennessey has written an unusual hybrid: a Generation X jeremiad.
Generation X, those born between the early to mid 1960s and the early 1980s, is supposed to be a cohort that eschews heavy political activism. Gen-Xers (who include this book’s author and your humble reviewer) are known to smirk at the hippie dreams of the Baby Boomers, and also at the digitally-addicted, politically correct millennials who came after. We are the last generation to have lived in an analog world. We like real books, intimate conversations, vinyl records, and sex. We don’t believe in utopia. Our spokesmen (sorry, we don’t do “spokespersons”) are Robert Downey Jr., Bret Easton Ellis, Cameron Crowe, Public Enemy, and the Replacements.
Hennessey, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, is different kind of Gen-Xer. He does want to save the world. The main problem, as he sees it, is the blob-like takeover of everything by digital devices. Zero Hour is not so much an anthropological examination as it is a religious warning about addiction. It belongs on the shelf not next to Douglas Coupland’s Generation X or the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, but alongside works like The Lost Weekend, Go Ask Alice, and Junkie by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs’ 1953 novel is an especially apt companion piece, as the Beatnik writer always emphasized not the excitement, but the boredom of an addict’s life. Whether on heroin or Facebook, addicts spend all day feverishly doing not much.
To save the world, Hennessey argues, what Generation X has to do is force the millennials to pry themselves away from their phones and shut the computer down. “I’m in early middle age, still closer to 40 than 50,” Hennessey writes. “The impulses that I constantly feel to log into e-mail, to scan the headlines, to learn the latest—all of that is new. It’s a recent development. Very recent. I never used to be this way. I spent hours as a teenager and young adult looking at baseball cards and hockey stickers, flipping through newspapers and old magazines . . . experimenting with the tools on my fathers workbench . . . playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
Having watched the digital revolution unfold, Hennessey now preaches that future generations are doomed. Hooked on glowing devices, secure in their basements and bedrooms, millennials avoid the risks and rewards of being a young person loose in the world. “Can you imagine being a teenager today?” asks the author. “You’d never be able to fool your parents about where you’d been or whom you’d been with.”
The danger is that kids become guileless snowflakes who can’t take criticism and never integrate their shadows, that dark place of lust, depression, and anger that all human beings need to come to terms with before becoming adults. They’re a paradox: fear-filled zombies. “A guy no longer needs to grow a pair and step up to the plate” to ask girl out, Hennessey laments. Now everything is done on dating apps. He defends the early 19th century Luddites as misunderstood and argues that their modern heirs are “like a 21st-century William F. Buckley, standing athwart the Internet of Things yelling ‘Stop!’”
Of course, Hennessey is not wrong. People are indeed addicted to technology. It stunts emotional growth, prevents complex thinking (Twitter), feeds political intolerance, and bolsters narcissism. In many ways culture itself seems to have stopped. I was born in 1964, and I’m always amazed that people much younger than I am are so interested in Star Wars, a film series that is more than 40 years old. Few of them form passionate cults around contemporary writers or bands the way we did. My high school and college friends were always focused on the latest rock band, book, subculture. Part of the fun was to go against mainstream tastes, not with them. The digital world has eradicated subcultures.
Hennessey reminisces about the period after his 1991 graduation from high school when, upon seeing Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, he became interested in alternative music and culture. “To be a slacker,” he writes, “was to be more interested in things like music, art and books than about things like college, relationships and career.” Being slow to compare himself to his peers was a good thing, not a bad thing, he now realizes. “If I didn’t have money, career, or an all-consuming ambition in those days, I also didn’t have an iPhone in my pocket feeding me nonstop pictorial updates from friends and relatives who did have those things.”
Then, like a crack dealer showing up in the neighborhood, the digital revolution arrived. The statistics bear out the troubling reality. Fully 54 percent of millennials told Time magazine they prefer texting to face-to-face conversation. A 2017 Harris poll found that 68 percent of millennials prefer visual aids to talking on the telephone. Most don’t exercise or read real books. Hennessey recalls his own young adulthood when, if he wanted human interaction, he “had to scrape myself off the couch and deliver myself to school or work or my parents’ house or the record store or the dive bar or the music club—or any of the other places where human beings congregated to share information, tell stories about themselves, make career connections, show off new tattoos, or find love. It’s created a generation that is at once narcissistic and insecure, predisposed to boasting and secretly insecure about others’ good fortune.”
You can almost visualize Hennessey pounding a Bible as he reaches his hortatory climax:
Do not go quietly into the good night of millennial domination, whether in your profession or personal life. Stand up for regular order, face-to-face meetings, and systems that reward merit over all else. Celebrate experience. Find a way to promote humanistic values. Don’t let childish ignorance or the promise of a utopian future steamroll your sense of right and wrong. Give as good as you get, even as the grey hairs form on your temple, as technological change outpaces your ability—and desire—to keep up, and your 20/20 visions starts to blur. Gen X may be small, but we are tough. Our specific experience should allow us to punch above our weight.
The passion is admirable. It’s just that, as a fellow Gen-Xer, I don’t think we’re the type to go on social crusades.