On July 8, 2017, I turn 44 years old. No big deal.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought I’d freak out about turning 40. I did but in a good way. I loved it. My 30s were hard—I spent that decade raising a young child, building my own career, supporting a husband through a job loss, grad school and a career change. As the chaos calmed, turning 40 felt like I could finally look to the future. Who knew that four years later, in my work with this blog, I’d be examining the past?
I was born in 1973, pretty much the mid-point of Generation X. I remember how our generation was described—slackers, cynical, angry even—and thinking, yes, that is exactly how I feel. I didn’t think we were getting a bad rap at the time. To me, it was pretty dead on.
In the time that I have been really diving deep into generational issues, I have learned it takes more than a date range to bring a generation together. It takes shared experiences or what many call “defining moments”. My own analysis is that these moments—positive or negative—fundamentally challenge a belief or change a worldview. For many Baby Boomers, the assassination of JFK is their defining moment. For most Millennials, it’s September 11, 2001.
Like most generations, GenX has many defining moments. Here are the top three that most resonate with me:
By 1986, space travel was pretty well established. What made the space shuttle Challenger’s 10th mission particularly interesting at the time was the fact that Christa McAullife, a New Hampshire Social Studies teacher, would be joining the crew. It was to be the first time an ordinary citizen would join professional astronauts on a mission to space, opening our imaginations to the possibility of space travel for “regular people”. Seventy-three seconds after blastoff, the shuttle exploded, killing everyone aboard.
For the many GenX-ers who watched it live, it was difficult for us to wrap our minds around what we had just witnessed. I remember shocked teachers struggling to understand and explain, trying to process their own emotions while protecting those of their students as a piece of innocence was lost.
Not every defining moment is a tragedy. In 1981 MTV played The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and everything changed. Created as an idea to reach teenagers as the largest group of consumers of music and to re-engage them with television as a medium (there was very little dedicated programming for that demographic). MTV fused music with visual storytelling and gave us access to the artists that we loved and exposed us to new ones, 24/7.
My family didn’t have cable in 1981, but when we got it a few years later, I was hooked. As a young person obsessed with music, if I was watching television, I was watching MTV.
And I wasn’t the only one. Pop culture, news and even political programming began showing up on MTV, aimed at reaching teens and young adults. In my teens and early 20s, my most trusted news sources were Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren. (MTV actually had a Peabody award-winning news department).
Never do I feel as old as I do when I turn on MTV today. Yes, I’ll watch Teen Mom OG with my daughter because she got me totally hooked, but I forget it’s the same network. For straight up music videos you have to seek out their sister stations, such as MTV2 or MTV (gulp) Classic.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
On November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany, meaning that the wall that had been separating West Berlin from communist East Berlin was no longer necessary. That weekend, citizens from both sides of the wall came together to celebrate and to start tearing down the Berlin Wall.
I remember the date because I had a poster of the wall coming down hanging in my teenage bedroom. (So much for the Brat Pack for me I guess.) I also remember it because tense U.S./Soviet relations were a big part of my childhood. True, by the 80s we weren’t doing under-the-desk drills in school anymore, but I did understand that mutually assured destruction was just about the only thing keeping us from nuclear war. That’s pretty scary for a kid. So in 1989, at age 16, I thought maybe that’s something I didn’t have to worry about any more. Today, it feels downright nostalgic.
And so as I mark another successful trip around the sun, I wonder what the defining moments will be for subsequent generations. YouTube? An Obama presidency? A Trump presidency? Time will tell.
GenX-ers: What do you consider to be our defining moments? Boomers and Millennials, what about you? Reply in the comments.