By Cathy Alter June 08, 2014

Your Generation Is Showing

Reflecting on The '90s Through Gen-Tinted Glasses

I am ten years older than my husband, a fact that seems more remarkable to others than to us. Even though I’m technically a Gen Xer, I never notice our age gap, until Karl, a Millennial, starts talking about Saturday morning television.

“Remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” asked Karl one morning as we sat with our 3-year old son Leo watching his current favorite animated hero, “Kung Fu Panda.”

“When you were in your jammies eating your Fruity Pebbles and following the antics of a gang of talking turtles, I was just rolling in from a frat party,” I said. “Either that or sleeping off a hangover.”

“And here I thought we named our son after Leonardo.” Karl deadpanned, referring to the eldest turtle.

For better or for worse, the life experiences we have during our formative years inevitably contribute to the values, social mores, and collective memories (the good, the bad, the Urkel) of each generation. For kids like Karl, who came of age in the ‘90s, or for those like me, who matured a bit, um, earlier, our pop cultural touchstones—our music, movies, books, and technologies—have helped to shape the people we are today.

Generation X was the great unsupervised generation.

“Generation X was the great unsupervised generation,” says Bruce Tulgan, who writes about the workplace and is the author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y, among others (including a companion book about managing Generation X). Commonly referred to as latchkey kids, Gen X was the first generation (those born between 1960-1980) where the majority of both parents worked outside the home. Kids like me took care of themselves, often in front of the television, resulting in more exposure to world events and pop culture.

“I remember watching the first Gulf War and thinking, you can fight a whole war on television,” says Eve Epstein. “It changed our [generation’s] relationship to historic events.” Eve, along with her sister Leonora Epstein, is the author of X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story. Aside from being a trip down memory lane, their book is a dueling banjo dialogue between the sisters—Eve is 43, Leonora, 28—who debate the merits and mortifications of their respective generations.

Unlike her sister, the turning point for Leonora (Generation Y comprises those born between 1980-2000) was Nickelodeon. Nineties-era cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters were built on surreal, absurdist, and dark humor. “We took the tone of our generation’s humor with us,” says Leonora, citing self-deprecating TV characters of today like Jess on New Girl and Max on 2 Broke Girls – and all of HBO’s Girls, where the laughs often stem from self-imposed humiliations.

Even if we were viewing the same thing on television, the X’s and Y’s were watching—and understanding—very differently. The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was barely a blip on Leonora’s radar (she preferred the melodrama of Dawson’s Creek), but for Xers like me, it was appointment television. It also made me run out and buy Nicholson Baker’s Vox, the 1992 phone sexy book that Lewinsky supposedly gave as a gift to Clinton.

For Oliver Gray, 28, the OJ Simpson trial came into his classroom and onto the soccer field. “Our teachers turned the TV on in the middle of class to hear the verdict,” he says. “We didn't understand the ramifications as kids, but that didn't stop us from throwing around "the juice is loose" jokes on the soccer field. I was oblivious to the racial implications, but was enthralled by a live murder trial.”

Maximillian Wachtel, 41, recognized those consequences, both immediate and enduring. Says the forensic psychologist, “I remember the general sense that a lot of people had—OJ needed to be found not guilty or there would be another riot in LA. I also remember it feeling like a circus. In retrospect, it was a good prelude to reality television where real people are turned into characters for entertainment purposes.”

The X/Y generations also look at the same musical icons differently. In their book, the Epsteins view Bono through the generational lens. Xer Eve sees him as the “earnest, political activist front man with awful hair.” Leonora is even less impressed, calling him a “douche with weird sunglasses.”

Perhaps the reason is that for Generation Y, artists like Bono and Madonna (whom the sisters also contemplate) were already ever-present, like wallpaper, by the time Leonora started listening. The Spice Girls, says Leonora, were the Madonna for the Y set. She even taped over her Bat Mitzvah video, using her family’s VCR to record herself and her friends singing “Wannabe” into their hairbrushes.

And speaking of VCRs, technology is one of the biggest generational indicators. I went off to college with a Brother typewriter, which my parents gave me as a high school graduation gift. Carrie Thornton, who graduated high school in ’93, left for college with a Brother word processor. “It had this little screen that showed about 8 lines of text at a time.” Thornton, now the executive editor of pop culture-focused Dey Street Books, remembers taking her floppy disc everywhere she went. “It had my thesis on it.”

The nineties, reflects Sarah Wildman, 39, was the last time we could totally unplug. “It was a time when we were still in tech infancy and you could be truly alone and not engage, endlessly, with your virtual counterparts because such things only barely existed and half the time your emails disappeared before you finished them.”

As I watch my son watch “Kung Fu Panda”, I wonder what sort of world he’ll look back on. And that’s when Shifu/Dustin Hoffman helps put things into perspective. “Each generation teaches the next one,” he tells Panda/Jack Black. Shifu may have been talking about the art of Kung Fu, but he could just as easily been referring to the virtuosity of Ninja Turtles.

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