Tara Brabazon: Life lessons from Generation X

As its progenitors mature, popular culture is rising to the challenges of facing the inevitability of ageing, writes Tara Brabazon

December 29, 2010

I began an academic career in my mid-twenties. Meetings then were filled with men in their sixties. Now in my early forties, I (still) enter rooms populated by men in their sixties. Their age – and even their gender – is not a problem. Most of the people I admire are over retirement age. Indeed, many are dead. The issue is not age. The concern is a lack of diversity. If widening participation remains a goal for higher education, then such a project is not only “about” students but must be exemplified by academic staff.

An intriguing book title captures this moment of transformation in workplace history. Rob Stam released Almost Our Time: Generation X Takes on America’s Challenges. The title is better than the book, but the author asks that Gen X-ers assume responsibility for the credit crunch and debt culture by no longer continuing the “affluenza”, the excessive consumption, of their youth.

At its most evocative, Stam realised that, “Our generation saw the Information Age begin and the Cold War end, but those weren’t our accomplishments. It all happened around us, not because of us, but we assumed that life just worked that way.”

This generation watched, mocked, danced and laughed. Popular culture was the common language, providing reference points, models and modes of living. For Stam, Star Wars fuelled the engine of his life. But the Jedi mind trick did not prevent him from declaring bankruptcy and reconsidering the costs of using popular culture as “the best possible preparation for the real world”.

Jabba the Hut provides few insights into the behaviour of Bernie Madoff. But there are some lessons to be learnt from popular culture, not in terms of rebooting the banking system and investment services, but to understand ageing.

I finished one of my books, From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Culture, Popular Memory, with a worry and a question: “Max Headroom, Ren, Stimpy and Pee-wee Herman will not age. X-ers have to discover a pathway that television could never teach us: how do we grow old?”

My book was published five years ago. I need not have worried. Popular culture has provided strategies for ageing. Michael Winterbottom, who directed one of the great (doco/mocko/Baudrillard-infused) films in 24 Hour Party People, created one of the televisual surprises of late 2010: The Trip.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (playing the characters of “Rob Brydon” and “Steve Coogan” in a nostalgic attempt to return random and unnecessary inverted commas to nouns and verbs) confront middle age and the inevitability of death.

While the trip of the title involves visiting some of the best restaurants around the Lake District and Yorkshire dales for a fictional Observer review, this is a ruse for “Rob” and “Steve” to chat about the depressing state of their lives. They discuss failed marriages and limited career prospects and fill the gaps in their conversation (and their pasts) with impressions of other people. Unable to confront deep pain and disappointments, cycles of imaginary conversations between the young and old Michael Caine, Ronnie Corbett, Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Tom Jones flood the silences. Bitchy competitiveness attends their friendship. Career disappointments are masked by demeaning the achievements of their dining companion.

Most disturbing are the solitary moments of “Steve Coogan” as he walks the Lake District fells or contemplates a desolate night-time London landscape upon his return from the trip. Without speaking, and without the voices of others to exhibit his talent, Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” attends his middle age. The multiple identities of Steve Coogan, “Steve Coogan” and his ventriloquist dummy impersonations create clutter and chatter. The moments of silence reveal a desolate canyon separating aspirations and accomplishments. Life requires the management of disappointment. Or, to quote “Coogan”: “You can’t treat your entire life like a Radio 4 panel show.”

Even more overtly, the other great Generation X film-maker Kevin Smith has addressed the process of ageing. Instead of using cinema, Smith has created a podcast network. Titled SModcasts – to signify the partnership between Smith and his long-time producer Scott Mosier – a series of remarkable programmes demonstrates the great potential of podcasts as a mode of narrowcasting to precise audiences.

The shows are of diverse length and content, varying from “Hollywood Babble-on” to “Blow Hard”, which explores sexual diversity, and “Plus One,” an evocative discussion between Smith and his wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, about the nature of marriage, families, work and relationships. These sessions are honest and funny, using the potential of podcasting to create intimacy, connection, insight and community.

The most extraordinary SModcast is “Jay and Silent Bob get old”. Produced weekly, it features Jason Mewes and Smith. They – like Brydon and Coogan – take on their fictional characters. Each week, Smith introduces the session with these words: “Every saga has its middle age…and this is what happens when Jay and Silent Bob get old.”

These are powerful sessions where Mewes relates his battles with drugs and the daily challenges in creating – let alone maintaining – a “normal” life. Both are married, both are working through a mature filmic career and trying to understand the shapes and curves of their friendship. Most poignantly, podcast listeners support Mewes to remain drug-free, offering feedback and care through Twitter and via Smith’s website. The capacity of podcasts to present individual lives delivers powerful narratives of loss, denial and consciousness.

Smith and Winterbottom have shown what happens when the people of Generation X assume cultural leadership. They use popular culture in new ways, presenting startling honesty, but also triumphant survival. They convey the everyday heroism of maintaining a marriage, raising children and integrating work into life, rather than living to work.

Rob Stam was wrong. Popular culture continues to inspire, model and challenge us to live with respect, consciousness and passion. But I was wrong, too. Popular culture still teaches Generation X and provides the narratives and language for ageing. The challenge for both popular culture and our universities remains welcoming diversity beyond the stories of white men mooching towards social irrelevance and/or death.

Popular culture matters. It matters politically, and it matters to politicians. The UK is currently managing its first Generation-X prime minister. Yet it was not the Labour Party – with its Generation-X leader – that offered the sharpest critique of the new government. Johnny Marr, besides maintaining the best haircut of the past 30 years, was the iconic guitarist of the Smiths. He tweeted (obviously) to his famous fan, “David Cameron, stop saying you like the Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”

Popular culture – even old pop – continues to matter.

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