This is an obituary for the generation gap. It is a story about 40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act, and dress like people who are 22 years old. It’s not about a fad but about a phenomenon that looks to be permanent. It’s about the hedge-fund guy in Park Slope with the chunky square glasses, brown rock T-shirt, slight paunch, expensive jeans, Puma sneakers, and shoulder-slung messenger bag, with two kids squirming over his lap like itchy chimps at the Tea Lounge on Sunday morning. It’s about the mom in the low-slung Sevens and ankle boots and vaguely Berlin-art-scene blouse with the $800 stroller and the TV-screen-size Olsen-twins sunglasses perched on her head walking through Bryant Park listening to Death Cab for Cutie on her Nano.Let's see: Glorification of Youth and Hipness? Check. The tacky mini-materialism that has become the conspicuous consumption for the liberal upper middle class? Check. A self-fascination tendency so strong it can warp space-time? Check. (Note, too, the many asides in which the writer of the piece tries soft-pedal his me-tooism by fashioning a false reluctance to admit that he's a Yupster, too.) We're looking at the baby boomers squared, here. I mean, sure, the boomers tried to extend their youth through nostalgia, and they looked silly for clinging too hard to their cultural experiences. But at least they aren't cutting loose their honest (if narcissistic) nostalgia to be cultural parasites.
And because this phenomenon wears itself so clearly as the convergence of downtown cool and easy, abundant money, it is also, of course, about stuff—though that’s not all it’s about. It’s more interesting as evidence of the slow erosion of the long-held idea that in some fundamental way, you cross through a portal when you become an adult, a portal inscribed with the biblical imperative “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This cohort is not interested in putting away childish things. They are a generation or two of affluent, urban adults who are now happily sailing through their thirties and forties, and even fifties, clad in beat-up sneakers and cashmere hoodies, content that they can enjoy all the good parts of being a grown-up (a real paycheck, a family, the warm touch of cashmere) with none of the bad parts (Dockers, management seminars, indentured servitude at the local Gymboree). It’s about a brave new world whose citizens are radically rethinking what it means to be a grown-up and whether being a grown-up still requires, you know, actually growing up.
Luckily, most of these knuckleheads are confined to ghettoes of the self-consciously authentic like Williamsburg or Weehawken, or Northampton, Massachusetts, where I see them daily -- the white, dreadlocked 37 year old who went to Brown only to end up with a useless degree in Social Justice Studies or something.
Speaking of authenticity, here's a quote from one of these dopes: "I spoke to an undergrad class at NYU recently. And it was terrifying how much we had in common. I’m looking at these kids who look about 12, and we’re all going to the same movies and watching the same TV shows and listening to the same music. I don’t know if it’s scarier for them or scarier for me." (My italics.)
I'm sure it scared them, but Mr. Hip here is no doubt secretly pleased that he is cultivating the proper tastes. I'm sure he thinks he impressed the hell out of his NYU audience by seeming so with it -- but friends, you just know he came across like Pat Boone singing "Tutti Frutti."
For Gen-X, just fifteen years ago, the big complaint was that boomers, with their lingering sixties-era musical attachments and smug sense of cultural centrality, refused to pass the torch and get the hell out of the way. In a 1997 sociology essay titled "Generation X: Who Are They? What Do They Want?," one twentysomething student lamented, "We still are bombarded with 'Classic Rock' and moldy oldies. Bands like the Eagles, Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith need to back off so we can define our own music, lifestyle." It’s ironic, then, that those selfsame slackers — the twentysomethings of the early nineties (and, hey, I was right there, too: Rock on, Screaming Trees)— aren’t standing in the way of the next generation. Rather, they’re joining right in at the front of the crowd at the sold-out Decemberists show. Hey, kids, you can define your own music, lifestyle—that’s our music and lifestyle, too!(Emphasis in original.) Given the choice, would you rather suffer through a bunch of loudmouthed boomers telling you how awesome Dylan was, or suffer through a bunch of toadying Gen Xers latching onto your own tastes like cultural leeches? I think the answer's obvious. I mean, nostalgia can be sad, but at least it's not entirely undignified.