The virtue of not caring:
Lessons from the unnamed generation
Nobody cares about generation X, but the truth is, we don’t care about you either. Still, Xers are destined to change the world, not because, we are special, but because all generations get their turn, whether they like it or not. Xers are now between their late 30s and their early 50s, so when it comes to positions of power, they are next on bat.
Some may say that Xers have already changed the world. And that’s true, many already had. But they still did it in their aloof way, by succeeding in activities that grew at the margin of what was considered traditional. Google, Napster, EBay, Tesla, PayPal, and Twitter, are all Xer companies or products that grew in an industry that for years Boomers did not take seriously: the web. I remember my Boomer father buying an electric typewriter in the 90s because he thought the Internet was a fad.
But to understand the ethos of Xers, and their broader message to the world, we should not focus on Xer companies. After all, the money made by people from one generation is identical to the money made by those from the next. To understand the ethos of Xers we should look at those who excelled in the arts, and in the case of the X generation there is clearly one quintessential artist, at least in the realm of popular music. That quintessential Xer artist was Kurt Cobain (b. 1967).
Cobain was the opposite of a hipster or a hippie. His music expressed loudly a feeling of really not caring about what people thought about him. He did not sing about love, or cared to learn the guitar that well. Guitar virtuosos were a thing from the previous generation, like Kirk Hammet and Joe Satriani. These virtuosos were technically much more talented than Cobain, but Cobain’s music made them nevertheless sound obsolete. Why? Because it spoke to the heart of what is at least to me the ethos of the X generation: indifference. A more modern incarnation of that same aloofness is embodied in the work of the comedian Louie CK, who has sense of humor, and a style, that is also marked by a sense of indifference. But are there lessons to learn from those who always take distance? Or should we just ignore them, as people who never outgrew their teens?
As you can imagine, I am also an Xer. A late Xer. I was 20 in the year 2000. Born in 1979, I grew up listening to Cobain’s music while having breakfast in my grandpa’s kitchen. My grandpa and grandma, two members of the Silent Generation (1925–1944), did not understand or care much about Nirvana’s music. But they cared enough about me to endure Cobain’s screams every goddamn morning of 1995. And I mean literally, every goddamn morning of 1995.
I stopped listening to Nirvana more than two decades ago, but I still remember what was like being a teenager in the suburbs of Santiago in the mid 90s. Wearing an oversized sweater with chewed sleeves was what it was all about. The Cold War was over, and there was nothing to protest. Or maybe there was, but Xers either didn’t care or couldn’t organize. You see; Xers grew up in a very special period of communication history, quite different from that of the Boomers and that of today. Boomers and millenials grew up in a world in which personal communications enjoyed a different form of social privacy — privacy from their parents. Boomers, like my parents (b 1951 and b. 1955), interacted face-to-face with others. Millenials, have their own phones. Xers, however, lived in a world where our parents always knew who we were talking to because phones were family shared landlines and calls were announced publicly by shouting them across the house: “César! Teléfono! Claudio!” Landlines gave Xer parents the power of knowing their teen’s social interactions in ways that Millenials did not have to endure. But the phone was not the only communication technology that shaped the Xer mindset.
Our escape from our parentally observed interactions involved watching a television that we could not program or control. The homogeneity of media in the 80s and 90s was outstanding. I remember growing up in Chile with Alf, MacGyver, Bennie Hill, and the Golden Girls and seeing Alf on TV when in Thailand in 1988. I was eight back then, but I nevertheless remember having the realization that most of the world was watching the same shit.
So in that environment, where we could not control what we watched, and our parents knew exactly who we were talking to, Xers learned to master the only weapon they had left at their disposal: indifference. The indifference that Nirvana did not create, but knew how to express. During the 80s and 90s, Xers became the masters of not caring.
But not caring turned out to be a more powerful weapon than we expected. Xers grew up a time that they could not change the world, so they had to learn how to change themselves. We grew up surrounded by hoards of judgmental Boomers who passionately discussed whether a man with a ponytail, or earrings, meant the end of human civilization. Our voices were not going to be heard, or considered. So it was easier for us to be less judgmental, than to try to convince others. You could not change boomers gossiping about ponytails, but you could chose not to care about ponytails yourself. Disagreement was easier, or at least acceptable, when you assumed that you already lost the fight.
Most recent writing on generational differences obsesses over the differences between Boomers and Millennials. They describe Xers as just a combination of the two. That’s bullshit.
Boomers and Millennials are cut from the same cloth. They are both idealistic and choose to fight every battle as if it were a crusade they were destined to conquer. But picking all battles is not a good strategy. First, you cannot win them all. Second, you delegitimize the battles that are worth fighting when you overreact. And third, you promote polarization. So if there is anything that Xers can teach Boomers and Millennials is to learn the virtues of not caring. Indifference, when used strategically, can be a powerful thing.
In the eyes of an Xer being to adamant about changing the world comes across as patronizing — and it often is. Changing the world should be a side effect of your actions, like Nirvana’s place in the history of music, not a grittily fought goal; or worse, a personal ambition. Take atheism as an example, which has clearly been an important topic of debate during the last decades. As an atheist, I choose not to be a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), even though I confess that I sometimes enjoy reminding people that God is a character of human fiction — a very influential fictional character nevertheless. Yet, I would not dare to consider myself an atheist messiah, or to be so self-aggrandizing to believe that the fight of atheism is my fight. I employ in my group, and work closely, with muslims, orthodox jews, Christians, and other atheists. And to be honest, I don’t give a shit about what people believe as long as it doesn’t impact policy. After all, even Xers have to draw a line somewhere.
But many Millenials, like Boomers, tend to think they are here to change the world. And that it is their job to do it. Some even say it out loud, or they ask you to frame your work contributions as world changing. So now, Millenials and Boomers fight each other: in elections and on the web. Millennials and Boomers are after all similar. They are generations that failed to learn the virtues of not caring, even though they grew up on the aftermath of more nihilistic generations. The Xers and the Silents.
My grandpa and grandma are my models of the Silent Generation. They were born in 1931, so they had to endure the Great Depression and the Second World War. My grandpa was born in Santiago from immigrant parents and lost his mother at a young age. He was then put in an orphanage and always told me that in winter he had to pee on his feet to warm them up. That’s a reality that I will never understand. And I don’t pretend that I could understand it either. I grew up with a Nintendo and cable T.V. in my room. My grandpa then graduated with honors from high school, started med school, but had to quit to sell office paper to support his younger siblings. Married at 21, he studied accounting at night because that was the only night degree available. My grandma, born in Barcelona, came to Chile on a boat as her family escaped Franco’s regime. Antonio and Nuria met in downtown Santiago and now nag each other 18 hours a day — and sleep the other 6. But their stolen childhoods appeared to have taught them to accept anything that life threw at them — even their grandson’s overplayed Nirvana tape interrupting breakfast. They did not pretend to change the world. They were happy to see their lives end up in a better place than where they started. They learned to accept.
As Xers we also know we are insignificant. Maybe not because life was hard on us, but because it was too good compared to that of our predecessors. We grew in the aftermath of a global economic expansion and an unprecedented era of peace, despite the cold war. But we also knew our grandparents grew up in a sad Charles Dickens novel. So we learned not to change the world, but to accept that the world will not always accepts us — and that that this is ok sometimes, but not always. And in that air of indifference Xers began to find their place in history. First, by programming their parents VCRs, and then, by making websites that eventually changed the world. That’s how Xers became the last link between the world of uniform analog communication — the world of globally famous Alf — and the digital world where everyone is half famous and people flit in and out of millions of online communities.
In February of next year, Kurt Cobain would have turned fifty. I, at the other end of this generation, will be 37 when this year concludes. I am starting to have a belly, and although I still feel young, I know that I don’t look young to those in their twenties. Xers are not teenagers anymore, even though there might always be some teenager within them. Increasingly far from their youth, Xers now have to take the baton, whether they like it or not. But what world will they lead? Will they care to lead at all?
On the one hand, the virtue of not caring may lead Xers to prioritize freedom; bringing in a new style of leadership that is less judgmental, and where a larger diversity of behaviors is allowed. Think of Justin Trudeau (b. 1971). Maybe, that’s not bad after all. Xers were not taken seriously on issues that did matter to us in our youth, from universal marriage, to marijuana legalization, so we may pay forward by leading without judging future generations. But on the other hand, the virtue of not caring may backfire. It may lead to a world where leaders are inconsiderate, as some see in some of the leadership of Silicon Valley.
And that need to balance anarchy, freedom, and nihilism, and its potential positive or dire consequences, is what tears the adult Xer apart. That tension between the freedom that we Xers draw from our indifference, and the need to be considerate with others, which seems paternalistic to us, but it is sometimes necessary. For the Xer is not: to be or not to be, but when to judge and when not to care. Now that our generation has come of age, not caring about that choice may no longer be an option. On the next twenty years, we’ll see how that goes.