I have no doubt that, like every generation before us, we will judge the next generation to be spoiled or clueless. Nonetheless, whatever does become of them, I hope that the next generation holds us accountable and thinks for themselves.
There’s an old washing machine from my grandfather in the gully of our dry cow pasture. It’s wedged in among a few trees, presumably where it landed after he heaved it over the bank decades ago. My father pointed it out once while we were hunting. We shot it and kept going.
It was interesting to see an appliance from another time, and that gave it a reverent authority. But it was garbage too. In other places in the woods, there’s an old cultivator and a truck from the ’50s. My father once remarked that it would have been nice to restore the truck – if it didn’t have so many bullet holes in it.
My grandparents belonged to the “Silent Generation,” which roughly includes those born between 1925 and 1945. Although children of the Depression, they were also termed “the lucky few” because they missed World War II yet reached adulthood at the peak of financial virility in the U.S.
The U.S. emerged from the war as a sudden world power and experienced the type of economic growth that is no longer materially possible. The pie then was big, and everyone made sure of their fat slice. (The baby boomers who followed would be titled “The Me Generation” for that reason).
Still, that generation was called silent because they focused on their careers instead of activism and tended to conform to social norms instead of confronting threats like McCarthyism. The idea was to keep your head down, do what was expected of you and take home your paycheck.
My parents were born at the beginning of Generation X. Generation X was a general term for alienated youth that eventually fell to people my parents’ age. The older ones sat in front of the television to see whether they would be drafted into a war that would not be remembered with the same glory as the World War their parents told about.
Many of them spent young adulthood, their best years, in the ’80s and ’90s, which arguably lacked any striking achievements like the sexual revolution in the ’60s or the hippies of the ’70s.
My parents’ generation got married young and had babies early. It was the social norm their parents impressed upon them. They went to work as soon as they were able. If they did go to college, it was for a practical degree, and they planned on using it as soon as possible.
Once, my father and I found fresh garbage at the top of the gully. We recognized the coffee brand and the banana peels to know where it came from. Usually, my grandfather had a neighbor pick up his trash and take it to the local dump. It appeared that neighbor was away that week.
My father asked my grandfather not to throw his garbage in the woods because he planned on enjoying them for many more years. My grandfather simply shrugged, as if to suggest that that was no concern of his.
When my parents got together with their friends, they used to talk about how good it was to see live bands in bars and how you could drive all day on your motorcycle with the change in your pocket. They used to say that my generation had no idea.
Now, my parents and their friends, being in their mid-50s, lament how the Social Security they paid into their whole lives is likely to be gone by the time they reach their 70s and how the state retirement is getting progressively worse due to the larger benefits paid out to the previous generation.
My father shared the fieldwork with my grandfather, and when the chance would come that one of them could leave the farm for a while, my grandfather would claim the opportunity himself, telling my father that “his time would come.”
My parents’ generation had kids in their early 20s, as was expected of them, sent them to college and are now taking care of their parents. They are on the brink of old age themselves. Many of them are left with the feeling that their time has never come.
There’s a sign at the bottom of the hill with our farm’s name on it. It’s small, and now I forget that it’s there, but it pre-existed my childhood. I assume it must have been there a long time. The farm is still a mile away and would seldom take visitors other than bill collectors.
It strikes me as a bit overstated, or at least a signal of exaggerated times. It looks less indulgent now, in any case, with all its bullet holes.
When I go back to my hometown, the thing I hear most is this: “Keep experiencing different things. Do it while you’re young.” It’s up to the ethnographers to define the generations and put them in their context, and not every individual experience is the same, but I believe the millennials (of which Wikipedia says I was at the start of) have stepped out of the shadows of their predecessors.
I remember my first cellphone and the exact person who told me about Facebook, and I worry about what these things have done to our selfhood and ability to communicate, but we are also the first generation to insist the environment needs to be cared for.
We’re deciding to get married in our 30s instead and not concerned with starting a career right away if it can be avoided. If possible, we travel and see how other people in the world do things.
Generation X is sometimes also called “The Sandwich Generation” because it’s between two more populated generations in the baby boomers and the millennials. In some ways, I also wonder if they feel squeezed on both sides by the conservatism of their predecessors and the deviation from such ideas by their children.
Perhaps we millennials, too, will eventually feel passed over as we age. I have no doubt that, like every generation before us, we will judge the next generation to be spoiled or clueless. Nonetheless, whatever does become of them, I hope that the next generation holds us accountable and thinks for themselves.
I hope they don’t feel cheated or get stuck with our garbage.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.