I’ve never subscribed to the notion that there ever existed a single “monoculture,” with a shared set of touchstones that transcended all demographic divides. It’s a myopic take on cultural history predicated placing too much weight on certain prominent distribution vectors while ignoring others. It’s an inherently political and reactionary perspective, as it suggests a bygone cultural consensus which somehow fractalized into a gaggle of warring factions.
A better terms when it comes to discussing widely — but not universally — shared experiences would be “macrocultures,” an amalgamation of “big tents” which diverge and intertwine with one another over time. The regionally accented lingua franca of UHF programming during the 1970s through early 1990s qualifies as a macroculture, as would the toyetic advertainment industry which began following Reagan’s degregulation of the FCC in the early 1980s. Or certain pop music trends. Or whatever other facets of pop culture that could conceivably become springboards for shared personal experiences.
From this point of view, the Gen X/Millennial thing becomes less of a clear-cut divide and more of a spectrum of generational gradients — older and younger siblings sharing a number of general commonalities with varying entry points. 1999 or Graffiti Bridge. License to Ill or Ill Communication. Pretty Hate Machine or The Downward Spiral. The difference between passing through that era as a teenager or a twenty-something shouldn’t be downplayed, but it also matters less with the continued passage of time.
The most significant commonality between the two demographics has been a state of extended adolescence, both externally and internally imposed. I maintained a student-slacker lifestyle up until my early thirties, and still retain many vestiges of it. That’s both an extreme and anecdotal case, but these groups are less inclined to put away “childish” diversions for the sake of some arbitrary definition of “adult behavior.”
The flip side of that is an illusory feeling of psuedo-stasis, which grows more pronounced once the big life benchmarks — marriage, kids, etc — are passed. That stretch, running from the early twenties to late thirties, where everything feels like it happened “just a couple of years ago.”
And then the Great Die-Off begins. The mortality of one’s parents and older relatives becomes inescapably apparent, and also starts nibbling at the fringes of your own sense of well-being.
The celebrity icons of your youth start passing away and an increasing and frightening pace. Some die of a chronic illness or some tragic accident, but in most cases it’s because they’ve started hitting the age where the mortality rate starts to ramp up.
You forget the fact that David Bowie was already in his mid-thirties when Let’s Dance came out, thirty-three years ago. Or that Jack Davis had been in the illustration game since the Truman Era.
And that awareness begins to spread in other directions. It’s not for nothing that no release date or significant popcult event from your youth can pass without a social media reminder that it took place THIRTY YEARS AGO.
“Geez, when did Bill Murray get so old-looking? He looked great in Lost in Translation and that was just a few years ago.” And then you do a Google search and realize that there are middle schoolers who were born after the film premiered.
I don’t want to spin this as a mid-life crisis thing, because that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. What we’re seeing is tragic and depressing, but it’s also How Things Happen. It’s how things have always happened. The cognitive dissonance and difficulty in processing that, however, is a reflection of a generational culture never deeply considered that it would ever happen. It’s not the solipsitic denial that characterizes the worst extremes of the Boomer generation, but rather an unanticipated confrontation with the fact that this is how things are going to be from here on out.