The Trash Generation
There are two primary associations with trash I've got in mind. The first is that of refuse, garbage, swill, rubbish, filth, slime, muck, putrescence. Let's get it out of the way: that generation born between approximately 1965 and 1985 certainly have lots of that. This generation bought the records that created gangsta rap; it provided much of the fodder for Jerry Springer; it gobbled up sex and violence and foul language from movies and TV and music and demanded more. Some of my generation are trashy people and make the headlines for the same reasons ancient Romans flocked to bread and circuses: the fundamental base nature of humanity.
But even among our celebrity trash, there is another connotation which packs the real punch. A perfectly good item will often be thrown out simply because it is regarded as disposable. Sometimes it's sheer overabundance; my family used to keep butter dishes to keep food and other things in, but after a while one gets enough butter dishes and new ones must be thrown out. Other times, the perfectly good item has but a temporary purpose: glitter, party favors, a one-roll camera and some decorative crepe paper. Gather it up at the end of the night and throw it away; the blush of novelty is gone, and it's cheap to replace. And so while I often feel disgust at the antics of a Brittany Spears or a Christina Aguilera, I also feel pity as they desperately try to keep from being thrown away.
The Trash Generation label, however, is much deeper than the celebrity skin on this age group. The notion of ornamentation and disposability is embedded in our collective self-image. That's what happens to the children of a self-centered generation. The Baby Boomers, categorically speaking, have narcissism as their defining trait. Hence the term "Generation X"; it is the label used by a generation so self-absorbed that they never really knew their children. What should have been self-evident became a mystery to them, and why plumb the mystery of other people when there's a handy self-referential label to use instead?
Too often members of the Baby Boom generation treated their children like afterthoughts, products of a whimsical shopping spree that must be dealt with now that the new has worn off. The term "latchkey children" was invented during my generation. Divorce and broken homes became rampant as adults decided that their inability to solve their problems was more important to accomodate than the needs of vulnerable children. And midway through the Trash Generation, it became legal for a woman to literally dispose of the person inside her if that was her desire.
Great party, man! But now it's time to clean up: throw away the beer bottles, seal up the weed for next time, flush away the child you created.... There! All done!
So there are the first two prongs of why we are the Trash Generation. Some of us are trash, in both the filthy and disposable senses. We have also been treated like trash. But the third and most important prong is our generational task: we're here to take out the trash.
To be a bit less pithy about it, ours is a restorative generation. It will be our job to fix things and put them back right. Not only is it our job, we are uniquely suited for it due to our primary flaw which contains within it the seeds of its own redemption.
First, the problems we have to solve. Primarily, it is up to us to do the fighting and winning in the War on Terror (or World War IV, as Norman Podhoretz so aptly puts it.) The soldiers just coming in are from the tail end of the Trash Generation, and the lieutenants and captains and colonels are from the heart of the generation. Multiple accounts from the military show the same no-nonsense attitude that recognizes the evil of the enemy we face, our capacity to defeat it, and our determination to do so. The reports on the ground are so cheering; our soldiers do such awesome and dangerous work with no hint of self-pity and no confusion about what has to be done. The task is set, and those assigned to the duty are perfectly suited for the job.
This is a job that could have already been done. It started with Carter's weakness and fecklessness. Reagan was ineffective in this war (largely because he was winning another one), and Bush the Elder failed to pursue the enemy after winning a battle. Clinton was, of course, a disaster, kicking the can down the road every chance he got. Well, our generation doesn't kick the can down the road. Enough is enough.
Why are we like this? Why are we so well suited for the challenges we face? I submit it is because our primary flaw is our capacity for self-indulgence. As a rule, each of us has a long stretch in his life (or her life, if you insist, although I tend to follow the old rule that the masculine embraces the feminine) in which self-control fails as he gets too much of a good thing. But it's a funny thing about the vice of self-indulgence; it has consequences, and those real hard-hitting consequences help teach the virtue of self-control. I can indeed eat all the candy I want, but I will get a stomachache if I do so. Soon I will learn not to eat all the candy I want and will look with either pity or contempt at those who do not control themselves.
The cure to our disease, then, is a dose of reality that cannot be denied. Just try denying a stomachache. (The same cure, incidentally, doesn't work on the baby boomers, as narcissism admits no outside reality. All is interpreted in the light of one's own glamour.) That shapes us into the perfect people to handle the problems that can no longer be waved away or punted. We deal with reality.
This is enormously important because the problems don't stop after we win the war on terrorism (which we will win; this war may drag on, but it will also give this generation time to move up in the ranks and start making the decisions that will keep us going.) This generation holds within it the seeds of the next great tax revolt. Our government spends too much money and puts off the day of reckoning again and again, but a generation burned by self-indulgence knows the bill must come due. The options boil down to three: refuse to pay it, pay it without a word, or pay it while speaking up against it. I suspect we will take option #3: we will honor the obligations but demand that things change NOW.
Social Security is the prime example. It's a terrible system: it generates long-term obligation to people that must be met with the sweat of their grandchildren. Not only is this more than a little immoral, it's going to run into a mathematical wall. My generation, I think, will not bug out on the obligation; a debt's a debt, even if we weren't the ones who incurred it. But we'll be damned if we let this thing keep on doing the same thing. Mark my words: privatizing and individual accounts are coming, and it will be this generation who pushes it.
There are lots of other problems that must get fixed: immigration and unsealed borders, permanent growth of bureaucracies that don't fix problems, the scourge of abortion (which will be a BIG deal politically, as the abortion escapees come of political age) and its effect on our demographics as well as our moral fiber. (Sometimes we're referred to as a "baby bust." Our problem wasn't a baby bust; it was a baby flush.) But we've got the job, and it's got to get done, and it might as well be us to do it since we've got better plans for our kids than fixing the problems we didn't want to face.
That's us. The Trash Generation. And it's time to start our rounds.