Perhaps everyone thinks the year that they were born was the best. We humans are naturally narcissistic, aren’t we? Yet middle age often forces us to look backwards in order to look forward, and as I review my life and it’s various stages it becomes clear that the timing in which my childhood played out was truly blessed. Particularly as a female. The work had already been done to allow me agency over my body and mind, yet we still had a sense of humor when it came to gender relations. Moreover, both technologically and culturally those of us born in or near 1972 seem to have hit the mark with each monumental shift.
Of course, there were issues—we were latchkey kids, our parents beat us, and the food and air were quite toxic, but when seen from an evolutionary viewpoint, Generation X seems to have grown up with the best of the “good old days” when it comes to culture as well as a front row seat in the digital revolution. And that my friends, makes us unique.
If you were born in 1972, most likely much of this decade is forgotten. I personally can’t remember anything before 1977. However, those last three years of the decade that I do remember are remarkable. First, there was Soul Train. I can’t even tell you how much I loved turning on the TV and dancing every week. This was by far the funkiest thing to ever hit the tele, and it would shape the way I dance and dress for the rest of my life. I still prefer a good disco/funk song and platform shoes make my heart sing. The show began in 1971 and was the first must-see-tv for me.
When I wasn’t dancing inside, I was outside. We were ALL outside. Let’s put it this way, we woke up and ate crappy cereal with cold milk (my favorite was Honey Comb) then our mothers pushed outside and basically said, “Don’t come home till I call you for dinner.” Such was the day for the child of 1972.
What in the world did we do all day? I made mud pies in the lake, played kick the can at dusk, rode my bike all the places my mother said I couldn’t (sans helmets) and hung out at the parks, which were places of injury, screaming and challenge. Our slides were so tall, you’d get vertigo standing on the stairs, which was were the line would form. Yes, kids pushed each other down. It was everyone for themselves. The teeter totter was where you discovered your friends and your enemies. The merry-go-round made you sick.
Lunch would be at whatever home you happened to be at when you were hungry—the mom of the house would hand out baloney, mustard and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread that we’d eat with dirty hands as we ran on to the next event.
In the evenings, the calls from mothers all around the neighborhood would sound out, “Dinner time!” Games would end, bikes were mounted, and tired, skinned knee children headed home to meals of Shake ‘n Bake chicken and fries cooked with Crisco in the FryDaddy.
While I wasn’t in charge of the music in my house at this age, some of the greatest rock and roll ever made was recorded and performed during this decade, and I grew up to the sounds of The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Blondie, the list just goes on and on.
And my first movie…Star Wars: A New Hope, at an drive-in movie theater.
Oh, where to begin? While I admit there are some questionable fashion trends from this era that should forever be forgotten (like leg warmers, big hair, neon, the mullet and overuse of the word like), this truly was a great decade to be a kid. I was eight when the eighties arrived and would spend the decade in wonder as so many firsts began to come our way. Before this decade, I listened to 45-inch records on my little blue record player (I still have it, just in case the Smithsonian calls). By the end of this decade, I had a CD collection that would take up half of my dorm room, and a CD player that I could hold in my hands. I still remember my first Walkman, as well as listening to the radio all day to hear that one song I wanted to record for my mix tape. I experienced the technology as it arrived, from the record to Spotify, and that alone makes this life of mine special. But the digital revolution would cross all areas of life, not just music.
Trips to the local, single screen movie theater to watch E.T. or Ghostbusters were a treat, often topped off with Dairy Queen after the show. But then came the VCR, and with it, video rental stores, movie marathons and terrible, cheesy horror movies like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween at every sleep over.
Speaking of sleepovers, spin the bottle anyone? Five minutes in the closet, or in the confessional during recess (I went to a Catholic School) were a favorite middle-school game that often never went further than kissy-face, as my husband likes to call it. Oh, the scandal of it all.
The fastest way to find a girl during the 80’s was to follow the spiral telephone cord as it wound its way from the kitchen into the nearest closet, hallway or bathroom, where she’d huddle away for hours, gossiping about absolutely nothing. But by the end of the 80’s, I had one of these in my car. It was for emergencies only, but boy it was cool.
Say what you will about some of the pop culture of this time, I admit Paula Abdul and Wham! weren’t always easy on the ears, but Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the radio waves while bands like REM and Guns N’ Roses launched their careers. And U2’s Joshua Tree…wow. Just wow.
One of the most amazing things about being a child in the 80’s was the introduction of the personal computer as well as video games. While we still played kick the can till dusk, we also had Mario, and my personal favorite, Pitfall. We are the first generation to have both worlds to play in—real and virtual. I learned to program in 1985 on a TI. We learned to play Pac-Man in the arcade and then some of us went on to work in technology and found PayPal, Twitter and Tesla (yes, Elon was born in 1971).
And speaking of careers, while college was something many people did, it wasn’t so competitive. I never took an AP class or test, didn’t even take math my senior year, took the ACT twice, applied to three Big Ten schools total, accepted the one who accepted me first, and headed to Purdue University in the fall of 1990 to study computer science. Fast forward to today and my own sons, with their eight AP classes and ten standardized test scores, can’t get into a CS program, because they got B’s in their foreign language classes. My how times change.
Oh, the music. Eddie, Kurt, and Courtney. Seattle changed our lives and as the music went from poptart to dark grunge, our bangs fell from the heavens (thank GOD!!!!) and we traded in our neon jelly shoes for soft flannel shirts and torn jeans. Star Trek: The Next Generation (oh Data you sexy thing), Twin Peaks (the first time around) and X-Files (I want to believe, I really do) were now my must-see-TV.
As I mentioned earlier, 1972 was an ideal year to be born as a girl in America. I bring up my gender because all the hard work had been done already for me when I came of age sexually. In 1990, a young woman could go to her college Planned Parenthood and get affordable birth control. We never had to worry if the clinic would close down. It was the same with abortions—yes, both conservative and liberal girls got them—and we’d stand by our sisters, knowing it was never an easy choice and helping them cope with the decision both before and after. Yet never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that our rights to family planning could be taken from us. Our mothers fought for it, and we demanded it.
Coming of age sexually in the 90’s was almost a dream compared to times before and times after. Given the AIDs scare of the 80’s, we were sexually more conservative, sometimes choosing to have a one-night stand, but mostly making out with strangers in bars, leaving them with our phone numbers written on a cocktail napkin, wondering if they’d call. Sometimes they did, often they didn’t, but while a kiss is a sweet, intimate thing, it isn’t sex, and it’s no big deal if he doesn’t call. The next night we were most likely kissing someone else. Once I was at the local bar in my college town and a friend of mine, someone I’d had a crush on for a long time but never did anything about, came in, grabbed me and kissed me, quite passionately I might add, in front of everyone! When he pulled away he said, “I’ve always wanted to do that,” and then he left. It was exhilarating, fun and all part of the dance of flirting.
Yes, there were consent issues, it’s not like Millennials invented date rape. But we weren’t so scared of one another as a group. You knew who the players were (I think you call them douche bags now) and you stayed away. We didn’t demand they changed, all the women on campus knew that the Beta House wasn’t safe. We went to parties in groups and left in groups. No sister left behind. We also said no, a lot. But we also said yes. We flirted with one another. We pinched each other’s asses and bought each other drinks and danced closely, face to face. We dated, and actually went out to dinner and a movie without the expectation of getting laid.
The men I came of age with sexually had not been fed a steady diet of internet porn since the age of twelve, and I think that makes a big difference. The college boys of the 90’s grew up stealing their Dad’s Penthouse or watching the same rare porn video from the “bad” father’s collection over and over before Mom came home from work afterschool. I could trust them, because while their behavior wasn’t perfect, their expectations matched mine. Yes, they wanted sex more often than I did, but saying no wasn’t a big deal. They continued to date me. They weren’t expecting a porn star.
People my age know what we’re losing when it comes to gender relations, and it makes us sad. We want to have fun again. To flirt again. To not have to take every damn thing a man does so seriously. Sure, it got a bit annoying when every guy I met would ask me my major and then say, “No really, what is your major?” when I answered I was in computer science. But I didn’t take it personally, I’d still be single if I let everything a man did offend me.
But I have that luxury, because in the 90’s, sex was natural, sex was good, not everybody did it, but everybody could.
And as I graduated in 1994, I entered a fairly good job market. In technology, things were booming, and would continue to boom, until the year 2000, when the whole bubble burst the first time.
The 21st Century
What have the babies of 1972 been up to? We seem stuck in the middle between aging Boomers who won’t let go of power and angry Millennials who feel the world has screwed them. We’re also taking care of both of those generations. Many people just a bit older than myself have an aging parent they’re caring for as well as young adults still living in the house. I’ve been busy since 1999 raising my own children (let’s hear it for Gen Z) and trying to figure out how to give them the same world I had, or at least the best parts. By the time I had kids, the playgrounds were coated in rubber mats and there wasn’t a dangerous activity within miles. I was a young mother for working women in my generation, married with two small boys by age 29, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my generation who took away the scary slides. We’re the ones trying to get them re-installed. Worse, those playgrounds were empty. As I’ve written before, the SAHM experience was lonely and isolating for me. The neighborhoods were desolate, no kids in sight for my own to play with. Such a difference from my childhood where we spent hours with other kids, not a parent in sight, unless we wanted a baloney sandwich.
Makes it pretty tempting to just put my kid in front of the Wii for entertainment.
I can’t give them the experience of all the firsts I went through. I do let them play with my record player though. I can’t change their pornafide dating culture either, but I flirt with their father and encourage them to be clear about their expectations with their lovers. Nor can I ease the college application process, reduce the student debt they now all face, or improve the job market. Things seem to have moved to a painful place and turning around appears impossible. The only way is to go forward and create a new story.
We have something to share, those of us born around 1972, the dead center year of Generation X, technically defined as those born between 1965 and 1981. As a larger group, we’re a bridge generation, the last to know what life was like before the information age, yet the first to adopt the digital world and shape it. While we’ve been busy raising kids and figuring out the work/family balance, we have been in the shadows between the massive Boomer and Millennial populations. We’ve been a neglected and overlooked generation in many ways, but perhaps that’s because we’ve never had to really fight for anything. The Women’s and Civil Rights movements were fought by our parents. The identity politics wars of the now are being fought by those younger than us. We’ve been able to reap the best of the modern age, hitting the mark every time. But our culture needs us to lean in and make our mark. What we choose to do with our time now that the reigns are being handed to us will determine the course society takes. We were a generation of latch-key kids and allowed to manage our time on our own without the distractions of today’s world and no one checking in on us. This makes us quite independent and resourceful. If anyone can help create a new story and usher in a better world, it’s those of us who have reaped the benefits of being born at just the right time, don’t you think?