The onset of middle age once meant that one could become a bland old rowdy, freed from the burden of staying tuned to microscopic upswings in the cultural barometer. You would have bought a reliable European sedan, started making bad jokes to the waitresses and received all your news from Time. Blissful irrelevance was the calling card.
But thanks to a confluence of factors, the generation gap that once created a comfortable buffer between youthful madness and mundane adulthood has all but eroded. Instant internet access to all of popular culture history has played a role. There’s also the trend toward flat, decentralized workplaces, where those of us who watched Nixon’s impeachment sit in open offices next to colleagues who were still teenagers when the first African-American president took office. was elected. And that’s not the least of all, it’s the fact that so many middle-aged men and women of my generation refuse to act at their age.
We now exist in a timeless culture. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues in his new book, Shock present, there is no past or future, only at present. “The present is not so much a culture in itself as an amalgamation of all the periods we have passed through,” Mr. Rushkoff said. “And that makes it difficult to belong to a particular generation.”
The old generational identities that once defined us have crumbled away, and the net result is a messy time mashup in which 40-somethings act like skateboarders, 20-somethings dress like the grandfather of My three sons, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents, and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk.
It wasn’t like this before.
“I worked at the Limbo cafe on Avenue A in the early 90s, where the Paris review would read for drag queens, squatters and smackheads,” recalls Michael Rovner, a 42-year-old former magazine editor who is now director of content marketing agency Mr. Finn Content Works. “These 45-year-old swells from the Upper East Side were showing up, and it always seemed like they were crashing our party. But now I’m in my 40s and young people don’t look at me that way. I can go see Sky Ferreira at Glasslands, although I guess I run the risk of being called “sir.”
The lines are blurred, the edge has been dulled, and traditional timelines have been blended. We all now feed from the same cultural pool. And while baby boomers are busy getting their sloops ready for that retirement sunset (provided their 401k didn’t take too long
While the the erosion of the generation gap may seem like a positive step for society – with long hair trusting people over 30, Archie Bunker making peace with Meathead – the liberation brought by this break is largely symbolic. As Mr. Rushkoff said, “Culturally, it’s all just one level deep, one search deeper.
“There are no longer the same generational divides, but I think it is also because no one lives much in depth,” he continued.
Which is not necessarily a condemnation of our 140-character society, or of the technology that forged it. The Internet has unleashed the creative potential of mankind and made people more responsible for their actions. But for me and many of my generational cohorts, this interconnectedness has also meant a lot of extra homework, as we are now expected to follow every new wave in the sea of culture.
You might know, for example, that Skrillex is the EDM dude with the weird haircut that all the suicide girl baristas had last summer — a trend that, of course, spawned at least one Tumblr. I did not do it. So I had to study a little, in order to communicate intelligently with my young colleagues.
It may seem trivial, but maintaining all that awareness is a tiring task. Although I don’t feel old or outdated, I just turned 45. Assuming I can roam the Earth as long as my recently deceased father, the first half of my life is over. Even by the most generous definition, I am middle-aged. As such, I tire easily.
And I’m not alone.
“It got exhausting,” said Kyle Smith, the 46-year-old author and New York Post movie critic. “I have to keep up with it in some ways, otherwise my cultural credentials might look like Grampa Simpson. But I’m also supposed to stay on top of reality TV, Country, all about HBO, the latest politician gaffe, and all the trending stuff on BuzzFeed, Vine, and Twitter? I can not do it. There are not enough hours in the day. And I just don’t want to.