Generation X and The Catcher in the Rye

People are shaped by the situations they encounter during the time when they are forming themselves as individuals, adolescence. Youth wish to set themselves apart in an environment that is constantly calling on them to conform. In modern society multibillion dollar corporations take over to the point where people today have little choice but to conform to the values and life dictated to them. Generation X was the first generation to grow up with this and see it as wrong. Xers are defined by their unwillingness to conform to the ideals that are not their own, but instead of their materialistic predecessors. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye seems to mirror Xers cynicism, view of a morbid future, mistrust, contempt for mainstream society ad high set of morals and values. Xers, a generation of “slackers and drifters” has grown and matured into a group unlike any other this world has seen. They are independent and hardworking and have decided that they make their own future, and they’ll make it as best as they can. At the end of The Catcher in the Rye, there is a semblance of hope in the scene at the carousel that Holden too, will find hope for the future, and like Gen Xers, will mature to make the world of the future better for the ensuing generation of children. The term Generation X began in 1964 in England as the title of a youth-pulp book (“Generation X.”,, but became prevalent in North America only after the publication of Douglas Coupland’s tale of hopelessness, Generation X in 1991. Sociologists group anybody born between 1961 and 1981 as an “Xer”. Hopeless slackers, lazy and too smart for their own good is usually the way they are described by their mostly boomer parents. According to Coupland, Xers do not have much to look forward to. For the first time in human history an entire generation has grown up with the notion and fear that man can now eradicate himself with nuclear war-power. Xers are confronted with the facts that they will never earn as much as their affluent boomer parents did, that the global environment is in serious crisis, overpopulation is staggering all the while the world’s natural resources are in steep decline. Partner these things with a generation where 40% of people grew up in broken homes (Hornblower, 609/society.great_xpectat.html), as children of two income or single parent families that had to take care of themselves and had only television for companionship and love, and it is understandable why this generation was seen as cynical and bitter. Growing up and watching such wholesome programming as the infamous Brady Bunch made them bitter towards the perfect, typical middle class ‘bourgeois’ lifestyle, a lifestyle that to them seemed far fetched and unattainable when they looked around and found themselves alone. They will do anything to get love from their usually distant, neglecting and absent work- obsessed parents, but don’t know how to love properly. They are distrusting of large organized institutions and governments because of constant let down. Watergate, government scandal and massive corporate takeover have made them media savvy and doubting of organized institutions that should be running things for the good of all, but are going out only for themselves. Such is the Generation X stereotype. Yet, Xers worst fear is being neatly packaged into a set of values and ideals that categorize them as a mass group instead of as individuals. Gen Xers have grown up into one of the largest, fiercely individual and successful groups the world has ever seen. A record number of people are going on to university and getting degrees, even though there is massive uncertainty never encountered before when it comes to job prospects for university graduates. Xers are going out and starting their own businesses, but are re-prioritizing themselves so that their businesses and work do not come first as with their boomer parents, but instead are necessary for materialistic survival. With Xers, a group of close friends or their own family comes first. Advertisers have awakened to this new generation that represents a considerable percentage of the world’s buying power, and like the Coca-Cola corporation, have created products to mirror them, like OK Cola which was introduced in 1994 (‘OK Cola’, Its launch featured slogans such as “don’t think there has to be a reason for everything,” and packaging that was dark and bleak. The product fizzled because its creators failed to understand one of Gen X’s pivotal messages: the world is only bleak because that is the way it was left to them. That does not mean that is the way it will stay. Xers have morals and standards that their parents never had, mainly because their parents lack of values made the lives of the Xers that much harder. Xers are getting married later in life than their parents did, mainly to spare themselves and their children the bitterness of divorce that over 40% of Xers went through (Hornblower, reat_xpectat.html). They have dedication and work ethics that their predecessors never had, making them one of the youngest and most successful generations of the twentieth century. "I have to take whatever I can get in this world because no one is going to give me anything." 69% of Xers agree (Hornblower, 1997/dom/970609/society.great_xpectat.html). Through the natural process of human development, Xers have become enlightened and realized that they will make this world what it is going to be in the future; an idea that gave them hope and got them away from the television and into the real world. They demolished the stereotype. Gen Xers are the first generation of the century that don’t have a collective cause as generations past have had, be it the death of communism, peace in Vietnam or women’s rights. Those battles have already been fought and won without the involvement of Xers. As a direct result, it is other things that tie them together as a generation, such as the fact that forty per cent of Xers come from broken homes, and they have severely extended families. Xers grew up in an era of peace that did not exist for any other generation yet this century . It seems that the very things that defined Xers as a lazy generation are the things that set them apart as a generation living in peace: freedom, tolerance and curiosity. Even though Xers have lived in a time of long standing peace they are not interested in the politics that achieved this because of the greed and power-hungriness they associate with it. Voter turn among Xers is the lowest for any age group, evident in the many television specials and advertising blitzes launched by the United States in the early 1990's in an effort to encourage young voters to exercise their civil duty. Growing up in external peace on the global scale, and internal war on the familial scale has shaped Xers into the generation they are. Holden too grew up in an environment similar to this one. About him the world is seemingly calm, or at least he doesn’t care what’s going on, but he is having a war within himself similar to one many adolescents go through - conform or be yourself. Most of his generation, unlike Xers, is willing to conform. Holden refuses to compromise himself and conform to a mentality that he finds to be phony. It is for this reason that he is not accepted by his peers and throughout the novel is looking for companionship. Xers too are constantly seeking understanding and companionship which they find among friends of their own generation. This is a problem for Holden because he is so advanced for his times and none of his peers understand him, and he only finds it with his ten year old sister Phoebe. Had he grown up in modern society though, he could easily find companionship and love amongst Gen Xers. Holden wants to delay his decent into adulthood at all costs, possibly even avoid it because of the corruption and phoniness he associates with it. He has contempt for a typical life in the social circle of his parents, like most Xers, as he tells Sally: “‘. . . I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs and Madison Avenue buses, with drivers always telling you to get out at the rear door. . . getting fitted for pants at Brooks. . ..’” (Salinger, 130) He is expected merely to finish college, get married and live out a typical life in New York: “ [Sally] ‘. . . I mean, after you go to college and all, and if we should get married and all.’” (Salinger, 133) Generation Xers on the other hand are encouraged to live at home well into their late twenties, “As of 1986. . . among those in their late twenties, ‘over four out of ten unattached or unmarried men and three out of ten women were living at home.’” (Cote, 52-3). Most are expected to finish university or college, and are the end of their studies are not only deep in student loans, but are not guaranteed employment, reverting back to their parents for financial support. Xers today are encouraged not to grow up, but instead to live at home under parents who continue to think of and treat them as children. In this respect, Holden would have liked being an Xer, being able to postpone adulthood longer than he could in his own time. Throughout the twentieth century, younger generations have refused to accept the world as it has been handed to them by their parents. The idealism that defines youth makes the young strive to make the world a better place for their own descendants. Student protest has influenced many relatively recent changes in the world, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, changes in communist China following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and has awakened awareness of human rights through associations such as Amnesty International. Xers are keenly aware of their surroundings and what is going on around them, though at the same time are sick of the lies and empty promises of politics and large institutions. They have realized that they cannot wipe out all the fuck you’s in the world, but they nevertheless try and come close to doing it. Holden wants to wipe out all the fuck you’s in the world, and tries only to realize that no matter what, “It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t wipe out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.” (Salinger, 202). This would have been a typical statement from a young Xer, the typical hopeless slacker that would have grown up to say, ‘If you try, you can wipe out some of them, but if you don’t try, you won’t wipe out any.’ This is the difference between Holden and Xers - Xers for the most part have grown up and matured, while Holden, as his very name suggests, is holding back. At the end of the novel the idea of a beaconing hope for the future has entered his mind. He realizes that he can’t save the whole world, but he can redeem his own localized corner of it and be contented at that with the hope that others will go out and do the same. This is a truth that Xers have discovered and hold true to. Generation X is the most racially and culturally diverse generation of the century, with cultural groups asserting their diversity as never before and being accepted by mainstream society. Cultural fragmentation, that is taking an appealing trait from another culture and adopting it to one’s own is becoming more and more prevalent among youth with fair haired dread locks and body piercing being the most encountered. As a result of their sheer diversity, Xers are more accepting and tolerant of others than any other generation before them. Holden was accepting of those that society had deemed outcasts; he spent time with Ackley the loner who never left his room, never brushed his teeth and had severe acne; he spent time with prostitutes like Sunny who traditionally have been the cast always of society, “It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. . . . It made me feel sad as hell. . .” (Salinger, 95-6). He tries to reach out and befriend her, “‘Don’t you feel like talking for a while?’” (Salinger, 95) but gets turned away. Holden detests the headmaster at Elkton Hills because he concentrated so much on outside appearance and didn’t give people the time of day Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody’s parents when they drove up to school. He’d be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny looking parents. . . . then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile, and then he’d go talk, for maybe half an hour with somebody else’s parents. I can’t stand that stuff. . . . It makes me so depressed I go crazy. (Salinger, 14) The reason both Holden and Xers try to reach out to those society has cast away is because they themselves have don’t fit into society. Holden does not fit in with the rest of his peers and by investigating the fringes of society, he hopes to find someone that can sympathize with him. Gen Xers do not fit in with the rest of society, though together as a group they find collective sympathy and understanding. After being cast away by society, it is easy to sympathize with those that have been ostracized or are different, and thus become open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Xers are a generation that is almost color blind, a marked difference from their parents generation. Holden sees the world through eyes that perceive things for what they really are, not what they seem to be. Xers, through mass marketing and exposure to various forms of media are mistrusting and pick everything apart before putting any trust into it. These traits make them pick apart every person that enters their life, be it through actual physical contact, literature or film. Every person, upon close scrutiny has flaws, to the point where both Xers and Holden no longer even look for heroes, but instead for anti-heroes who are the opposite of everything a hero should be. Holden held James Castle in great esteem, a boy who jumped to his death instead of facing the consequences of his actions. Xers are in abundance of anti heroes, from the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson to Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. It seems that the media constantly emphasizes the negative, while all but ignoring the positive. At the same time, Xers are willing to compromise their morals to let someone learn from their mistakes, as in the case of Bill Clinton. They know that people have flaws, and that putting them up on high pedestals only makes their fall that much louder, which is why they are not surprised when they stumble, because they realize that such is human nature. Both Xers and Holden see people for the flawed creatures they are, and don’t worship them as selfless heroes that can do no wrong as generations past have. They acknowledge their faults as humans, and admire them for certain attributes, bestowing upon them the title of ‘role model’ as opposed to hero. That way they can admire them for certain attributes and criticize them for others, rather than making them out to be perfect creatures. Mr. Antolini was Holden’s last hope for understanding, and he looked up to him for giving him the first semblances of it he had had up until then, until Mr. Antolini decided to show him some affection and came crashing down from being a hero. With time most likely Holden will see that Antolini was only trying to help him and will forgive, though Antolini will never grace the pedestal again. Holden and his Xer counterparts learn from their mistakes, they do not trust someone that has betrayed them twice. Holden exemplifies the hopelessness, morbid view of the future, contempt for typical life, and defense of society’s outcasts of Gen Xers. His strength over adversity at the end of the novel where it is evident that he is willing to apply himself when he returns to school illustrates the most important point of Xers, a point that they learned only after they had truly grown up; there is hope for the future, but no person or thing can give it to you, it has to come from within. Holden realizes that he is the only one in charge of his future and if he does not take control over it then nobody else will. It is his task to make the future he leaves for his children better than the one he was handed by his parents. As with any generation of youth, both Xers and Holden must not forget the lessons of understanding and questioning spirit. Neither must trust authority that has not been earned blindly so as to protect themselves from future problems. Xers are the first generation to be a part of the global culture and must treat themselves as such, recognizing that something on one side of the planet easily affects those on the other side of the world. Holden has a similar effect on his little sister Phoebe and must realize that whatever he does affects her. It is for this reason he must wake up and see that there is hope for him and that he doesn’t have to compromise himself to accomplish his goals. He has Gen Xers as an example.