The following is from an old email message I recently unearthed (circa 1998) in which I reply to a friend who had inquired about the apparent lack of idealism among the people of “Generation X.” I’ve been thinking a lot about old people lately, so finding this seems rather timely. Unfortunately, I can’t decide whether or not I was on to something back then, or if I am proverbially and perpetually full of crap.
The young idealist is too naïve to know that his good ideas will never work. As he gets older and observes more, and experiences (read: fails) more, he comes to realize that nothing is ever as easy as his idealism implies, unless, like Stalin, you have an army standing behind it.
In the end, there is no such thing as an old idealist, at least not a sane one. Aging leads to cynicism, a natural and healthy progression. This is why I lament the so-called “Gen-X” generation, as they have never known the light and fluffy airs of idealism. Having been cynical and ironic from the beginning — even before they were old enough to truly appreciate the meaty gnarl of well-placed cynicism — where can they go from there?
My Gen-X test subjects, most of whom are now around 30, ought to be falling into disillusionment by now, but that is impossible since — due to their lack of idealism — they never had illusions. Instead, they are “maturing” in their tastes and opinions, but are bound to be angst-ridden for it. They do not follow the traditional path from idealism to disillusionment to cynicism to maturity (the latter I define as a true acceptance of difference and diversity, as opposed to the youthful and immature view of diversity in which diversity = “alternative” as the only “good” or “truth”). Instead they pass from immature cynicism to an angst-ridden “me” state in which they feel guilty for growing up and being successful and comfortable.
Incidentally, if aging leads to cynicism, then the achievement of old age means the achievement of perfection — at least for those other than Gen-Xers (the book is still open on them). Upon reaching old age, the former idealist-turned-disillusionist-turned-cynic reaches a state of Nirvana in which he or she is comfortable in knowing that all people under 70 are wrong in everything they believe — but if they live long enough they’ll figure it out. Figured out = “Who gives a shit? All you have is your own little life, so you might as well relax and enjoy it and be nice to people no matter who they are. You’re too damn old now to make a difference anyway, and my, what a liberating feeling that is!”