Don't Dis the Slackers

They came of age with the Challenger explosion, rather than Woodstock. Their president of record was Reagan, not Kennedy. They saw the best minds of their generation destroyed by crack, sated by MTV or numbed by shopping mall boredom. They are the offspring of arguably the most idealistic generation in American history, yet they are victims, in unprecedented numbers, of suicide, child abuse, unwanted pregnancies, underemployment, job insecurity and broken families headed by double-income parents with no time for them. They sing anthems like "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me," by Beck not "All you need is love," by the Beatles. They are many things and nothing. Mostly, though, they are young and in the way of the corporate mainstream and mass media, which has decided they will be called "slackers." Initially "slacker" was a self-referential tag, a jaw-jutting hip posture -- in the proud, rebellious tradition of beats, hippies, punks -- but its day has clearly passed. Nowadays, "slackers" connotes dissipation, laziness, low expectations. That is, call someone a slacker often enough and they will be. Thus, the media has played them as every form of social pathology, from the hollow-eyed nihilists in the fictional docudrama Kids and the incoherent brat pack in this year's Hollywood hit, Reality Bites, to the hopeless cynical drudges in the 1994 release, Clerks. Slackers inhabit that hideous and statistically nebulous realm that falls after adolescence and with each generation seems to extend further into the 20s -- or so goes the marketing logic, anyway. U.S. News & World Report confidently says there are 69 million Americans between the ages 18 and 34, compared with 69.5 million aging baby boomers, now in their late 40s. These 69 million Americans, if they must be labeled at all, prefer to be called Generation X, a more solidarity-inducing term that rose from the detritus of computer-literate cyberspace. It came into acceptable usage in 1991 with Douglas Coupland's best-selling Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a "fiction" that relates the misadventures of three "refugees from history" who drink a lot and go to their "McJobs" ("low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future jobs in the service industry"). Though these characters have been perceived by an uninitiated older audience as slackers, there's an obvious reason for their appeal -- and the book's continued sales. Namely, this is the world as so-called slackers see it. "I don't understand this slacker thing," says Lou Cove, 29-year-old president of Syndicate X, a Northampton, Mass.-based wire service run for and by Generation Xers. "Everyone I know here is working hard to break through economically, socially and politically. They are busting their asses to see positive results in the world, but it's hard for talented young people to break in. There's not a tremendous number of opportunities. That's a big part of why I started Syndicate X, to give a voice to those who aren't being heard. And to fight this attitude problem on the part of the marketplace." In short, the slacker thing just won't die.The slackers have a real economic and societal litterbox to dig their way out of. In an op-ed piece for the New York Times on Labor Day, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Lester Thurow offered statistical proof that there's not much in the way of material comfort for this generation of young people to look forward to. While inflation goes up, wages are going down, having dropped 25 percent since 1973 for the 25-to-34 age group. And yet, while corporations are downsizing and shipping jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap no-benefits-package labor, profits are soaring. This justifies what William Greider calls the "artful charade" of Clinton administration numbers that suggests his economic policies are working. While these trends are growing, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has tripled in the last 30 years, becoming the second-leading cause of death in this age group, trailing only accidental deaths (some of which might have been disguised suicides). The Utne Reader reports that "it's estimated that every day more than 2,000 students drop out of school, 250 kids are arrested for violent crimes, and 1,700 are physically abused by their parents." This is in America, not the former Yugoslavia. Demographics aside, the powers that be are smitten with the notion of the Slack Generation. A year ago, Warner Books published The Official Slacker Handbook by Sarah Dunn, 24, touting it as "the 90's answer to The Preppie Handbook" and a "comprehensive critique written by the ultimate slacker." There's only one problem. Intended as humor, The Official Slacker Handbook was not funny. It was sad, really, and not nearly as pertinent as The Preppie Handbook, which at least was clever. The slacker version is not so much read as perused, skipped around in (the literary equivalent of channel surfing) and dismissed as swiftly as the Big Chill boomers have tuned out their offspring. Still, who can blame Warner Books for having such high aspirations? Their parent company, Time-Warner, the largest media empire in the country (having just resolved to swallow Turner Broadcasting, without so much as a belch), plugged this handbook heavily. In fact, they had their market research so down pat that they even targeted what they call "major slacker cities:" Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, Madison, Wis., Lawrence, Kan., Chapel Hill, N.C., Providence, R.I., Tempe, Ariz. and Wicker Park, Ill. Although it's odd that they skipped Boston and New Haven, one general trait defines all the above-mentioned cities -- they are havens for white middle-class college kids. Slackdom, apparently, is not a black thing. But, alas, maybe Generation Xers had the final say on this one. The Official Slacker Handbook, compared to the success of The Official Preppie Handbook, was a dead-ass flop, shelved after its first printing. And Sarah Dunn has moved to Hollywood where she now writes for The Murphy Brown Show. "The mass market is so aggressively trying to tap into the Generation-X market," says Cove, a former journalist. "But this is a generation that grew up media savvy. They're fully conscious of being exploited as slackers. It won't work." Yet, undeterred, the media still continue to flog slackdom the way O.J. flogs his innocence. Not content to screw up rock 'n' roll with ludicrous and manipulative videos, MTV has broken into publishing. MTV Books is printing another sequel in their Beavis and Butt-head slacker series, the first two of which "sold over 500,000 units each" (hey, there's some corporate cash box lingo!). The new one is to be titled This Sucks, Change It and boasts the "first-ever removable remote-control device that features twelve original sounds sure to prove amusing to fans and authority figures alike!" They're also publishing The Real Real World, an intimate "diary" that reveals "all the gossipy drama that even MTV couldn't -- or wouldn't -- broadcast" on its "groundbreaking" series The Real World. According to spokesperson Caroline Vincent, MTV Books sees its "core audience" as ages 12 to 34, though "the real target" is the 18-to-24 age group, a slacker goldmine. "We want to apply to the book medium the same youth-oriented philosophy as on our shows," says Vincent. What "philosophy?" After a pause, she offered, "This stuff is by the audience, for the audience, about the audience." Some of this stuff is already out and slicing its way through slacker culture. A slim volume called the Cyberpunk Handbook, for example, is clearly aimed at slackers who have access to personal computers. Purporting to be satire, Cyberpunk Handbook is written by R.U. Sirius, who now contributes his sophomoric musings to Wired magazine, the slick bible of upscale hackers. And talk about biting the hand that feeds you, R.U. Sirius (how can he be with that totally lame pseudonym?) includes a subchapter called "Web Crawlers and Other Bourgeois Types," which really reads, "You don't really care about this one, do you? You do? Subscribe to Wired. Next." "Cyberpunk," R.U. Sirius wrongly asserts in his introduction, "has not yet been co-opted. In fact, this handbook is the very first exploitation of this hip new underground trend. This is the ground floor." The point of all this, presumably, is to make a lucrative mockery of an entire generation that is, if not going down the tubes, surely wounded at its core. You have to wonder, is there any real humor in this?How do so-called slackers feel about their lot? As the attrition rate increases -- OD's, disappearances, runaways, murders, suicides, shit jobs -- the so-called slackers are showing signs of circling the wagons. While this may be a matter of survival, one can't help feeling it's also a way to shut down the corporate creeps exploiting the slacker image for their own gain. Take the popular punk-pop trio, Jawbreaker. Their mentor was Kurt Cobain who, between OD's, was an ardent supporter of many young bands. Their sound is not unlike Green Day, which means the big record companies, after years of neglecting their scene, are bowing and genuflecting at Jawbreaker's Converse One-Stars. Jawbreaker's "message" is tough but undespairing. The strongest cut on their new album, Save Your Generation, has words like, "If you could save yourself you could save us all" and "Survival never goes out of style." And lest you think Jawbreaker is hopelessly Pollyannaish, singer Blake Schwarzenbach recently told BAM magazine that he "wouldn't deny anyone the right to kill themselves if they were in total agony. The alternative is the miracle of living.... You could just wait around another week and see what happens. So, you actually get to live and suddenly life can become this amazing gift. It's such a fluke that you're born anyway." Another hopeful sign of enough-is-enough is a New Haven-based company called Rainmaker, Inc. The idea for Rainmaker grew out of co-founder Bruce Tulgan's book Managing Generation X (Merritt, 1995), for which he interviewed hundreds of his peers entering the professional rank and file. To translate the ideas generated by this project into reality, Tulgan started a consulting company that would serve as a conduit between the Gen Xers and the corporate mainstream. In short, the idea behind Rainmaker is to help corporate managers manage Generation Xers. This is not to say Generation Xers are unmanageable -- as the slacker image would have it -- but that the playing field has changed dramatically, employment-wise. In pursuing their goal of a more open workplace, the Rainmaker founders hit on a disturbing reality. That is, despite comprising fully one-quarter of the U.S. population, Generation X is almost completely ignored by the professional power structure. "I run into people all the time who tell me, 'Ah, the kids today, they're no different than we were,'" says Jeff Katz, co-director of Rainmaker. "That's a crock. The economy, the rules, and job loyalty itself has changed." In the old days, explains Katz, an implicit contract was extended to new employees. It promised, in effect, that this was a long-term commitment and that if you played by the rules and toed the line, you'd be promoted and guaranteed a retirement pension. That implicit contract, Rainmaker insists, has disappeared. In fact, a Generation X employee would have to be either hopelessly naive or just plain foolish to offer blind loyalty to a company that can no longer offer the same in return. "Paying your dues is different now," said Katz. "It has to be a trade-off. Gen Xers will work hard for you if they feel you are allowing them to learn, to advance, to take on more and more responsibility at a faster pace." In other words, more is expected by Generation Xers because so much more is being denied by the employers. And by virtue of sheer numbers, it would seem Gen Xers may well win at this game. "By default, a majority of us will be in the workforce," said Katz. "Whether management likes it or not, we are the future leaders. That's why it's important to focus on our issues, not to write us off. Not to throw up your hands and say 'Sorry, it's not here for you. You won't be seeing a dime.'"Equally interesting is the perspective of Richard Blanko (his stage name), who transplanted from the slacker forbidden zone of the suburbs to New York City, where he pursues his dream via a band called the Bloody Vultures. "I think middle-aged baby boomers, including my parents, really hate slackers more than their parents hated hippies," says Blanko. "We're reminders that the system has shot its wad. It's something the black gangsta rappers have known all their lives." Syndicate X's Lou Cove doesn't disagree. "One truth I recognize as unanimous among my peers is that although the idealism we've heard about our parent's generation sounds good, there are precious few results that we can see. And consequently, our generation is not unified by a political party or a few clear ideals. What does unite this generation is bitterness and anger that we're getting the short end of the stick." Jeff Katz puts it more bluntly. "Basically, the boomers sold us out. They enjoyed the fruits of the 1980s but by the time we got near the workplace, the party was over. All the data and polls clearly show that we're the first American generation who doesn't expect to have it as good as our parents. If something isn't done now, there are really going to be some angry people in 10 years' time." That's the downside, according to Blanko. What's the upside? "We'll have to learn to accept limits or we're all going down the same toilet bowl." Schwarzenbach doesn't see the slacker image as a negative or a positive, but rather simply as the hand that was dealt his generation. "To some extent, it can be awesome because kids go live on their own, get away from horrible family situations and feel this real sort of independence and control over their lives," he said. "Hopefully, they'll go on to get educated or to educate themselves. "But, in some cases, I just see this suburban mute that's kind of blank and disinterested in just about everything. It's really spooky."Right now, on the job front, what slackers have to look forward to -- besides unemployment -- is the ultimate scam known as temp agencies. The Official Slacker Handbook seems to at least grasp this much. "Temp agencies charge, say, $12 an hour for your labor," writes Sarah Dunn, "of which they give you $6 and keep the rest. The corporation pays the 12 bucks so it can avoid providing you with benefits such as health insurance and job security." In the Handbook's only worthy chapter, Dunn suggests work slow-downs, sick days, sabotage, unionizing, even thievery, to fight this exploitation. Given the rest of the book's dissing of slackers, it's tempting to ask, "R.U. Sirius, Sarah Dunn?" More substantive is the ongoing protest from voices like Lumpen magazine, which doesn't find any of this the least bit amusing. Lumpen, which is published monthly out of Chicago is the self-motivated slacker's bible, railing against the inequities of "the New American dream: subsistence wages and a cheap apartment on a busline..." In a recent issue, Kathryn Carmony offers a brilliant send-up of the sorts of job ads slackers are fed daily: "advancement opportunity" means "shit job," "entry level" means "really a shit job," "no experience necessary" means "the mother of all shit jobs," "jeans job!" means "minimum wage temp job in concentration camp conditions," and so on, for an entire page. While sardonic, this humor has an undercurrent of genuine bitterness and anger felt by most people who work for a living wage today -- regardless of age. Perhaps the so-called slackers feel it most deeply. They're the one who have several more decades of it to put up with before hanging up the staple remover, carpel-tunnel-wrist brace and spikes to learn that there's no Social Security because members of the American Association of Retired Persons used it all up taking tours of Caribbean resorts and European elder hostels. For all the angst it takes to play the losing hand they've been dealt, Generation Xers feel that it's tough to either play down or swallow their horrific self-image as slackers. "Even though it's inaccurate and insulting," says Katz. "Madison Avenue and mainstream corporations are banking off that slacker image. They say 'That's more interesting than the truth. Let's go with it.'" "We're not lazy," said Blanko. "We just know there's nothing out there for us. The old hippies look at us and feel guilty that they sold us out, which probably only makes them hate us more. Maybe they hate themselves, because they remember what they used to stand for. I don't know what they think, really." Hey, kiddo, let me let you in on a secret: maybe they don't either.

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