“You remember that?” T.J. asks, one eyebrow raised. “We’re definitely the same generation.”
Whether or not we are both Gen Xers is an ongoing subject of conversation in our house. See, my husband was born in 1964, and I was born in 1979. Some might argue that this makes him a tail-end Boomer and me an early Millennial. While the generational dividing lines are debatable, we both identify as Gen Xers. Our age gap isn’t that wide—my husband doesn’t seem like he’s of the same generation as my Boomer parents, and I don’t feel like I’m of the same generation as our Millennial nieces and nephews or my Millennial siblings.
Our reflections on shared cultural touchstones are more than an attempt to reassure him that he’s not a cradle robber or to ward off my worries about caring for an aging husband soon after—or while—caring for aging parents. (I save the latter consideration for my middle-of-the-night fretting sessions.) They are also a reminder that we came of age during an era that left similar imprints on us both.
Here are five ways in which we are—functionally—from the same generation:
1) We both feared nuclear war, even though the specter of the Cold War didn’t loom over our childhoods nearly as forebodingly as it did over my parents’. Neither my husband nor I had air raid drills at school like they did. Still, T.J. remembers getting nervous when Reagan joked on a hot mike that he had “outlawed Russia” and said, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” Meanwhile, I was terrified that one day Reagan would, on a whim, push “the red button” and launch World War III. T.J. recalls his parents pointing out a cabin where a Russian spy who had defected supposedly lived. In 1985, when my brother was born, depriving me of my only-child status, I was convinced that he was a Russian spy disguised as a newborn, presumably in a very small and convincing baby suit. This brother and the two siblings that followed him—all decidedly Millennials, all loyal Americans—have no such Cold War memories.
2) We both grew up in the post-Vietnam era, listening to our dads’ stories about evading the draft. T.J.’s straight-laced, Republican father was called up in his thirties because he was a physician. Since he was one of only two doctors in a rural Minnesota county and therefore needed at home, he managed to convince the draft board to let him off the hook. Meanwhile, my stepdad and father, both California hippies who protested the war in their teens and twenties, escaped Vietnam thanks to their high draft number and conscientious objector status, respectively. The Boomers I know were all personally impacted by that war: T.J. and I are both a generation removed from it.
3) We both became sexually active during the AIDS epidemic, and so remember the terror we felt as teens and young adults. We remember getting tested whenever we were going to get serious (i.e., monogamous) with a new partner—not just to rule out STDs in general like my younger siblings do—but with a particular dread, despite precautions taken, of a positive HIV test result. We remember, after the tests came back clean, the feeling of putting our lives in our partners’ hands, the sense that infidelity was a possible death sentence, the seemingly ubiquitous, haunting images of the lesions, wasting, and pariah-status that awaited us if we ever got infected. Millennials aren’t nearly as terrorized by this disease as we Gen-Xers were, presumably because transmission has been reduced, medical advances have made the prognosis infinitely better, and public awareness campaigns are much less pervasive than they were in the eighties and nineties.
4) We both watched Three’s Company. And listened to The Cure, Duran Duran, U2…and we both remember thinking how cool it was when REM’s album Automatic for the People came out on that yellow transparent cassette tape. (We both remember cassette tapes.) Even way back when I was in my early teens and he was in college, long before we met, we shared the same pop cultural backdrop.
5) We both wrote research papers on typewriters (at least until high school, for me). Neither of us used the “World Wide Web” (as it was called then) before graduating from high school or had cell phones until post-college. When, in my senior year at Wesleyan, one of my four housemates proposed that we get a house cell phone to share among us, the other three of us scoffed, “Oh, Ross. That’s so silly. We don’t need a CELL phone!” This exchange sounds absurd now, of course. On the other hand, neither of us is as hopeless as my parents are at using the cable TV remote or creating a Shutterfly album. We may not be digital natives, and sure, we occasionally turn to my Millennial siblings for tech support, but we’ve adapted to new technology better than my parents’ generation has.
So yes, my husband and I have a decade and a half between us, but there’s enough overlap in the experiences that shaped us that the age gap seems negligible. Until, of course, his dementia sets in and both his short-term and long-term memories start to go. But that’s a long way off, right?