When actor Luke Perry, best known for portraying TV heartthrob Dylan McKay on the ’90s teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210,” died Monday after suffering a massive stroke, there were the usual public displays of sadness when a public figure leaves us. But his passing was especially painful for people of a certain age.
As one fan expressed on Twitter: “I’m in mourning for Generation X today, for real.”
Perry died at just 52 years old. Which makes him the first Gen X icon to succumb to natural causes. That’s an unsettling reality check to those of us who identify as Gen Xers, the 65 million people born between 1965 and 1980. We’re used to death — we’ve lost plenty of heroes to drugs and suicide, everyone from Kurt Cobain to River Phoenix to Chris Cornell. But Perry is the first to die of something we only expect to happen to old people.
It doesn’t help that Perry’s death came on the heels of a pretty egregious generational slight. A CBS News story in January, which focused on millennials, included an infographic of every generation, from the silent generation (those born between 1925 and ’45) to baby boomers (born between ’46 and ’64) to the post-millennials (born between 1997 and the present). Generation X was conspicuously absent.
“Gen X is definitely having a midlife crisis,” says Matthew Hennessey, 45, author of “Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials.”
“It’s not just about growing older. We have this creeping dread that we’re going to be displaced and forgotten.”
A 2014 Pew Research Center study dubbed Generation X “America’s neglected middle child,” and that nickname increasingly seems to hold true. “We’re bookended between these two monster generations, the baby boomers and the millennials,” says Hennessey. “It feels like the torch is being handed right over our heads.”
As proof of this, Hennessey points to the current political climate, which is dominated by baby boomers like Hillary Clinton and President Trump, and millennial upstarts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Barack Obama is sometimes credited as a Gen X president, but he was born in 1961, a full four years before Generation X’s start date.
“The closest we’ve gotten to the presidency was Ted Cruz,” says Hennessey of the 48-year-old Texas senator. “Or maybe Sarah Palin (55). We keep blowing it. We might never get our chance to run the country.”
Even our cultural contributions often feel reduced to side notes. Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield, 53, author of books like “Love Is A Mix Tape” and “Talking To Girls About Duran Duran,” says he felt unsettled after watching Mike Myers and Dana Carvey introduce the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” at this year’s Academy Awards.
“They were doing their ‘Wayne’s World’ routines word for word,” he says. “It was bittersweet to see Wayne and Garth, a touchstone of Gen X culture, remembered as nothing more than a tiny detail in the history of a boomer rock band.”
So what is our legacy? Will Gen X be remembered as the also-rans, the generation who managed only a smirk and faded into the distance without ever leaving their mark?
Possibly, and that might not be a bad thing. “I think that’s the whole point of Generation X,” says Douglas Rushkoff, 58, author of “Team Human” and a professor of media theory at Queens College. “Gen X is really just a marketing term for a group of people who were inscrutable to marketers. We were the ones they couldn’t figure out so they moved on to millennials. It’s a bit late now to look back and say, ‘Hey, why weren’t we ever represented back to ourselves by mainstream media and advertising?’ ”
Our generational midlife crisis — the realization that time is fleeting and our friends (both real and fictional) are dying and we’re maybe not going to accomplish everything we hoped when we were younger — brings what truly matters into sharper focus.
And for many Gen Xers, who are famous for their cynicism and apathy, what truly matters is not taking any of this generational stuff seriously.
“Who cares?” says Neal Pollack, the 49-year-old author of “Alternadad” and nine other books. “Do you really want to be in charge? If Thanos snapped his fingers and every single member of Gen X vanished, the world would be fine. Let Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fight it out in the trenches. It’s a good show.”
Pollack believes that Gen X never wanted or needed a legacy, purpose or logo. “That’s part of our charm,” he says. “I’m just trying to live out my back nine in decent health, decent humor and a shred of integrity. I choose cynicism and aloofness, now and forever, and I’m not going to change my tune because Luke Perry died.”