Generation X Feels the Bite of Reality

March 01, 1994|By JAMES P. PINKERTON

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Last week Americans got two different views of ''Generation X.'' First, the popular new Winona Ryder movie ''Reality Bites,'' in which yuppie-hating twentysomething ''slackers'' come to grips with life, love and (gulp!) work. Second, the two Olympic figure skaters, Tonya Harding, 23, and Nancy Kerrigan, 24, competing in Lillehammer.

In the movie, post-baby boomers have emerged from the wreckage of their parents' divorces, blended step-sibling families and indifferent education. Today, with thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back, Generation Xers seek to avoid a lifetime of ''McJobs,'' all the while cursing their grandparents for mortgaging their future with debt and deficit.

But mostly, as one ''Reality Bites'' character puts it, they ''eat and couch and fondle the remote control.''

Survivors of the Depression or even the draft may think their generational juniors have it easy. But just because the problems young people face aren't as bad as they claim doesn't mean that they're not problems.

Today, the biggest threat Xers face is the long-term erosion of the middle-class standard of living. Even before Bill Clinton campaigned on ''good jobs at good wages,'' the popular culture was describing the slide. TV shows and movies such as ''The Simpsons,'' ''Get a Life'' and ''Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'' depicted the proletarianization of the American bourgeoisie. In ''Wayne's World II,'' the still-living-at-home ''baby boomerangs'' torment each other with the prospect of service jobs, ''mopping up hurl and lung butter.''

Misses Harding and Kerrigan lack the articulate alienation of the Generation X avant garde. But were it not for their athletic achievement, they, too, would most likely be on a downbound career train. Growing up blue-collar, with minimal education, they'd both be biting reality if they couldn't skate.

Today, in the free-trading, capital-flowing, e-mailing world, a high-low dichotomy confronts all Xers. On the one hand, after the fall of the Wall, the passage of NAFTA and the awakening of China, those with average job skills now find themselves in direct competition with billions of others willing to do the same work for a lot less. On the other hand, those with a talent that puts them above the crowd get rich quick; the billions of new competitors can also be billions of new customers for everything from entertainment to endorsements.

The avalanche of money and ideas flowing across old borders and boundaries has swamped traditional authorities, such as custom and religion. One drowning victim was the American ''Establishment.'' Often criticized as patriarchal and hegemonistic, the Establishment at least upheld some restraints and limits. Now there are no more chains of command, just grids and nets. Doug Coupland, author of the cult novel ''Generation X,'' calls it the ''power mist.''

Today, with seemingly infinite market segmentation, even niche players, from Trekkies to Seattle Sounders to body piercers, make bundles. Even before the final competition, Nancy Kerrigan's good looks and bad luck had garnered her an estimated $11 million worth of deals. But the same media machine that prizes her fresh innocence also values Ms. Harding's ''bad girl'' image. She got an estimated $600,000 just for one tabloid TV interview.

In ''Reality Bites,'' Winona Ryder's villainous boss assaults her with blunt truth: ''I can find an intern who will do your job for free!'' In the amoral high-low economy, with so much at stake, it's not surprising that some will cut corners, or even bludgeon their rivals, in the scramble for gold.

James P. Pinkerton, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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