Elder Millennials: Watching the World End, Over and Over

War Of The Roses

Even they started out happy!

“A civilized divorce is a contradiction in terms.”  So says Danny DeVito’s lawyer character, narrating the 1989 film The War of the Roses. This dark comedy was released the same year my parents divorced. Mom has told me she can’t watch it, “It hits too close to home.” Such drama, Mom.

Personally, I think it’s hilarious. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner chew the scenery and DeVito twists the Greek Chorus he loves so much. A farcical gem and definitely one of the best comedies of the era.

The divorce rate peaked in 1981 and has been slowly declining since, for everyone except Boomers. So I venture to say that my experience is a pretty common one. I can think of two friends my age whose parents were still together by the time they turned 20. A couple had parents divorce in high school. Contrary to common wisdom, this seemed to hit hardest.

Pin-up with a teddy bear and a gun

Elder Millennials: When the world finally ends, we’ll be ready!

As a kid, your family is the world. I guess these days, kids have access to much more that informs them but, well, the 90s were rougher than people let on. We’re talking card catalogs until 10th grade. Regardless, if your parents break up, that means lots more confusion and arguments and travel. Probably moving house. Maybe a new school. Split holidays and vacations. Your parents’ failure to get along embedded into your childhood, fossilized by time.

And I don’t really need to quote those life outcome stats for children of divorce, do I?

Just as life claws its way back after this Extinction Event, the Millennium rolls around. I was 16 on December 31, 1999. Just old enough to not be quite sure if Y2K was about to break the world or not.

It didn’t, of course. Totally overblown. And overshadowed before we could catch our collective breath by September 11, 2001.

This time, it was not a drill. This time, the world really was crashing down. It was all over the TV, which everyone still relied on for information. Cable pumped into every modern classroom.

We went to war but, somehow, life marched on. Most people weren’t directly involved in Iraq. College, jobs, Spring Break 20XX, rent, bills, car repair. All tuned to the imperceptibly pervasive background hum of parents, condensed word clouds of slowly dissolving trombone echoes, “Go in and shake their hand.” 

Internships proliferated and the good jobs were always just over the horizon. Then the 2008 Financial Crisis pulled a Tonya Harding just as we were eyeballing the real estate market. The parenting market. The adulthood market.

A little girl pretends to cook

Like this, Mommy?

The world said it was ending. Well, part of it. There was quite a bit of chatter about foreclosures and bad stocks, but very little talk about what happened to all those people who had been swindled into homelessness.

“Millennials never really recovered from 2008” is a statement I have heard so often, especially lately, that it seems beside the point to source. Everyone knows it’s true, and I sure hope the Department of Education changes its policy soon to accept payment in the form of hot air. The Financial Crisis was summed up in a movie starring Christian Bale, cultural books balanced and closed.

The next decade was a dreary attempt to carry on. If you made the mistake of reproducing in your 20s, the descriptor Sisyphean probably applies here. Do you pay rent and childcare? Do you pay rent and student loans? The average couple is not going to be able to square this circle with kiddos at home. Because, don’t forget, wages suck. And everything else? Movin’ on up, baby!

Do you buckle under and live with your parents, eliminating rent and maybe childcare, but dropping the carrot of Adulthood further off your event horizon?

Do you spiral into existential depression and fitfully attempt about half of the above? I’d say the odds are 50/50. You may have gotten somewhere if you managed to find a decent partner.

Heathcliff and Catherine cling to each other under a tree

The tree might be dead, but at least we have each other!

That’s right, I said it. Who you decide to share your life with is a big goddam deal.

“When it comes to your wife,” DeVito’s divorce lawyer sagely advises, “I’m going to urge you to be generous to the point of night sweats. The all-important thing is to get you through this as quickly and cleanly as possible, so that you can begin rebuilding your life.”

Because that’s what it is; assuming you had the chance to build a life in the first place.

“Or, you can get up and go home, and try to find some shred of what you once loved about the sweetheart of your youth. It’s your life. Take a minute.” Too close to home, indeed. For fuck’s sake, you can always get divorced another day.

“Maybe because of what happened,” the lawyer moralizes the film’s ego-driven double-homicide, “I’ve become too traditional.” Something of an outlier for his generation and chosen field, Danny DeVito has been with the same woman since 1971.

Call it whatever you want, but I do believe people my age have a gut understanding of this that other age groups apparently tend to lack.

Anyway….

The world limps onward. Wages suck but jobs are stable. Facebook allows you to find every girl from Middle School, and you are all too busy to keep in touch. The online marketplace is finally making it possible to launch a small business from your (Mom’s) living room. Instagram morphs from pictures of dinner to a TitCoin generator powered by infamy. Almost everyone has a “side hustle.” Some of them are beautiful, hand-made items. Many of them are Multilevel Marketing scams.

A little girl sleeps in a chair as a dog looks on questioningly

The days start coming and they don’t stop coming!

But slowly, the trickle of experience accumulates into a pool of knowledge. You might get a promotion or a better job, a decade’s work history on your CV. The school schedules and bill statements slowly resolve from Greek to something resembling English. Maybe you dabble in getting a certificate or two. Maybe you even carve out a little something for yourself in a still-depressed housing market. Maybe the world is never really going to end after all. Maybe this is just life.

Then 2020 comes along. If you live in the United States, buckle up, because Fall is not going to be any better.

My husband is working from home. We live on the edge of Nowhere. My kids are safe and well-fed through local connections. As a teenager, I marveled at the trend of disaster movies (Deep Impact, Armageddon, Twister, Volcano, on and on) — Why would anyone want to watch the world burn??

But now, my cynical ass is reading up on Boomer politics and kicking back with popcorn.

Racism? Total nonsense! Fuck it. 

The Military-Industrial Complex? Government-eating hydra from Hell! Fuck it.

The Stock Market? A graph of rich peoples’ feelings! Fuck it.

An old woman holds up two giant mushrooms

Reporting for duty, darling!

We are tired. We stare through the bars of a gilded cage called debt at our elders eating the American Dream. We have been watching the world end, over and over, all our lives. One facade falling after another, until we are left without edifice. Without artifice.

We are unmoved to save a status quo fueled by stealing from us while lying about it (Can you say, ‘Recycle, Reduce, Reuse’??) The 21st century has been the dry heaves behind the garage at the friend’s house party of History. Let’s hold each other’s hair back and get it over with.

Let it end. If the coming decade sees this sick system burn itself down while the Baby Boomers wring their hands and gasp their last, so be it. Let them choke on the smoke of the fire they started, while we down in the trenches weather the turmoil our upbringing trained us for. Call me fatalistic, but I don’t think I’m alone. So far, only a few are actually saying it.

Give it time. When the world finally does finish ending, the Elder Millennials will be ready.

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