Our cautiously woke 50-something columnist clears the air with her Gen Z daughter and proto-Boomer mom.
It was 1990 and I was insufferable.
In fact, before we go any further here, I really need to stop and apologize to my parents for my obnoxious behavior. No, I wasn’t doing drugs or failing out of school. I hadn’t joined a cult or even a fundamentalist church.
I didn’t want to see the movie Navy Seals.
I was in my early 20s, home for a visit before grad school, and greatly displeased by this impossibly basic group-outing movie choice. Instead of saying no when my parents extended the invitation to tag along, I went – it wasn’t like I had anything better to do – and expressed my misery to everyone within earshot.
How dare these old people expect me to waste 113 minutes of my life on Charlie Sheen and a dumb summer blockbuster? I was accustomed to late-night screenings of Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee films, sharp social commentary about Important Things.
“Can’t we at least find something foreign?” I asked my mom, who shot me a look.
I was at the older end of the recently coined Gen X. Kurt Cobain and Winona Ryder were my cohort. My parents, firmly grounded in the Silent Generation. Older than Boomers. Like, Joe Biden old.
And the gap was as big as the Grand Canyon. At least, that’s how it felt. My dad had a corporate job, they lived in the suburbs of conservative Phoenix and would one day move to – perish the thought – a gated community.
“My mom used to volunteer for Common Cause, and now she’s on the board of her homeowner association,” I sneered more than once. I, meanwhile, was going to save the world – the planet! the universe! – with my mighty pen.
But first, I had to suffer through Navy Seals.
I’ve thought a lot recently about that summer and that feeling as I’ve considered the generation gap between myself and my older daughter. By the time you read this, Annabelle will have graduated from college and most likely will be home – for a visit, at least.
She’s a Gen Zer, defined by Pew Research Center (which somehow became the authority on all things generational) as people born between 1997 and 2012. And let me just say: Gen Z is… a lot.
When I graduated college, we were still trying to get people to call us women rather than girls. Looking back, that feels awfully one-dimensional. Now language is 3D or maybe even 4D. (Is 4D a thing?) It’s almost impossible to unravel, let alone keep up, and I can see that line in the sand growing deeper every time I mess up a pronoun or ask a question about intersectionality.
Getting old is rough.
I knew who I had to talk to about this. On a recent Sunday, my mom and I made a movie date. We chose a film without reading the reviews. This was more about spending time together.
Afterward, we found a couple of couches outdoors and settled down for a few minutes to talk about the movie (bad, should have read the reviews) and life.
“What was it like when you were in your 20s?” I asked.
The Vietnam War was hitting home, she recalled. She and my dad lived near the Armory at Papago Park, and sometimes the phone lines would get crossed.
“I would pick up the phone and hear people making arrangements to ship bodies back,” she said. “We were horrified by the war. We knew it was evil and wrong.”
There wasn’t much to be done about that, but she took her political science degree and got herself a job teaching junior high social studies in a rough neighborhood.
“You know, people were joining Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and that was kind of the thing to do to try to give back and find some way to do something meaningful,” she said.
Another popular cause was UNICEF – if you’re around my age, you might recall trick-or-treating at Halloween and collecting coins in a little orange box. My mom recalled that someone tried to get The Arizona Republic to write about UNICEF’s good work around the world.
“They would not acknowledge the United Nations or write anything about UNICEF because it was connected to the United Nations.”
What a far cry from the “woke” newspaper conservatives complain about today.
“That’s why you were brought up by a cynical mother and have this great perspective,” my mom concluded.
I didn’t remind her about Navy Seals. But I did ask her what she thought of Gen Z. Different game, she said.
We agreed that we often don’t really understand.
“Am I not liberal anymore?” I asked my mom. “Like, am I the problem?”
The reply was quick. “Definitely not.”
I wasn’t so sure. I decided to approach Gen Z directly – via text, their preferred form of communication.
“What about this gap?” I asked Annabelle.
“I think it’s awkward for everyone,” she replied. (Finally. They look at their phones constantly but take forever to respond.)
“Your generation has had an interesting journey because you grew up during monumental civil liberty strides but are facing unfamiliar ones today.”
Annabelle kept going.
“I think with the gender stuff in particular, I find a lot of Gen Xers who accept genderqueer people on a surface level, but don’t do the introspective work it takes to truly understand how gender is fluid, like recognizing your own preferences.”
“And I think a lot of the times people value being woke over being an understanding and gracious person on a day-to-day level.”
If only 1990 me had known 2023 her.
But just to be safe, if Annabelle does come home for a visit this summer and we go to the movies, I think I’ll let her pick.
Born and raised in Phoenix, Amy Silverman is a multiple winner of the Virg Hill Arizona Journalist of the Year award. She also penned the memoir My Heart Can’t Even Believe It.