Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another "lost" generation

Sometimes people ask me why I moved to Austin. Sometimes I answer “Why not?” and leave it at that. Some other times I launch into an explanation of how I’ve really been living in the Bay Area my entire life and how I needed a change and how Austin has a great music scene, etc., etc. Then people usually respond by mentioning that they are hearing more and more about how so many people are flooding into Austin these days.

I usually don’t say anything after that, but I’ll let you in on a secret: that is the real reason I moved here. It’s always uncool to admit to being a follower, especially in a culture that so encourages children to be individuals and cherish their unique idiosyncrasies, but the simple fact is that I moved here because everyone else is moving here.

I could throw out clichés about how Austin is a city like no other but that would be trite and boring. And wrong. It’s not unlike any other. In fact, it’s actually very like other cities. Sure, drinks are cheaper here and the weather is hotter and for some reason I can’t seem to adapt to the driving style here, but sometimes I forget that I’ve left San Francisco or parts of LA or Portland or parts of New York. That’s the thing, Austin is a trendy city, just like all those other trendy cities, it just happens to have existed fewer years in the role.
The one defining difference I can see is the unashamed hipster status of this fine city. (Though, like any good hipster, Austin would categorically deny any accusations of the sort, and I’m sure a majority of the natives rightfully disapprove of the label as well.) The last time I visited Austin, a friend of mine made an anti-hipster comment and another friend turned and replied with “Get over yourself! Of course you’re a little bit of a hipster, we’re all a little bit hipster. You’re in Austin, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a little bit of a hipster.” And how true it is. In Austin there’s a lot of bike riding, green-living, vegan-eating, thrift-store-shopping, artsy-fartsy, politically-progressive, creative intelligent types. Oh, and everyone smokes American Spirits. Just sayin’.
Of course, the word “hipster” is a bit of dirty word in the same way that the Beats of the 50’s probably hated being called beatniks because it was a mainstream label for their very anti-mainstream aesthetic. Not everyone here wears tight pants and a permanent look of superiority and boredom, nor does everyone obsess over appearing studiedly indifferent to their cherished individuality. But individuality is incredibly important here in Austin and it’s actually truly genuine.

Possibly too important. There’s a post over on Hipstercrite that is filled with absolutely delicious ennui. An Austin transplant (as most of us apparently are), she begins to realize that she is “losing [her] individuality in a competition for who was the most unique.” She points out that our generation has the luxury of an overwhelming array of options, and not just in the supermarket. We were raised to believe that we can be anything we want to be, go anywhere we want to go, be with anyone we want to be with. But I think it goes even deeper. Beyond just being raised to believe that we do anything we wanted to, we also live in a culture where we can change that anything whenever we want. Don’t like your major? Change it. Don’t like your job? Quit and do something else. Don’t like your career? Switch. Don’t like your location? Move, it’s easy to do. Don’t like your partner? Get a divorce/separate/break up.
Worse still, many of us young people weren’t brought up with the bootstrap mentality that our grandparents and to some extent, our parents were. Occasionally the message “you can be whoever you want to be” would end with “if you try hard enough,” but more often than not, it didn’t. Or we just got bored and stopped listening half way through. My own mother tried so hard to teach me the importance of hard work and the concept of starting from the bottom and working your way to the top. But I know that I never believed her. I actually remember listening to her one day and thinking “yeah yeah. That's not gonna happen. If I can be anything I want to be, why would I ever choose to fetch coffee as an intern if what I really want to do is be a CEO?” Sure, logically we know that you have to start somewhere, but let’s be honest with ourselves, how many of us believe that this doesn’t really apply to us?

So what with the sensory overload and self-entitled assumption in the place of ambition, we wind up lost in the aisles of the grocery store, trying to figure out which of the thousand types of soap to buy before deciding to buy the one everyone else buys. After all, if everyone else is buying it, at the very least, it must not be bad.

We move to the hip new place because that’s where the opportunities are. That’s where it’s new and exciting and fast enough that we can maybe jump into the surge and skip a few rungs on the ladder to the top. I mean, how many people moved to New York in the early 1900s to become millionaires? How many people moved to LA in the mid-to-late 1900s to become famous? When you’re young and still believe that you can easily achieve your dreams, you want to be where the streets are paved with gold. Sure, most of us end up treading water, but it is a comfort to be surrounded by other people of this lost generation who are also treading water. After all, if they all chose that brand of soap, that city to live in, they can’t all be wrong. (Talk about a mixed bag of metaphors, huh?)

I’ll let you in on another part of my secret. That’s not the whole reason I moved here either. Sure, I want to pick up chunks of gold in the gravel at my feet just as much as the next kid. But it’s not so much that I moved here with the same mentality, it’s that I moved here because of the mentality. I moved here because we’re all moving here. Ariel and I have something in common. We both want to be where the people are. And I’m completely unashamed of that because people (and I don’t know if you know this) are incredibly interesting.

1 comment:

Greeley's Ghost said...

Wait. Which people are interesting?

But seriously folks...

Your post is spot on, although I would add that I think the days of virtually limitless choice (as much of a mirage as that was) are, like Two and a Half Men, on hiatus.

The wonderful choices that frothed up in the past two decades were fueled by an economy on steroids. At least for the next few years, the economy is climbing out of its hole and choices will be vastly limited, sad to say.

BUT (big BUT) the sense of possibility that has imbued your generation will pull us out of this hole faster than we otherwise would.

So, Austin-ites: Get to it.