It has been since they were kids. So what do we do?
All generations have experienced recent upticks in suicide. The media has made much of a youth mental health crisis coming out of COVID and its connection to social media. Women are committing suicide at a higher rate than ever before. All of this is undeniably true, but the core reality of suicide is that suicide a (mostly white) male GenX crisis and has been for a while.
Previously, suicide was stable as a cause of death among age groups in America and was mostly explainable by age:
Emile Durkheim’s Suicide documented a monotonically increasing relation between age and suicide. Such a relation has been observed repeatedly since the beginning of the nineteenth century, making it one of the most robust facts about suicide
The transition from boomers to Generation X (1965–1980) revealed a significant change: GenX dying by suicide at a young age at much higher levels.
In recent decades, however, the monotonic relation between age and suicide has disappeared… Between 1950 and 1990, youth-suicide rates tripled (particularly among young men), while suicide rates for adults fell by 7 percent, and suicide rates for the elderly fell by 30 percent. In 1990, suicide rates for young adults (ages twenty to twenty-four) were equal to those for primeage adults and were only 25 percent below suicide rates for the elderly.
The higher rates of suicide as teenagers continued into adulthood. CDC reports show a higher rate of suicide by GenX continuing from 1999–2017:
And this number has increased as Generation X aged:
Meanwhile suicidality has begun to downshift in the next generations, either increasing at a slower rate or decreasing:
And researchers continue to track high rates of deaths of despair in the middle aged Generation X cohort:
Indicators of despair — depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and alcohol abuse — are rising among Americans in their late 30s and early 40s across most demographic groups, according to new research led by Lauren Gaydosh, assistant professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University.
Researchers believe this trend will continue or even worsen:
Results suggest that generally rising despair among the young adult cohort now reaching midlife that cuts across racial/ethnic, educational, and geographic groups may presage rising midlife mortality for these subgroups in the next decade.
And in Australia:
During the 1980s and early ’90s, when this generation were teenagers, the teen suicide rate shot up sharply. By 1990, the suicide rate among males aged 15 to 19 had more than tripled in 30 years in several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the US. (Female suicide rates are generally lower than men’s, though it is believed women actually attempt suicide more.)
As one Australian author put it, Generation X is the Suicide Generation.
Some other realities:
- Women attempt more suicidal self-harm, but men complete suicide at a significantly higher rate and always have.
- Suicide rates are identifiably higher in the following groups: LGBTQ, Native American, veterans, and rural whites.
- The large majority of suicides are completed by white males.
- Suicide remains primarily a lower-class and lower-middle-class phenomenon with significantly higher rates in blue collar jobs:
Compared with rates in the total study population, suicide rates were significantly higher in five major industry groups: 1) Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction (males); 2) Construction (males); 3) Other Services (e.g., automotive repair) (males); 4) Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting (males); and 5) Transportation and Warehousing (males and females). Rates were also significantly higher in six major occupational groups: 1) Construction and Extraction (males and females); 2) Installation, Maintenance, and Repair (males); 3) Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media (males); 4) Transportation and Material Moving (males and females); 5) Protective Service (females); and 6) Healthcare Support (females).
What do we make of the Suicide Generation? What do we do with a generation that self-identifies as a failure?
What do you do when Generation X was already proclaiming in 1994:
“FOR GENERATION X, SUICIDE IS THE ULTIMATE IN REBELLION”
Maybe start by seeing and listening to them?
We go back to an insightful young reporter in 1994:
Cobain’s suicide can help America finally take note: Youth unhappiness is more than a fad, the product of a temporarily dull economy, or the whining of another generation of postwar brats.
Cobain lived the stereotypical Xer life. He was the victim of a broken home at age 10. He was later passed between relatives, and even lived under a bridge for a time. He was born too late for rock’s heyday, but started a punk-influenced band anyway. He medicated himself with drugs, ostensibly to treat stomach pain. But as the Los Angeles Times reported recently, he also used drugs in an earlier attempt to commit suicide.
Self-destruction is to Generation X what playing chicken was to ’50s rockers, what taking hard-core drugs was to flower children. It’s the ultimate rebellion in a world of youth culture where the forms of rebellion have been exhausted. At the same time, it can be the only way out of a life made crueler by the pressures and pessimism of modern-day America.
The Xers’ deck is stacked with low-paying jobs, sharper competition, and a world of beer-commercial expectations. At the same time, Xers have been national disappointments. The latchkey, throwaway kids of the ’70s have become the ``slacker generation,’’ back-at-home ``boomerangs,’’ and ``losers.’’ (As the popular song by Beck goes, ``I’m a loser baby/So why don’t you kill me.’’)
These broad strokes are distant, even sometimes humorous. But when ``slacker,’’ ``boomerang’’ and ``loser’’ become personal labels, hopelessness settles in. And America has no tolerance for losers.
Generation X has been crying for help since they started. Persistently overlooked by their Boomer parents still absorbed in their own searching for commercial self-fulfillment and pleasure, forced to be self-reliant as latchkey kids while their parents went to work, stuck in the contactless unwalkable spread of suburbia before the advent of social media allowed for greater interconnection over distance, and still biding their time before they are allowed to lead as Boomer presidents retread electoral fights no one wants, Generation X has many good reasons for their anger and frustration and their media has revealed as such.
Listen to Generation X music (which of course is now overshadowed by millennials like Taylor Swift and Beyonce), their lyrics talking about hopelessness, anger:
The world is a vampire
Sent to drain
Hold you up to the flames
And what do I get
For my pain?
And a piece of the game
Even though I know
I suppose I’ll show
All my cool and cold
Like ol’ Job
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage
Famous Generation X deaths by suicide and despair — starting with Cobain — occurred amongst the very wealthiest whose success never freed them from this abiding sense of hopelessness and anger, prompting one author to note “success does not make someone safe.”
7 Year Bitch’s Stefanie Sargent of a heroin overdose in June of 1992. The Gits’ Mia Zapata murdered in July of 1993. Gin Blossoms’ Doug Hopkins of suicide in December 1993. Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff of a heroin overdose in June 1994, just two months after their album “Live Through This” came out. Lush’s Chris Acland of suicide in October 1996.
It was something to live through at the time, but which we never questioned. It just was. And yet in hindsight so many deaths of so many young people seems unfathomable.
And they didn’t stop.
Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley, who found fame by singing about his addictions, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2002 and his bandmate Mike Starr died of a heroin overdose in 2011. Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland in 2015 succumbed to an overdose of cocaine, ethanol and MDA, a culmination of the addiction struggles he had been fighting in public since the ‘90s.
The media produced by Generation X filmmakers deals with sarcasm, despair, violence, and hopelessness in ways that contrast starkly with the most popular (and now enormously successful) millennial heirs of political narratives. Consider Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Fincher (Fight Club), Aranofsky (Requiem for a Dream), etc vs., say, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Evan Goldberg’s comedies. It is easy to over-generalize generational differences in art and film, but I believe a superficial look at the types of films made and consumed by Generation X (even while Boomers continue to dominate the market of production and consumption) shows a penchant for dealing with meaninglessness and anger in persistent and unique ways.
Acknowledging the unique despair of Generation X might help people in that generation move from feeling like a Rat in the Cage, from feeling like I’m a Loser Baby so Why Don’t You Kill Me. Saying “this has validity, this feeling” despite whatever political, religious, personal differences may abide, would help some (I hope) feel seen, at very least. And to do so in a non-patronizing, very real way, a way that their parents maybe didn’t because they were too busy doing Boomer stuff with other Boomers, and their millennial little siblings didn’t because they got to be the stars of the show. To be seen is the first hope of anyone feeling alone.
I think of Hagar, the rejected and abused mother of Abraham’s son, still overlooked to this day, who God spoke to specifically and blessed with many descendants. She gave God a name: The God who sees!
Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.”
Indeed, “seeing” was one of the actions Jesus did most often in the Gospels, seeing lame beggars, crowds gathered, women despised by society, his whole people harassed like sheep without a shephard.
Do you see Generation X?
To look, and to listen: these are gifts Jesus gave to people who were not seen or heard. Millennials have adopted the urgent necessity that Boomers had of being seen and heard. Despite the mockery Generation X and Boomers heap on Millennials for winning every award and always being told they were special butterflies, that congratulatory attention was at least a kind of seeing and hearing that Gen X seems to have been denied. Millennials have been seen and heard simply for being, while “Of those Gen-Xers who have done something with their lives — Elon Musk, Dave Chapelle, J. K. Rowling, Kanye West, and Jack Dorsey — what unites them is a willingness to say and do what is weird and potentially unpopular, even to the point of widespread social disapproval.” Consider the too-pointed reality that the most famous Millennial social media invention (and the billionaire it created) was based on seeing faces and videos while the most famous Generation X social media invention (destroyed by another boomer billionaire) was based on short sentences shouted into the ether. And it is now called X.
Generation X needs to be heard and acknowledged. Seen. Noticed. And not just for being weird or out there, but for being there at all. For not choosing death. For having intrinsic value. And for having experienced a unique form of despair.
Seeing someone does seem like a very small start, but I hope it is a start. If we try to delve deep into systemic issues which created Generation X — if we try to ‘fix’ conditions instead of focusing on people — we can begin to feel and perpetuate the hopelessness they have felt. We cannot change the social, economic, political, and religious realities that informed their anger and hopelessness, and I think that an overt focus on political solutions for Generation X only perpetuates the hopelessness and anger. A Boomer/Millennial belief that we can make change in the world is laughably direded by a generation that was promised that change only for it to blow up in their faces time and again. Do you think you can systemically change this?
We lived through the End of History, watching the Cold War dissolve in real time into one great spiritual McDonald’s, global and enternal. Blue Jeans and Democracy Forever. No more wars (pfft!), just an endless pick ’n’ mix of identities, products, and self-chosen values. Little did we suspect that 20 years later, Sandra from h.r. would be firing us for failing to adhere to the latest update to the cultural software, or that the compassion that was supposed to be at the heart of ’90s “political correctness” would be weaponized as part of a regime loyalty test.
I think it is no wonder that the people being arrested for January 6th or showing up at Trump’s side unexpectedly these days are exactly the kind of out-there Gen X types, the ones who are sick of all the promises and control of the previous and next generation. They feel, perhaps, like a rat in a cage built by bars of the lofty expectations of their parents which they could never fulfill and the effortless success their little siblings and children seemed to have inherited. Politics is stale to many of them, especially Generation X white males, and little can be done more than restraining the power of the people they don’t like. Trump has appeal because he is seen as burning it all down, and that has appeal to someone who has seen it all and hated every bit of it, whatever it might be.
Politics-as-cure only perpetuates the despair of Generation X. Focus on people instead, and not in a salespitch way. They were, after all, the generation that saw through every single commercial ever known to man. They grew up under their parents evangelizing them, too, so they are largely immunized to religious hucksters and persuasion rooted in heartstrings or hellfire. They don’t need programs but people, real people, in a sense that transcends people-as-means and returns them to the humanizing status of people-as-ends.
Other approaches have some limited value in my opinion. There are no panaceas. A national suicide hotline has arrive too late for widespread uptake by a jaded generation already sick of coddling government programs. The rapid increase of available mental health services (And the subsequent shortage of mental health workers) is focused on younger people and used mostly by younger people. Systemtic ways of “reaching” Generation X are limited because of a lower usage rate on more popular avenues of communication like TikTok (GenZ) or Instagram (Millennials). Their superstars are aging out of the national scene or dead, and their leaders have been bypassed on the national scene, still waiting on the wings for the Boomers to yield power.
I think that Boomers have been trying to “fix” Generation X for so long, that they hate the idea of being “fixed.” Maybe we stop trying to fix them, stop trying to think of creative government programs that can’t actually give anyone hope, and start just being, you know, with them in that cage.