Poor Gen Xers.
They've spent their lives in the endless shadow of their more populous parents, the Baby Boomers, and the glittering reputations of their successors, the Gen Y/Millennials. Now, they find themselves in a demographic vise: With the economy in tatters, Boomers will likely never retire and get out of the way; even as the ambitious Gen Y's push upwards from below.
It would seem that the fate of this 'lost' generation of aging punks and gray-haired Darias, Beavises and Buttheads is doomed to never find its purpose, or achieve its destiny or even leave a mark in the shifting sands of history.
But ironically, the digital revolution -- the same one on which Gen Xers wasted their youth on computer games -- may have come to the rescue of this benighted generation. In particular, the Internet (which this generation will be the first to experience from cradle to grave) may now be poised to make Gen X the most Remembered Generation in human history. That's because Gen Xers, from their earliest years, have left a digital trail wider than any generation before it, but also one that is likely to live forever.
To understand how this might be so, consider the history of my family, and the trajectory of the memory record it has left. Four of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, three for the Union and one for the Confederacy. Other than a handful of photographs in a family scrapbook, these remarkable men exist only in single digital record, that of Civil War veterans (as far as I can tell, the Rebel soldier, who unlike the others, died in the war, doesn't appear to exist at all beyond a highly retouched ambrotype.) By the same token, my grandfather, a hard-drinking, much-married club boxer who died young in the 1930s, has left no record at all.
None of this is unexpected: Billions of people have been, lived lives and died in the story of mankind -- and only a few thousand, because they were famous or infamous, or were lucky enough to have their name recorded on a document that against all odds survived the centuries, are still remembered... if only their names. The rise of systematic national censuses in the 19th century managed to record millions of names for history, but even then (as frustrated geneologists know) it was little more than a name, a birth date, and perhaps a profession.
But, in the middle of the last century, things began to get interesting: social security records, military records, GI Bill forms, surveys, and the earliest electronic transaction records - and all of them increasingly stored on mainframe computers. Meanwhile, Ampex introduced audio and video tape reporting. And newspapers starting converting their yellowing morgue clippings to microfilm. All of this was enough to give even the most humble members of the GI Generation a record in mankind's memory. But only a sliver. Indeed, after the inevitable losses in the translation to the Internet, the Greatest Generation might also be called the Generation That Just Missed Being Remembered.
Consider my father. He only lived to 67, but he lived the equal of three or four lives: As a Depression boy he rode the rails with hobos, was a roustabout and razor blade swallower in the circus, dated Hollywood starlets, flew 32 missions in a B-17 as a bombardier and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, became a spy after the war and was counterintelligence chief for the Air Force OSI in Southern Germany, then went to Washington during the Kennedy years and was liaison with the FBI (and occasionally met Hoover), CIA (ditto with Angleton) and Pentagon, earned the Air Force Commendation medal for his work (shades of the Manchurian Candidate) with brainwashing victims of the Korean War, then retired as a Major and went to work for NASA during the space program, had a heart attack and retired again, then started a foundry and poured many of Silicon Valley's historic plaques, then became a well-known journalist writing for All About Beer magazine (typing on an Apple III computer given to him by Steve Jobs), then died in a fall from a ladder.
All in all, a remarkable life. Yet, Google "Ralph B. Malone" and you will find just 14,800 entries, most of them not my father, and most of the rest of the "find a grave" category. My mother, a housewife turned philanthropist, lived to almost 90, earned considerable local newspaper coverage at her death and was the subject of a recent book by me ("Charlie's Place") has just 1,000 Google entries. A few dropped address bits, a crashed disk drive, or even an power surge and she may disappear down the memory hole forever.
Now, consider their son. My life hasn't been a fraction as exciting as my father's, nor have I been a pillar of my community like my mother. And yet, because I am a journalist and author -- and especially because I spent years writing a column for ABC, where each entry typically generated 50-100 links by other bloggers -- my Google footprint is currently more than one million search results. Neither of my parents, nor any of my ancestors exists on Wikipedia; by comparison, my Wikipedia entry (assembling completely without my participation) is now 1,200 words long -- and growing. There's a photo of me. And you can even learn such minutiae about my life as the fact that I like the '60s rock group The Zombies.
All of this suggests, that as long as the Internet exists, the odds are so will I. Indeed, the greatest chance my parents have for their memories to survive lies in what I've written about them in the blogosphere.
But as a Baby Boomer, I'm an anomaly because of my media career. We Boomers may have been the first generation to have adopted the Web, but the Web has never fully adopted us. When I enter the names of my cousins, my professional peers, and my old high school and college classmates -- many of them quite successful in their careers -- it is a rare individual who produces more than few dozen search results -- and even then it is usually for ephemera like club membership or a 10K run finish from a dozen years ago or, sadly, a brief obituary. We Baby Boomers may have set the economic, cultural and political agenda for the last half-century... but the digital memory of our time here on Earth will make for slim reading.
But the same won't be said of Generation X. This unluckiest of modern generations may soon look like the luckiest. After all, it had the exquisite timing to be born just as the first consumer electronics boom reached a peak -- and as a result, it is the first generational cohort in history to have lived its entire life under the regime of Moore's Law. Their births were recorded digitally in the first electronic health records; their SAT scores in the first massive databases. The wrote their college papers on desktop computers and the beginnings of their working careers were marked by the arrival of the Web, cellphones, and Internet Explorer and, eventually Google. Unlike their Boomer predecessors, but a lot like their Gen Y successors, they have readily adopted Facebook, Twitter -- and more than any other age cohort, LinkedIn. Now in their late 30s and 40s -- and thus more obsessed with health and age than their juniors, they have also been enthusiastic adopters of Fitbit bracelets and mobile health apps for their iPads and smartphones (of which they are also enthusiastic adopters).
As a result, Gen Xers are leaving an unprecedentedly wide and well-marked trail of memories about their lives -- a trail that only grows richer by the year. Google searches, blogs, medical records, tax records, MySpace and Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles -- and, increasingly in a world of Big Data -- transaction records, automobile 'black box' records, personal telemetry data... in time, every heartbeat and every breath of a long life.
The sheer magnitude of this data, from even the most uneventful Gen X life, will overwhelm even the most famous, and studied life of any generation that came before it. And the most re-creatable. It may not be as vivid as, say, Generations Y and Z, whose records will be orders of magnitude larger, but it will be enough for Gen X, in its own way, to live forever - while those who lived just a few decades before are little more than ciphers.
Call it Gen X's Revenge. After a half-century of playing a supporting role to their narcissistic and self-absorbed parents; this 'lost' generation may be remembered in digital memory long, even millennia, after the Baby Boomers are forgotten.
Veteran Silicon Valley journalist Michael S. Malone is the author of The Guardian of All Things, a history of human and artificial memory (St. Martin's, 2012)