I've been thinking about how important my Gen X colleagues are in my professional and personal life, and I've been wondering what changes our generation will bring to academia. Perhaps it is because I'm reading Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction, by Lisa Chamberlain. Or maybe it is because I turned 40 in 2009. For whatever reason, I've gotten very curious about the the interaction between age and innovation, and if there will be a Gen X story for academia.
My Gen X academic crowd includes fellow learning technologists, librarians, faculty, and people who work for educational technology companies. This crowd encompasses current and past colleagues, and as a group they are all exceptionally important in defining my professional and social identity.
Some things that I see that Gen X academics have in common:
1. Economic Shocks: We lived through all the major economic upheavals and bubbles. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I had a first row seat for the tech bubble, working out of San Francisco for the Britannica's efforts to launch an education dot-com. We've had to deal with economic busts at early career and mid-career. Many of the people I work with, and have worked with in past jobs, have first-hand experience with layoffs and wild income swings. We've never known long periods of economic security, just extreme booms and busts, and I think this impacts how we approach our jobs and institutions. For my Gen X learning crowd I think this plays out in an emphasis on finding a balance in our lives, in being less careerist and more focussed on our passions.
2. Social Shocks: I'm shocked by how many of my Gen X academic colleagues are, like myself, children of divorce and a latch-key childhood. If you were born between, say 1965 and 1975 (as us baby busters were), you share a common experience of bad after-school television, working Mom's, and shifting family dynamics. I see in my Gen X academic colleagues a desire to put family and relationships first. For some of us the traditional route of marriage and children has been less appealing, and many of us delayed this transitions until our thirties. Our friendships and colleagues are extremely important to us, they sustain us both intellectually and emotionally. In my circle we have a range of family and relationship structures, but for all of us our work academic work is an essential creative outlet.
3. Technology Shocks: Our generation bridged the gap between the analog and the digital world. We didn't grow up with ubiquitous computing, but we experienced this shift at an age where we can remember it occurring. We were young enough to quickly learn the new language and tools, but old enough to remember life before broadband, iPods, and mp3s. Many of the Gen X academic people that I work with ended up working in technology related fields because we discovered the power of technology in middle or high school. I still remember when my Dad brought home a Kaypro IV, a wonderful "luggable" computer that I ran WordStar on to write school papers. Learning technology exists at the intersection between education and technology, a great place to be for our generation that grew up seeing how technology changed so much in our worlds.
Will the Gen X academic generation change how our institutions are run? Perhaps we won't get the chance, as the boomers keep delaying retirement while their 401Ks recover. Or perhaps our generation will be less willing to make the sacrifices necessary to constantly climb the career ladder, having witnessed first hand how unstable institutions and industries can be.
What do you think? Are you a Gen X academic? Do you thing our generation will leave a particular mark on the academy?