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David Scharfenberg

So maybe the slackers had it right after all

By David Scharfenberg
February 9, 2009
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WE MOVED to San Francisco and Brooklyn and Mission Hill. We jumped from job to job. Put off marriage. Never bought a place. And we never heard the end of it. We were drifters, they said. Layabouts. No respect for work and real estate or the value of a good pair of cufflinks.

But now, in the cold glare of a recession, everything looks different: We've got no house to lose, no career to dash, no school-aged children in need of pricey Wii gaming systems.

Not recession-proof, exactly, but recession-resistant, at least.

Of course, it's not like we saw the crash coming. We didn't plan for this, didn't time the market. And we made some bad choices along the way: The persistent neglect of our 401(k)s, battered stock market notwithstanding, will catch up to us someday.

But in retrospect, it's clear that we did something right. We lived a smaller life, a life we could afford. And as the country rebuilds the economy, as it tries to replace it with something more sustainable than a leaning tower of subprime mortgages and consumer binging, it is time to reevaluate that much-maligned Gen X archetype: the American Slacker.

"Slacker," like most labels, has always been a crude and misleading shorthand. We were a bit aimless, us urban, liberal-arts types. We were a little too enamored of irony, perhaps. A little too frivolous.

But there was something to be said for a life in the moment; for a dalliance in California, for concerts and failed screenplays, for a little fun before the fall. And the truth is, we were always more purposeful - more responsible - than our fathers and uncles and grandmothers realized.

Those of us who took low-wage jobs were not just marking time. Not all of us, anyway. We were doing work we cared about, as journalists and teachers and social workers.

All that job-hopping and freelancing? We were dilettantes, on some level, it's true. But we also understood, before most, that something had shifted - that we were moving to an economy of telecommuters and independent contractors and less-than-loyal employers.

And while the best minds on Wall Street cooked up the real estate mess that destroyed a global economy, we were sensible enough to steer clear of that overpriced condo and move into a dingy, three-bedroom rental with a few of our meathead friends.

You see, while Alan Greenspan and Countrywide Financial were creating a capitalism of disastrous excess, we were busy working on a more workable model. Not without its indulgences, of course. The exuberance of the dot-com bubble was undoubtedly irrational. But we did pretty well, this little slice of Generation X.

We brought you the Internet, worked on green technology, and filled the ranks of Teach for America. We crossed the color line, ate local produce, and bought secondhand clothing. We lived in smaller spaces, drove smaller cars, and took the subway to work.

It all seemed like a quaint liberal fantasy at the time. And on some level it was. But now, with a creaking economy and an overheated planet, it reads more like a survival manual: a guide to multicultural living in an increasingly diverse society, an incubator for the technology that might save the American auto industry, an antidote to our awful adventures in sprawl.

Of course, we could abandon this life as we get older, I suppose. We could grow impatient with our little apartments and cramped hatchbacks. We could set our sights on the kind of suburban existence we've forsaken. But I'd like to think we're smarter than that.

We created something worthwhile - a sustainable neighborhood, a tech future, a life we can manage. And we won't let it go too easily.

At least I hope not. As the nation rebuilds a crumbling capitalism, it could use a little perspective, a little wisdom. Bet you didn't think you'd get it from us.

David Scharfenberg, a guest columnist, is a Boston-based writer.

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