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Gen X Is Getting Hit Uniquely Hard By Coronavirus

I’ll admit that, at first, I thought the Reality Bites memes flying around social media during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak were hilarious. An eye-roll from Ethan Hawke or a shrug from Winona Ryder was the perfect way to encapsulate how Gen X was meeting this moment. “Sit on your couch and stay the fuck at home!” we laughed. “We’ve been doing it our whole lives!”

But as the outbreak grew and then took hold, paralyzing entire cities and communities, I stopped being able to find the humor in it, not just because the virus was terrifying and seemingly everywhere, but because Gen Xers, in the middle of our lives, were now in a particularly precarious position—worrying about our parents, who were both more vulnerable to the virus and seemed slow in grasping its seriousness, and our children, who are too old to be fully bossed around, but still young enough to feel (misguidedly) invincible.

We are a generation (I’m in the middle of it, at 46) best known for our collective slacker reputation, but it dawned on me fast that we would have to shed that persona to get through this.

I’m writing this two weeks into our family quarantine. As I do so, my 15-year-old’s tennis team loudly holds a fitness catch-up on Zoom, and my 13-year-old wanders in to ask if she can make an apple pie. We get into an argument on the preciousness of fresh fruit right now, and she sighs audibly and rolls her eyes and retreats.

I try to refocus on my work—paying assignments are valuable these days—but I notice that my throat feels a little sore, and I spiral into wondering how my family would endure if I’m laid up. I check my temperature (again). It’s normal, and yet I worry, I worry, I worry. My husband comes downstairs singing Phantom of the Opera, a habit you wouldn’t realize is perhaps unbearably annoying until you are trapped inside with someone for weeks on end. I try not to chide him, though. He’s asthmatic, and I find I’m more anxious about his overall health than I am mine. I worry. I worry. I worry. After spending too much time on Twitter last night, I texted him from the living room: I don’t want you running any more errands. I’ll do it. He texted me back: ok but why? The answer, of course, is: I worry.

My parents, in their seventies, live three thousand miles away, and I’ve started calling them daily. Before coronavirus, it was once or twice a week. Sometimes my mom would have to email and text before I picked up the phone. Though it’s gone unspoken now, we all probably know that I’m touching base each evening to ensure that neither of them has gotten sick, to attempt to maintain control over a situation that is entirely out of my control. I grow annoyed when they tell me they took their building’s elevator. (Take the stairs! I shriek) I try to convince them to leave town. (Get out of New York! I implore.) I start treating them the same way I treat my teens—like a group of toddlers I can somehow manage. Part of this is because I worry; part of this is because it would be easier if people listened to me, which no one does.

Like so many Gen Xers, I’ve acquired these emotionally-attuned skills over just a few weeks. They’re clunky and unfamiliar; I’m still not used to sentimentally signing off emails or phone calls, even during a pandemic. Indeed, Gen Xers have meandered through life with sardonic apathy: Everything is cool, ok? Just give us our space, let us chill, it will be handled. We’d come of age as latchkey kids in the backdrop of the Cold War and the AIDS crisis. We’d spent our afternoons playing Space Invaders on our Ataris (no screen-time limits) and kick-the-can until dark before we meandered home and inhaled Chef Boyardee and Twinkies (no nutritional limits). It was no surprise that slacker kids blossomed into slacker adults. We get our shit done, to be clear, but we also don’t have to make a big production about it; we don’t have to emotionally invest too much, you know?

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