Thought-provoking opinion piece entitled "How to Live Without Irony:"
For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt. One need only dwell in public space, virtual or concrete, to see how pervasive this phenomenon has become. Advertising, politics, fashion, television: almost every category of contemporary reality exhibits this will to irony.
Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.
I don't think this is solely the possession of Gen Y. I am plenty susceptible to this myself, and had in my mind before encountering it in the article: "the ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism." It is sort of like wearing black all the time so no one can accuse you of trying to look good, or choosing clothes because they promise to hide you, or parts of you, rather than reveal you.
There are many kinds of such shields, and the ironic frame might be the one that most closely resembles a Zeitgeist at this moment, but the others are all still around. There is also constant self-deprecation; the embrace of victimhood; pre-emptively wounding everyone around you with a mocking, "Don't you have a sense of humor?"; acquiring a reputation for unpredictable explosive anger. Add them all together and it seems everyone has such a shield.
Perhaps it is contagious, a kind of arms race of the vulnerable. You cannot be left the only one who lacks protections. Everyone knows they are naked.
The author of the article identifies some people who don't seem to carry the shield of irony:
Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places where seriousness is the governing state of mind.
But many of these people may carry shields, too. I think elderly people -- and the not so elderly, maybe starting in their sixties -- aren't infected by irony, not because they don't put up shields against the world, but because they came of age before public irony had deeply infected the culture. They had other zeitgeists to deal with. And only someone who doesn't personally know many deeply religious people -- someone to whom they are a caricature -- would assume that they are also immune from irony. Maybe if you had been raised in a very sheltered family and school, enough out of the mainstream that American popular culture would be a foreign culture. Once you have breathed that air, though, the shielding becomes part of you, and to learn to be real is to transform it. I don't think it brushes off so easily, because it isn't something completely superficial. It is more something you must deliver yourself from.