What the hell is Generation X, anyway?
*Note: This post has been updated, edited, and now forms the first part of my book ‘Gen X Marks the Spot – Be The Hero In Your Own Story’. Sign up now to receive your free copy
I am working on the basis of Generation X being people born somewhere between 1961 and 1981. Others say 1965-1980, some might say it’s 1963 to 1977, another group might… You know what? You get the picture.
I think Jeff Gordinier sums it up quite nicely in his book ‘X saves the world‘ saying, ‘X is more a sensibility than a rigidly confined demographic.
I would agree with this, so I’m not going to get hung up on trying to pigeon hole us into a hard and fast demographic. As with most things Gen X, pinning them down too tightly is difficult, and also misses the point of what it means to be a part of our Generation. And we all know that X is the unknown quantity, right?
Are you a part of Generation X? I suggest you stick around to find out.
People really have been quite rude about us!
Gen X have been labelled more unfairly than any other generation before or after I think. We have been called nihilists, cynics, slackers and even cry-babies! The baby boomers it seemed were never that fond of us.
Something I am much more comfortable with is the label ‘The Defiant Demographic‘ . It’s this defiance I think that leads to our generations’ love of irony, dark humour and sarcasm. It’s our quiet rebellion. We do those things with gusto: with an under-stated Gen X kind of gusto, of course.
But are we really just a bunch of slackers that refuse to grow up?
If anything, slacker is the furthest from the truth. We are in fact a generation of go-getters, but we just decided to do it our way and do it quietly. On our side to prove this are the founders of Google, Youtube, Amazon, and Twitter, just as a few examples. Can you name these people? Probably not. Gen X doesn’t really do ostentation and self-promotion like the Boomers before us or Millenials after us (think Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg respectively).
Again, I think the negative Gen X press is wrong. We have our good traits, our successes and our heroes. They just aren’t as in your face. We work hard and we are adaptable. But we don’t trust easily, especially our politicians and our corporations. The so-called grown-ups of the world we have a bit of a chequered history with. So, where does all of our joy and mirth come from?
On a funnier note, I really thought we were all going to die horribly
Does anyone remember those TV adverts about nuclear war and bomb shelters? In between watching the Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman those ads scared the bejeezus out of me. I think it took me years to get over that. As a young child I really did think we were all going to die!
This was the result of the tensions of the cold war. No, nothing really happened, but all that tension sort of gets into you. And at that impressionable age, it does tend to shape your view of the world a little bit. The irony and sarcasm do have a mother.
Eventually things warmed up a bit and we saw the fall of the Berlin wall, and the threat slowly but surely receded. But for us Gen X’ers, nuclear war was our generations’ bogeyman. You can see some of the adverts here. Even now I still find them a little creepy. *shiver*
Where have all the grown-ups gone?
So under the umbrella of potential death in a bunker, we saw other events along the way that really didn’t inspire us with confidence in the elder generation.
Divorce for the parents of Gen X literally exploded leading to an upsurge in single parent families. This bucked the trend of only fathers working and now the workforce saw a leap in working mothers. This saw the birth of the phrase the “latchkey kids”.
Essentially, this was children coming home after school to empty houses and fixing their own food and being left to their own devices. Thankfully, with the progress made with equality, working women is now the norm and there are more infrastructures in place to ensure the kids are catered for. Back then though, everyone was learning as they went.
It’s important to note that I’m not casting any blame here. It was just the way it was. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had. If you weren’t a latchkey kid yourself, chances are you knew someone who was. So we banded together and our peers were our role models. We also looked to musicians and actors and authors to inspire us. We found our identity in popular culture. And we got on with it. It’s here that we started the development of our self-reliance and independence while we looked on at the happy events going on in the rest of the world.
The world around us sucked pretty much
High unemployment became a thing for early Gen X’ers. Hearing about companies laying people off on the news was a regular event. Terms like downsizing, streamlining and lean thinking became buzz words. The term “job for life” wasn’t going to be something that any of us had, that’s for sure. Our expectations were set: as was our distrust.
With 24 hour TV kicking in, we now had all the bad news we wanted on tap. We had Apartheid; the Afghanistan invasion; general strikes and fighting in the streets; starvation in Cambodia and Ethiopia; Iran and the Ayatollah; the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis; the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, AIDS and many, many more.
Every other film was about the Vietnam war (or, the American war as they call it in Vietnam!) and all of the horrific happenings that entailed without any discernible results. Everything was unrest. All of this came to us. We didn’t go looking for it. But it was always there. We really are a happy bunch, honest. All I can say is thank god for ‘goth’ music in the 80’s. I know that cheered me up. What’s worrying is I’m not joking 🙂
Technology – Our saviour!
Thankfully, we had plenty coming along to distract us. We embraced technology. I can remember a childhood without it, but now can’t image a future without it. We are the only generation that truly appreciates both views. It gives us an insight no other generation has.
I remember type writers and tippex, telex machines and the excitement when VCR’s became available. It all happened so fast that I also remember the death of VCR’s and the birth of DVD! And do you remember rotary phones? I hated having to call phone numbers with a zero as I watched tapping my foot like Sonic the Hedgehog waiting for the dial to come back around.
Now, in ironic Gen X fashion, we make posts on Facebook about a time without the internet and games consoles when children played outside. You know the posts I’m talking about. Yeah, we really do love our technology, but there is a small part of it that we hate too. Like the part where we try to tell our kids to not always be looking at their phones as we struggle to ignore the urge vibrating in our own pockets.
But we were hooked young. Just because we remember life before technology doesn’t make us immune to its charms. I remember the buzz of games arcades, playing Pac Man, Donkey Kong , Asteroid and Space Invaders. That was before the Atari games console hit our homes and we haven’t looked back since. ZX Spectrums, Commodore 64’s, Sega, Nintendo, and then, finally, the internet. We watched in fascination at the speed of new gadgets and technology and how Google became a verb.
What about our heroes?
I think Gen X is the generation of heroes and anti-heroes. The `quintessential Gen X movie stars were the likes of John Cusack, Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Molly Ringwald. They just seemed to be everywhere but never really seemed to do anything. Their characters just ‘struggled’ with stuff.
Gen X wanted heroes they could trust, people like themselves. Not manufactured stars. We wanted the Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, early Rap Music and a whole alternative scene. A lot of our musicians were guys you felt you could walk up and talk to. They were like us.
We saw the likes of Bob Geldof, Bono and Sting crusade on the back of their fame and over the years I listen to the cynicism grow as people throw around phrases like “self-serving gestures”, “tax evasion” and “Oh God, him again!” Whether or not intentions were pure, we just got sick of it all. Or maybe we just got scared of trying to do something good only to hear the stories afterwards of corruption, misappropriated funds and the fact that after everything we tried nothing seemed to change.
We kill the things we love
Gen X’s first big movement was the punks. It was very “anti-establishment” and didn’t stand for anything in particular. It was about making the ugly beautiful, and again, as with Gen X, it’s a sensibility rather than something that can be defined. It’s about not blindly accepting what’s around us, about asking questions, a belief that this worlds is what we make of it and not something we should just subscribe to because someone says that is the way it should be.
We are the kill your idols generation, but our idols were our role models. Go figure.
No piece on Gen X would be complete with Kurt Cobain. The irony again looms as he became an icon that he didn’t want to be. He made the mistake of being understood. People could relate. But again, grunge was about disaffection and anti-popularity. The checked shirt as an anti-fashion statement became possibly the biggest fashion statement of the 90’s! Grunge was in a way a revival of the punk sensibility.
The birth and death of MTV
The “MTV Generation” is another title we were unceremoniously given. MTV changed the music landscape completely. But again in a short space of time we also watched with horror as the ‘M’ in MTV changed from meaning Music to Mindless. Yet something else that was good turned into merely a product of little substance. It’s hard to shake the cynicism isn’t it?
The Baby Boomers are all retiring over the next few years. Believe it or not, it is almost our time to be the grown ups of the world. The question is, how do we use that defiant, punk, free and self-reliant sensibility to make this world a better place?
We start with ourselves, as we always have. We always worked on the basis that if we wanted it to be different we had to make it so.
Why we can and why we should take charge
While I have been looking back over all of this, I realise that for all of the pop music gloss of the 80’s, and the excitement of shiny new gadgets that permeated my world of growing up, it wasn’t in fact that much of an easy time. I think in fact I under-estimated the journey Gen X has had to take.
However, I think because of this, we are perfectly placed to take up the mantle of the head generation. Let’s face it, the boomers time is passing. Retirement looms for many of them. Now is our time. We are still young enough to make the most of this. The question is, why would we want to?
Relationships & Parenting matter!
We are quietly changing things behind the scenes. We have significantly lowered the divorce rates of our parents generation. We turned that around. No, it isn’t perfect, but we are giving it a damned good go. We care about our kids and the world we are leaving them. And we care about how we raise them to be a part of it.
Being good parents is so important to us. Leaving a legacy and putting our stamp on the world is important to us. According to Tamara Erickson, ‘We are probably the most devoted parents in history’. Maybe the lack of close role models we had is inspiring us to be the best role models we can be.
Changing the workplace
We are good business owners and employees because we grew up taking initiative, being innovative, self-reliant and not waiting for anyone else. We proved that we didn’t need anyone else but we are savvy enough to have realised as we got older that doing it on our own isn’t sustainable. So we are slowly learning to lean on others. Maybe we could do it better. But it’s a start.
We have always distrusted the corporations and authority. But as we become the authority it’s now up to us to change it from the inside. That defiance, mistrust, skepticism and refusal to settle for the status quo does have a place in business. Gen X is the bullshit detector of the modern workforce.
We may not have a blind trust in corporations, but most of the Gen X’ers I know take pride in their work and give everything when they are there. We do it because it is important to us. For us. For our families. The mistrust means we don’t expect any favours in return, but that underlying loyalty and pride makes us good to have in your team. We are reliable.
We don’t have to change
All of our sensibilities that make us who we are don’t have to change. Our generation can be strong parental role models, the CEO’s of companies and still play in a band with our friends on the weekends. We created all of the alternative scenes so creating alternative ways of living should be an easy step.
That kind of freedom keeps us young, healthy and vibrant. We don’t believe in growing old gracefully. And why should we? We were the ones with the accelerated youth so we are going to enjoy every moment we can.
But we do have to decide
Yes, our general tendency has been one of ‘anti’ world view. But now we need to be the ones making clear decisions on how we want this world to be. What do we want our legacy to be? It’s not enough for us just to be anti anymore, we need to start being for something.
We need to be clear on what our values are. We need to know where we are going. With clarity on these things, our strengths of quiet determination, independence, resilience, innovation and drive to show the world that we can do this come to the fore.
The future is ours
We are on the cusp of a beautiful new era. Our past, our world views, and our character strengths coupled with the fact that we are still here, still strong, still alive and kicking mean we have a great opportunity to make a difference – a difference both to ourselves and, consequentially, to the world around us.
It’s to accept that Cobain’s “Oh well, whatever, never mind” had its place, its time. But that time has passed. Now is the time where we decide to create the world we want.
For me, I still feel that in so many ways, Gen X hasn’t reached its full potential. What are you going to do with the next half of your life?
What is next, Gen X?
Leave a comment below if any of this resonated with you? What else do you think shaped your world view when you were growing up?