Throughout the twentieth century, American historians and social commentators have placed labels on various generations in an effort to capture their characteristic spirit. Generation X—roughly defined as the more than 79 million people born between 1961 and 1981—has been characterized by the media as lazy, laconic, and unfocused, but in the eyes of many, the pejorative label represents propaganda rather than reality. For those outside this generation, the X stands for some unknown variable, implying young adults searching aimlessly for an identity. Many members of Generation X think otherwise, however, and they fill in the blank with such descriptors as diverse, individualistic, determined, independent, and ambitious.
The term "Generation X" worked its way into popular vernacular after the release of Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, about three twentysomethings who are underemployed, overeducated, and unpredictable. Other nicknames have emerged, such as the more neutral "13ers" (which indicates the 13th generation since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). However, most of the other markers have negative overtones, such as "slackers," "latch-key generation," "MTV generation," and "baby busters." Many members of this generation reject these labels for they not only stigmatize and stereotype, but also reinforce the negative behavior they describe. On the other hand, Karen Ritchie, author of Marketing to Generation X, actually prefers the label "Generation X," for she sees "something anticommercial, antislick, anti-Boomer, and generally defiant about the 'X' label." She also predicts that soon enough, and rightly so, this generation "will name themselves."
The members of Generation X can be seen as natural products of the intellectual atmosphere in which they have grown up, for they are the first generation to be raised in the age of postmodernism—a widespread cultural development of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Understanding the often rocky transition from modern to postmodern culture is necessary to understanding how many members of Generation X think and operate. While modernism values a single world view rooted in objective science, postmodernism values multiple world views based on subjective experiences and contingencies. Information and knowledge is gathered in a linear fashion by the modernists, but for postmodernists, particularly those of Generation X, information comes from fragmented and non-linear sources, often in the form of hypertext or visual images. While the modernists revere the classics of art and literature, postmodernists have a broader frame of reference: they not only revere the classics, but they also grant status and value to the productions of popular culture. Ethics for the modernists can be rigid, even self-righteous, but postmodernists have a more situational ethic that resists the concept of "Universal Truth." Monolithic institutions such as government, education, corporations, and the press which are seen as authoritative by the modernists are viewed with caution and distrust by members of Generation X.
Xers have grown up during the cultural transformation from modernism to postmodernism. The sensibilities of postmodernism are naturally appealing to many members of Generation X, because their young adulthood has been constructed by the postmodern society. Paradoxically, they have simultaneously been victimized by a society trying to come to terms with a paradigm shift that many find threatening. Members of Generation X often represent that threat to their elders. As a result, these youth are both the product and the scapegoat of a culture in a state of flux.
True to this variable spirit of postmodernism, Generation X defies homogeneity. Extremely diverse in race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, Xers often feel a collective uniqueness that has emerged from shared experiences and cultural circumstances. The unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by the uneasy discomfort of the late 1970s and the self-involved consumption of the 1980s, have been the foreground to the 1990s—a decade laden with problems. Social ills like the rise in teen suicide, widespread homelessness, proliferating toxic waste, violent crime, the AIDS epidemic, and a "down-sizing" workforce, coupled with fundamental changes in social structures like the family, caused by rising divorce rates and working parents, have been the realities of the world as Generation X has come of age. Like most younger generations, many Xers resent their parental generation—the baby boomers—for leaving them to repair or endure a society on the brink of collapse. Considering the problems Xers face, it is perhaps no wonder that one of their favorite T-shirt slogans is "NO FEAR," and it is also representative of the contradictions of their culture that NO FEAR is the corporate brand name of a line of sports clothes.
Lack of fear, however, is not enough to manage America's social problems, and many baby boomers voice concern that most members of Generation X evince distaste for politics and public affairs. The trust of all Americans in their government has reached increasingly low levels in the 1990s, as members of Generation X have come of age politically. Because they view politics as a hostile and corrupt environment, Xers have tended to be disgusted by political machinations, and thus often disengaged. Political apathy among young people is not a new phenomenon; personal challenges such as education, careers, and relationships often consume their time and energy, leaving little left over for political affairs. Furthermore, political scientists report that, historically, levels of public participation increase with age. However, Xers have never experienced political innocence and have lived within a negative climate of politics their entire lives. This climate has caused many to turn their backs on political involvement, in turn causing a potentially devastating problem in terms of Xers' future civic and political responsibility.
Neil Howe and Bill Strauss provide a more pragmatic perspective in their oft-cited 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, in which they lay out a five-point political credo of Xers: 1. "Wear your politics lightly"; 2. "Survival comes first"; 3. "Try to fix only what's fixable"; 4. "Clean up after your own mess"; and 5. "Personal style matters." Howe and Strauss posit that for the 13th Generation, "national politics will drift toward the personal, no-nonsense, survivalist approach." Xers are already employing this doit-yourself attitude by saving early for their retirement. According to Richard Thau, in a 1994 poll of 18-34 year olds, 82 percent believe that Social Security, the U.S. government's largest benefit program, will deconstruct before their retirement. Thau is the Executive Director of the Third Millennium, a political advocacy group centered in New York with hundreds of members who are dedicated to speaking out on behalf of the interests of the Generation X age group. Likewise, Hans Riemer and Chris Cuomo cofounded 2030, what they describe as a "political action-tank" for Generation X. In Riemer's words, "so much of what is going wrong today requires innovation and new thinking, and we can respond to these requirements at a more rapid pace than other generations could." These informed Xers are responding to the concerns of "massive ignorance" through practical action.
Xers' cautious and fiscally conservative sensibility has been a challenge to America's mostly middle-aged advertisers and marketers who have recognized Generation X as a viable and large market. However, they are also the best educated generation in America's history and were raised on commercial hyperbole. While Xers might respect and enjoy advertisements that are crisp, sophisticated, humorous, and informative, they are savvy enough to realize when hype or insincerity is at work. Karen Ritchie recognizes that "no icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective."
Xer Richard Thau confirms such use of satire and irony in explaining the wild popularity of the "fictional buffoons" who have largely defined Generation X for the nation: Beavis and Butthead, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Bart Simpson, and the children who live in South Park. Members of Generation X, claims Thau, are clearly educated enough to enjoy "watching these morons because they satirize the image older generations have of us." Shows like Friends, ER, Seinfeld, Melrose Place, The X-Files, and Party of Five are popular among Xers because they employ friends as family, serialized story lines, and the use of music, three ingredients favored by Generation X viewers.The effect of Generation X on current TV programming can clearly be measured by the launching of three broadcast networks—Fox, UPN, and WB—specifically targeted at Generation X.
Perhaps one of the more joyful memories from the early days of Xers is those three-minute jingles that provided Saturday morning lessons in grammar, math, civics, and science: ABC's Schoolhouse Rock. Rob Owen, author of Gen X TV, claims that "these little ditties entered the Gen X consciousness and stayed there." He also posits that these musical education segments were the forerunner to what we later came to know as music videos. Unlike any preceding generation, the visual element is essential to Xers. Since they have grown up with television, video games, and computers, it is natural that theirs is the generation that added pictures to rock songs. Owen contends that the introduction of the Music Television channel (MTV) "raised the ante" in the entertainment industry when television producers blended music, visuals, and quick cuts for the sophisticated viewing demands of Generation X. When MTV went on the air in August, 1981, targeting the 12-34 age group, members of Generation X responded immediately, so much so that Xers are criticized for having an MTV-attention span, alluding to the quick-cut and fast-paced conventions of music videos. Despite this criticism, the attraction of MTV remains constant, explains Meredith Bagby, because MTV has quite literally made it their business to keep up with the changes in Generation X.
The musical interests of Xers are as diverse as the members themselves. In the early 1990s, many members of Generation X revered grunge rock groups like Nirvana with their furious, angst-ridden lyrics and wailing guitar licks. Nirvana railed against the establishment and a decaying society—issues with which Xers could readily identify. Kurt Cobain was their poet, but his suicide in April, 1994 brought his anguished alienation to a crashing halt. The bullet that ended Cobain's life created a collective heartache for many members of Generation X. While Cobain screamed in despair, rappers continue to provide their version of the nightly news concerning the happenings on America's urban streets. Hip-hop and rap music appeal to members of Generation X across all race and ethnic lines, for like Cobain, rappers speak of the issues of the day while simultaneously affirming black identity. Howe and Strauss describe inner-city Xers as "unmarried teen moms and unconcerned teen fathers; lethal gangsters … and innocent hiphoppers who have no illusions about why older white guys cross the streets to avoid them." Rappers like Tupac Shakur, Queen Latifah, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Master P, Puff Daddy, and Dr. Dre are significant voices for many members of Generation X. The success of Black Entertainment Television (BET), a music network which focuses on urban contemporary sounds, attests to the far-reaching appeal of black music among Generation X. In addition to alternative rock and rap, other genres of GenX music include ska, techno, industrial, country, reggae, and goth.
Though many Xers have a deep connection to music, they are not merely tuning in to the various music networks and dancing at all-night raves. Some have a strong entrepreneurial spirit that belies their media reputation for laziness and lack of focus. For example, Jerry Yang and David Filo, both graduate students at Stanford, cofounded Yahoo!, the first online navigational guide to the Web. Xer Adam Werbach is the youngest president of the Sierra Club, the largest grass-roots environmental organization. Xer Eric Liu edited a collection of essays about Generation X called Next and is a foreign-policy speech writer for Bill Clinton. At age 25, Steve Frank became a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Jonathan Karl was hired as a reporter for CNN to represent his generation. Xer David Mays is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Source, the immensely popular magazine of hip-hop music, culture, and politics. Twentysomething Kevin Smith financed his first movie, Clerks, on his credit card and then went on to make Chasing Amy, which earned him the respect of mainstream moviemakers. Beth Kobliner, writer for Money magazine, also wrote the bestseller on personal finance for Generation X, Get a Financial Life! At only 26, Jeff Shesol is considered an acclaimed historian for his book Mutual Contempt about Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; Shesol also serves as a presidential speech writer for Bill Clinton. Although the title of the 1991 movie, Slackers, has been used to label members of Generation X, the above accomplishments clearly negate such a reputation.
In the face of dismissive and stereotypical media portrayals as they learn to navigate the increasingly fast-paced world around them, members of Generation X have learned to cope with guarded optimism, and practical confidence. Although they may be cynical about the conditions of the world in which they came of age, they do embrace an American Dream, albeit a different one from that of their predecessors.
—Judy L. Isaksen
Bagby, Meredith. Rational Exuberance: The Influence of Generation X on the New American Economy. New York, Dutton, 1998.
Bennett, Stephen Earl, and Eric W. Rademacher. "The 'Age of Indifference' Revisited: Patterns of Political Interest, Media Exposure, and Knowledge among Generation X." After the Boom: The Politics of Generation X. Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997, 21-42.
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Howe, Neil, and Bill Strauss. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? New York, Vintage Books, 1993.
Owen, Rob. Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1997.
Ritchie, Karen. Marketing to Generation X. New York, Lexington Books, 1995.
Thau, Richard. "So-Called Generation X: How Do You Target a Market that Wants to Be Left Alone?" Vital Speeches of the Day. Vol. LXII, No. 21, 1996, 664-67.
Throughout U.S. history, social commentators and historians have labeled each succeeding generation in an attempt to capture the defining characteristics of its members as well as to contextualize the generation within the spirit of the times. Generation X is the label used to define the more than 79 million people born roughly between 1961 and 1981. Although both social scientists and marketers employ this tag, the U.S. mainstream media gets credit for skyrocketing this label into our popular culture lexicon, particularly throughout the 1990s.
The term, however, was coined decades earlier in a 1964 pop sociology study conducted by two British journalists, Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson, who used the term to describe their subjects—British teens—whom they interviewed on matters of sex, money, parents, and politics. In 1976 Generation X, a British punk band featuring Billy Idol, hit the London scene. The term eventually worked its way—via the media—into American popular vernacular after the release of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a bleak social commentary by three twenty-somethings who “drop out” from their corporate-world careers to take on no-future “McJobs” that provide little pay, benefits, or dignity. Immediately, Gen Xers—subsequently referred to as “slackers”—were officially characterized as lazy, laconic, and unfocused; however, many took issue with this assessment, describing themselves as diverse, independent, and individualistic.
The members of Generation × are arguably natural products of the intellectual atmosphere in which they grew up, for they are the first generation to be raised in the age of postmodernism—a widespread cultural development of the last quarter of the twentieth century. This paradigm shift marked a generational difference between Generation × and their baby boomer parents. Understanding the transition from modern to postmodern culture is necessary to understanding Gen Xers. Whereas modernism values a single worldview rooted in objective science, postmodernism values multiple world-views based on subjective experiences and contingencies. Information and knowledge are gathered in a linear fashion by modernists, but Gen Xers seek out information from fragmented and nonlinear sources, such as hypertext, visuals, and audio sampling. Whereas the modernists revere classical art and literature, postmodernists broaden their frame of reference to include pop-culture productions such as music videos and animation. Institutions such as government, education, corporations, and media, which are seen as authoritative by modernists, are viewed with a critical eye by members of Generation X.
The civil unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by the overconsumption of the 1980s, provided the background to the 1990s—a decade laden with social problems. Violent crime, environmental degradation, widespread homelessness, spikes in both teen pregnancies and suicides, corrupt politics, and the AIDS epidemic, coupled with fundamental changes in the family unit caused by rising divorces rates and dual-working parents, were the realities in which Generation X came of age. Many Xers resented the baby boomers for leaving them to repair or endure a society seemingly gone mad.
Despite the initially dismissive media portrayals and self-proclaimed cynicism about the condition of the world in which they came of age, most members of Generation X—who have reached adulthood—have learned to cope. They, like all preceding generations, are striving to attain or maintain the American Dream, albeit in different ways from the methods of their predecessors.
SEE ALSO Baby Boomers
Coupland, Douglas. 1991. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Hamblett, Charles, and Jane Deverson. 1964. Generation X. London: Tandem Press.
Howe, Neil, and Bill Strauss. 1993. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? New York: Vintage Press.
Judy L. Isaksen
Generation X, also known as the "Baby Buster" generation, refers to the group of Americans born between the middle to late 1960s and the early 1980s. The term "Generation X" first appeared as the title of a 1991 best-selling novel by Douglas Coupland. Often called "GenXers," members of this group are distinguished by their individualstic, anti-institutional approach to religion.
Although they are closer in style and outlook to Baby Boomers (their predecessor generation) than Baby Boomers are to their own predecessors, nevertheless GenXers have their own religious traits. As a whole they appear to be much less religious than their elders; however, GenXers have showed a tendency to express religiosity outside traditionally understood institutions and to blend popular culture with spirituality. Generation X is more conservative than its predecessors, placing considerable emphasis on individual responsibility; the True Love Waits campaign for premarital sexual abstinence has had wide appeal for younger GenXers.
Many churches and synagogues have developed special programs to appeal to GenX tastes. Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, has developed a monthly "Friday Night Live" service geared especially toward unaffiliated GenX Jews. At the same time, new congregations, such as New Song Church in Covina, California, and established ones, such as Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City, have emerged to serve the GenX cohort. Successful GenX congregations, whether subgroups or independent organizations, share certain characteristics that distinguish them from other groups. First, the worship environment reflects a straightforward spiritual message and seeks to create an experience of intimacy, accountability, and authenticity. These themes reflect GenX preferences for one-to-one relationships and personal responsibility (rather than abstract notions of social or ethical obligation), as well as GenXers' concerns about how to make sense of the fragmentation and chaos that typify their individual and collective experiences of the late twentieth century.
Third, the ritualistic-liturgical structure is flexible, providing for a wide range of human-divine interactions. This often involves the use of contemporary popular music rather than traditional hymns, or the introduction of different media and worship styles, such as video or meditation. Moreover, successful GenX congregations provide for a certain degree of "big-tent" theology within the core structure of their guiding missions and visions, even when the core is more traditional or conservative than the congregation. Many religious GenXers reject labels, preferring to call themselves "nondenominational" Christians or "reconservadox" Jews (an amalgam of the words "reform," "conservative," and "orthodox"). They prefer a broad but uncompromising doctrinal approach that does not demand blind conformity in return.
Fourth, the organizational and social structures are flexible, providing for a wide range of interpersonal relations within the church. Often congregations are managed and led by a small professional staff, rather than by a committee of lay leaders or board of directors. GenX congregations seek to provide members with a wide variety of ways with which to engage one another inside the religious community, from small discussion and support groups to community service project teams.
Fifth, recognizing that many GenXers experience "church" or "temple" as mostly a weekend activity, successful GenX congregations try to accommodate both committed members and intermittent attendees. Often this is inherent in the organizational structure of the congregation, particularly when the congregation is a subgroup of an established organization that has been set up for outreach and membership-recruitment purposes. At the same time, GenX congregations attempt to reach GenXers where they are, and they recognize the vast variety of sources from which young people draw spiritual sustenance. Unlike their Baby Boomer predecessors, who are "church shoppers" and "seekers," GenXers often do not anticipate making an exclusive commitment to a single institution. Rather, they are "church hoppers" who attend, whether regularly or infrequently, different congregations that collectively reflect the complexity of their spiritual journeys.
Beaudoin, Tom. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent SpiritualQuest of Generation X. 1998.
Cohen, Michael Lee. The Twentysomething AmericanDream. 1993.
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. 1991.
Coupland, Douglas. Life After God. 1994.
Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomersand the Remaking of American Religion. 1999.
Roof, Wade Clark, and J. Shawn Landres. "Defection, Disengagement, and Dissent: The Dynamics of Religious Change in the United States." In LeavingReligion and Religious Life, edited by Mordechai Bar-Lev and William Shaffir. Religion and the Social Order. Vol. 7. 1997.
Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 –2069. 1991.
J. Shawn Landres
Douglas Coupland (1961–) coined the phrase "Generation X" in his 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Born between 1961 and 1981, X-ers are the thirteenth generation since U.S. independence. They have been criticized as "slackers" and "latch-key kids" and described as the "MTV generation." These terms of abuse have usually come from the prior generation, known as the "baby boomers" (see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3). Many in the baby-boomer generation see themselves as responsible for advances in civil rights and sexual liberation. In addition, the baby boomers fought in and protested against the war in Vietnam (1954–75). The social situations in which baby boomers came of age are so historically memorable.
The negative view of X-ers is far from accurate. Disgusted with traditional politics, in 2001 the "Thirteeners" stand at the forefront of campaigns to protect the environment and against globalization. Generally better educated than their parents, they have shown themselves to have a strong entrepreneurial streak. They cannot afford to be lazy, because most of them earn less in real terms than their parents did at the same age. Where both members of baby-boomer couples worked for a sense of personal fulfillment as much as for money, X-ers work because they have to.
Growing up with civil unrest, high unemployment, and divorce (see entry under 1970s—The Way We Lived in volume 4), Generation X became disillusioned with politics, work, and family life. In Gen-X television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) shows such as Friends (1994–), ER (1994–), and Seinfeld (1990–98; see these entries under 1990s—TV and Radio in volume 5), friends take the place of family. Like many of his generation, The X-Files (1993–2002) character Fox Mulder wants to know what happened to his childhood. In music, Generation X enjoys a "decade-blending" mix of the mainstream and the alternative. MTV (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) formed Generation X-ers' tastes in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the anxiety-ridden sounds of Nirvana (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5), R.E.M., and rappers like Puff Daddy (1970–) and Dr. Dre (1965–) became the Thirteeners' voice. With their characteristic ironic response, many typical X-ers might publicly scorn ABBA, Duran Duran, and the Eagles while secretly enjoying them. In 2001, the Thirteeners are beginning to make their mark in government, the media, business, and education. They have inherited huge national debts and crumbling welfare, education, and medical systems. If the media is to be believed, this will be a tough assignment for a generation brought up on junk TV, wall-to-wall advertising, and chemical-rich convenience foods.
For More Information
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Gaslin, Glenn, and Rick Porter. The Complete, Cross-Referenced Guide to the Baby Buster Generation's Collective Unconscious. New York: Boulevard, 1998.
Howe, Neil, and Bill Strauss. 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? New York: Vintage Books, 1993.