Generation X

reality bites

douglas coupland

Generation X, commonly abbreviated to Gen X, is the generation born after the baby boom ended. While there is no universally agreed upon time frame, the term generally includes people born from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, usually no later than 1981 or 1982. The term had also been used in different times and places for various subcultures or countercultures since the 1950s.

The term Generation X was coined by the Magnum photographer Robert Capa in the early 1950s. He would use it later as a title for a photo-essay about young men and women growing up immediately after the Second World War. The project first appeared in ‘Picture Post’ (UK) and ‘Holiday’ (US) in 1953. Describing his intention, Capa said ‘We named this unknown generation, The Generation X, and even in our first enthusiasm we realized that we had something far bigger than our talents and pockets could cope with.’

Author John Ulrich explains that, ‘Since then, ‘Generation X’ has always signified a group of young people, seemingly without identity, who face an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future. Subsequent appearances of the term in the mid-1960s and mid-1970s narrowed the referent for ‘Generation X’ from Capa’s global generation to specific sets of primarily white, male, working class British youth sub-cultures, from the spiffy mods and their rivals the rockers, to the more overtly negationist punk subculture.’

The term was used in a 1964 study of British youth by Jane Deverson. Deverson was asked by ‘Woman’s Own’ magazine to interview teenagers of the time. The study revealed a generation of teenagers who ‘sleep together before they are married, were not taught to believe in God as ‘much,’ dislike the Queen, and don’t respect parents.’ Because of these controversial findings, the piece was deemed unsuitable for the magazine. Deverson, in an attempt to save her research, worked with Hollywood correspondent Charles Hamblett to create a book about the study. Hamblett decided to name it ‘Generation X.’

The term was popularized by Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,’ concerning young adults during the late 1980s and their lifestyles. While Coupland’s book helped to popularize the phrase ‘Generation X,’ in a 1989 magazine article he erroneously attributed the term to English musician Billy Idol. In fact, Idol had been a member of the punk band Generation X from 1976–1981, which was named after Deverson and Hamblett’s 1965 sociology book—a copy of which was owned by Idol’s mother.

In the US Generation X was originally referred to as the ‘baby bust’ generation because of the drop in the birth rate following the baby boom.

The exact date range that constitutes Generation X is the subject of diverging opinions. Part of the variance comes from slightly differing definitions of what exactly Generation X is. Geography can also influence date ranges. Another problem stems from the difficulty in exactly defining a generation by birth year, as Fran Kick explains, ‘there are no hard and fast lines that occur between December 31st of one year and January 1st of the next. More often than not, it’s a shift that occurs over three to five years, maybe more depending on who you ask.’ Some sources cite a start in the mid 1960s. Some cite an end date before the end of the 1970s. Others cite an end in the early 1980s; the birth years of 1981 and 1982. are cited as common end dates, with either depending on geographics, researcher, or the determination of what year the first millennial generation officially left grade school.

In the 1991 book ‘Generations,’ William Strauss and Neil Howe call this generation the ’13th Generation’ and define the birth years as 1961 to 1981. 1970, the approximate mid-point of the ’13th Generation,’ had the lowest birth rate of this period. According to the authors, Generation X is ‘the 13th generation’ to be familiar with the flag of the United States (counting back to the peers of Benjamin Franklin). The label was also chosen because, according to their generational theory, it is considered a ‘Reactive’ or ‘Nomad’ generation, composed of those who were children during a spiritual awakening.

Older generations generally have negative perceptions of Reactive generations—whose members tend to be pragmatic and perceptive, savvy but amoral, more focused on money than on art — and the use of 13 is also intended to associate this perception with the negative connotations of that number. The authors highlight this negative perception by noting the popularity of ‘devil-child’ movies, wherein children are portrayed as malevolent protagonists (e.g. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’), released soon after the generation’s first members were born.

Those associated with Generation X have cultural perspectives and political experiences that were shaped by series of events. These include the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 energy crisis, the election of Ronald Reagan, the Chernobyl disaster, Black Monday, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the savings and loan crisis that preceded the early 1990s recession. Generation X saw the introduction of the home computer, the beginning growth of video game era, cable television and the Internet.

Other attributions include the U.S. urban decay, the AIDS epidemic, the War on Drugs, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Iran hostage crisis, Iran-Contra Affair, Operation Desert Storm, the Dot-com bubble, alternative rock, and the global influence of the hip hop culture and music genre. They are often called the MTV Generation, as are members of the succeeding Generation Y.

In American cinema, directors Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and Todd Solondz have been called Generation X filmmakers. Smith is most known for his View Askewniverse films, the flagship film being ‘Clerks,’ which focused on a pair of bored, twenty-something convenience store clerks in New Jersey circa 1994. Linklater’s ‘Slacker’ similarly explored young adult characters who were more interested in philosophizing than settling with a long-term career and family. Solondz’ ‘Welcome To The Dollhouse’ touched upon themes of school bullying, school violence, teen drug use, peer pressure, and broken or dysfunctional families, mostly set in a junior high school environment during the early to mid-1990s.

When compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more heterogeneous generation, exhibiting great variety of diversity in such aspects as race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Just over 40% are the children of divorced parents and the period covers the beginning of the divorce rate growth. Change is more the rule for the people of Generation X than the exception. Unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Generation X tend to ignore leaders. The US Census Bureau cites Generation X as statistically holding the highest education levels when looking currrent age group.

In economics, a study (done by Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Urban Institute) challenged the notion that each generation will be better off than the one that preceded it. The study, ‘Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?” focuses on the income of males 30-39 in 2004 (those born April, 1964 – March, 1974) and is based on Census data. The study, which was released in 2007, emphasized that in real dollars, this generation’s men made less (by 12%) than their fathers had at that same age in 1974, thus reversing a historical trend. The study also suggests that per year increases in the portion of father/son family household income generated by fathers/sons have slowed (from an average of 0.9% to 0.3%), barely keeping pace with inflation, though increases in overall father/son family household income are progressively higher each year because more women are entering the workplace, contributing to family household income.

The 2011 publication ‘The Generation X Report’ based on annual surveys used in the Longitudinal Study of today adults finds that the generation is highly educated, active, balanced, happy and family-oriented. The study dispels the materialistic, slacker, disenfranchised stereotype early associated with the youth.

During the 1980s and 1990s, in which Generation X individuals would have been either teenagers or young adults, the United Kingdom was politically marked by conservative Thatcher-era government (in tandem with the U.S. Reagan-Bush administrations) followed by the more centrist tenures of John Major (1990–1997) and Tony Blair (1997–2007), both of which coincided with the U.S. Clinton Administration of the 1990s. Important news topics at that time included the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the Death of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997), and discussion over an ultimately failed currency switch from pounds sterling to the Euro (1999).

London newspaper ‘The Guardian’ cited Generation X birth years as falling between 1965 and 1982 and referred to it as the ”me generation’ of the Eighties.’

One Canadian author, economist and demographer David Foot, divides the generation born after the baby boomers into two groups in his book ‘Boom Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift.’: Generation X, born between 1960 and 1966; and the ‘Bust Generation,’ born between 1967 and 1979. Those born between the periods of 1947-1966 were the Baby Boomers, where in Canada they were the largest boom of the industrialized world (relative to population). This large boom complicated the job market for the upcoming generation, Generation X.

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