X marks the lost generation
It is 15 years since the publication of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, the novel that encapsulated the spirit of the disassociated, dreamy age group who followed in the wake of the baby boomers. The thing about 15-year periods is that they tend to be good lengths of time to process cultural movements and phases. A decade often isn’t quite enough, but a decade and a half nearly always is. A person can frequently get away with not ageing noticeably in 10 years, but rarely in 15.
Similarly, the personality of a decade cannot be bagged and tagged right at its close. We probably did not truly understand what the phrase “very 1980s” meant until 1995, and the 1960s did not really properly come to a close until 1975
Going by this logic, and taking generation X’s Year Zero as 1991 — the year of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Richard Linklater’s Slacker — we should know exactly what generation X means by now. If not, we should at least have seen two or three nostalgic television clip-shows devoted to it, with comedians that you know only from other television clip-shows saying stuff like, “Plaid shirts — what was all that about?” Instead, you hear very little about it.
What happened to generation X? How did it get forgotten? Was it our disaffected slacker attitude that doomed us to a footnote in modern cultural history or are we just too damn nice to really stand up and be noticed?
Whatever the cause, being a generation X-er these days can feel like being squeezed on a sofa between two overweight, attention-seeking relatives, one older, one younger. Now largely in our thirties, we should rule the world, and some of us do, but we tend to do it quietly.
Meanwhile, barely a day goes by without an image in a newspaper or on television of a baby boomer speeding off somewhere on a Harley-Davidson, spending our inheritance, logging on to www.2young2retire.com or boasting they are having the best sex of their life.
And while the generation below us, generation Y, might not be quite so abundant, we feel very aware of them and what a good time they’re having, too. How could we not, when they are so damn sure of themselves and savvy and loud? We, meanwhile, are stranded in no man’s land, outnumbered and outgunned.
The question of what exactly constitutes a generation X-er is hard to pinpoint — perhaps harder now than ever. Some of us wore deely boppers in the mid-1980s; some of us took ecstasy a bit later; some of us wore Doc Martens and check shirts. Some of us listened to Wham! and Duran Duran as kids (this, of course, was long before we knew we were generation X-ers), and Smashing Pumpkins and the Lemonheads as young adults. We’re defined by the fact that we were not very defined in the first place.
Nobody knows who they are at 19, but a generation X-er perhaps knew even less than usual. He or she was prone to wear oversized mishmashes of clothing, to drift under-achievingly between McJobs and to think nothing unusual of being in a band for over a year without ever getting round to finding a gig. When he or she now comes into contact with a generation Y-er in their late teens or early twenties, he or she can be easily bewildered by their self-assured aura of rampant entitlement.
These days, when a member of generation X looks around, even his or her cultural influences can seem thin on the ground. In terms of music, we must accept that our two most memorable achievements were grunge and Britpop: the former mutated into something much more forceful and commercial and generation Y-oriented (nu metal), the latter a watered-down imitation of something that seemed to mean so much more in its original form in the hands of the boomers.
On the rare occasion that a modern movie is made about our generation (eg, Before Sunset), it tends to be small and self-deprecating. In terms of TV, we try to look upon Seinfeld and Friends as inherently “ours”, but then we remember that Jerry Seinfeld is older than you think and the Friends’ cast’s solo careers seem like a metaphor for generation X’s drift.
We can’t escape the fact that what makes good TV these days is a boomer’s midlife crisis (eg, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm), not an X-er’s quarter-life one. Comedy-wise, us thirtysomethings might have presumed we had Dave Chapelle and The Mighty Boosh to call our own. But Chapelle quit his show, after having some very generation X worries about compromised integrity. The Boosh, meanwhile, have been co-opted by 18-year-old goth girls.
In a recent article entitled How We Went from Generation X to the Lost Generation, American men’s magazine Details asked: “Could it be that the generation that popularised the term ‘jumped the shark’ has done just that? Are we obsolete?” But even the phrase “jumped the shark” seems a bit too unambiguous to apply to X-ers. It implies days of heady abandon before the unfortunate encounter with said marine life. Generation X was always more vague and meandering than that.
Even when we were in the ascendancy, we weren’t quite sure where we were going. Coupland’s book — though undeniably epochdefining and original, is sort of meandering and uncertain itself — follows three underachieving dropouts who, when not working at their McJobs, head out into the desert and tell one another stories that don’t go anywhere, while indulging in “historical underdosing” (the phenomenon of “living in a period of time where nothing seems to happen”). It spoke of “legislated nostalgia” (“forcing a body of people to have memories they don’t really have”).
How can generation X-ers know exactly who we are, when we have been variously defined as being born between 1961 and 1972 (“Twentysomething”, the Time magazine cover story from 1990), 1965 and 1977 (Managing Generation X by Bruce Tulgan Tulgone), and 1968 and 1979 (a 2000 US Census Bureau study)?
Having been born in 1975, I am towards the younger end of the generation X spectrum. This perhaps makes me more acutely aware of the bullish confidence and hustle of the generation bringing up the rear and means that my parents are prime boomers.
My mum and dad seem proud of their generation, convinced that they were the ones who got it right — correcting the strait-laced, culturally narrow ways of their parents — yet simultaneously embarrassed by their best stylistic achievements. “It’s so funny that you wear flares,” they tell me, then laugh at me for listening to Pentangle and Led Zeppelin.
I help my mum get started on eBay so that she can sell the ceramic and felty things she has begun to make at a furious rate since retiring. My parents gripe about mobile phones but seem worryingly keen to “keep up”. They want me to tell them who Gnarls Barkley is. They might come to me and my wife for technical advice, or the odd herbal remedy, but even they seem to perceive that my generation is a slightly forgotten one.
Boomers might be upset by text messages and Big Brother and Brazilian waxes and speed cameras, but even as they rage against the way the world has left them behind, they remain dominant. Generation X-ers have a more nuanced understanding of progress. If we rage against the dying of the light, it is in a more subtle way. This, you have to suppose, is why we have hugely successful TV programmes called Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women, rather than ones called Slightly Ambivalent Thirtysomethings.
In Generation X, Coupland coined the term “Boomer Envy” to describe “envy of material wealth and long-range material security accrued by older members of the baby-boom generation by virtue of fortunate births”.
The over-sixties hold 80% of the country’s wealth. Not satisfied with this, they also take their own gap years and, according to a survey published earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, they’re having the most fun in the sack.
Sure, generation X has Quentin Tarantino and illegal raves, but we are still made acutely aware of just how much our forebears have given us on a cultural level. We are for ever saddled with the knowledge that they had the best music, the best clothes, the best cars, the best films, the best books, the cheapest house prices — and we are so much more aware of it than generation Y, who are too busy texting, auditioning for Big Brother, and binge drinking to care.
But is generation X really as jealous as it might seem of the more assertive generations that book-end it? Most of my friends and I love lots of music made in 1971, but that does not mean we would have liked to live through the reality. And while it is possible to see that people in their early twenties have more consumer choice and career opportunities than we had in the recession-hit days of the early 1990s, that does not mean we would want to be them.
The truth is, perhaps, that we are actually quite happy in our under- acknowledged, decade-blending, in-betweener way. Set against the worry of being forgotten is the deep, quiet confidence that comes from knowing we are the last generation who grew up without the internet or mobile phones and had to adapt our lives to them (no boomer “ooh I’m too old for this” excuses for us), the last generation to have any true notion of “underground”, the last generation to want to become famous for doing something well, rather than just doing something . . . the first generation to offer the world non-spurious notions of sexual equality.
Unlike so many before us, we have never really compromised. Despite this, we have not gone around boasting. All we have ever really banged on about is how confused we are.
Perhaps most impressively of all, we have dealt in a philosophical manner with having Kate Moss as a generational icon. Our corrections have been subtler than our forebears, or our descendants. Our still, slightly sparsely populated waters run deep. It is not in our nature to boast about these things, but if we don’t, it is obvious that nobody else will do so on our behalf.
It’s perhaps time that someone said it: as slack, dippy, hesitant generations go, we’re pretty damn great.
To read the original article click here. Autor: Tom Cox