Ken Eckert Essays

What is a Gen-X-er?
By Ken Eckert

November 2007

What is a 'Gen-X-er'? A Gen-X-er is someone born between the late 1960's and early 1980's, someone like me in that sorry crew of North American children born after the demographic 'baby boom' set in motion by the end of hostilities after World War II. It doesn't seem like a useful question to ask anymore, now that journalists have long lost interest and moved on to the sexier topic of what a 'Gen-Y-er' or 'baby buster' is, the next cohort of children born after the 1980's. But essayists look in the macro range, I guess, and maybe things that weren't clear when we were growing up make sense to talk about now.

The other question sure to be asked is why bother talking about Gen-X-ers when the topic has been done to death and so many people have discussed this generation. My response is: where? I grew up in the 80's and 90's and read as many newspapers and magazines as came my way, and I just don't seem to remember this purported tide of social-interest or investigative stories dealing with my demographic, certainly nowhere near the forty-year tsunami of books, articles, television series, movies, late-night CD commercials, and articles in Rolling Stone smugly living and reliving the tiniest minutiae of the 1960's generation and its colossal social importance. Future historians will be puzzled to see so much about Woodstock and so little about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

About the only time I've seen articles about Gen-X-ers is when they've been thrown an investigative piece by boomer newspaper journalists, or by sycophants in lefty campus magazines trying to imitate their 'coolness'. The articles are at best pitying, painting a dismal picture of an aimless generation that can't get a job, often condescending, asking why this generation isn't as hip or as politically involved as ours was, and usually critical, describing X-ers as selfish slackers who evade adult responsibility. The enduring cliché of the 1960's generation is the hippie in a VW bus with his love beads, guitar, and protest sign; that of the 90's will be a sullen, underemployed, ambitionless twenty-some playing a video game in his parents' basement.

Another theme that has been done aplenty is the generational war, where the relationship is that of mutual resentment and scorn between the two groups, with neither having anything positive to say of or share with the other. That may be true. But I've never thought of this as a war, for war presumes reasonably equal combatants. Burmese troops opening fire on unarmed protesters isn't war; it's massacre. The economy, media, government, universities, businesses, and overall culture are dominated by the baby-boom generation, marginally by the X-ers, and is soon passing us over to the Y-ers. Many or most of the benefits enjoyed by boomers in their time—cheap tuition, easy student loans, student debt relief, affordable housing, employment programs—are unknown to the X-ers, as the same boomers elected governments which turned the taps off as soon as they had to start paying for it. This is the first generation in a century where standards of living and future prospects were demonstrably lower than for the previous one. There was no war. If there was, we lost.

But lamenting such inequities not only sounds like complaining, but is counterproductive for two reasons. It is firstly because such binary opposites aren't completely true; there are boomers who still believe in the values they preached when young, and there are people my age who were admittedly lazy good-for-nothings who used the economic downturn as an excuse to do nothing but leech off others in the 90's. Secondly, defining yourself by what you aren't is not a very useful explanation and merely feeds back into the ready-made trope of generational war.

What, then, are the marks of the Gen-X-er? We all have a fairly consistent idea of what baby boomers can be described as: the generation which loosened up the social conventions of the 60's, protested the war, and disco-danced into the 70's while listening to all the right music. We think of the 20's generation as big rollers and flappers, and the one of the 40's as prudent and bold to survive both depression and war. The 50's generation had Elvis and all those other associations of hula-hoops and sock hops. Asking what a Gen-X-er is provides no similarly normative range of answers and probably depends on who is asked, and where, and at what time of the day. There doesn't seem to be an agreed on mental image of what we are (or, increasingly, were).

But let's look at the problem from a different angle. Who ordained that any generation must be or normatively is like something? It is not necessarily so that every generation had its own defining moment, just as our conception of some universal generation at all is more or less a World War II blip that may never be repeated. We have a certain mindset when we think of the time of Shakespeare; but we don't so much of the following century in England, which had many movements but no single stamp on it. There is no single 'restoration' style. Similarly, maybe it would be more accurate to say what typifies the common Gen-X-er experience is that there isn't one.

I realize I don't totally fit the bill in any category of labels. I was born in 1968, too late to be a boomer and too soon to fully be a Gen-X-er, and influenced by my father's values from the 40's. This is a recipe for atomism, generation-wise, a feeling that you don't totally belong on any team. And when I think of people I've known from roughly my time period, I can see that very few of us felt that we belonged to something common based on our ages. Some of us defined ourselves by our nationality; others by our faith, or lack of it; some by our politics; others by our clothing or music styles, or maybe just by our group of friends.

I don't recall a Kent State or a JFK or a Martin Luther King or a Woodstock event of my time which gave me the feeling that I was part of something seismic which only someone of my generation could relate to or participate in. The shuttle explosion, or Reagan being shot at, or Windows 95, or Wayne Gretzky retiring were all big events, but they were not uniquely important to someone my age, nor were they a cause for activism. There is no Forrest Gump for the X-ers to tidily draw historical touchstones together into one statement. I get the sentimental child-of-the-80's e-mails where I'm reminded that we all wore shredded jeans, or watched Ninja Turtles, or had bad hair. The memories are fun but they're pretty shallow compared to remembering protesting Vietnam. Admittedly, we had Nirvana and grunge, and I suppose they spoke to us more than Fleetwood Mac did. But not me. I hated grunge.

No wonder the media are scornful. Such fragmentation makes for poor press. What fun to write about huge crowds of like-minded youths marching together under one ideal of stop the war, save the whales, etc., and how boring to write about some youths protesting free trade talks about cabbage exports to Ecuador, or some youths supporting one presidential candidate and some the other. The easy conclusion is that the Gen-X-er is apathetic, and there's hardly a greater sin in journalism. Have multiple affairs or get arrested driving while high, and you're a newsmaker. Work at the donut shop while you try once again to get into college and the coverage will make rocks fidget with boredom.

We don't fit in. The baby-boomer hippie didn't fit in, but in a larger sense he did; he made up an easily-digested concept of two opposites, the old establishment versus the dynamic youngster. It formed a recognizable duo. The Gen-X-er was offered nothing, wasn't born in great enough numbers to form any critical mass, came along as the economy was stagnating, and instead of marching as one, went home. Some of us became conservative, others radical, some went to church, and some went to the nightclub, and others did all or part or none of these. Our statement was not to make one.

So now we are fading away into the stream of something bigger, of globalization, of the decline of the west, of materialism, of post-modernism, of various -ations and -isms. We aren't the lost generation, but the absent one. There are bigger fish to fry than to discuss our past or future, and young Turks to praise and damn for being hopeful idealists or cold, calculating entrepreneurs. We are not a large enough demographic to be interesting just by being here. While I worry that the boomers will pass their jobs on to their Gen-Y children and leave us out (again) while asking us to pay for their retirement benefits, I also realize that other continents and countries don't offer even the leftovers we get, and that there are enough people who would be happy to trade.

Thus I think the only attribute which marks the Gen-X-er is hybridity. We're all combinations of various things, lacking any kind of agreed-on generational model to orient ourselves to. I get the 50's and 60's teen movies, which neatly divided everyone in the high school into cool people and the squares, but I never understood the 80's teen movies which still anachronistically grouped everyone into two warring cliques. There were in actuality so many sub-groups—were we metal-heads, preppies, computer geeks, rappers, skateboarders, punkers, stoners, or some other camp, and which was the official X-er one that we were supposed to be in? Most people I knew in high school were 10-20% of everything, and would have thought the question silly: why do I have to be any one type? Thus we felt quite hybrid. The less-nice way to term this is to say we were mutts.

There's also a benefit to not fitting conveniently into a generational slot—maybe being hybrid has given Gen-X-ers greater freedom to make their own identities. Taking in a bit of everything and having a dim sum attitude to identity, having every period's music on your mp3 player and not feeling beholden to one, can also make a person richer and deeper as a person. So many of us have had endless bad jobs, or have traveled widely, if sometimes only to get a slightly less bad job. I know so many in my age bracket who have attended universities far from home, or teach or work in foreign countries, even if we go just to escape the calls from the student loan agents. I know more than I really need to about Jim Morrison, I'm really sick of "Hotel California," and after a while all the boomer stories start to sound the same. But many of the X-ers have their own stories to tell of their own interior scars or joys. As persons they are usually more interesting.

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