Whatever Happened to Generation X?

In 1991, Douglas Copeland wrote a novel called Generation X about a group of young people in their early-twenties working in low-paid or minimum wage jobs (“McJobs” as Copeland wryly called them). In the same year Richard Linklater released the movie Slackers about a similar group of young people. A “slacker”, the OED tells us, is “a person regarded as one of a large group or generation of young people (especially in the early to mid 1990s) characterized by apathy, aimlessness, and lack of ambition”. It is now twenty years later. So, what happened to Generation X?

Let’s figure out first who belongs to Generation X. Wikipedia says that: “Generation X … is the generation born after the baby boom ended, with earliest birth dates seen used by researchers ranging from 1961 to the latest 1981.” However, it’s misleading to put a twenty-year span on it. Twenty years would mean your teenage years were preoccupied with either The Doors or The Pixies. That’s a major difference. The generation we’re talking about is the generation featured in the movieand the novel, both of which came out in 1991. The characters in those books were in their early 20’s, which means they were born in the very late ‘60s, early 70’s. If you’re Generation X, you grew up watching Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman: the Movie. If you were Irish growing up in the ‘80s, you were watching MT USA and listening to Now That’s What I Call Music. And when you hit twenty, you were listening to Nirvana or Take That, watching Melrose Place or Twin Peaks and reading American Psycho or The Snapper (or all of the above).

Generation X was the slackers, supposedly, which meant that they were “wasters”. But Linklater himself has said that he wanted the word “slacker” to have positive connotations: “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”

If you were the generation before – if you were born 1960-65 – you grew up in the Sixties and Seventies. You grew up still being told by the older generation to be happy with your lot, to be happy with a house and a car. Indeed, a car was a luxury. If you were born in 1970-75, you grew up in the Seventies and Eighties. You came of age in the late Eighties. It was a time of tremendous change. Yes, you were living in a recessionary country that was still very poor but – unlike the generation before you – you were suddenly watching MT USA and MTV, and seeing this other world that existed. Ireland was also coming out from under the yoke of the church, and even if you were told by priest, teacher or parent that you couldn’t do this, unlike the previous generation, you questioned why you couldn’t. Of course, in most situations this didn’t amount to a happy conclusion. Generation X became disillusioned with what they saw around them, and instead, dropped out. And perhaps people thought, Theyre just twenty-something slackers … when they hit thirty, theyll settle down into normality. And some did. And some hated it. They were still aimless; they were still slackers, to a certain extent. In fact, it’s amazing how many who weren’t slackers initially, still ended up becoming disaffected and dropping out of the ‘normal’ world.

So what has happened to this generation? Where are they now? From a purely anecdotal standpoint, what I can see is that a lot of my peers are still very much disaffected and unfulfilled. The numbers of people dropping out of society and going back to college or radically changing careers, looking for some fulfillment in their lives is extraordinary. Some are people who are juggling family and/or work while trying to write or create some kind of art because they feel – as fulfilling as their family is – that there has to be more, or simply because they want their voices heard and for the first time are not being told that they can’t.

The generation after Generation X – Generation Y as they became know – went to college, did transition year, took a gap year and traveled the world. But as Philip Larkin said, “life was never better than/In nineteen sixty-three/(Though just too late for me)”. So, while Gen X were educated, many didn’t have degrees. A lot of people are going back to college now because they didn’t do it first time round. But there are also people going back to college who did do it first time round. Because they got out and found, as Linklater says, that they were “wasting their time in a realm of activity that [had] nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”

When it comes to generations, everyone talks about the famous Lost Generation, the disaffected literary dropouts who lived a bohemian life in Paris. But the Lost Generation was a minority. It seems Generation X is the first generation to have such a large amount of disaffected and disillusioned people. Am I wrong? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


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23 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Generation X?

    1. Derek,
      I’m 44 and will be let go from my job at the end of the month. Plan to move to LA and start over.
      Read ‘The Thirteenth Generation,’ by Neil Strauss and William Howe. It’s all about Gen X and helps to make sense of the chaos,
      David X

      1. I Loved 13th Gen. I read it in the 90s and it helped me to understand myself and key aspects of our generation. great book.

  1. Now I have a label for myself and I belong, to Gen X 🙂

    Very interesting analytical article, Derek. I guess if I have to choose between a Lost Generation or Generation Y, I’ll probably stay with what I have. One can’t turn back time, so get on with it. That’s my view.

  2. Very good article – I always say that as a child, I was part of the generation where children were to be seen and not heard, then as a adult, the understanding was, that you should always listen to your children! So I seem to always be on the wrong side of things! But well done again was such a great post.

  3. Very thought provoking Derek. I’m not sure exactly what my actual opinion is on the whole generation thing, but there have always been people questioning and challenging their assigned “position” in life. These days it is more socially acceptable to do so and certainly more social media to propel it.

  4. Hmm, I’d say my husband and I both fall into this category. And we both had more conventional jobs until our thirties. Now we are still supporting our family, but we’re actively pursuing more creative jobs and have “reinvented” ourselves to a certain extent. We’ve cut back on a lot of the lifestyle we pursued and have focused more on our family, friends, and our creativity. Photography and video production for him, writing for me. And we’re seeing success! It’s been a hard transition, but very rewarding.

    So, I definitely relate to what you’ve written here. Very common. We’re just happy we’re making this transition in our 30s instead of feeling dissatisfied and unhappy in our 40s!

  5. I’m an original gen X born late 60’s. Agree with ya Derek, cause if u did conform u ended up disaffected. Totally Bohemian at heart, constantly striving to out creativity, I’m heartened by your clear understanding of my gen. Never ‘slackers’ we strive constantly to own our true gen X title… Great, great insighful piece.

  6. Born in 1965, I’ve been a Cusp’er. But I married a boomer and mothered a couple of Y’s. It’s been bumpy the whole time, but I find my generation are creative, hardworking, conscience-driven, and yes, disaffected as we try to launch kids and care for parents in a crashed economy.
    Wish someone had told me earlier it wouldn’t get any easier; but at least I work at what I love (doing therapy) and write my books on the side.

  7. Great blog post. I’m Gen X, of the Pixie-listening variety, and I think that we might deserve our slacker status. I remember people erupting during the 90s at any perceived trespass on our civil liberties, as it interfered with what we felt was our right to be creative. Then there was a major shift in the early 00s where we just rolled over and completely abandoned the fight. Now Gen Y has no memory as to what freedom of expression actually was and of all that they are losing. Hopefully, it looks like the Bohemian soul of the slacker generation is starting to wake up. Most GenXers are just now hitting the age where you can become successful after years of struggling in the artistic fields, like Jennifer Egan and her amazing VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. GenX’s time is now and we’ll see what that Bohemian spirit will produce.

    Brilliant piece, look forward to reading more!

  8. GenXers have a harsh burden- we entered the job market under the structure of the boomers (rigid heirarchy, get-in-line attitude) in the midst of an economic slowdown. It was follow the rules or get booted, or run over.

    Now we’re entering management level, though still often under a boomer, and the GenYs that we hired/trained are freely end-running around us to higher levels for mentoring and buidling relationships we would have been harshly penalized for trying to foster (because you go one step up at a time). And somehow, these kids think it’s okay to send their reports in over a text message, and they can’t think in more than 140 characters.

    They want to use emoticons in business memos.

    And people wonder why we’re disaffected…

  9. Interesting analysis. According to your time line I am pre-Boomer – would that be Old Fogy? 🙂

    I’d have to agree with your view of the X’ers being basically disenfranchised. Those that I know in this age group were slow starters, but have gone on to achieve some great things – they just did it their own way.

  10. The Boomers are a very theatrical generation, always acting out their roles. The Gen X’s were assigned roles by the boomers, to be helpers and employees, which they rejected. The Gen X’s were absolutely disenfranchised, but now that the Boomers have driven everything into the ground, the X’s are the best suited for the new climate. They understand how to create and express themselves and survive hand to mouth. The X’s will thrive.

  11. As the official Y of this comment section, I have to say that it seems like the X’ers are all but absent from the engineering fields. The only people I work with are boomers and some of the early batch of Y’s like myself. In short, I really have no idea where they went.

    1. as a response to Michael A Tate, there are no generation X engineers – or very few, because when we graduated there was NO WORK in the field so we were FORCED by the boomers who had a MONOPOLY in the construction industry (in addition to slashing intern jobs so they could make a bigger profit) to leave or be unemployed. Then years later when our skills have waned working menial administration jobs that had nothing to do with our major (if we were lucky) the Boomers then gave those engineering jobs, that the X’ers should have had at the time, to their children and friends’ children.

  12. I think generational impact is basically a numbers game. X is the smallest generation and also apparently the least susceptible to marketing so mass media in general has given up on us. Of course that’s all a huge generalization — I still crave that new iphone when I’m marketed to with skill and panache.

  13. A speaker I heard once referred to my generation (Gen X) as the “survivor” generation, because we survived the emotional abandonment of our parents. I think there’s some truth to that.

  14. Hey! I was born in ’64 and I wouldn’t say I grew up in the 60s. I was five in 1970 and came of age in the mid-80s. I definitely consider myself a Gen-X and not a boomer or a cusper.

  15. I am also a Millennial (gen y) in engineering and I also see very few if any gen x in industry. What I appreciate about Gen x is that they paved the way for a new, more creative future. Perhaps we needed the Baby Boomers to give us structure after WWII and the we neded Gen X to get us out of that structure. Now we have the Millennials paving a new creative future filled with excitement and positive, conscientious endeavors. We needed you Gen X to bring the system to a standstill, so thank you!

  16. Our generation (I was born in 1967 and cried my way through the summer of love) was the first “latch-key kid” group due to the high rate of divorce. We LOVED growing up in the 80s (Atari, Walkman, adventure movies, “feeling good about America” (ie. Reagan), cable tv complete with the box on top of the tv, rental movies, complete with being able to rent the vcr! But our parents, and thus ourselves, lived with the fallout of failed marriages and emotional holes in our lives. I do think our generation has been able to take a lot in stride, a survivor ability.

  17. I just find that no one even talks about us anymore. We’re not as interesting as the baby boomers who turned the world upside down, and the super-smart, super tech-savvy Millenials. Its like we just disappeared

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