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, They’re just twenty-something slackers … when they hit thirty, they’ll 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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