What is an X? An empty set, a place-holder, a nothing that fills a void until an actual something comes along.
For the members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, that was never us.
“They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own,” wrote Time magazine in a 1990 cover story called “20-something” that marked our debut, as a class, on the national stage. “They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders.”
Leave aside the fact that struggling 20-somethings of any era tend to sneer at luxury goods. At that point, the oldest members of Generation X were 25. No one really knew what we were.
But someone apparently knew what we weren’t: dreamers, revolutionaries, world-changers, like the baby boomers before us. To the extent that we were defined, we were defined in the negative — the first generation in American history to be written off before it had a chance to begin.
Now it’s been a quarter century since the clichés ossified. Here is another negative to chew on: What if everything we decided about Generation X turned out to be wrong?
This generation is even smaller than it might appear
There is one thing people do get right about America’s Generation X: There aren’t that many of us — roughly 65 million, according to recent data from the Census Bureau. Sandwiched between the change-the-world boomers (around 75 million) and the we-won’t-wait-for-change millennials (approximately 83 million), we were doomed to suffer a shared case of middle-child syndrome, an eight-figure-strong army of Jan Bradys.
And our generation may be smaller than that. Only 41 percent of the people born during those years even consider themselves part of Generation X, according to one MetLife study.
Most people I know who ever copped to X-ness were born in the later ’60s or early ’70s, a window of maybe eight years. (My wife was born in 1979 and has no idea who Fonzie is. Case closed.)
Our generation also showed a disturbing tendency to lose its leading lights due to untimely death. Boomers never got over losing Jimi, Janis, and Jim during a ten-month span of 1970 and 1971, but consider the Generation X icons who were snuffed out at an early age: Tupac Shakur, Jeff Buckley, Brandon Lee, Elliott Smith, Biggie Smalls, River Phoenix, Shannon Hoon, Aaliyah and a certain beloved flannel-clad rocker from Aberdeen, Wash., who has gotten enough ink in Generation X articles.
It wasn’t just that our numbers were small. Our cultural moment was a blip. Boomers owned several decades of mass entertainment, and it was truly mass — from “Howdy Doody” in the 1950s to “The Big Chill” in the 1980s, with about 82 percent of the rock ’n’ roll that’s worth listening to between them.
We don’t even have exclusive rights to our own name. Generation X was the title of 1964 book about mod-era British teenagers, a punk band from the 1970s featuring Billy Idol and satirical novel usually mistaken as a sociological treatise by Douglas Coupland — all boomers.
The artifacts that branded Generation X as irony-obsessed iconoclasts scarfing antidepressants under a permanent Seattle-gray sky — think “Hunger Strike,” by Temple of the Dog, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation,” maybe “The Ben Stiller Show” doing a “Lassie” parody with Charles Manson as the dog — were niche to begin with, and were booted from the stage after maybe four years of the early ’90s.
Grunge was on life support the moment the news media decided to call it “grunge” (to folks in the scene, it was still punk). It was given last rites in 1992, when Marc Jacobs unveiled his then-risible (now visionary?) “grunge” line that got him fired from Perry Ellis.
And grunge was cremated, its ashes flushed down the Pike Place Market Starbucks toilet, that same year when the Styles section of this newspaper allowed itself to be hoaxed by a former Sub Pop records employee on its “Lexicon of Grunge,” serving up bogus mosh-pit lingo like “big bag of blotation” (drunk), “lamestain” (uncool person) and “swingin’ on the flippity flop” (hanging out).
So it’s easy to decide that Gen X is culturally irrelevant — if you’re comfortable with the dangerous prospect of making sweeping conclusions about the identity, values and culture of millions of individuals from every imaginable background.
Did the working-class class trans kid living in Tulsa, Okla., the Marine recruit from the South Bronx, the heiress in Rhode Island, and the surfing phenom in Huntington Beach, Calif., all groove on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 1992? Would it matter if they did?
But to cede irrelevance, even after 25 years of reflection, would be to let the winners — the boomers, or maybe the millennials — write our history for us. Like bell bottoms, aviator shades and Birkenstocks, we have been wearing the clichés imposed by other generations since Zima was cool (Zima was never cool).
And now, as our AARP cards begin to arrive in the mail, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to turn those clichés on our heads one by one?
We were never slackers
There it is, the Big Bang, the Generation X cliché from which all others were born. But where did “slacker” come from? The answer, in one sense, is obvious: from the 1991 film of the same name by Richard Linklater (also a boomer).
“Slacker” featured a bunch of 20-something nonactors wandering around Austin, Tex., before a 16-millimeter-film camera muttering daffy inanities like “we’ve been on Mars since 1962” until the film’s $ 23,000 budget ran out. Martian colonies, apparently, were what you talked about when you were young, the economy was lousy and you could still freely traverse Austin without running aground on banh mi food trucks and émigrés from Brooklyn.
“Slacker” was, by all counts, a seminal film, although I don’t remember any of my Gen X friends getting through more than 30 minutes of it.
We preferred “Dazed and Confused,” Mr. Linklater’s celluloid Slurpee from 1993, because that was about high school students in 1976 — yes, boomers! — and for years we bought the lie that older people’s culture mattered more than our own, just because there were more of them. Rootless cosmopolitans, we were told to look to the past for significance, so we did — to the Sinatra Rat Pack (“Swingers,” 1996), to Kennedy-era Madison Avenue (“Mad Men,” created by Matthew Weiner, b. 1965), to the male blow dryer era (“That ’70s Show”).
What we did not find significant was the “slacker” label.
“The slacker tag never really applied to me, or anyone I knew,” said Sarah Vowell (b. 1969), an author and contributor to “This American Life” who spent her 20s juggling graduate studies with a teaching gig at an art school and multiple deadlines per week as a freelance journalist. “Even though my friends and I all looked like extras from ‘Reality Bites,’” she said, “our Puritan work ethic was probably more 1690s than 1990s.”
Central to the slacker myth was coming-of-age during the early ’90s recession, which, according to ’90s surveys of our generation, apparently doomed us to failure for life.
And yes, the recession was real. People lost jobs (including George Herbert Walker Bush, in the 1992 Presidential election). People looked for jobs and did not find them. But the recession that supposedly served as cement shoes for a generation was, in historical terms, relatively short and mild. It lasted just eight months, with unemployment bottoming out at 7.8 percent, compared to the 1980s recession that lasted 16 months with a peak unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, and the Great Recession starting in 2007, which lasted 18 months with unemployment around 10 percent.
But by the time the ’90s recession ended, in March of 1991, the oldest Gen Xers were barely 26. The youngest were in middle school. And the post-recession economy that followed was closer to the Roaring ’20s than the Depression ’30s, marked by the longest running economic expansion in the nation’s history. Gen X had it good.
With low inflation, rising productivity due in part to technological advances and a booming stock market, the National Debt Clock near Times Square actually started to run backward by 2000, as flush times allowed the country to pay down its debt.
Whether or not we still hated “yuppies,” as Time magazine once asserted, the professional classes of Generation X were beginning to earn, and that only continued, despite the giant dislocations of the dot-com bust (2000) and the Great Recession.
By the middle of this decade, in fact, Generation X already had more spending power than either boomers or millennials, according to a survey by Shullman, a market research company that focuses on the luxury sector, with 29 percent of the estimated net worth and 31 percent of the income, though we comprise just a quarter of the American adult population.
The generation also seems to have gotten over its aversion to Rolexes and Range Rovers (although not, it seems, red suspenders). As of 2012, we were also spending 18 percent more on luxury goods than our yuppie boomer forebears, according to one American Express survey.
We did not get there by slacking. We just have our own way of enjoying life.
“As for our notorious hustle-to-debt ratio, it speaks to a generational lifestyle ambition that often exceeds our career ambition,” Jason Tesauro (b. 1971), the food writer behind the Modern Gentleman series of advice books, wrote in an email.
“I’ve published, accomplished, saved, succeeded, but 0.0 family elders would add my name to our ancestral canon of iconic workaholics,” he continued. “I’m 47 and I can sum-up my financial goals in a simple mantra: ‘Older wine, newer shoes.’ I call it Pellegrino rich. I just want enough affluence so that when I’m asked, ‘Still or sparkling?’ I don’t have to check my balances first.”
We totally did sell out, again and again
Younger generations who consider the Kardashians the highest model of professional achievement might have a hard time believing it, but there was a brief moment where some Gen Xers did actually express the opinion that selling out was bad. Maybe they just figured no one was buying.
It certainly was true for Elliott Smith (b. 1969), the prototypically X singer-songwriter, as he made abundantly clear during his memorably strange Oscars appearance in 1998.
Somewhere between Billy Crystal’s Broadway-by-way-of-Bel-Air opening number and Sean Connery popping the envelope on “Titanic” for best picture, Mr. Smith, the McCartney of melancholy, ambled onstage, alone with an acoustic guitar, looking uncomfortable, not just in his ill-fitting white suit, but in his own skin.
Mr. Smith, then 28, was an inscrutable genius plucked from the college-town club circuit. He mumbled and squirmed through interviews, rocked greasy hair and thrift-store sweatshirts onstage, and had a tattoo of the state of Texas on his arm, even though he hated Texas.
To the surprise of virtually everyone, including Mr. Smith himself, his forlorn song “Miss Misery,” which was featured in “Good Will Hunting,” had been nominated for best original song.
From a Generation X perspective, it seemed like a moment of arrival. Here was one of our own — complicated, elusive, yet infinitely worthy — at last given the chance to serenade the Bob Mackie gowns and tuxedos with lyrics like “to vanish into oblivion, it’s easy to do.”
And for him, it was. The moment of triumph lasted exactly 120 seconds. The Titanic crew (who else?) took home the gold statuette for “My Heart Will Go On,” sung by Celine Dion (who else?), and Mr. Smith followed what seemed like a predestined Gen X career arc — a couple more critical-darling albums that failed to go platinum, or even gold, and an early death, in 2003, from a knife wound to the heart — an apparent suicide, albeit a highly murky one.
“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he once said, and it sounded like an epitaph for a generation — except for pretty much everything else that happened in the 1990s.
It is often said that we were the last analog generation, and it’s true, most of us remember rabbit ears, vinyl records before they were ironic, and calling 1-800-Collect on sidewalk pay phones.
But our lo-fi world ended on October 13, 1994 with the introduction of the Netscape browser, which made it possible to actually “surf” the “net,” to invoke a term that has aged a lot worse than vinyl albums. In the coastal capitals of capitalism, opportunity, suddenly, was in the air.
“I remember distinctly thinking ‘Wait, you mean I don’t have to wait a decade to start something?’” said Andrew Yang (b. 1975), the tech entrepreneur and current presidential candidate, who bailed on his prestigious Big Law job in 2000 to start a web company.
There was no time for talk about Mars colonies. There were fortunes to be made. Generation X professionals were suddenly eager to sell out, so long as it came with stock options and a tent at Burning Man (founded 1986). They felt pity for sellouts of an earlier generation, like the hippie-turned-yuppie boomers whose idea of a payday was a crushing yellow-tie job in finance or law and a BMW 5-series. Dude, where’s your ambition?
For some, it almost seemed easy. James Altucher (b. 1968), a serial entrepreneur turned self-help guru, was a broke dude who liked to fiddle with computers when the madness started. Back then, every company needed a website, but no one seemingly knew how to build them.
One Fortune 10 company had no luck getting a big advertising agency to cobble one together, “so they asked a friend of mine,” Mr. Altucher said. “He didn’t know how to do it. He asked me. I knew how to do it. I had zero dollars in the bank was working a full-time job. Three weeks later I made the website and they gave me $ 250,000.”
As much as millennials like Mark Zuckerberg like to claim dorm-room-to-riches ethos, X got there first. Two late-’90s whiz kids, Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman, were still in their early 20s when they went public with a company, Globe.com, which they started in their Cornell dorm room. It was some crazy idea called a “social network” — imagine. Overnight, they were worth nearly $ 100 million.
And overnight, they weren’t.
Still, you get the point. The boomer Steve Jobs might qualify as the original disrupter, but when boomers broke the rules, there was always a sense of grandiosity and self-satisfaction — Procol Harum performing with the London Symphony Orchestra. Mind: blown.
When X broke the rules, it was punk rock, the Dead Kennedys covering “Viva Las Vegas” (I know, Jello Biafra was a boomer, but spiritually, he belonged to us). We broke the rules because we didn’t care about the rules. We weren’t even sure they existed.
Consider Facebook, a company founded by fresh-faced millennials like Mr. Zuckerberg himself, except for the token, trailing-edge Gen- Xer, Sean Parker (b. 1979), the company’s founding president and, effectively, its id. No skinny-armed tech geek, Mr. Parker was a tech swashbuckler who built his entrepreneurial reputation on piracy (or so the record companies argued about his first venture, Napster); threw Hollywood-lavish parties that would make his onscreen alter-ego, Justin Timberlake (one of the oldest millennials), proud; and famously proclaimed that “running a start-up is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”
For Generation X, anarchy was a business model. The “New Economy” was our economy.
Were we not apathetic so much as app-athetic. Sorry, that was lamestain. Whatever! The digital natives of the millennial generation would hardly be drowning in 1s and 0s without Xers like Elon Musk (b. 1971), Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google (b. 1973), Jack Dorsey of Twitter (b. 1976) and even Tom Anderson of Myspace (b. 1970), who for a brief, shining moment was everyone’s friend.
Our generational megalomania was hardly confined to techies. Jay-Z (b. 1969) took Martha Stewart’s human-as-brand impulse and created an empire state of mind. He became a generational icon, turning four letters and a hyphen into a fashion line, a nightclub chain, a sports agency, a tech company and a sliver of a professional basketball team, while still managing to cut a few albums along the way. Diddy (then Puffy) (also b. 1969) went from mogul to rap star, as if it were a hobby.
“Jay and Puffy made it O.K. to be capitalist in hip-hop,” said Michael Gonzales, a longtime hip-hop writer. “Rap had always been about the jewelry and the cars, with everyone rapping about making the Benjamins. But a lot of those guys were struggling and living at home. Jay and Puffy showed them how to take it to the next level. It wasn’t just all records — you’ve got to get points, own your publishing, own your masters. And that became part of the culture.”
Are you a businessman or a business, man? And the adage applied to women, too — in some ways for the first time. Missy Elliott (b. 1971) saw what was obvious, founding her own label and becoming a producer.
Far from staring down morosely at scuffed Converse All-Stars, we craned our necks, looking for that next big thing over the horizon, never comfortable, never satisfied. If that next big thing was bad, we got over it.
During the housing bust of the mid-aughts, we got creamed. Many of the home buyers among us had only recently began trading up to house the kids we put off having. Often, we were buying near the top of the market. Our median home equity plunged 43 percent during those years, according to Pew Research Center, a lot worse than for boomers (28 percent).
Who’s sorry now? Between 2010 and 2016, Generation X saw its median household net worth skyrocket 115 percent. Boomers were still mired at pre-2007 levels.
Maybe that’s the thing about being a generation without any particular identity or belief system: We are adaptable, a weedy species, like rats or cockroaches, built to survive any environment. We are hard to stamp out.
We were never cynical and disaffected
In 2012, our generation finally made its mark in Washington, or seemed to. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (b. 1970) became the Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, a potential vice president. The McJob generation, it seemed, might actually inherit one of the most powerful jobs in the world (well, kind of).
While not exactly the ’90s Mountain Dew ad vision of shreddin’ youth, Mr. Ryan’s Generation X-ness became a presumptive selling point to youngish voters, even as Mr. Romney evoked their mom’s divorce lawyer.
As I wrote in 2012 in The Times, Mr. Ryan “favors grunge music, Coen brothers movies and craft brews. He sprinkles the word ‘awesome’ into daily speech.” As a teenager, he even worked an actual “McJob,” at an actual McDonald’s.
The Gen X notables I talked to then, however, seemed underwhelmed. “I wonder if the Germs ever felt this way about having Belinda Carlisle as their first drummer,” Johnny Knoxville said, in the most Generation X terms imaginable.
America’s “jackass” need not have worried. Congressman Ryan did not get the job. Six years later, we still have not even sniffed the White House, which may be another reason we suffer a generational sense of athazagoraphobia, an abnormal fear of being forgotten or left out, as Jeff Gordinier pointed out in his 2008 book, “X Saves the World.”
Lots of people seem to believe that Barack Obama was the first Generation X president. The confusion is understandable. As a teenager, the 44th president spent afternoons smoking pot in a van with a crew called the Choom Gang, which is a very Generation X thing to do.
But Mr. Obama was born in 1961 and therefore is not Generation X by most definitions. Some demographers like argue that the generation began in 1960. To put it in scientific terms, this is hogwash. Most people born in 1960 graduated from high school in 1978. The white suburban high school students I remember in 1978 wore feathered hair, thought Camaros were cool, and considered “Lucky Man,” by Emerson Lake and Palmer, to be the height of synth-pop. Case closed.
There is no guarantee that Gen X will ever hatch a president. One vague possibility is the mediagenic Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke, “a walking, talking Generation X cliché,” as Elizabeth Spiers of The Washington Post put it. The former Texas congressman “was a skater (sort of),” Ms. Spiers wrote. “He was in a punk band called Foss; he was, we learned recently, part of a hacker collective called the Cult of the Dead Cow, where he ran a bulletin board called TacoLand.”
He had an early moment — then Mr. O’Rourke’s popularity was immediately leapfrogged by another mediagenic white male, Pete Buttigieg, who at 37 occupies some sort of Generation Y gray zone.
Still, we may still have our day. Generation X, along with Millennials, finally rocked the vote in greater numbers than boomers and older voters in the 2016 election, according to Pew. That is one way, at least, we can still feel young.
We invented “woke”
We were never an afterthought of American politics if you take “politics” to mean the all the real stuff that goes on outside the Beltway, in terms of gender politics, racial politics and environmental politics.
It might be a cliché to say that we are a generation of iconoclasts and mavericks, wired to challenge authority. But when Apple unveiled its “Think Different” campaign in the ’90s, they were selling to us. And we bought it.
Many of us lived it, too. Before “politically correct” was a cudgel that Fox News types used to hammer the left over gender-neutral bathrooms, college students of the ’80s and ’90s who might now identify as progressive rallied under the P.C. banner as a point of pride, renovating a busted old language for a new era where “pets” became “animal companions,” “illegal aliens” became “undocumented workers,” and “gay people” became “queer,” which was confusing for a lot of straight people at the time.
“My Gen X world when I was young was full of activists, not slackers — AIDS activists, reproductive health advocates, and L.G.B.T. fight pioneers,” said Garance Franke-Ruta (b. 1971), a longtime political journalist who in her late teens led a campaign for the advocacy group Act Up to pressure the government and pharmaceutical companies to develop new AIDS drugs.
It didn’t hurt that we grew up in a post-Civil Rights era, where knocking down walls — like the one in Berlin — was less a goal than an assumption.
“My mother didn’t go to integrated schools; I did,” said Kevin Powell, a Jersey City-bred activist, speaker and author who was also a member of the MTV’s “Real World” cast in 1992. “So my friends were from different backgrounds. I loved N.W.A., but I also loved Guns N’ Roses.”
On television, we grew up with shows that were pushing envelopes, Mr. Powell said — “All in the Family,” pitting an old-school blue-collar bigot against a self-righteous lefty son-in-law; “The Jeffersons,” featuring a mixed-race married couple; “Soap,” with an openly gay man dating a male football player.
“I believe that shaped us,” Mr. Powell said. “I can quote stuff about the Monkees, about ‘Soul Train,’ and I’ll get white people, Latinx people, Asian people, black folks, all different folks having the same reference points. I really believe that we were the precursor to millennials. There were these crossing of boundaries.”
It was hardly one big gorgeous mosaic (it never is). In our formative years, we saw racial attacks in Howard Beach, Queens, and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, become national news, as well as the rise of neo-Nazi skinheads and gay conversion camps. Gay marriage was politically unthinkable, and even some progressive boomer parents had a hard time when their children came out.
Even so, some progressive Xers saw an old order crumbling, sometimes just with a visit to the record store. “When I think of the meat of the ’80s, I think of the gender-bending of the early Depeche Mode, the early Cure, Erasure, Culture Club, even Wham,” said Alli Royce Soble (b. 1973), a photographer and painter who now identifies as nonbinary, recalled the abundant sense of permission growing up in the Atlanta suburbs. “Being young and coming out, music was my connection to a community.”
In the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony during the Clarence Thomas hearings, a generation of Generation X women rallied to the call by the third-wave feminist Rebecca Walker (b. 1969): “Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”
It was one step toward #MeToo. There were others. Some were small, but not insignificant.
Tabitha Soren (b. 1967), who unwittingly became a generational symbol when she interviewed the first President Bush as an MTV News correspondent, fresh out of New York University, recalled how Kathleen Hanna of the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill “had the brilliant idea of moving male mosh pits to the back of the show, so that girls didn’t get pushed out of the way, combat boots in their faces.”
“It was a metaphor as much as a more ideal way of seeing shows for everyone,” said Ms. Soren, now a photographer.
The hard-won proto-woke triumphs of that era look a little more complicated now. The Beastie Boys, when they weren’t fighting for the rights of rich kids from New York private schools to party, were celebrated for ending the rocker tendencies of white suburban youth and opening the door for them to discover Public Enemy and Queen Latifah.
Leaving aside the 2019 questions of cultural appropriation, even the Beasties have to admit that a lot of their beer-swilling party-boy fans were “probably not that far off from Brett Kavanaugh,” as Michael Diamond (b. 1965), or Mike D, told Vice in a video published last year.
It’s a messy question. No matter. We’re used to them. We were born into Vietnam and Watergate and at a time when, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx was burning. We came of age in a decade ravaged by AIDS and crack. Ideologues find that sort of stuff crushing. Survivors, on the other hand, survive.
Maybe this is why, in a country cleaved between blue and red, we tend to shade purple, opting for pragmatism over ideology. On several hot-button issues — immigration, same-sex marriage, government spending — we tend to split the difference between the more conservative boomers and the more liberal millennials, according to Pew.
We are the original “socially liberal, economically conservative” generation, David Rosen, a consultant who focuses on the psychology of politics, recently wrote in Politico Magazine — we were happy to believe that the problems are bad, but their causes are very, very good, as the joke goes. This scrappy, if self-defeating, independent streak, he suggested, was a consequence of our under-parenting. “If you wanted lunch and Mom and Dad weren’t around, all the moral values in the world wouldn’t add up to a grilled cheese sandwich,” Mr. Rosen wrote.
You could take all of that as a negative — once again, here we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, right the middle — displaying centrist tendencies in a political climate that celebrates the extremes.
But I’m not so sure. In today’s polarized online hellscape of a world, regardless of background or political chances, I like our chances to fix things after whatever inferno awaits. I have to. It would kill me to see millennials take all the credit.