About ten to sixteen years ago the media was talking a lot about Generation X. This was the up and coming generation that was, at the time, roughly in their twenties. Madison Avenue seemed intent on selling products to Gen X. Hollywood was intent on making movies for Gen X (more often than not failing--just look at Reality Bites). If the Sixties was all about the Baby Boomers, it seemed as if the Nineties would be about us.
Unfortunately, there were a few problems with all of this. First, no one seemed to know exactly what Generation X was. Different sources would cite the generation as being born between 1961 and 1972 to being born roughly between 1965 and 1980.There was absolutely no consensus as to when Generation X was born. In fact, there still isn't. Second, the media seemed to be intent on fitting Generation X into a preconceived stereotype that simply did not fix the average Gen Xer. Worse yet, they seemed intent on marketing to that stereotype instead of the actual members of Generation X! Already knowing that Gen Xers were slackers who dressed in flannel, listened to Nirvana, and were hip when it came to pop culture, they fashioned commercials and movies around that stereotype, never stopping to think that this may not be the way that Gen Xers really were.
Of course, the third problem that the mass media had with regards to Generation X was the generation themselves. As the first generation raised in front of the television from birth and exposed to more mass media than any generation before it, one thing that has seemed to hold true about the media's stereotype of Gen X is their knowing cynicism. Not only does the generation tend to look upon mass marketing and even such commercial products as television and movies with a bit of scepticism in my experience as an Xer, but we tend to dislike any kind of label. This is a natural extension of the generation's cynicism, tending to view labels as simply another means of Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and other groups to peg someone as something they might not be in order to simply sell them things.
Given the fact that no one is quite sure what Generation X is and that Generation X themselves have resisted being pegged, defining Generation X is then a very difficult proposition. Indeed, the question must be raised as to whether any generation can be defined. Does any generation have a set of defining attributes that characterise the generation as a whole? Ultimately, it would seem that such things as family background, gender, ethnicity, religion, where was one was born, and many other factors would seem to be more important to shaping individuals than when they were born. Indeed, while many may be aware that, going by when they were born, they are Baby Boomers or Gen Xers, but they generally don't use that to define themselves. In some respects, then, it would seem that generations really aren't that important when it comes to defining individuals.
That having been said, while the generation in which one was born may not be as important as one's family background and so on, I think it is possible to say that each generation does have characteristics that generally define it. If human beings are largely shaped by their environment, then it would seem that we as people are then shaped by the events occurring around us, the things we experience as children, and so on. If that is the case, then it would seem to me possible that the events at any given time and the various pop culture artefacts then prominent in society could give a generation a set of very general characteristics that help define that generation. That having been said, it then becomes possible to define Generation X.
Here I must add a bit of admonition. If generations are largely shaped by cultural influences (the media, events at the time, et. al.), then I think it is safe to say that what holds true for a generation in one country may not hold true for others. That is, Generation X here in the States (and perhaps Canada as well, the two nations being so intertwined) would not be the same as Generation X in the United Kingdom, if the United Kingdom can even be said to have a "Generation X." What I say here then hold trues only for the United States and perhaps Canada as well.
Of course, it might be a good idea before even trying to define the generation to examine the origins of the term "Generation X" and other terms for the generation. As I said before, it seems to be true that most Gen Xers do not particularly care for the term Generation X. Indeed, my best friend absolutely abhors the term. He prefers to call us "the Star Wars Generation". That having been said, "Generation X" has become the most common term used for our generation. As it is, the term did not start with us, but was coined even as we were being born. The term was first used in a study conducted by journalist Jane Deverson in Britain for Women's Own magazine. Deverson's study was ultimately rejected by the magazine, but Deverson went ahead and published her study in collaboration with fellow journalist Charles Hamblett. Entitled Generation X: Today's Generation Talking About Itself, the book was essentially a collection of interviews conducted in an 18 month period from January 1963 with young people in Britain. As to the nature of Deverson and Hamblett's "Generation X," they largely engaged in premarital intercourse, tended not to believe in God, didn't like the Queen, and distrusted their parents. Sound familiar?
Even in Britain "Generation X" would not become the dominant term for a generation (born roughly between 1925 and 1944) that in America would come to be called "the Silent Generation." It would become the name of a popular punk rock group. In 1976 Billy Idol and Tony James formed a band which they called "Generation X," no doubt appropriating Deverson and Hamblett's term for themselves. As the name of a band and not a term for a generation, "Generation X" was not yet applied to those previously considered late Baby Boomers and members of what has been called "the Baby Bust (after the decline in births following 1963)."
This brings us to a Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland. Coupland used the term "Generation X" in his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelarated Culture, first published in 1991. There he applied the term to a generation following the baby boom, born between 1960 to 1965, which was at that point coming into its own identity but at the same time feeling overshadowed by the Baby Boomers. Coupland did not take the term from Deverson and Hamblett (he was apparently ignorant of their work), but rather developed it based on a term from the 1983 book Class by Paul Fussell. In that book Fussell used the term "Category X" to refer to a group of people who ignore social strata and simply drop out of the class system to live life according to their own rules. Coupland felt that this was the primary characteristic of "Generation X." Coupland's term caught on with the media, who expanded upon his definition of "Geneartion X" to stereotype it as a generation of slackers.
While "Generation X" has become the most popular term for the generation, from the beginning it has co-existed with other terms. The term "MTV generation" predates "Generation X," being used as early as the Eighties. It comes from the cable channel, MTV (short for Music Television), which was launched on August 1, 1981. It always seemed to me that many have objected to the term "MTV Generation," not the least of all Gen Xers themselves. While MTV was an important pop cultural development at the time, I know of no Gen Xer who believes that it was a transformative event that changed the entire generation. Another similar problem is that technically the oldest Gen Xers had already entered adulthood, albeit very recently, at the time of the channel's launch or were about to enter adulthood. Its overall impact on Gen X would then seem to be minimal.
Another term used for Gen x was "the Baby Bust," for the dramatic decline in births that followed the Baby Boom. This term rapidly fell out of use, probably because for many the oldeset Gen Xers (born 1961 to 1964) would technically have been born in the final years of the Baby Boom, hence the term could not be applicable to them. William Strauss and Neil Howe called the generation "the 13th generation." I'll discuss that in detail later, but let's just say that it never caught on. Another term used of Gen X has been "the Slacker Generation," from the generational stereotype of the average Gen Xer as a slacker. I won't go into why this is untrue at the moment, but the sheer negativity of the term is probably why it never caught on. For better or worse and even though Gen Xers generally hate the term, "Generation X" has remained the most popular name for the generation.
Initially Coupland placed "Generation X" as being born between 1960 and 1965, although he also said that his book was meant to demonstrate a lack of a single description for the group more than anything else. He has also said that Generation X is not a chronological age, "but a way of looking at the world." That having been said, since many people born in approximately the same period of history often tend to have a shared sense of values and world views, I think it is safe to say that when they are born does play a role in determining when the attitudes of the generation. This presents a probelm for Generation X, as no one seems to be able to agree as to when they were born.
Despite the fact that Coupland would say that being "Generation X" is more about a way of looking at the world than an actual, chronological age, he would revise the general age of Generation X to include anyone who was in their twenties between 1987 and 1991. This would include everyone born from 1958 to 1971. It seems to me that for the most part that the media would generally skew Generation X somewhat younger. I have seen the media state that the first Generation Xers were born in 1961, 1963, and even as late as 1965.
It would seem that to make sense of all this that it would be a good idea to turn the United States Census Bureau for help in determining precisely when Generation X was born. The United States Census Bureau tends to use the term "birth cohorts" rather than "generations," but the concept is roughly the same. The Census Bureau also tends to ignore such commonly used terms as "Silent Generation" and "Generation X," preferring to use their own terms. The exception to this is the Baby Boom, which they see as being born from 1946 to 1964. They divide the Baby Boomers into Leading Edge Boomers (born from 1946 to 1957) and Trailing Edge Boomers (born from 1958 to 1964). Those born from 1965 to 1977 are part of the Baby Bust (II) cohort. The Census Bureau's birth cohorts would seem to be based entirely on the number of births at any given time. It is true that a baby boom took place from 1946 to 1964. It is also true that this boom peaked in 1957, allowing the Bureau to divide the Baby Boom cohort into two periods (one being pre-peak and the other post-peak). The problem with this is that it ignores the shared experiences common to people born around the same time. Baby Boomers born in 1946 would have become adults before the advent of Saturday morning cartoons. In the Sixties some of them would have taken part in the protests against the Vietnam War and some of them would take Dr. Timothy Leary's advice to "turn on, tune in, and drop out." On the other hand, those born in 1964 would grow up watching Saturday morning cartoons, never knowing a world without them. And while some might have "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out," none of them took part in protests against the Vietnam War (I don't recall seeing any five year olds taking part in the protests in the old news footage...).
More useful is the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss and Howe eschew the term "Generation X" in favour of the term "13th Generation," so called because it is the 13th generation to live under the United States flag (going back to the first generation, that of Ben Franklin). Rather than simply look at birth rates as the Census Bureau does, they look to cultural trends as well. They saw the influences on the 13th Generation as being an increase in divorce, an increase in women in the work place, declining birth rates, and what is sometimes called "devil child films (movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and It's Alive that deal with children as demonic antagonists)." They place the 13th Generation as being born between 1961 and 1981. While I don't really care for the term "13th Generation," I cannot argue with either Strauss and Howe's reasoning (as the movie Fight Club observes, with reference to the increase in the divorce rate, we were a generaton of men raised by women--not true of myself, but of many of my comtemporaries) or the age range they give for the generation. And that age group does generally have the same cultural experiences in common and hence similar viewpoints.
In an article entitled "Proceed with Caution" in the July 16, 1990 issue, Time Magazine posited the existence of a generation following the Baby Boomers. They did not give this generation a name, simply referring to them as "twentysomethings." The article notes that many of these twentysomethings were born in what was usually considered the tail end of the Baby Boom, but actually had very little in common with the Boomers and had much more in common with other twentysomethigs. They place the age of this generation in a range spanning from 18 to 29 years of age. In other words, this generation would have been born between 1961 and 1972. According to the article, a dominant force in the lives of the twentysomething was the poor job market, economic strain, the rising divorce rate, the centrality of televison as a medium, drug use, and homelessness. At the same time the article offers what could be the earliest stereotype of Generation X as slackers. It claims that the generation shys away from 70 hour work weeks and have no desire to change the world. It posits that the generation has a desire to keep life simple and do things in modest ways. It does offer some things positive to say about the generation, positing that they hold family life and local activism dear.
Here I should also offer my best friend's view of Generation X, a generation he prefers to call the "Star Wars Generation." My best friend is not a sociologist or historian, nor has he ever been published as a writer (he doesn't even have a blog, being somewhat computer illiterate). But he is an expert on pop culture whose knowledge of the subject is as labyrinthine as my own (We have our specialties. He tends to know more about movies than I do, but I know more about television. I know more about Golden Age comic books, but he knows more about Seventies comic books.). My best friend believes that the Star Wars Generation was roughly born between 1960 and 1977. His acid test for whether one belongs to the generation is whether one was old enough to have been present in a theatre when Star Wars made its debut in May 1977, even if it was only as a baby. Admittedly, this is hard to take seriously, but my best friend has other reasons for choosing this age range as well. Namely, we all came of age in an era when the economy was under strain and jobs were difficult to find. Even those who completed college were hard pressed to find any job, let alone one that paid well. The Star Wars Generation was the first generation that was literally overwhelmed by pop culture. It came at us through such media as television (finally in its prime as we were born), independent TV stations, FM radio, the movies, and video games. For my best friend the pivotal pop cultural event was the premiere of the film Star Wars, which transformed pop culture the same way that The Beatles' arrival in Amrica (which he views as the pivotal pop cultural event of the Baby Boom) did 14 years earlier. I find it very difficult to argue with my best friend's reasoning...
Yet others deny that Geneartion X was born between 1961 and 1981. Around 2000 pop cutlure expert Jonathan Pontell claimed that he had identified yet another geneartion which he termed "Generation Jones." He chose this label because he views the generation as being large and anonymous, and also based his name for this so-called generation on the slang term "jones," which originally referrred to the craving for drugs among addicts but came to mean a craving for anything--in the case of Pontell's alleged "Generation Jones" it refers to the craving for unfulfilled expectations. Pontell places his so-called "Generation Jones" as being born between 1954 and 1965. He points to the rising divorce rate, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the gas shortages of the Seventies, and the Watergate scandal as events that shaped his "Generation Jones." Pontell's concept of "Generation Jones" has received coverage in the media, in newspapers such as The Denver Post, The Denver Post, The San Diego Union Tribune, on cable networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and on such various outlets as the Talk Radio News Service. Googling the term "Generation Jones" one will find pages on which individuals do identify with the term "Generation Jones." Between the media coverage and the apparent existence of people who identify themselves as "Jonesers," there would seem to be some legitimacy to the concept.
That having been said, I have some serious objections to Pontell's concept of "Generation Jones," even if it is hard to dismiss entirely. I feel that he may be placing too much importance on certain cultural events and too little importance on others. While the rising divorce rate and the women's movement did have an impact on many people, that impact was much, much less on those born in 1954 than those born in 1965. That is, more people born in 1965 are children of divorce than those born in 1954. Furthermore, those born in 1954 came of age when the economy was still fairly robust in the Seventies. They walked into good jobs as they graduated from college, even from high school. Contrast that with those born in 1965 who often found themselves working at McDonalds or video stores even after graduating college! They came of age in the Eighties when a depression was on (okay, I know a lot of historians and political commentators will try to claim there was no depression in the Eighties, but then what do you call economic conditions in which there is low inflation and a very high rate of unemployment?). As to pop culture, those born in 1954 were adults when Star Wars came on the scene and in their first ten years of life there was no such thing as a Saturday morning cartoon block! In their late teens and early twenties, disco was the most popular music form. Contrast that to the heavy metal that returned to popularity just as those born 1965 were in their teens and entering their twenties. Another problem I have with the concept of "Generation Jones" is that Pontell first expressed his theories on this generation in 2000. This so-called generation's youngest members would have been 35 at the time! Contrast that with Generation X, who received their most popular name in 1991 when its youngest members were only 15 years of age. I've no idea when the phrase "Baby Boomer" originated, but the earliest I could find its use in the archives of Time Magazine was a January 21, 1974 article on Bob Dylan. This means that its earliest use could have been when the youngest Boomers were only 14. Of course, this only reflects its first appearance in Time Magazine. It could have been used much earlier; indeed, it's been in use as long I can remember. At any rate, all of this begs the question, "If 'Generation Jones' exists at all, then why did it take so long for someone to discover it?"
A more serious objection I have to the label "Generation Jones" is that while googling the term does reveal individuals who do identify with it, I have yet to meet even one such individual in person. My contemporaries born from 1961 to 1964 tend to identify themselves as either Boomers (which is less common in my experience) or Xers (more common in my experience). Those born in 1965 inevitably identify themselves as Xers. To me this presents a very serious challenge to Pontell's entire thesis. Admittedly, I think we can all agree that there are differences between the older Boomers (those born from 1945 to 1952 and experienced the Vietnam War protests, the Hippie movement, and psychedelia) and the younger Boomers (those born from 1953 to 1960 and experienced Watergate, gas shortages, and disco). In fact, I think we could legitimately speak of a "Beatles wave" of Boomers (the older Boomers) and a "Led Zeppelin wave" of Boomers (the younger Boomers). Despite some differences, both "Beatle wave" and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers share a number of important experiences (experiencing network television from its infacy to its maturation, good economic times, and so on), allowing for certain common interests to exist between the oldest and the youngest. In fact, I would dare say that there exists more common ground between "Beatles wave" Boomers (1945 to 1952) and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers (1953 to 1960) than there is between "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers and the oldest Gen Xers (1961 to 1965). Given the profound differences that exist between "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers and older Gen Xers and the rarity of individuals who identify with the term "Generation Jones," I think it is safe to conclude that Pontell is wrong. Those born before 1961 were just more Baby Boomers. Those born after 1961 were Gen Xers. Quite simply, Generation Jones does not exist.
Anyhow, given disagreement over the age range of Generation X and even whether there should be a generation placed between the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (the alleged Jonesers), it is difficult to determine when the Generation began and when it ended. I submit that my best friend may be right, that it began anywhere from 1961 to 1962 and ended in 1977 (I won't be so precise as to say May 1977...). My reasoning is simple. First, I once said that Generation X was the first generation to never know a Saturday morning without cartoons as children. This might seem trivial to some, but it seems an important point to me. Baby Boomers are often apt to start conversations between themselves with "Where were you when JFK was shot?" or "What were you doing when you first heard (fill in the blank with an appropriate song)?" Gen Xers are more likely to start conversations with, "Do you remember the cartoon where (fill in the blank with whatever cartoon you remember)?" Gen X pop culture, whether we are discussing Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith films or various rock songs, are rife with references to Saturday morning cartoons. Second, an experience shared by Generation X is that many had difficulty finding jobs upon coming of age. Taking into account that the depression of the Eighties started roughly around 1981 and ended roughly around 1992, the oldest Gen Xers would have been born around 1961 (making them around twenty in 1981) and the youngest would have been born around 1972. Given that the economy was still a little shaky for a couple of years after the depression's end around 1992, we could perhaps extend the end of Gen X from 1972 to 1977. Third, people born between 1961 and 1977 had greater access to pop culture than previous generations. While there were only three television networks when the majority of us were growing up, the fact that there were a huge number of independent stations made up for it. These independent stations aired an inordinate number of reruns, sometimes dating to several years before our births, as well as movies made decades before we were born. This gave Generaton X more familiarity with films from the Thirties and Forties than even their seniors born in the Baby Boom and a greater knowledge of television shows than their juniors born in Generation Y (independent stations having gone the way of the dinosaur just as the oldest of them were in their teens). Indeed, a complaint that my Baby Boomer older sister has about me is that I prefer "old stuff" when it comes to TV shows, movies, and music! To say that Gen X was born in 1961 and 1976 then allows for the common cultural experiences necessary to any given generation.
Of course, just as there are differences between the "Beatles wave" Boomers and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers, there are going to be differences between older Xers and younger Xers. In Saturday Morning Fever by Timothy and Kevin Burke (highly recommended, mind you), the authors note that some pundit (though they don't clarify whom, it was the aforementioned Howe and Strauss) made a distinction between an "Atari wave" of Xers and a "Nintendo wave" of Xers, although they noted that they could also be called "the Herculoids wave" or "Wacky Races wave" and "the Ghostbuster wave" or "Joe Wave," after various cartoons. I tend to agree with them, Saturday morning cartoons being a major part of all Gen Xers' childhoods, although I would prefer the terms "Space Ghost wave (superhero cartoons being dominant in the younger years of older Xers)" and "Scooby-Doo wave (comedies being more dominant in the younger years of younger Xers)." To me, Saturday morning cartoons were much more an experience common to Gen Xers than video games (which really didn't come about until the oldest of us were nearly grown). Whatever term you prefer, there are some differences between older and younger Xers. My best friend and I have noted that older Xers tended to be nostalgic about shows like Underdog and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, while expressing ignorance of Transformers and MacGyver. Younger Xers tend to be exactly the opposite. While they have much in common, they also tend to be very different as well.
That having been said, the "Space Ghost wave" and "Scooby-Doo wave" of Gen X probably have more in common than "Beatles wave" and "Led Zeppelin wave" Boomers do. In fact, I daresay that enough common ground exists among people born from 1961 to 1977 that we can adequately determine the defining characteristics of Generation X. Knowing that, we can go forward and determine what Generation X and, conversely, what it is not.