Thursday, June 28, 2007

Defining Generation X Part Two: Rootless, Alienated, and Jobless?

The sad fact is that even before Generation X had a chance to define ourselves, the media had already tried to define the generation for us. The stereotype that the media created for Gen X in the early to mid-90s is summed up at Wisegeek.Com in their article, "What is Generation." Summing up the stereotype, they state, "The media played its part in promoting the Generation X stereotype by portraying them as grunge-listening, Starbucks-drinking, flannel-donning slackers who were quietly revolting against their overachieving, conservative Baby Boomer parents or older siblings." In the book Saturday Morning Fever, Timothy and Kevin Burke also deal with the stereotype, stating that the media "...had pegged X as a bunch of rootless, alienated, and jobless whiners who were still living at home with Mom and Dad." The Burkes also note that the media typically represented Generation X as "..a white and suburban construct."

The roots of this stereotype go all the way back to when the generation was given the name by which we have become best known, "Generation X." As I mentioned earlier, Douglas Coupland for his novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelarated Culture based "Generation X" on the term "Category X" from the book Class by Paul Fussell. In that book Fussell describes "Category X" as a group of people who ignore social strata and simply drop out of the class system to live life according to their own rules. To some, ignoring social strata and dropping out of the class system must have sounded suspiciously like "slacking."

That the stereotype swiftly became implanted in the collective psyche of society can be seen in various articles from the Nineties. In an article printed not long after Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain's suicide, the music critic for The New Yorker, Alex Ross, dealt with the identification of Cobain as a Gen X icon. That he felt the need to shows the extent to which grunge and Generation X had become intertwined in the media's minds. That the idea of Gen X as hanging out in coffee shops was so firmly implanted in the mind of the media can be seen in a short piece in the March 25, 1996 issue of Time in which Margaret Carlson calls Generation X as the "Starbucks generation." Sadly, the media often treated the stereotype as if it was fact.

Of course, in the media trying to stereotype Generation X in ways that were often negative, Gen X was not alone. In fact, it seems to me that nearly every generation born in the United States in the mid to late 20th century was initially portrayed negatively by the media. The "Lost Generation (so named by Gertrude Stein)," born from 1883 to 1900, was portrayed as disillusioned, immoral (they disposed of the strict Victorian morality of their elders), and sexually loose. "The Silent Generation (generally thought to have been born from 1925 to 1942, although 1944 may be a more realistic end date IMHO)" received its name from historian and biographer William Manchester, who described them as "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent." The term may have received its first exposure in the mass media in the November 5, 1951 issue of Time Magazine, in an article entitled "The Younger Generation." History would prove the stereotype wrong, as among those born in the so-called Silent Generation were Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan, none of whom could be described as particularly"cautious," "unimaginative," or especially "silent." If anything, the Baby Boomers have been painted more negatively than the Silents. In the Sixties they were often portrayed as a bunch of turned on, tuned in, drop out hippies. In the Eighties they were often portrayed as greedy, power hungry yuppies. Even today there are those in both older and younger generations who would characterise them as self absorbed and narcissistic. That none of these stereotypes hold true I know for a fact, as my older sister is among the oldest Boomers and I have plenty of friends who are Boomers as well. None of them are self absorbed or narcissistic.

Sadly, I fear that such stereotypes, even when patently false, may have some very real consequences in the way that older generations treat younger generations. I am sure that all of us, whether Silent, Boomer, or Xer, have experienced being treated as if he was an idiot by someone older, no matter how polite and knowledgable he tries to be. In fact, I am sure most Xers can recall instances in which the media used the very stereotype they created to criticise our generation!

Perhaps the most damaging part of the Generation X stereotype created by the media is that we were a bunch of slackers who lived at home well beyond the acceptable time limits. Indeed, this was probably the most frequent criticism levelled at the generation in the Nineties. What the stereotype ignored, however, is that Generation X came of age into one of the roughest economic periods in recent history. In Saturday Morning Fever Timothy and Kevin Burke wrote of the stereotype that Gen X stayed home with their parents longer than previous generations "...that to the limited extent that any of this has been true, it has been a transient byproduct of being twenty five years old in a stagnant economy." The truth is that in the Eighties jobs were often very hard to come by. Even after graduating from college, the best that many Gen Xers could do is get a job at a video store, fast food restaurant, or bar (back then I knew plenty of degreed bartenders). Making minimum wage or close to it, they often found they had little choice but to return home to stay with their parents. It was not a case of Gen Xers not wanting jobs or not being willing to work or not wanting to be on their own. It was more a case of they took what jobs they could get. In fact, while I have never worked at a fast food restaurant, it seems to me from friends who have that such jobs are often much more demanding than many more respected, high paying positions, hardly the sort of job a slacker would take.

In fact, the economic conditions into which Generation X came of age may be responsible for another part of the stereotype--that is, the idea that we are alienated and pessimistic. It's true that in many surveys Generation X seemed convinced that they would be the first American generation in decades not to do better economically than their parents. I must say that this does not reflect an inherent pessimism on the part of Generation X, however, as people of many generations were often pessimistic about the future at the time. As I see it, in the idea that they would not do better than their parents, Gen Xers were simply being realistic at the time. After all, why be optimistic about coming years when the best job one can do upon graduating college is that of a video store clerk? The fact that Generation X are neither slackers nor inborn pessimists can even be seen in studies from the Nineties, the very era in which the media insisted that we were both slackers and pessimists. In 1993 a study conducted by Marquette University and the University of Michigan demonstrated that 70% of all new businesses were being started by people between the ages of 25 and 34 (making them born between 1959 and 1968). Indeed, many of the best known names on the internet were founded or developed by people born between 1961 and 1977: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.Com, Peter Thiel, the inventor of PayPal, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the inventors of Google. That hardly sounds like a bunch of slackers to me. In a 1997 survey conducted by Time, 72% of those between 18 and 24, those Gen Xers felt that the generation had " important voice, but no one seems to hear it." They also described themselves as ambitious and determined. This is hardly the talk of pessimists.

As pointed out by Timothy and Kevin Burke in Saturday Morning Fever, the media's stereotype of Gen X was also "..a white and suburban construct." Indeed, in looking at the movies and commercials trying to portray Generation X (remember Reality Bites?), the faces almost overwhelmingly appear white. This is hardly true of Gen X, no more than it has been for any other American generation since the 19th century. The truth is that Generation X is one of the most ethnically diverse generations in the history of the United States. According to the the United States Census Bureau as of 2005, 17.2% of the Baby Bust cohort born from 1965 to 1977 (the closest category they have to Generation X) are Hispanic, 12.6% are African American, 5.7% are Asian, 0.8% are Native American, and so on. This may not seem so remarkable, except when contrasted with the Baby Boom Cohort, of whom only 12% are African American, 9.8 are Hispanic, 4% are Asian, and so on. It would then seem that the idea that Generation X was largely born white in the suburbs is then patently false.

Not only is Generation X ethnically diverse and prone to neither slacking or pessimism, but it seems that even the idea that grunge was the music of the generation does not hold up to strong examination. I have addressed this elsewhere, so I will try to keep things brief here. I think there's no denying the popularity of grunge among Gen Xers. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were among the biggest bands of the Nineties. Other bands, such as Alice in Chains and Silverchair, also enjoyed some degree of popularity. For a time grunge was the dominant sound on the airwaves. That having been said, this does not necessarily mean that grunge is the music of Generation X, much as the popularity of disco for a time does not mean that it was the music of the Baby Boomers.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that, comparatively speaking, grunge was only popular for a brief time, for six years from the time it entered the mainstream with Nirvana's Nevermind in 1990 to around 1996. This is a rather brief span of time, especially when compared to the popularity that Heavy Metal enjoyed from 1979 with the release of the AC/DC album Highway to Hell to the fall of the hair bands in 1992. I am not sure that would qualify Heavy Metal as the music of Gen X either. The fact is that Generation X has always had diverse tastes in music, ranging from power pop to country. Much of this may stem from the fact that the Eighties during which Gen X was growing up could well have been the most musically diverse decade in recent history. Heavy Metal had returned to popularity not long before the decade would begin and remained popular until not long after the decade ended. Power pop enjoyed a vogue at the beginning of the Eighties, with Cheap Trick (which had arrived on the scene in 1976) having some of their biggest hits and newcomers The Knack rising to popularity. New Wave entered the mainstream in the late Seventies and remained popular through the first few years of the decade. Electopop in the form of such groups as Soft Cell and The Human League would enjoy a brief vogue. A Second British Invasion would arrive in the form of bands such as Duran Duran, The Fixx, and ABC. Pop oriented dance music would return to popularity with such artists as Madonna and Kylie Minogue. An entirely new genre of music, called rap and later also called hip hop, would arrive on the scene not long after many Gen Xers had entered adulthood. With Generation X exposed to so many different genres of music, it is difficult to peg any one genre as the music of Generation X. Indeed, it must be pointed out that with regards to Gen X, grunge was somewhat of a Johnny come lately. When it entered the mainstream with Nirvana's Nevermind in 1990, the oldest Gen Xers were 29 and the youngest were 13. Ths would seem to give it even less signficance to the generation and skew it more towards Generation Y.

That having been said, this does not mean that grunge was not important to Generation X. As I said earlier, it was very popular for a time, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam numbering among the top bands of the Nineties. And it is significant as perhaps the first rock subgenre wholly created by Gen Xers. Mark Arm of Green River, the band who more or less invented the form, was born in 1962. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was born in 1964. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains were both born in 1967. Silents and Baby Boomers could lay claim to creating Heavy Metal and power pop, but grunge was almost entirely a creation of Generation X.

Of course, Generation X's exposure to music was increased by the prevalence of FM radio stations. While the stereotype of FM radio stations in the Seventies and Eighties is of rock stations that played album tracks as often as they did singles, FM stations during that period actually varied a good deal in genre, from country to rock to R & B. Like cable television later, FM stations had actually been around for quite some time. FM radio was first patented in 1933 and the first FM station, W1XOJ (now WAAF), was built around 1937. Various factors would keep FM radio from becoming common until well after World War II. In the Fifties and early Sixties the development of FM stereo would result in more and more FM stations opening until they were prevalent in the Seventies. It was during that decade that they became part of the average teenager's listening habits.

Almost as associated with Gen X in the minds of the media as grunge was the idea that we frequented coffee shops. To a degree I guess this makes sense from the media's point out of view as Starbucks originated in Seattle much as grunge did. That having been said, a bit of common sense would show that this part of the stereotype cannot possibly be true. The fact is that while Starbucks would spread widely and swiftly in the Nineties, neither it nor other coffee shops could be found in every single corner of the U.S. The fact is that the county in which I live, a county of some size, has never had a coffee shop of any kind to my knowledge, let alone a Starbucks. I am not sure, but I think the nearest Starbucks may well be the ones in Columbia, which is thirty miles away! Beyond the fact that coffee shops never did permeate the American landscape, not even in the Nineties, it is simple common sense to assume that not every one wants Raspberry Mocha Frappuccino (a trademark of Starbucks) or even Cafe Au Lait. I prefer my coffee black, and I know plenty of my contemporaries do as well. Besides, the idea of Gen Xers hanging out at coffee houses in the Nineties has always seemed a bit odd to me, given the fact that many of us (perhaps most of us) could hardly afford the prices at Starbucks on the jobs we had then!

While the idea that Generation X are slackers who listen to grunge and drink coffee at Starbucks are for the most part untrue, there is one aspect of the media's stereotype of Generation X that does hold somewhat true, and that is the importance of pop culture to the generation. Perhaps more than any other generation, television would be pivotal in the development of Generation X. This is one of the biggest differences between Geneartion X and the Baby Boomers who preceded them. It has often been said that television was an important force in shaping the Baby Boomers. Many times this has come from Boomers themselves. That having been said, I seriously doubt this. According to my sister, our parents did not get a TV set until 1956, when she was 11 years old. This would seem to be true of many Americans during the period. In 1954 only 55.7% of all homes in America even had one televison set. That is only a little over half of the country. Even then television ownership was concentrated in the large cities.

Indeed, in the early Fifties, many areas did not yet have their own television stations. Using mid-Missouri as an example, KOMU in Columbia would not open until late 1953. KRCG in Jefferson City would not open until early 1955. Now TV ownership did increase dramatically in the Fifties. By 1958 83.2% of all homes in the United States had TV sets. The reason for this was simply rapid growth in the television industry itself. In the period from 1954 to 1960, many TV stations opened across the country, often in areas where television stations had not been before. At any rate, I must point out that by 1958 the oldest Baby Boomers would be 13 years old. In other words, the majority of their formative years would have been spent without television. In the end, then, I submit that television cannot be viewed as a strong influence in the early lives of the Baby Boomers. Instead, I believe it can be compared to personal computers with regards to Generation X (the PC arrived on the scene when many Gen Xers were on the cusp of adulthood). Just as the PC was a new technology that many Xers embraced without it being a strong influence on their childhoods, so too was television a new technology that many Boomers embraced without it being a strong influence on their childhoods. It would then seem that Generation X was the first such generation to actually grow up in front of the television screen.

Indeed, not only did the vast majority of homes in America own TV sets just as the first Gen Xers were being born, but the television industry had matured so that it was both vast and varied. I suspect many younger people might question just how much variety there was to television in the Sixties, given there were only three networks and cable would not really take off until the late Sixties and early Seventies. Here I must point out that while there were only three networks and cable was not yet a powerful force in America, the large number of independent stations more than made up for this. The Sixties and Seventies saw the emergence of independent television stations, to the point that many markets could boast one such station and large markets even more. Even in areas that didn't have independent stations of their own, they could often pick up stations from other areas. For instance, I remember watching KPLR from St. Louis and KMBA from Kansas City while still very young. Unlike the network affiliates, the independent stations could not depend on a network to provide their programming, as a result they found themselves relying on syndicated reruns of old network programmes, first run syndicated shows, and older movies to fill their schedules. While growing up, many Generation Xers could watch shows often made while they were in the cribs or even before they were born (I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island are examples), old movies (Angels with Dirty Faces for instance), and pro wrestling on any given day. It would be on independent stations that many Xers would first be exposed to Star Trek and It's a Wonderful Life. With the advent of the Fox network in 1986 and the creation of the WB and UPN in 1994, many independent stations would give up their independence for network affliliation. As an end result, while independent stations played an important role in the childhoods of Generation X, they would not play such a role in the childhoods of Generation Y.

Even more variety would enter the lives of the growing Gen Xers with the advent of cable television. Although developed in 1948, government regulations would prevent cable television from becoming common until the late Sixties and early Seventies. Once the regulations were eased, the cable industry expanded at an incredible rate. Many areas that previously did not have cable would receive it at this point. I am not sure when cable came to Randolph County, but I am thinking it was probably as early as 1971. At least I can remember it from that time period. The end result of cable television is that Gen Xers, in particular the "Scooby-Doo wave," would be exposed to even more network reruns and old movies than ever before. Between the independent TV stations and the rise of cable TV, Gen Xers would be exposed to the broadest swathe of television history ever. This would give them a knowledge of old TV shows and even old movies that neither the Baby Boom nor Generation Y could ever match.

While discussing the impact of pop culture upon Generation X, it might also be a good idea to discuss Generation X as "the first generation that as children never knew a Saturday morning without cartoons." This might seem trivial to some, but I'm not so sure it is. It is one of the primary differences between the generations before them (who never had the opportunity to watch Saturday morning cartoon blocks as children) and even the generations after them (who still have a Saturday morning cartoon blocks, but who also have cartoons accessible to them at many other times as well). Indeed, Saturday morning cartoons loom large in the reminiscences of most Gen Xers. An entire book was written on the subject (Saturday Morning Fever by Timothy and Kevin Burke). As pointed out earlier, references to cartoons can be found in movies, TV shows, and music produced by Gen Xers. And a search on the Web will reveal numerous web sites by Gen Xers on the subject. Basically, Saturday morning cartoons act as a unifying force for nostalgia in Generation X the way that radio shows and movie serials have for earlier generations.

The fact is that the Saturday morning cartoon block evolved just as Generation X was being born. In 1955 CBS debuted Mighty Mouse Playhouse, a collection of old Terrytoons theatrical shorts, on Saturday morning, making it the first Saturday morning cartoon. On both CBS and NBC it would be followed by a smattering of other cartoons. Finally, in 1963 CBS scheduled a two hour block of cartoons on Saturday morning. This bit of scheduling met with such success that not only did CBS expand their Saturday morning cartoon block to three hours in 1964, but the other networks followed suit with their own Saturday morning cartoon blocks. In some respects, the 1964-1965 season featured the first Saturday morning cartoon schedule as Gen X would come to know them. The number of hours devoted to cartoons on the networks on Saturday mornings would only grow as the Sixties became the Seventies. And until the Eighties, when a large number of original cartoons emerged in syndication, the network's Saturday morning schedules would be the primary source for cartoons for children all over America. It should then be little wonder that Saturday morning cartoons would have a lasting impact on Generation X.

Another aspect of the media's stereotype of Generation X that also appears to have been right to some degree is the cynicism of many Gen Xers. Some might be tempted to attribute this cynicism to the Watergate scandal, which occurred while some Gen Xers were still children. I seriously doubt this. In discussions with fellow Gen Xers, it seems to me that the Watergate scandal had little impact on us. There is a very good reason for this. The oldest of us were only 13 when the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1974. The youngest of us had not even been born. For those of us who had been born, we were at an age when it is very rare for anyone to pay attention to political events. Ultimately, the latest album or the newest cartoon was more important to us. Instead I think Gen X cynicism was absorbed from various sources, not the least of which was from our elders. Perhaps the Depression Generation and the Silents did not develop distrust in the government until after the Watergate scandal broke, but it seems to me that the Boomers distrusted government early on. I can only assume that Boomer distrust of government originated with the Johnson Administration's approach to the Vietnam War. This only grew with the Nixon Administration and even moreso after the Watergate scandal. Generation X was exposed to Boomer cycnicism with regards to the government through their older siblings and parents (for those born to Boomers). This Gen X cynicism was made all the more intense with the stagnant economy of the Eighties and what seemed to many of us to be a lack of willingness on the part of the government to take care of such problems as the jobless rate and homelessness. It did not help that the Seventies and Eighties were also a period of rising divorce rates, racial strife, and the arrival of AIDs.

Not only did Generation X absorb some of their cynicism from the Baby Boomers, but the existence of the Baby Boomers may well have been the cause for it in another way. A distrust of Baby Boomers probably varies from Gen Xer to Gen Xer and stems from more than one thing. Some of it probably has its roots in the changing perceptions of the Boomers over the years as created by the media. In the Sixties the media concentrated on the idea that the Boomers wanted to change the world. This manifested itself in protests against the Vietnam War, the campaign to give 18 year old the right to vote, and so on. In many instances Boomers largely made up the Feminist movement. If one had to choose a slogan for the Boomers in the Sixties, it might be more accurate with regards to the media's image of them to say it would be "Make love, not war," rather than Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, and drop out." In the Eighties, however, the Boomers appeared to make a complete turn around, or at least the media would have one believe this. The average Boomer was no longer portrayed as a hippie, but rather a yuppie. Rather than seeking to change the world, they were then shown in the media as purely desiring to make more and more money. Rather than "Make love, not war," their slogan would seem to then be "Greed is good." The complete turn around that the media presented the Boomers as having from the Sixties to the Seventies perhaps affected various Xers in different ways. For many it would lead them to conclude that the Boomers were hypocrites and, worse yet, sellouts. For other Xers the turn around that the media portrayed in the Boomers from the Sixties to the Seventies would constitute betrayal. Among some older Xers, those with some small admiration for the claims the media made in the Sixties that the Boomers wanted to change the world, the Boomers seemingly turned on values that were over all admirable in favour of attitudes that were selfish in the extreme. As I have grown older I realise that this is very unfair on the part of Xers. The portrayal of the Boomers as a generation out to change the world and later as a generation out to make all the money they could was largely a creation of the media. The average Boomer was not necessarily politically active in the Sixties, nor did they rush to fill their pocketbooks in the Eighties. Those potrayals have no more truth than those of Gen X as a generation of slackers.

Resentment of the Boomers on the part of many Gen Xers may also stem from the attention that is often paid to Boomers in the media. From the Sixties to the present day, the Boomers are arguably the most covered generation in the history of the United States. When the Boomers turned 50 in the Nineties, it was featured on the cover of Time. When the Boomers turned 60 in the Naughts, it was also featured on the cover of Time. There was no such cover for Gen X when we turned 40. To make matters worse, in the Sixties it was generally Depression Generation and Silent journalists who covered the Boomers. Now the news stories are largely written by the Boomers themelves, which could be construed as a conflict in interests by many. Due to the extensive coverage the Boomers (who have appeared on more than one Time cover) have received nearly all their lives, many Xers perceive the Baby Boomers as wishing to insure that their world view and their pop culture artefacts dominate those of any other generation. Put more simply, Gen Xers believe that the average Boomer thinks Howdy Doody is superior to Birdman and The Lovin' Spoonful better than Guns 'N' Roses. Indeed, I have seen this expressed not only in forums and web sites created by Gen Xers, but even in books. In Saturday Morning Fever the Burke brothers make the statement that nostalgia often gets a bum rap because "...the members of Generation X are accustomed to the baby boomers and the so-called Silents running around acting like they're the last group of people on Earth to have experienced anyhthing meaningful..." To a small degree I think this might be true, as I'm sure most Gen Xers can testify to statments made by Boomers in the media and elsewhere to the effect that "kids today don't (fill in the blank)." That having been said, the Depression Generation said the same thing about the Silents and the Silents said it about the Boomers. As pointed out above, it may be natural for older people to sometimes view younger generations as foolish or misguided and their pop culture as inferior. That having been said, while it might be understandable for Generation X to resent the Baby Boom for the occasional attack on us, it is perhaps a bit unfair given this is what most generations have done. Indeed, I have often heard Gen Xers accuse members of Generation Y of being rude, inconsiderate, and altogether too eager to conform.

Of course, Generation X cynicism did not simply rise from political events, social issues, and the Boomers, but from the pop culture that Generation X seems to love so dearly. In Saturday Morning Fever Timothy and Kevin Burke noted that Gen X approaches pop culture with a mixture of affection, knowing cynicism, and ironic distance. This has also been acknowledged by other Gen X observers as well. The Burke brothers concluded that this mix of affection, cynicism, and irony even to the pop culture we love stems from knowing the conditions under which it was created. Even as children we knew that the Saturday morning cartoons we watched were often subpar products created primarily so advertisers could sell things. Indeed, they note that this mixture of affection, cynicism, and ironic distancde constitutes part of a "hidden code" known only to Gen Xers. This code constitutes a sort of pidgin, whereby Gen Xers can make pop culture references to each other in a strange brew of love and cynicism that only Gen Xers will completely understand."

By attacking the stereotype that the media created for Generation X it then seems possible to define us. Generation X is not a generation of pessimistic slackers who listen to grunge and drink at coffee shops. Instead, we are an ethnically diverse generation who entered adulthood in difficult economic times, with diverse tastes in music, who were reared on the mass media and developed not only a love of pop culture as a result, but a healthy streak of cynicism as well. Not only is Generation X not a generation of slackers, but we have produced entrepreneurs who are largely responsible for the World Wide Web as we know it today and who have worked as hard as other generations before us, even in jobs some would call menial. And while given good reason to be pessimistic about the future in our youth, we are hardly pessimistic, but tend to look at things a bit more realistically. It is notable that this image runs counter to the one that the media developed for Generation X in the Nineties. But then it seems to be a truism that stereotypes almost never hold true. Of course, the ultimate question may be whether any of this really matters. How important is it to be part of a generation?

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