Friday, June 29, 2007

Defining Generation X Conclusion: My Generation

Having determined what I consider to be the defining characteristics of Generation X, I feel compelled to ask the question, "Does any of this matter?" I have complained about the media's efforts to pigeonhole Gen X into a preconcieved stereotype, but is making generlisations such as I have about the characteristics of a generation any better?

The truth be told, I have had discussions with people and read essays by people who express the idea that what generation in which one was born should not matter. Or to put it more simply, "Age doesn't matter." And I must agree with this to a point. In my ordinary life, when I meet someone I do not ask myself, "What generation does this person belong to?" My friends have ranged in ages from the Depression Generation to Generation Y (my second best friend is that much younger than I am). Certainly, it would be untrue to say that any two people of a given generation, even ones born on the same day in the same month in the same year, will have everything in common. Ultimately, people are individuals with their own tastes which are not necessarily determined by which generation to which they are born. A person born in the Silent Generation might love hip hop. A person born in Generation Y might love Swing music.

That having been said, obviously from this series of articles I do think people born in a certain era are going to have things in common largely shaped by shared experiences. Of course, even given that, I must admit to problems with that thesis. Namely, not everyone born in a given year is going to identify with a given generation. This is perhaps no more true of those considered to have been born early in Generation X (or, if you prefer, on the tail end of the Baby Boom). Being born in 1963, I unapologetically identify myself as Generation X. On the other hand, my friend Dave, born only a month earlier than myself (the year was 1963, for the curious), identifies himself as a Baby Boomer. Is one of us wrong? I am not so sure, especially given Dave's thoughts on the matter. Dave's theory is that for all we have in common, he is a Boomer and I am an Xer. Quite simply, Dave does not believe that generations begin all at once or end all at once. Instead, they build up gradually with a few individuals being born at a time and peter out slowly with fewer and fewer individuals being born belonging to that generation. In other words, the Baby Boomers did not end all of a sudden in 1960, but gradually dissipated as fewer of them were born until 1964. By the same token, Gen Xers did not suddenly start being born in droves in 1961, but a few were born at a time until reaching critical mass around 1965. For Dave, much like Douglas Coupland, generations are not so much a matter of when one was born as one's point of view. Dave's theory appeals to me as it explains why one person born in 1963 will identify with Boomers and another born the same year with Xers. Quite simply, in Dave's mind generations overlap.

Of course, Dave's theory could allow for the existence of a generation whose existence I denied earlier: the so-called "Generation Jones." In other words, Jonathan Pontell could be right about Generation Jones. Generation Jones would comprise people who would otherwise be "Beatles wave" Boomers or "Space Ghost wave" Xers, but identify with neither generation (why I can't say, but it does look from Pontell's "Generation Jones" website that they buy into the media's whole Gen X stereotype).They would identify with different cultural events and a different set of values than either Boomers or Xers. That having been said, while I cannot entirely dismiss all of Pontell's arguments and I agree with Dave's idea that generations can overlap, I still cannot quite accept the existence of "Generation Jones." Quite simply, while I will accept that there is some overlap between generations (say a few years here and there), I do not believe that there can be a lot of overlap between generations (many, many years). In my generational paradigm, for Generation Jones to exist at all, it would have to co-exist with both the "Led Zeppelin wave" of Boomers and the "Space Ghost wave" of Xers. In my mind this simply is not possible. Instead I think we can perhaps talk about a "Jones Subculture," a subculture consisting of rare individuals from the "Led Zeppelin wave" of Boomers and the "Space Ghost wave" of Xers who, for whatever reason, do not identify with their respective generations and place importance on an entirely different set of cultural events and values from most Boomers and Xers.

The question of who is precisely Generation X may not be as important as the question of just how much impact being born in any given generation has upon an individual. Certainly there are many more important factors that influence a person's development. Economic status, upbringing, religion, ethnicity, and many other things impact the development of any one person. This is not even addressing the matter of genetics, how much we inherit from our parents. It seems to me that the jury is largely out on the whole argument of "Nature versus nurture." With so many different factors central to the development of individuals, can we really speak of each generation having their own identity?

My thought is that we can, but only in very broad and general terms. I believe the character of Generation X I have described here is valid and accurate, but it is not going to be true of every single Gen Xer. I do believe that entire generations are shaped by the society and that society's condition into which they are born and come of age. Indeed, the central thesis of generational scholars Strauss and Howe has been that history moulds each generation depending on what period of life that generation is in as it contfronts important historical events. My own thoughts match those of Strauss and Howe, although I would add that I believe pop culture plays a key role in shaping a generation's identity as well. That having been said, both Strauss and Howe's thesis and my own will fall apart if it is ever proven that environment (which would seem to include historical events and pop culture) has little impact on the development of individuals. After all, if environment has no impact on the development of people, then it would have no impact on the development of generations either.

Of course, even if we accept that the generation into which one is born has an impact on the development of that individual, we still face the question of how central the generation to which one belongs is to that person's identity. The fact is that while many of us are aware of the generation in which we are born, we do not tend to think of it every single day. I think of myself as a man, a writer, a Missourian, a Southener, a person of English descent, and an American, but only occasionally do I give thought to being a Gen Xer. And the fact is that I suspect I have much more in common with someone who was born in my hometown, even if they are 25 years older than me, than I would someone born in Boston in the same year that I was. At any rate, I would tend to identify with them more. I rather suspect most people are this way. We do not tend to define ourselves in terms of which generation in which we were born, but by our family, our ethnicity, the area in which we were raised, and so on. Looking at it that way, it would seem that generational identity doesn't matter a whole lot in the whole vast scheme of things.

That having been said, while we don't tend to think of the generation in which we were born every single day and there are certainly things more central to our sense of identity, the generation to which one belongs certainly does seem to matter to most people. The fact is that, as I said, I am unapologetically a Gen Xer. I will correct anyone who tries to identify me as Boomer (or if they try identifying me as a Joneser, I will explain to them why I reject Jonathan Pontell's entire thesis). And much of the inspiration for this series of articles was to dispell the stereotype that the media crafted for Generation X--in other words, I felt the need to defend my generation. The fact is, if one simply surfs the internet long enough, he will find plenty of web sites in which individuals declare themselves as belonging to one generation or another. And one will find plenty of Gen Xers complaining about the way we have been stereotyped. If the generation to which one belongs is not central to many people's identities, then I don't think any of this would matter.

Indeed, in Saturday Morning Fever Timothy and Kevin Burke point out "If you tell older Xers that they're really boomers, check your life insurance policy. If you tell younger Xers--those born after 1972 or so--that they're something else besides Generation X, start running the moment you finish saying it." The Burke brothers are right. People can be and often are touchy about the generation to which they were born. It would seem that which generation an individual belongs to or which generations with which an individual identifies is then very important to people.

In the end it would then seem that being Generation X is important to many people. And for many of us it is important to dispel the stereotypes that the media created of us. Generation X has not exactly been treated fairly by the media and various other pundits. We have been portrayed as slackers. We have been portrayed as alienated and pessimistic. Almost every aspect of Generation X has been distorted by the media, from our tastes in music to our lifestyles. We have already found our voice. It is time to make the other generations listen.
I hope my readers have enjoyed this series of articles. I realise that some people might think that these articles have been terribly off topic, A Shroud of Thoughts being a blog devoted to pop culture, but I really don't believe they are. I honestly believe that pop culture has an impact on the development of any given generation. Indeed, it is for that reason I have cited various pop culture artefacts in this series.

At any rate, in writing this series of articles it was necessary to consult various books and articles pertinent to the subject of Generation X. I extend my thanks to these authors and so offer this bibliography.


Timothy Burke and Kevin Burke. Saturday Morning Fever

Harry Castelan and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television.

Douglas Coupland. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

Sturart Fischer. Kid's TV: the First Twenty Five Years.

Lawerence Lessing. Man of high fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong,: A biography.

Matthew Rettenmund. Totally Awesome 80s: A Lexicon of the Music, Videos, Movies, TV Shows, Stars, and Trends of that Decadent Decade.

William Strauss and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069

William Strauss and Neil Howe. 13th Gen : Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?

Magazine Articles:

numerous issues of Time.

W. Cohen and J. Simons "A New Spin on the Economy." U.S. News & World Report May 8, 1995

Alex Ross. "Generation Exit: Kurt Cobain." The New Yorker
April 25, 1994.


Bobby D. said...

i find this Baby Boomer stuff a little confusing, as someone who does here guys blathering on about how they are a BOOMER which means they are special --- why anyone would want to label themselves is beyond me.
I have close friends ranging in age from 25 to 90, and never think about age. The 25 yr old is thriving in the film industry and the 90 yr old was a slacker who went from one job to another and also lived at home w/parents between jobs. but they are both interesting and fabulous.

what gen would a 90 yr old belong to I wonder?

Bobby D. said...

sorry I meant to say ..hear... as I hear guys mention they are boomers when talking politics or history or whatever. it always surprises me. maybe I am missing something
just dont get it

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think labelling oneself as being part of a particular generation is just another way human beings can give themselves a greater sense of belonging. It is just another means through which they can feel they are something bigger than themselves.

I'm not sure, but I think a 90 year old would be part of the Depression Generation. At least here in the States.