Friday, March 11, 2011

What is Generation X (part 1)

In some more of my musings, I’ve been wrestling lately with the notion of what exactly is "Generation X"? What do I, as a supposed member of this generational group, believe defines being a Gen X-er? What did/does Generation X stand for if anything, and where do those ideals stand today, in the face of the rise of Generation Y?

Let’s start with some (Australian pop-cultural) context. Generation X had 80's music: Duran Duran, Pseudo Echo, Howard Jones, Men At Work, the Police, Sting, The Bangles, and right at the end of the decade, we had the first rap and R&B artists emerging, such as MC Hammer and Salt N' Pepa.

We were the generation that grew up with such cartoons as Rainbow Brite, the Smurfs, Voltron, Battle of the Planets (aka G-Force), Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion – all pre-CGI
animations. All these cartoons had a strongly emotional core.

We had hand held Nintendo games – and we were the first generation in history to have access to such computerised personal entertainment. We witnessed firsthand the rise of the personal computer, of computer gaming - and thus Gen X became the first computer game addicts. On the drug front many of us were into pot, while others of us used speed and E. For this and other reasons we earned the title of the "slacker" generation.

But music was our true salvation. In our late teens and twenties (in the early 1990's) we would smoke pot, eat pizza and listen to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Skid Row - any music that reflected how we felt inside. In a way we were like the "second wave" of hippies – we were highly emotionally driven, and we would rejoice in “deep and meaningfuls”; chance conversations with a kindred spirit that would give a feeling of euphoria (no drugs required) born from mutual understanding, inspiration and upliftment.

We then looked at the world so beloved by our baby-boomer parents - one with racism, prejudice against gays, distrust of the unfamiliar, supported war against foreign countries, and we decided it was wrong. As far as we were concerned, the system that had spectacularly provided unprecedented levels of material comfort for our parents, had now become oppressive, a relentless monster bent on destroying the environment and persecuting anyone who was a free thinker or who was somehow "different".

And so we shunned materialism and lived like the 60's hippies did – in bedsits, share houses and campervans. We were the first generation to really begin to travel en masse while we were young - both overseas and at home.

We also liked a lot of the music that hippies did, as thanks to another new marvel of technology - CDs - we were getting new, remastered versions of classic 60's and 70's albums from artists like Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others.

Gen X read books about quantum physics – the idea that as is now postulated by science, it is your mind that shapes your reality. Several decades after Einsten’s initial discoveries, we were now realising that matter was energy, energy was matter, and that truly they were interchangeable. And thought, as a form of energy, had the power to affect the physical world.

To many of us this seemed exactly what the Star Wars movies were talking about when they referred to something called "the Force".

We realised that spirituality and science could coincide again, that science could finally find in spirituality the unified field theory it had searched for so long. We also saw that religion no longer served the deepest most urgent needs of the people. Neither for that matter did any of the institutions of society – government, finance, the armed forces. All had failed; all had betrayed the ideals on which society was supposedly based. And the most stark evidence that society had failed during the 80’s was the ever present threat of nuclear war.

In fact it was only when President Reagan made approaches to his Soviet counterpart, after having brought the entire world to the very brink of disaster, that we even actually saw what a Russian looked like. Until then I had never seen one on TV. This was the days before mobile phones, before digital cameras, before Twitter, before Facebook, before Google Earth, Google maps and Myspace. No one knew what the Russians were like, and the media had somehow brainwashed us into thinking they were hideous aliens. I certainly thought that Russians were evil monsters. No, really. To see they actually looked like us – human beings – was mind blowing.

Sting's 1985 song, "Russians", summed up this feeling exactly. Until then we didn't even know if the Russians had any emotions like us, any feelings of compassion, remorse, love, anxiety. Sting asked the question, do the Russians love their children, too? If so, then maybe, just maybe, nuclear war can be averted after all.

And so faced with such alterations to our perceptions of reality, Gen X were arguably the first generation truly to absorb the idea that society was shonky: that the media and government and the church were nothing but purveyors of lies. Society bashing became a pastime, a
chief topic of conversation – the very word “society” was spoken with distaste.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of Gen X - and its ultimate failure - was the man whose life was portrayed in the film Into the Wild

In other words, Generation X hated society - but we had not figured out what to replace it with. Like the rock and rollers and the hippies of the 50's and 60's we tried using music, but the corporate machine had long taken over this arena. There was no hope to be found there, although for a brief time Jeff Buckley tried his damndest to capture that idealism. Jeff offered us all a brief glimmer of hope and glory – only to drown in a Mississippi river, along with our hopes. Another example of this is Kurt Cobain – again, a sensitive new man, too isolated in his head for his own good. In the end he decided his head was too small a place to live in.

The character of Neo in The Matrix (1999) is possibly the apotheosis of the Gen X-er. Here is a sensitive character, hooked on computers, who doesn’t feel he fits in to society, that society and even reality itself is illusory, who doesn’t conform at this conventional job, who is restlessly searching for something but doesn’t know exactly what it is. And not only does he
find what he is searching for but he learns the true nature of reality – AND he transcends it.

And that, in a nutshell, is probably the defining quest of Generation X.

It's interesting to note that again, this is what the hippies tried to do - and they also failed. Or maybe they just planted the seeds which we, Generation X, further nurtured in ourselves. It’s also instructive to note that Neo sacrifices himself to save society – with most Gen X-ers probably feeling they have had to sacrifice their identities in some way to get by in society.

Next in Part 2: September 11, the rise of Gen Y - and Generation Wow! (No, not World of Warcraft...)


  1. Brilliant, as a fellow Gen xer I can relate to so much of what you have written and especially your last sentence 'with most Gen xers probably feeling they have had to sacrifice their identities in some way to get by in society'. I have always felt that way in varying degrees, but most acutely when working in a normal job.

  2. I was born in 1980 and I don't think I really fit into either Gen X or Y. I don't remember the 70s at all, but I don't have a rose-tinted view of the 80s like Gen Y. When grunge and gangster rap made its mark, I was in my pre-teens-- my age group were spectators of that musical movement, not participants. When 9/11 happened, I didn't respond by enlisting in the military, I was already in the military. I was already out of college when Facebook first opened to college students. So should I consider myself X or Y?

  3. Hi, well that's usually up to you to identify with! Admittedly a lot of these labels are just tools of convenience for studying groups of people. I guess I would put this to you: do you feel like you fit comfortably into society? Or do you feel slightly contemptuous towards the established ways? If its the former, I'd say Gen Y. If the latter - welcome to gen X!