Once you get to a middling age, you get squished.
In some ways, Generation X were doomed to be screwed - overshadowed by Baby Boomers and mercilessly dogged by their "no worries" Millennial brethren.
Then, look what happened on our watch: latch key childhoods, spiking divorce rates, work mobility (straining kinship ties), terrorist attacks that (arguably) defined divisive politics, the ever-widening gap between wealthy and middle class (much less between the wealthy and working class or poor), corporate layoffs as a tool for staff regulation, the up-ending of traditional media, quick successions of gadget obsolescence, and that whole first-adopter obsession (and chain) that came with email, Blackberries, and the messy messy Internet.
The corporate ladder: One doesn't want out, the other wants up
What brings up these crotchety musings? Blame the Washington Post's article, "Gen X in the workplace: Stuck in the middle." The column lists the many ways in which the poor Gen-Xer - branded slackers by our 20s, right during a recession not of our making - have to deal with stubborn gray-beards and their I-generation offspring.
- The first Boomers now qualify for retirement, but they ain't going anywhere, "either exercising their own sense of entitlement by indifferently coasting in tenured and senior positions without fears of being fired, or legitimately hustling through the onset of their golden years to squirrel away enough cash to retire." And, of course, the bubble wiped out many of their savings. (Are Gen X-ers to blame for the bubble? Sure - some of us were stupid enough to pay exorbitant prices for homes, and spent their stock options on unneeded luxuries. Then again, who sat in the CEO seats, presiding over the mess? Boom Boom bust.)
- Millennials apparently have inherited "their own sense of entitlement." They want titled positions, and they want it now. This concept of putting in the time? How quaintly 20th century. Gen X, you have a hoary foot on your head and someone's eager head nudging up your patootie.
- Gen X have been accused of disloyalty and disengagement - but how loyal can you be in an environment where the euphemism "downsizing" came into play in the 1980s? The Post points out we've lost trust (if we've ever had it) in the workplace, what with all the corporate fraud too.
- Of course, Gen X could learn from "eager" young 'uns. We know all about that whole work-life balance thing and equality between the sexes, but Millennials take that much more seriously: "[T]his younger set values the end product more than they value the time they spend at the office." (Good for them -- although that's no excuse for the extreme: Gen Xers complain of incoming interns, perhaps a bit too Web-weaned, who don't believe in doing the menial stuff. There's something to be said about our library-card upbringing.)
Bad Covers: the Gen X lazy-boy rep
Gen X has never been viewed as a glam generation, especially now. Who does profiles on "Keeping It Real: Ten Between 35-50"? Folio certainly didn't, preferring its recent cover story "Rising Stars: 10 Under 30." Atlantic magazine devoted its October issue to the Boomers (although it also included an editorial called, "The Least We Can Do," in which a penitent writer described his peers "[s]elf-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing" and called for a "generational gesture" to pay down the debt for the next group. (Incidentally, he blames the debt crisis on the World War II generation. That's called returning the buck.)
But, we're used to that. As we were growing up, we got dubbed all sorts of not-so-attractive names. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described we 49 million Americans born between 1961 and 1971 the "silent majority."
Time magazine dismissively referred to X-ers as ""Laid back, late blooming or just lost?" Baby-busters was another moniker - that one fortunately fizzled out: Who wants to be defined as a negative to another?
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution sympathized, saying X-ers have been "deprived of identity as a generation and often skipped over in unemployment statistics, many people in their 20s are suffering through the nation's economic difficulties anonymously." A tad more derisive was the Vancouver Sun, who advised us to "get a grip, super-hip X people." The SF Chronicle were haters too, with headlines like "Generation X's Days of Whines and Poses." (Who reads your paper now, Chron?)
By the way, where did that X come from?
Douglas Coupland wrote a book, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," and became the interpreter for older reporters trying to figure the young disenchanted. But, a letter to the Oregonian from a reader named Michael Pearce said that he traced the term to Billy Idol's 1970s band. Pearce emailed Idol himself and got this reply:
'Generation X was the name of an English socio/pop culture book all about the culture, everything from Eton to bluebeat. It's the cover of `The Best of GenX,' a CD of mine in Europe . . . It had opinions from greasers and mods and the upper classes showing the dramatic differences. We thought, aha, that's us.'' So how were we ultimately defined? The take from a 1991 Toronto Star article, which used names like "Baby Bust" or the "Portfolio People":
They're superstitious, lack heroes, crave attention, fear commitment and are coming to a workplace near you. Make way for Generation X - tomorrow's employees, marching in the wake of the postwar baby boom.
Slow to tie themselves to a job, and quick to quit, workers in their 20s consider employment a "golden prison," says David Cannon, Queen's University career counsellor and researcher who has extensively studied the coming generation.
"They want to play," he told about 200 business people and personnel managers at a Toronto convention yesterday.
Members of Generation X - also called the Baby Bust generation, or the Portfolio People - dream of working at a company for a few years and then leaving the 9-to-5 grind to devote time to family and recreational pursuits, Cannon said.
They ultimately want to "break free," becoming consultants or entrepreneurs and setting their own hours, he said. "But they aren't sure how to get there." Well, we figured the path to consultancy and entrepreneurship...after the layoffs.
Gen X -- no sell-outs, and no sales job either
When you have a Baby Boomer generation calling you names, you just sulk in the corner with your wine cooler and vow things will change when your time comes.
Okay, so the persnickety Gen X's unwillingness to play the games hasn't helped to shape our image. Really, how do you define a generation that hates, hates, to be defined. "It's just a stereotype, a big media creation," told one guy to the Boston Globe, after he got out of a matinee viewing of "Reality Bites" (1994). (O, poor Winona Ryder.)
Author Coupland rightly called us cynics when he insisted in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview, "This whole generation is anti-spokesperson." In an advertising and media-saturated age, though, that's a mighty contrarian attitude. Being cynical, out of work, suspicious - that makes for a bad marketing targeted, as the Oregonian trumpeted, "Marketers Find Generation X a Hard Sell." And in America, if you can't be sold to, you don't get a warm and fuzzy identity. We've sow what we reap.
Naturally, that was then - this would change once we got buying power. Innovation-and the marketing thereof-happened on our watch, and we became an attractive enough demographic. What kind of demographic? A 1997 survey ("Rocking The Ages: The Yankelovich Report of Generational Marketing") painted us as independent planners who needed to be college educated, self-funded (versus inheriting money), thinking of retirement already, and control over their own lives.
Interestingly, the study found that Gen X has more alignment with the folks before the Baby Boomers, the Great Generation. No wonder we're mad about "Mad Men."
Then again, our dollar doesn't go as far as it used to, and we've cut back on consumer spending (unless it's nostalgic). So, we're still a hard sell.
Komodo Dragon: a generation's mascot?
What's most fascinating, more than a decade later, is we still harbor a deep desire to gain a "control" that we really never quite really had. Not that we didn't know this way back in our surly pubescence, and in our bones through the bubble. Living through two recessions has underscored the point - control is nigh impossible, and we wearily know this. The Post didn't need to point out we're buffeted from both sides...but thanks for the recognition. We know we need to be the bridge, the facilitators, the diplomats, the ambassadors - what the Post calls the "traffic cops."
But, whatever you do, don't take Generation X for granted. Among the early snapshots of Generation X, the better one has to be a Boston Globe 1998 article Cognitive anthropologist Robert Deutsch sussed us out this way:
A throttled anger and a tacit expectation of loss seethe behind Gen X's go-get-'em facade. In this case, a get-ahead attitude represents not the often-reported entrepreneurial spirit, but a defensive attitude toward the world: I'm going to grab and take all I can get because no one is going to give me anything. A primitive assumption obtains: You're my enemy until proven otherwise. Go to the nearest zoo and watch a Komodo dragon. The mark and patrol of territory, the threatening, then the pounce, with no questions asked, not even later. That's the world of reptiles. That's Generation X. And, in the postmodern habitat, this may very well be adaptive. Seething and adaptive, and a Komodo dragon. Okay, we could do worse. So back off, Boomers, lest we bite your toes off. And Millennials, we like your spirit, but seriously, stop saying "no worries" and "whatever." Defensive middle-aged people find that really annoying.
Generation X. We're the best of both generations, and we'll muddle through just fine.