Generation X to Generation Next
by Laura Slattery
Generation X achieved notoriety in the early 1990s as a media label designed to pigeon-hole American youth into the stereotypical image of the disaffected slacker. The generation of Americans born between 1961 and 1981 - the children of the Baby Boomers - were classified as baby-busters, slackers, twentysomethings, the generation without a conscience, the lost generation, the 13th generation, the me generation, but most commonly and most enigmatically as Generation X. The popularity of Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X became such that its portrayal of three intellectual underachievers was adopted by journalists as a convenient template drawn to describe the entire post-baby boom generation. Coupled with what was regarded as the celluloid mirror of Coupland's novel, Richard Linklater's film Slacker, Generation X became a media label and a marketing tool. With the soundtrack provided by the emerging Seattle grunge scene, the American media were happy to have found a term to categorise both American youth and its culture, a term that would frequently be used to undermine the collective character of the post-babyboom generation and treat its cultural outlets with contemptuous disdain. This study will examine how this process was initiated by the media and its effects on the so-called X-ers and their attitude to consumerism. It will also show how the philosophy of Douglas Coupland was deeply rooted in the media fortunes of the generation he called X.
The Rise and Fall of Generalization X
By 1993, the successors to the Baby Boom were being called X by Time, Newsweek, Business Week and Fortune (Bruce Tulgan, 1996). Problems arose when trendspotters began isolating elements of the lives of the characters in the novel Generation X and in Slacker, for example their offhand manner of handling problems or their questioning of the status quo. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, a song about the apathy of a disillusioned youth, became an MTV-sanctioned anthem, their Sub Pop record label claiming it to be part of a loser rebellion . These images were amplified to represent an entire generation , and the general consensus was that this representation was a misrepresentation. The term was a derisive media batchphrase, according to Douglas Brinkley, a snide put-down for the children of the Baby Boomers. The generation was reportedly numb and dumb, lazy underachievers, apathetic boomerangers who sank home to the parental nest after graduating from college . X-ers - usually regarded as white, upper-middle class and college educated - were labelled monsters, Coupland asserted in Details - a publication that had been the manual for the so-called Generation X.
Generations, Brinkley conceded, are often labelled by historians, novelists and journalists in an attempt to capture the spirit or essence of an era. But the term Generation X, he argued, carried all the germs of propaganda and stereotype. The hijacking and distortion of the original observations made by Coupland and Linklater during 1992-3's media wave emanated partly from the Baby Boomers, who, feeling pummelled by recession and embarrassed by their own compromised 1960s values, began adopting a negative slant toward the group threatening to steal their spotlight . It's the first generation to live so well and complain about it, concluded Christopher Georges in a Washington Post article headlined The Boring Twenties: Grow Up, Crybabies, You're America's Luckiest Generation. The dominant caricature constructed by the media was that of slackers with short attention spans and no work ethic, dropping out of the rat-race to live off parents or barely surviving in low-pay, low-status, short-term McJobs.
This criticism left the Baby Boomer journalists open to accusations of responsibility for Generalization X, as Village Voice critic Mike Rubin called it. Arguments began to centre around the validity of the image of youth inspired by Generation X. The media circus surrounding the term was sneered at in Generation Ecch!, a commentary on pop culture in the 1990s by Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman Generation X was argued to be nothing more than a mythical construction grounded in the fictional creations of Coupland and Linklater and linked lazily with economic trends. Disaffected twentysomethings appear to exist only in the fervid imaginations of a few writers and pop psychologists, claimed political scientist Everett Carl Ladd in an issue of Public Perspective (1994). Survey data suggested that young adults were not more or less optimistic than other generations about their personal condition or the economic future of the country. Ladd concluded: Claims of sharp generational differences and conflict may make good copy, but they are rarely justified. Atlantic magazine commented in December 1992 that this generation - more accurately this generation's reputation - has become a Boomer metaphor for America's loss of purpose, disappointment with institutions, despair over the culture and fear for the future . This seems to suggest that Generation X cultivation was merely a symptom of a deeper malaise in contemporary American society, and that disaffection was not just confined to those born between the 1961 to 1981 time-frame.
In May 1994, Douglas Coupland said on the CNN television programme Heads Up: This is going to sound heretical coming from me, but I don't think there is a generation X, thus stifling the issue at the source. In his eulogy to the term he popularised, Coupland identified generation X, slacker and grunge as the most abused buzzwords in the 1990s cultural media. The phrase had been stamped so firmly into the national consciousness that it was part of politics at a presidential level - Bill Clinton brought up the subject in a talk he gave at the University of California in May 1994, where he told his audience of potential Xer voters that what he had seen evidence of was not a generation of slackers but a generation of seekers. Contempt for the cliché of the slacker was such that the so-called Generation X was now the so-called so-called Generation X.
Selling to a Cynical Generation
Generation X hysteria, however, had already infected marketers anxious to overcome the effects of economic repression, and the term was used as a code-word for fifty-million people who might otherwise have been difficult to pin down as a target market. How to Sell to Generation X was soon the principal objective of advertising campaigns across America; Douglas Coupland was asked to be involved in an advertisement for The Gap. Prozac was being marketed as the new happiness drug for a new generation living in what was dubbed by Elizabeth Wurtzel as the United States of Depression. This was the second wave of Generation X media, which sought less to define Generation X and more to address it as a single, unified group with common interests and backgrounds. The youth-centric ad campaigns of the early 1990s were all part of the marketing exploitation process, which was equally guilty of stereotyping, according to Coupland: The hypermarketing of X was responsible for the terminal devaluing of the phrase. The media, he said, was trying to feed back a Disney version of a generation to itself.
The media saturation of America was clearly a serious social issue surrounding Generation X, as important as the alleged tendency toward self-imposed economic hardship, which resulted from disenchantment with business, educational and governmental institutions. The institution of the media, though firmly ingrained in Xer mentality, would not escape the criticism of cynical Xers. Richard Linklater defined the slacker as someone who existed outside the social hierarchy, the consumer society, the world that is pre-ordained. Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy, was Slacker's manifesto. Bruce Tulgan argued that Xers' skepticism was not born of naivety and immaturity, nor was it born of a temporary idealism, but rather of shrewdness and experience. Xers' cynicism, he claimed, resulted from growing up during an era marked by a substantial deterioration in the constancy of social, religious, political, and business institutions, but it seems more likely that the growth in cynicism was the result of an overdosing of 1980s consumerism and media training.
X sensibility is always a few steps ahead of the media game, Douglas Coupland confirmed happily. Douglas Brinkley surmised that the street-wise instinct, ground in disillusionment with many aspects of American life, was an understandable reaction, which could also have been praised as pragmatism. Xers were aloof, he said, because they were wary of cliches and propaganda. Anti-commercialism had been a feature of both the Nirvana-led grunge culture and the novel Generation X, which preached Coupland's concept of Lessness - a philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth. Seeking marginalisation in fear of corporate selling-out was supposedly an Xer trait. In 1994 the mass media's fascination with this aspect of Generation X mentality culminated in the making of a Hollywood film, Reality Bites, by Ben Stiller. In an article on this film which appeared in Bad Subjects in March 1995, Bill Salzmann commented that Stiller assumes an audience which has been well-trained by the media... aware of Generation X signs and hails, but also of the language of product placements, `hip' consumerism, and music videos. Similarly, Michael Azerrad spoke of the ability of Nirvana - the influential musical articulation of Generation X - to communicate in the same scattershot, intuitive way that his generation has been trained to assimilate and to express information.
The characters in Reality Bites are cynical spectators; Vicki points out that Evian is naïve spelt backwards, Lelaina rejects the offer of a BMW because it is a Yuppie status symbol, and she is compromised when television executives edit her video to create the impression that pizza is the meaning of life to her slacking friends. Although the characters in Reality Bites have a high degree of consumer consciousness, they fall victim to what Coupland defined as 2+2=5-ism in Generation X - caving into a target marketing strategy aimed at oneself after holding out for a long period of time. Salzmann argued that the characters' primary mode of communication with each other is through their relationships with commodities like Pringles, Big Gulps, and especially television. Ultimately, they embrace consumerism, whereas the characters in Generation X were endowed with Coupland's feeling of repulsion toward it. Shopping malls were identified as Mental Ground Zero by Coupland, whereas Vicki in Reality Bites works in The Gap.
Andy, Dag and Claire in Generation X suffer from Option Paralysis - the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none (Coupland). Coupland also explained in Generation X the value of Obscurism as a means of disassociating oneself from mass culture and defined what he termed Emallgration - migration toward lower-tech, lower-information environments containing a lessened emphasis on consumerism. Coupland described his novel's characters as living inside a new psychic landscape where personal memory fights for real estate with commercial memories (Details). He spoke of a wilful marginalisation of refusing to participate in the density of information which we all live in (Heads Up, CNN) and commented in Details that the economy is reconfiguring itself towards a polarisation of people who have information and people who've sort of lost the information game of musical chairs. All of this is reflects Coupland's antagonism toward consumerism and ambivalence toward the advent of the information age, both of which were intensifying in America at a phenomenal rate.
Irony-rich living is often mentioned in connection with Generation Xers, but what seems most ironic is that Generation X, a fiercely anti-commercial, anti-consumerist group, became a lucrative target market for corporations like Pepsi, who in 1997 modified the term to create the slogan Generation Next. Nirvana, who revelled in being an integral part of an independently minded youth subculture, had become prime-time video fodder for the unfashionably mainstream MTV corporation. With the grunge element taken out of the Generation X equation with the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994 - the bullet that shot through a generation (Newsweek, Rolling Stone etc., quoted in Prozac Nation) - and the backlash against the slacker stereotype in full swing, there was nothing left to Generation X but the marketing legacy of Generation Next.
Through this slogan the true emptiness of the label Generation X was exposed. As the hastily concluded summary of the analysis of social patterns of a group, it was imbued with meaningless generalisations, but as part of the language of advertising, it had found its true level. The slogan indicated the new humorous, ironic and almost affectionate way of viewing the inadequacies of media labelling in connection with Generation X. With the concept of Generation Y beginning to emerge quietly in magazine features, it was almost an exercise in self-mockery by journalists, a knowingly ironic example of trying to amuse an otherwise cynical youth audience. Rumours of the death of both Generation X hysteria and Generalization X contempt had now been confirmed.
Those who liked to consider themselves Generation Xers had successfully killed the use of the term Generation X by criticising the media's cultivation of the slacker stereotype and the associated hypermarketing, but in the end this criticism was as flawed as the misrepresentation and marketing strategies themselves. Admittedly, the messages contained in Generation X were seized upon without serious consideration. The occupational slumming of Coupland's characters, rather than their conversational creativity, was the feature of their lives which, when paralleled with Linklater's characters in Slacker, was used to engineer not reflect a statewide social trend. Media pundits viewed Coupland's unflattering portrayal of the veal-fattening pens in corporation offices as evidence that those who worked in low-pay, low-prestige McJobs were doing so merely because of apathy and rebellion, and not because, for many, their college degrees proved to be worth considerably less than those of their parents.
In fact, one of the most significant definitions in Generation X was Clique Maintenance - the need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego. Coupland was predicting the imminent criticism of the post-baby boom generation by Baby Boomers by referring to this - Kids today do nothing. They're so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain. Coupland had accurately summarised the tone and level of detail in analysis of alleged Xer behaviour.
But clique maintenance proved to exist in reverse also. The influence of the Baby Boomers had peaked in the 1980s, their economic clout keeping yuppie culture afloat. Hatred of yuppie culture was an essential part of Xer philosophy, and an us-and-them mentality developed. Bruce Tulgan commented in Managing Generation X that the yuppie culture of the Eighties permeated Xers' youth, but we only saw the pay-off from a distance. His constant references to Xers as former latchkey kids, whose greatest continuity in life had been discontinuity, lay the blame for economic hardship firmly on the previous generation. Xers, he said, had inherited the Boomers' late twentieth-century disillusionment, without having had the opportunity for youthful idealism. Generation Xers deemed themselves scarred by the collapse of Reaganomics: the Yuppie's espousal of capitalism in Reality Bites is therefore seen as repulsive and naive, and resentment of the Boomers' economically cushioned passage through youth - Coupland's boomer envy - was evident. Elizabeth Wurtzel blamed her clinical depression in part on Boomer culture: The sixties counterculture - along with its alter ego, eighties greed - has imprinted itself all over me (Prozac Nation, 1994).
It was claimed that Xers' opposition to their predecessors existed only as a media-sanctioned generation gap; another blanket generalisation about the X generation. But this time the generalisation was being made by those who had criticised the nurturing of a stereotypical image of American youth, the generational conflict being maintained as much by offended Xers as by critical boomer journalists. Coupland had written in Generation X of 101-ism - the tendency to pick apart, often in minute detail, all aspects of life using half-understood pop psychology as a tool. And the supposed Xer mentality was frequently subjected to 101-ism in American publications. But Coupland also engaged in the use of pop psychology to diminish the theories of the contemptuous boomer media. When baby boomers' economic and cultural idyll had been brought to an abrupt halt with the advent of a new decade, they were in collective darkness, according to Coupland. Criticism of the post-baby boom generation was, Coupland said in Details, the result of boomer angst-transference. It was not simply a failure in American mass media to separate fact from fiction and convey the complexity of youth subcultures and the difference between trends and absolutes to its audience.
Coupland and others refused to consider that without the economic support of the baby boomer generation, the process whereby certain youth subcultures became mainstream American culture would have proved difficult, and the Xers' quest to experience alternative realities other than what had already been fed to them by the mass media would probably not have achieved the same kind of success without the vision of boomer marketers. Xers did not want, after all, to be ignored. The impact of Xer culture on America in the early Nineties was not, therefore, an unaided rebellion, but a media-assisted, media-sanctioned event. The strong anti-consumerist subtext in Generation X faded and was replaced by a cynical celebration of consumerism in Reality Bites. It made little sense to this generation to shrink from the density of information that was available, particularly on the Internet; the mass media was viewed as crucial, not corrupt. Capitalism was still a dirty word, but so now was slacker. This was recognised by the media, which began to focus more on the entrepreneurship of the young, technically-gifted employees at companies such as Microsoft - also the subject of Coupland's 1995 novel, Microserfs - and emit once again a positive image of American twentysomethings.
Azerrad, M., (1994), Come As You Are, Doubleday
Brinkley, D., (1994), Educating the Generation Called X from Stop Making Sense of Generation X,
Washington Post Education Review, April 3, 1994, p.1
Coupland, D., (1991), Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, St Martin's Press
Coupland, D., (1995), You were born in the `60s. Does that mean you'll have to pay for it the rest of your life?,
Details, June 1995, p.72 plus extracts from interview on Heads Up, CNN, May 28, 1994
Morin, R., (1994), Much Ado About Twentysomethings, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, January 31,
Petrek, M. and Hines, A., (1993), Withdrawing in Disgust is Not the Same as Apathy, Mondo 2000, Issue No. 9
Salzmann, B., (1995), Reality Bites, So Buy a Big Gulp, Bad Subjects, Issue 19, March 1995
Tulgan, B., (1996), Managing Generation X, Merritt Publishing
Wurtzel, E., (1994), Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, Houghton Mifflin Company
Plus Altculture website information on Generation X