Why Did Generation X Become So Angry?
Born in 1970 I am slap bang in the middle of Generation X, no hint of an overlap with either the Baby Boomers or the Millennials. I’ve also spent the last four years living in the Pacific Northwest, Generation X’s cultural homeland; home to Grunge and Douglas Coupland, where Twin Peaks was set and where The X Files and Northern Exposure were filmed. Indeed, how stereotypical Gen X is this? Here I am in Seattle, My current reading is a Douglas Coupland book (Bit Rot), which is laying in a Sub-Pop branded bag. I could only get more Generation X if I could overcome my aversion to plaid shirts.
For a long time Generation X has been a forgotten generation. We’ve led our life squeezed between the larger Baby Boomer and Millennial cohorts, two generations who also have quite high opinions of themselves. That has actually suited our sullen personalities, we were never ones to like that much attention. We tend to be a little more reserved, more reticent. If you can give an entire generation personality traits, then describing Generation X as slightly moody introverts, is probably as close as you can get. Remember a lot of us went through Goth phases of some shape or form while we were teenagers. We are though, currently going through a bit of a crisis. Not only have we been long forgotten but we are now coming under attack from our children, Generation Z or the Zoomers, who are describing us the ‘Karen Generation’. Yes, ‘Alright Karen’, is the new ‘Okay Boomer’. It’s representative of the stereotypical forty/fifty something mother who is constantly asking to see the manager. One of the most commonly seen quotes about ‘Karen’ is this;
“They’re usually racist, homophobic, transphobic, don’t believe in vaccines or climate, and are mostly also the parents of Gen Z children”.
When I first saw this, I alternated between on the one hand denying it was in anyway an accurate description of us and on the other, a very stereotypical Gen X distant aloofness and not caring what people thought. But the more I thought about it, I actually came to realise that there is an element of truth here. There is a lot to be proud of being a member of Generation X, but there is a dark underbelly here. We are a generation of contrasts, a generation of Ying and Yang.
We first gained notoriety as the slacker generation of the early nineties and whilst we often take pride in that classification, it is in many respects unfair. We were, and are, a generation that has taken a work-hard play-hard attitude, very practical in our ideas and attitudes. We are what is sometimes called a Nomad Generation, one who has to pick up the pieces from conflicts between prior generations. In our case, we had to re-build after the boomers rebelled during the sixties and seventies. It makes us practical, more concerned with results than high falutin ideas. It also makes us cynical. In some respects, we were the counter-revolution, a backlash against the optimism and idealism of the boomers. That cynical attitude also comes across at times in our attitude to the millennials. Don’t they realize that the world isn’t that simple?
Something that has always been one of our differentiating features is that our parents cut across two generations. In addition to the early boomers many of our parents are from the Silent Generation born between the late twenties and 1945. For many of us our parents, mine included, were pre rock’n’roll. My mother's teen idol wasn’t Elvis, it was a young Frank Sinatra. I woke up, in the days before breakfast tv, to the sounds of BBC Radio 4 rather than Radio 1 or even Radio 2. This gave them, and us, a different sensibility. It may also have influenced our slightly conservative stances, why we are struggling with Woke culture and issues such as transgender rights.
As with so many generations our attitudes to popular culture, and especially music define us. For ourselves this was also indelibly linked to technology. We are the bridge between the analogue boomers and the digital millennials. We were the last teenagers to simultaneously have to remember the home phone number of friends, I still can remember of few, and the first, for those lucky few, to have computers at home. Some of us remember a workplace without email and we were at the forefront of the original dot.com boom. Probably more than any other generation our music collection is spread across multiple formats. We are the last generation to remember vinyl the first time around. We eventually embraced CDs and some of us are still struggling with the concept of streaming. We’ve been burnt before with new-fangled technology. Who else out there had the misfortune to have a Betamax video recorder in the eighties?
But musically more than anything we are the generation of cassette tapes. It is probably the best single identifier of a Generation X’er, the question, “did you create mix-tapes?”. So much more time consuming, and far more permanent than a playlist. It was (is) far more romantic to give someone a mix-tape. Even if the focus of your attention couldn’t stand you, they would know that time, care and attention had been put into that endeavor. I would like to think that there are a few old flames out there who if they were to search through old boxes might come across a tape or two I may have prepared. The next challenge for them is find something that it can be played on. Once you do, remember to have a pencil at the ready just in case the tape needs to be re-spooled. Mix-tapes not only characterised Generation X as teenagers but you can hear mix-tapes in the music we made when we came of age, the low-fi and eclectic nature of artists like Beck and the DJ culture that came to the fore in the nineties.
We grew up as Indie became mainstream, bands like The Smiths in the UK, R.E.M. and the Pixies in the U.S. But we also loved rock and metal from the “there is so much hairspray that’s a fire hazard” Bon Jovi to Motorhead, AC-DC and Iron Maiden. In the nineties we threw all of elements those together to create grunge. As for Queen!!! We adored Freddie Mercury. In a bizarre way, and in no small part thanks to Bill & Ted, Bohemian Rhapsody is as much our anthem as Smells Like Teen Spirit or Creep. Unlike the punk generation we didn’t on a whim dismiss what had gone before, rather we embraced it. We saw and acknowledged clearly the influence previous artists had had on the bands we loved. We didn’t get petty about stuff. How could we deny the genius of the Beatles? We adored Bowie and Roxy Music, they had influenced so many of the bands we loved when we were teenagers. But we also still embraced the attitude of punk despite being at infant, junior and elementary school during its heyday.
I first started watching Top of the Pops regularly around 1978. For me, my early formative musical years were therefore spent with The Jam, The Police, Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Buzzcocks, the Undertones and the Boomtown Rats. The music of the nineties, as we came of age, reflects this. It had an edge to it that was often lacking in the 1980s, at least in the charts. You could clearly see the influence of the late seventies. But there was always an underlying contrast; ABBA, Olivia Newton John, Donna Summers and Boney M. That contrast, that yin and yang continued right throughout our childhoods, in some ways in continues to define us. We were teenagers in the eighties and therefore lived through a golden age of pop music, from the electronica and new romantics of the early eighties onwards. For every group like The Smiths there was a Duran Duran, for every Billy Bragg or Paul Weller there was Michael Jackson or George Michael, for every Madonna there was a Suzanne Vega.
We were a generation that took all of these diverse elements and smashed them together. However, it was more than grunge. Dance entered rock via The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and rest of Madchester. Dance entered the mainstream with the rise of the DJ culture. We popularized and brought into the mainstream Hip Hop and Rap. We brought together dance, soul and hip hop. The UK had Massive Attack and Soul II Soul, while the US had The Fugees. As young adults we were largely responsible for the so-called golden age of Hip-Hop. Artists like Beck and Radiohead have continually, and successfully, managed to combine artistic innovation with commercial success. Although, like all true X’ers, for a long time they resented the success of Loser and Creep, two of the theme tunes for the ‘Slacker Generation’. It highlights Generation X’s strange relationship with commercialization.
That mix of art and commercial awareness comes through across the board. Beyond music it was a huge factor in the success of scenes such as the YBA (Young British Artists) which spawned the likes of Damien Hurst. Even Banksy. How more Gen X could someone be? We can commercialize anything, although part of us feels guilty for doing it, a little part of us dies inside every time. For so long we tried to deny our role in it by hiding behind irony with the knowing, at times slightly too knowing, music, books, movies and tv-shows we created when we came of age. The movie Scream personifies this. A great horror movie and tribute to its predecessors, but with one ironic tongue very much in cheek. One of the best ever quotes I’ve seen about Generation X is this by Theis Duelund in an article in Vice Magazine;
“Jaded Gen X slackers nihilistically accept the machine of which they are a part and can dissect its fundamental facile and evil nature with all the clarity and urgency of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet”.
In many ways no song personifies Gen X better than ‘Californication’ by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers
"Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood Basement
And Cobain can you hear the spheres singing songs off Station to Station?
And Alderaan’s not far away, it’s Californication"
It has all the elements; of being too cool for our own good, being ironic and embracing popular culture all at the same time. We know what we are doing is wrong but it’s okay because we know we’re doing it and we know it’s wrong, so that makes it all okay. In many respects this is a result of being, whether you liked it or not, raised in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain. Subconsciously it left its mark. We are one of the most entrepreneurial generations of all time. Building upon what the late boomers started we led the great advances in technology in the nineties and beyond. So many tech firms, both the original dot.coms and the firms that followed were founded by members of Generation X; Amazon (Jeff Bezos), Google (Sergey Brin & Larry Page), Netscape (Marc Andreessen), Paypal (Peter Thiel),Tesla (Elon Musk), UBER (Travis Kalanick) and You Tube (Steve Chen, Chad Hurley & Jawed Karim),
Technology suited the Generation X down to the ground. We could dress casually for work and in any case it wasn’t ‘real’ capitalism. We could still pretend we were cool and go out on the streets during our lunch breaks to join in the May Day protests around the turn of millennium or the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Because, unlike what some say, we were principled in our youth. We had a conscious, also in part a result, the counterreaction, of being Reagan and Thatcher’s children. Its that Ying and Yang again. We grew up with an awareness of environmental issues, we supported Greenpeace, Save the Whales and the World Wildlife Fund. We campaigned about the hole in the ozone layer. We devoted ourselves to the Anti-Apartheid Movement and we did all of this with a chip on our shoulders. We cheered when Nelson Mandela walked free and when the Berlin wall was torn down. These were probably the two most defining issues of our childhood and early adulthood. In many respects Berlin, more so even than Seattle, is the city that characterises Generation X. None of us were born before the wall went up. To us it seemed a permanent monument to the division in Europe and the ideological conflicts that spanned the globe. We grew up with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction. As teenagers, in-between episodes of Dallas and Dynasty, we sat and watched nuclear apocalypse TV movies like “Threads” and “The Day After”. We sent Nena’s 99 Luftballons to Number 1 around the world.
But before we get all haughty and ascend the moral high ground there are some uncomfortable truths. Yes, we saw a lot change and yes, we helped some of that change along its way. But as we reached the millennium our cynicism started to turn inwards and fester. We felt let down by Clinton and Blair, two baby boomers who had promised so much. We were promised a new dawn as the Cold War ended. Instead we got a never-ending war on terror. We became a Generation in many respects defined by War, especially in the Middle East. A large proportion of young soldiers who served in both the Gulf War and the post 9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq came from Generation X.
But this is where it gets very uncomfortable for Generation X. It is ageing Boomers that are leading that revival of the left, supported by their Millennial offspring. Where have we been? We have been leading the revival of the right. In the political mainstream this has been through politicians such as David Cameron and George Osborne in the UK, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio in the US. Generation X are truly Reagan and Thatcher’s children. But it doesn’t stop there, many of the key figures on the alt-right and especially in the Intellectual Dark Web are X’ers, such as Sam Harris and David Rubin. Brendan O’Neill is one of many who started as a Marxist and then moved across the political spectrum. Why has the generation that embraced Nelson Mandela as the icon of their age moved to the right in later years? Did it have to do with us being brought up to believe that Communism, and Socialism, was the enemy? Did that combine with the inherent individualism of our generation. In the US we were known as the latchkey kids. We were independent because we had to be. We’ve always been suspicious of grand ideas, we’ve seen the consequences when they don’t work. We’ve always had a libertarian streak, we’ve always valued individual freedoms, epitomised by the hedonistic culture we embraced in our twenties. We were, and continue to be, cynical about the ability to make wholesale change.
Our inherent individualism comes across in a number of ways. We were the first generation to benefit from affordable global travel. We were the generation of The Beach. We popularized gap years, although to begin with we started doing that in our twenties before we settled down rather than before college. But despite our awareness of the evidence on climate change, we’ve been reluctant to give up our globetrotting ways. That individualism combined with being brought up in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain has made us very open to neo-liberal and libertarian ideals. But there is an additional but very important other important, one that is too often forgotten and which makes Generation X a prime target for populism. That oft-forgotten link is that many of us left school or college or university in dreadful economic conditions. We saw deindustrialisation take hold in the eighties, whether it be across the Rustbelt of America or the North of England, whether it be the coal mines of West Virginia, South Wales or Northern France. Thirty years on it is easy to forget that a far lower proportion of 18 year old’s went to university in the eighties. In the US 45% of high school graduates didn’t go onto college, and then there are the ones who didn’t graduate from high school. In the UK less than 20% of children entered higher education. Therefore, especially the older cohort of Generation X entered a harsh economic climate straight out of school. The jobs their parents had taken for granted, coal mining, ship building, steel, mill and factory workers were no longer there. The social fabric their parents and grandparents had grown up with wasn’t there. Towns centered around a single industry, sometimes a single employer, were decimated. I grew up in an area of Yorkshire where 3 medium sized towns, plus a couple of smaller towns and villages had effectively merged together. It was an area dominated by Woolen Mills. Even when I was a small child in the 1970s I remember around a dozen mills plus four or five other major factories. Today there is one mill and a couple of factories left. The area has survived because it was lucky enough to transform itself into being a reasonably well to do commuter area. Many places weren’t as lucky.
Where do you think some of our angst and the slacker reputation came from? We were left disillusioned by the seventies and eighties. I’ve been to Aberdeen in Washington where Kurt Cobain is from and it is a typical deindustrialized town, in this case a small port reliant on timber. Indeed, if one looks at the bands that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the nineties, virtually none of them were from Seattle itself. Nirvana were from Aberdeen; Alice in Chains were from Tacoma and Renton; both Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill were from Olympia, while Mark Lanagen and the Screaming Trees were from over the Cascades in Ellensburg. They were from hinterland towns that were often struggling. Those bands, and the attitude they brought with them were rebelling against the perceived hopelessness of a post-industrialized future. In the eighties this economic and social change radicalized many to the left. We grew up with extremes. In Britain the choice was stark, Thatcher’s conservative vision or Michael Foot, the last true socialist to lead a major political British party for over thirty years. The interesting counterpoint is that the embrace and shift to the right towards Brexit voting, Trump supporting X’ers isn’t true in all places. Away from the English-speaking world Generation X has often been at the centre of the resurgence of the radical left, figures such as Greece’s former Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras and Pablo Iglesias Turrion from Spain.
But there is more, and it comes back to our cynicism. It is always healthy to be slightly cynical and questioning, especially of authority. But we seem as a Generation to have taken that to the extreme. We’re reinvented, and taken to a whole new level, conspiracy theories, and not all of that can be pinned on us obsessively watching the X-Files in the nineties. Has our disrespect for authority, combined with the internet, contributed to the growing distrust of experts? As parents we’ve become anti-vaxers and far too many of us no longer believe in climate change, that we went to the moon or that the globe is….well…..a globe. It is one thing to be cynical and questioning, it is another to not trust anybody or anything. We may have led the commercialisation of the internet but in some respects it has eaten us. We helped create the consumerists culture that the millennials thrive on. We spent our teenage years at shopping malls; we listened to Michael Jackson, Wham, Prince and Madonna; we grew up with MTV. We may have rebelled, but we commercialized our own rebellion. We were the absolute opposite of Gill Scott Heron. Our revolution was most definitely televised, and merchandise was available in the foyer at a 'reasonable' price. Then again, maybe I’m being too harsh on us all. Maybe I am the one who is being too cynical.
A great analogy I’ve seen about Gen X compares us to Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine in Casablanca. We've ended up slightly jaded running a seedy bar at the end of the world. Let me adapt that though to one of our great childhood hero's, Luke Skywalker. Rian Johnson's 'The Last Jedi' was a very divisive addition to the Star Wars canon, many were especially unhappy in where the character of Luke was taken. But maybe he actually epitomises the perfect Generation X hero. After growing weary and cynical he withdraws to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, only to be eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, redeemed. Maybe we should continue to dream and aspire to be a Generation of Luke's and Leia's, just as we did as children in 1977.