Gen-X: The Ignored Generation?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jeff Gordinier

Jeff Gordinier in the '90s, perfecting his bemused young man look.

Jeff Gordinier is tired of being force-fed the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Facebook and Britney Spears. He says being heard over the media din about boomers and their offspring, Generation Y, or "millennials" as they're now known, isn't just a challenge, it's annoying. Being overlooked and underappreciated? It's never-ending for him and his tribe of fellow Gen-Xers.

Clearly Gordinier, 41, has a generational chip on his shoulder the size of the whole faux grunge scene circa 1994. Good thing he's got a decent platform. His new book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking, is a tongue-in-cheek polemic that's inspiring age-based debates in chat rooms, living rooms and offices across the country.

Gordinier's book began as the essay "Has Generation X Already Peaked?" in Details magazine. He composed the rant in four days after the birth of his first son. "It grew out of a time when I think Gen-Xers were feeling colossally invisible. All the mass-media oxygen seemed to be sucked up by baby boomers and millennials. The baby boomers were turning 60, and that's all you heard about. How the boomers were turning 60 and they were still sexy and they're hot and they're launching their second acts," he said in an interview with TIME. "And at the same time, there's this media monotony, this bombardment of Lindsay/Paris/Britney... Lindsay/Paris/Britney ... Lindsey/Paris/Britney — the Buddhists have a term called "samsara," which is this sort of hell-cycle that you can never escape from until you meditate your way out of it. And I thought, my God, we're in some sort of Us Weekly samsara."

Where, he wondered, amid all this news about "the mating habits of AARP members" and their offspring's "bloggy, bling-bling birdsong of me-me-me-me-me sounds" were the cover stories about Generation X turning 40? How about less Bob Dylan and more Kurt Cobain? "If Nevermind changed the world, the world changed back pretty fast," Gordinier writes.


Sandwiched between 80 million baby boomers and 78 million millennials, Generation X — roughly defined as anyone born between 1965 and 1980 — has just 46 million members, making it a dark-horse demographic "condemned by numbers alone to nicheville," as Gordinier puts it in the book. "I don't really understand the tyranny of the boomer moment," Gordinier says. "Great, you had a party in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, I'm thrilled for you. Can we hear about the flappers in the 1920s instead? How about the Great Depression? There's other times in history that are interesting."

Gordinier is no more entranced with today's teens and twenty-somethings: "They just love stuff. They love celebrities. They love technology. They love brand names. . . . They're happy to do whatever advertising tells them to do. So what if they can't manage to read anything longer than an instant message?"

It's something like a national case of sibling rivalry, with millennials playing the part of the spoiled, naive baby and boomers acting as the self-righteous firstborn. Gordinier's book, then, is like the earnest ranting of a forgotten middle child.

Gordinier graduated from Princeton in 1988, a year after the stock market crashed and just in time for a recession that left him and many of his peers jobless. He recalls moving back home and using FedEx instead of Gmail to send out his resume. Xers witnessed the rise of the yuppie and the burst of the dot-com bubble. Theirs, he argues, was a bleak inheritance. "Instead of getting free love, we got AIDS," says Douglas Rushkoff, author of 1993's GenX Reader . "We didn't believe the same kind of things as boomers. It was much harder to fool us." Just as Xers shunned boomer notions, it seems millennials have similarly turned against the Gen-X ethos. "If the Gen-Xers were like 'No, I'm not in it for the money,' millennials rebelled against that and are completely greedy," Gordinier says in a video he posted to YouTube about the book.

"I think they gave us something to work against," says Kate Torgovnick, a 27-year-old writer and former colleague of Gordinier's. And though she agrees that her generation might be more ambitious and self-promoting, she says millennials are far from the non-critical consumers that Gordinier portrays. "We grew up with courses that dissect the media and advertising, so I think we're even more aware of what's going on."


As with most generation labels, "Generation X" is a loaded term, first coined and later disowned by Douglas Coupland, author of the 1991 book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. For Coupland, the letter "X" was meant to signify the generation's random, ambiguous, contradictory ways. Similarly, Gordinier's book is at times contradictory, ambiguous and random.

Though his original essay was melancholy and defeatist ("It's over, baby. Gen-X has been crushed. You might as well retire."), Gordinier's book conveys a far different message. Shirking the media myth that Xers are slackers, Gordinier argues that Generation X has — to borrow a '60s term — changed the world. Citing Gen-X icons like Quentin Tarantino and Jon Stewart, along with Gen-X triumphs like Google, YouTube, and Amazon, among others, Gordinier argues that not only are Xers far from over, they might be the most unsung and influential generation of all time. "Gen-X stomping grounds of the past — the espresso bar, the record shop, the thrift store — have been resurrected in digital form. The new bohemia is less a place than it is a headspace. It's flexible enough to bypass all the old binaries. It encompasses mass and class, mainstream and marginal, yuppie and refusenik, gearhead and Luddite. It's everywhere and nowhere in particular," he writes.

In short, "GenXers are doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking."

Gordinier pleads his case on YouTube

And what of the legacy that millennials inherited from Generation X? Aren't Gen-X creations like YouTube and MySpace largely responsible for millennial narcissim? Didn't punk rock begat Rock Band? Perhaps. "We've created all these great Websites that now millennials waste their lives on," Gordinier says with a laugh.

Somewhat ironically, these same technologies have also transformed the very notion of generations. Steve Gillon, author of "Boomer Nations," believes that people born between 1946 and 1964 will be the last to really experience national culture in such a unified way. "If you grew up in the '50s and '60s, you came of age at the same time that national culture first developed. There were three major TV networks. Everyone was watching the same thing. The assassination of J.F.K., for instance, was the first event the nation experienced in real time at the same time."

And of course, broad descriptions of generations are not always true. A Washington Post review, titled "Wild Generalization X," called Gordinier's original essay "big fun, ... but all baloney." Gordinier's stock response? His generalizations "are more along the lines of mortadella, which is that really expensive and delicious baloney they make in Italy."

Gordinier wants to be clear about one thing: X Saves the World isn't personal. "A lot of what I'm doing is channeling all these things I would hear about millennials in the office, or boomers forcing their history down our throats," he tells TIME. "It's more about radar. It's more about antennae. These are signals I'm picking up."