Generation X - UK: In America, it's a 'lost generation'. How do British twentysomethings see themselves? Alex Spillius reports

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'GENERATION X? What's that?' Karl took a pensive sip on his lager. 'Nothing to do with Billy Idol is it?' No, nothing to do with the old British punk rocker, whose band, back in the 1970s, was so named.

'Hang on, wasn't there a book or something called Generation X?' asks Karl as we chat before the support band (a little-known outfit called Blessed Ethel) appear on stage at Edward's, a black-walled, low-ceilinged club in the centre of Birmingham.

Indeed there was. The American author Douglas Coupland's novel, published two years ago, provided the catchphrase for his country's stricken, middle-class twentysomethings. They couldn't find meaningful work, or didn't want it, and ended up in McJobs - poorly paid roles in the service sector.

They were the first generation not able to expect a higher standard of living than their parents and so refused to buy the American dream. The 'baby boomers' had it good, but 'Gen X' were left watching Beavis and Butthead cartoons, smoking dope and listening to grunge and old 70s records. If they were uncool enough to have a hero, it was Kurt Cobain, the late singer of the best-selling grunge band, Nirvana.

When Cobain died in April, the American media nosedived into a panic. 'Xers' were continually hauled before the cameras to explain why the nation was losing a generation. Lately a Generation Y has emerged, the teenage version of Generation X. It is fortunate the alphabet only has one letter left sequentially, otherwise it could have gone on and on - introducing Generation Z, the tribe of lost middle-class 13-year-olds who can't see the point of reaching 14.

But what of Generation X-UK? How has it coped with life after God, the nuclear family, and jobs for life? Superficially it may appear there is no British equivalent of America's angst-ridden, abandoned crop. We have no Kurt Cobain figure, and no Seattle, the home of grunge. But while there are obviously plenty of happily employed twentysomethings in Britain, there are signs that growing unemployment among graduates and the young, combined with the freelance job culture, are creating disaffection.

Of those who left the old universities in 1992, 14.2 per cent were still unemployed or available for work after six months; of all 18 and 19-year-olds last month, 17.5 per cent were unemployed, while 15 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds were out of work. Compared to the jobless figures in most deprived inner-city areas, these aren't so bad, but they are bad enough.

The idea of Generation X began to ring a few bells in Britain when Coupland's novel was published here, and Gen X movies began to arrive - notably Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker (a low-budget semi-documentary about the aimlessness of post-college life in a small American town). The latest offering, Reality Bites, will be released here on Friday, starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke as college graduates in Houston, Texas, struggling to fit themselves into the work machine.

Now two magazines, the Idler and Slacker have started here, documenting and celebrating the culture of indolence. On its current cover, Slacker features the top 'indie' band Lush, which most people at Edward's in Birmingham had come to see. Out in the corridor, Karl, a 26-year-old of no fixed employment from Moseley, was picking up the 'slacker' thread.

'When Slackers came out I thought this has been happening over here for ages. I actually would be quite chuffed if someone called me a slacker, but, you know, if I've got to get something done I can do it,' he said, pulling on a Marlboro.

Karl did A-level art and then began an art course at a local college, before realising it was taking him nowhere. 'I still do a bit of painting and sell them to my friends sometimes,' he said, smiling, shrugging his shoulders when asked if he would ever want a proper job.

'Sometimes I would, for the money. But in a way you are better off signing on and doing this and that in between. It was strange, about two years ago a whole lot of my friends just realised there was no point working in these awful jobs.'

Since giving up a job in the sales and dispatch department of a wire products company, Karl has been doing this and that, and seems pretty happy with it. Tall, insouciant and friendly, he was wearing a decent leather jacket. 'Fifteen pounds from the flea market,' he grinned. 'You feel trapped in a dull job on 200 quid a week. At least now I've more freedom.'

Freedom. That undefinable abstract. Members of bands like Blessed Ethel, a four-piece all in their twenties, are free to travel the country gigging, free to sing what they want, and free to make a hell of noise while they do so.

But there is some anger as well: anger at the fact that in their home town of Malvern in Worcestershire 'they don't want people with leather jackets and straggly jeans hanging round the town'; that a local workshop for the disabled is closing down; that 'anything artistic is being stamped on by this government more and more,' according to the guitarist, Dan Barnes. 'And the Criminal Justice Bill is making it harder to live in the extreme culture,' said Mike Harris, the bassist.

Dan Barnes is a qualified architect but can't find appropriate work. An 18-year-old friend and fan, Kait Worsley, has just finished her A-levels, and been accepted by Reading Art College - only to find that a grant wasn't available for her course. She said that at school in Welwyn Garden City, 'we were told that if we got an education we would definitely get a job, because there weren't so many people our age. But the only jobs are in banks and offices, and I don't want that.'

Kait still hopes her dream of becoming a professional photographer will work out, but all over the country many graduates have had to drop their initial ambitions. Jane Corcoran, a 28-year-old Liverpudlian, has long given up any hope of finding the sort of work she wished for. After leaving Liverpool University with a 2:1 in psychology and English she couldn't even find work experience in her preferred fields of museum or library work. Since then, countless applications for other types of job have led nowhere; voluntary work with Barnardo's has helped fill the gap.

'In my experience a degree has counted for nothing. You are either over-qualified or can't get the experience. It's very hard to feel positive, and I know a lot of my friends are in a similar situation,' says Jane, who is married to a policeman, and whose working-class family were thrilled when she went to university. 'But they can't believe the jobs I've been going for,' she said. 'By this stage in my life I thought I would be well sorted, but we can't afford kids and I haven't been abroad in 10 years. I had high expectations after leaving university but then nothing happened.'

With more graduates going for fewer jobs, many are travelling, taking menial work or voluntary work or signing on. Becky Gill, a second-year media and cultural studies student at Birmingham University, said: 'Arts and social science students just know there is no point applying for good jobs, so they are looking at alternatives. Personally, I plan to steer clear of growing up for a long time, but I come from a white middle-class background and have the confidence to do that. The majority have to find work straight away afterwards.'

A proper survey into the British under-thirties' attitudes to work, family, and faith has yet to be carried out. But an advertising agency, Collett Dickinson Pearce, interviewed 60 people in the under-30 bracket, whose perceived enervation and non-commitment makes them a hard lot to sell to.

'There is a large group who are very pissed off because their expectations rose as their parents told them if they worked hard and did well at school they would get a good job,' says Douglas Atkin, the agency's planning director.

'Now they would like jobs in journalism, advertising or the City but their chances are minimal. It's been called boomer envy. One chap said, 'They had everything, but they have left us with the bill: Aids, unemployment and pollution'. '

The trendier agencies have identified a generation which is immensely media-literate and suspicious of advertising - hence the number of ironic, self-referential campaigns such as those for Fosters (which sends up a Haagen-Dazs commercial), or Boddington's (which lampoons the old Cornetto ads). But Atkin points out: 'Anti-consumerism is only skin deep. Most young people want jobs with good money if they could get them.'

Becky Gill and other students all confessed that the student generation was as politically apathetic as it has been for the past 20 years, with only racism able to motivate significant numbers to protest.

Likewise, everyone I spoke to at the Birmingham club agreed there was no coherence among their age group, certainly no strong movement and little sense of common identity, something reflected in the current diversity of musical trends: house, hip-hop, ambient, indie, punk - the list could go on.

But while America went overboard for grunge as its dominant youth style, Britain's indie and rave scenes (with endless sub-divisions) have been part of the sub-culture for years without being labelled - probably because they had no prophets, and no message of substance. Only the growing force of M11 and Solsbury Hill- type direct action environmentalists have an eye towards challenging society. The bulk of the under-thirty element is just subdued, not subversive.

Disillusionment and hedonism are nothing new, but the sense of being able to change the world that the Fifties' beatniks or Sixties' left-wing students shared, or the anger of the Seventies' punks, seems to have dissipated into world-weariness.

Paul Clements, Blessed Ethel's manager-cum-technician, condemned the indolence of many of his peers. 'I'm 29 and I get depressed seeing people younger than me sitting round doing nothing.

'Many of them even stay in bad relationships just because it's easier than breaking up and finding someone else,' he said, shaking his head. The experience of his friends indicates that belief in marriage is faltering.

'A lot of people I know just wouldn't consider it, although they still want to find the right person. I do know a lot from dysfunctional families and it screwed them up and scared them. They have experienced the ugliness of divorce.

'The Beat Generation actually challenged things, but it's harder now. There is so much media enforcement of how to live.' Even so, he can't understand. 'Why don't they get up off their arse and do something? Anything. There's too many people smoking dope and watching dole TV.'

So, what's on Dole TV today? For the really early risers, there's Richard and Judy at the crack of 10am. Only a couple of sluggish errands needed to take you up to Neighbours or Home and Away at half one, with the former repeated at half five for keen deconstructionists of modern suburban life in Australia. Not forgetting the idler's favourite quiz show, Countdown, with Fifteen to One also good for half an hour's slack-spined trivia.

Those who choose to be experts in ennui are probably few, but it apparently doesn't take long to learn. As Karl said: 'It's amazing how easy it is to get used to not doing much and not having much, especially if you've never done much.'

(Photographs omitted)

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