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Generation X: The slackers who changed the world

They were supposed to be a 'lost generation' - cynical, alienated kids, doomed to live forever in the shadow of their Baby Boomer elders. Now, as Generation X nudges towards middle age, author Patrick Neate argues that it's time to admit just how much we owe to his unsung, over-achieving peers

We often try to put ourselves d-down (talkin' bout my generation)

Wearing clothes too young and a perma f-frown (talkin' bout my generation)

Things we do look awful c-cold (talkin' bout my generation)

Hope I never die, let alone get old (talkin' bout my generation)...

(With apologies to Pete Townshend)

Your reaction to my crass bastardisation of The Who's lyrics probably depends on your, umm, generation. You might, for example, regard it as a careless key scratched down the pristine paintwork of your vintage nostalgia (whether one careful owner or bought at an eBay premium to salve your burgeoning mid-life crisis). On the other hand, your response to The Who may simply be "the who?" And you'll shake your head and turn The Killers up full blast on your Nokia N91 before slipping it into the back pocket of your skinny jeans.

If, however, you're unsure whether to regard said bastardisation as the facile exploitation of a recognised cultural meme by an ignorant critic (who'll never know as much about popular archetypes as your media-savvy self has forgotten - typical!) or an ironic reference to exactly such facile exploitation then... well, then we can talk. You and me? We're Generation X, my friend. But don't think that means we've much in common.

In fact, though, my nod to The Who is personal and specific (which is, I think, allowable since, like most of my peers, I'm well aware that there's nothing quite so fascinating as myself). I first heard that song in my mid-teens in the mid-1980s in a car driven by an older teen on our way to Pete Townshend's house in Twickenham. At the time, I shimmied on the fringes of the same social circle as his daughter and she was having some kind of "gathering" (as opposed to a "party").

The driver was quite excited at the prospect of going to a rock star's house and, when I confessed I'd barely heard of The Who, he gave me a brief potted history which included lurid tales of debauchery and a singalong version of "My Generation". I became quite excited too. Meeting the man himself (or "Mr Townshend" as I liked to call him) was, therefore, something of a letdown; not because he wasn't nice, rather because he was. Actually he was a bit like my own dad, only with worse hearing.

With the benefit of hindsight, this episode felt like the beginning of my understanding of my membership of Generation X - my friend and I were simultaneously suckered by celebrity and absolutely dubious about its merits. With the benefit of a more pompous worldview, I can say that it felt like our parents had trashed their Gods and offered us nothing in their place but themselves, and we weren't buying. Marc Bolan had it wrong, you see: you could fool "the children of the revolution" after all. It was their children who weren't so gullible (Bolan, incidentally, died in a car crash 200 yards from my childhood home - clearly a veritable stomping ground for early-1970s rockers).

However, as I pass halfway through my designated three score years and 10, I recognise that my understanding of Generation X (for the record, they are the post-Baby Boomers, those born between, say, 1963 and 1978) is precisely that: mine. Or, rather, it's Douglas Coupland's; or maybe, God forbid, Ben Stiller's.

Generation X was first coined by Jane Deverson, a journalist working on a study of the behaviour of British youth in 1964. I didn't know that, however, until I looked it up on Wikipedia last week (the ultimate Gen-X resource). Instead, my first encounter with the term came reading Coupland's novel of the same name in 1993. I was 22.

This is a contraction of the back cover copy: "Andy, Dag and Claire have been handed a society priced beyond their means. Twentysomethings, brought up with divorce... and scarred by the 1980s fall-out of yuppies, recession, crack and Ronald Reagan, they represent the new lost generation - Generation X.

"Fiercely suspicious of being lumped together as an advertiser's target market, they have quit dreary careers and cut themselves adrift...

"Unsure of their futures, they immerse themselves in a regime of heavy drinking and working at McJobs... Underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable, they have nowhere to direct their anger, no one to assuage their fears, and no culture to replace their anomie..."

A year later, I watched Reality Bites (with a beer, on a midweek afternoon, natch), the directorial debut that made Ben Stiller's name. A slacker tale of recent graduates failing to come to terms with the world of work, it starred Ethan Hawke as incredibly handsome couch philosopher-cum-potato, Troy Dyer. Troy was an intellectual. Troy was in a band. Troy did sweet FA. Troy said things like, "There's no point to any of this. It's all just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. So I take pleasure in the details. You know - a quarter-pounder with cheese, the sky about 10 minutes before it starts to rain, the moment where your laughter becomes a cackle. And I sit back and I smoke my Camel Straights and I ride my own melt."

Wow. I mean, wow-ow! Wow, did the likes of Andy and Troy sound (and even, maybe, look) like me to me in my early twenties. And, wow, was I deluded or what?

I've always been quite happy to describe myself as Gen X. Thanks to the likes of Coupland and Stiller, it's always conjured a certain slacker cool. We won't be tied down to the corporate buck. We're nihilists but with a sense of humour. We don't measure success in the world's terms. Sure, we drink Starbucks, but we do so (omega) ironically. In fact, we do everything ironically - we're ironic atheists, latchkey kids, serial monogamists and so forth. And yet? And yet, now that I've hit 36, I realise it's time to wake up and smell the half-and-half, triple-shot mocha (hold the whipped cream).

Two points: first, the vast majority of my peers (from school and university) are, at least apparently, super-successful and rich in a way that's not at all ironic (let alone funny). They are all, it seems, yuppies (for want of a newer word). Second, I am, as I have always been, a practising Catholic from a happy two-parent family who's been trying to persuade his girlfriend to get hitched for the best part of three years. Now, that's ironic.

Is my generation, therefore, in fact too disparate to merit its own classificatory tag? Or has it simply outgrown its original significant and binding attributes to find new (or, indeed, old) ones? I'm not sure. But, as the so-called Generation X reaches its thirties and forties and increasingly (albeit inevitably) assumes positions of power, it's worth consideration. Bluntly, I am now of the same generation as the leader of the opposition (and, some would have it, a potential future Prime Minister). A friend recently met dishy Dave and told me "it's hard not to like him". My instinctive response was that it was still important to try. Nonetheless, it has to be worth figuring out if Dave and I (and others like us) have anything in common by virtue of our age.

Symptoms that have long been commonly attributed to Generation X include the following: cynicism, alienation, amorality, solipsism, childlessness, pessimism, distrust of institutions, atheism and infantilism - for the most part, none too flattering. Factors commonly considered to be behind these symptoms include broken homes, the Cold War threat (and fear of nuclear holocaust), Aids and career insecurity. Cheery, eh?

Some of these symptoms and factors indisputably ring true. However, the more I've thought about it and the more I've revisited my Coupland-era beliefs, the more I've come to the conclusion that history (which, thanks to new technology, now happens in the present tense) is written by the powerful. That is to say, that most previous definitions of Generation X have been written by Baby Boomers, looking down on their younger siblings with the usual mixture of envy and contempt (Coupland, for example, is not Gen X; Stiller only barely). Now that us cynical, alienated, amoral, solipsistic, blah blah blah, big kids are ready to accept the reins of power, surely it's time for one of us to define ourselves a little more sympathetically. Hurrah!

I realise, incidentally, that "history is written by the powerful" is a bastardisation of Churchill. However, having already corrupted Townshend, I feel like I'm on a bit of a roll. Besides, displaying magpie tendencies is, I suggest, very much the Gen X way. In fact, "Magpie Tendencies" can be the first of my half-dozen updated characteristics of my generation.

You may, I'm sure, disagree with much of what follows and be able to think of countless examples that contradict my characteristics. But, don't forget the first principle of all social science - exceptions are frequently not the exceptions they first appear to be and, even if they are of course, they often prove the rule.

Way back in 1990, Time magazine published a feature about Generation X (then called, simply, "twentysomethings") with the strap line "laid back, late blooming or just lost?" It made the following claim, " Down deep, what frustrates today's young people is their failure to create an original youth culture." Eh?

What the writers, who were undoubtedly wearing their rose-tinted, Baby Boomer, "remember Woodstock" goggles, failed to grasp was that "youth culture" is a relatively recent invention with a relatively limited shelf life. But Gen X knew it (after all, we'd tried wearing a pair of jeans in every conceivable manner possible) and came up with an ingenious, if not altogether dignified, solution.

We became magpies, cherry-picking the best of both previous cultural forms and forms from other (ie, non-western) parts of the world. We revelled in eclecticism, toyed with authenticity and framed it all in irony. Just look at Tarantino: there was nothing new about Tarantino's films and yet cinema had never seen anything like them. Just listen to hip hop: a thoroughly modern collage of older musical forms.

In fact, hip hop - for all dandy Dave's recently reported doubts - is a prime example of the generation at its best; less a musical revolution than one of technology. Maybe we didn't create much in the way of new cultural content, but maybe we went one better. After all, we created a whole new cultural space for the production, distribution and consumption of that content: it's called the internet.

Now, I'm not suggesting we invented the internet. We didn't. Nor are we its natural heirs, which is a benefit bestowed on our successors. We were, however, the brave foot soldiers in the forgotten years before victory was inevitable. Look at it this way: it wasn't the Baby Boomers nor those young whippersnappers from Generation Y who tried to download movie clips over a 9600bps connection; it was us. And it took hours and the connection kept dropping and the clip was pixellated to incoherence, but we kept the faith. The internet wasn't of our making but it made us. Slackers in McJobs became self-employed entrepreneurs slaving 80-hour weeks for the noble goal that one day everyone might have access to affordable pornography. Faced with new and difficult career circumstances but armed with new and difficult tools, we adapted and became my second characteristic, "Enterprising".

Describing the moral make-up of the Baby Boomer generation, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia has written: "... if there is a sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation, it is the late teens and early 20s, and most of those whose sensitive periods included the Vietnam war and the struggles for civil rights seem to have been permanently marked by those times." Little wonder the Boomers are so morally cut and dried.

But what of Generation X? What is our equivalent? If there is one, I'd argue it was the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. However, I'd also argue it affected our generation in a subtle way. For (omega) the Boomers, the end of the Cold War was a victory for what they believed in. For us, however, still in that "sensitive period", it was merely a victory for what we knew. This is one root cause of my third Gen-X characteristic; we are what I call "Instinctive Relativists".

We didn't believe in global communism, but that doesn't make us advocates of global capitalism. We may not believe in God or institutions but that's missing the point; because we don't believe in the absence of God or institutions either. We don't even believe in immutable knowledge. We prefer Wikipedia - a limitless, editable source that's as fallible as its contributors.

Next to our Instinctive Relativism stands our fourth connected characteristic. We are "Natural Pluralists". It was mostly the Boomers who fought for civil rights and against apartheid, the Boomers who enjoyed the Summer of Love and won the feminist argument (if not the practice), the Boomers who first marched for gay pride. Good for them. All their achievements, however, didn't stop them being racist, sexist and homophobic, and so they had to come up with a series of laws (both actual and implicit) to proscribe their worst tendencies. Indeed, they're still at it; repeatedly tying themselves in legal and moral knots in a desperate attempt to "do the right thing". And Generation X looks on, somewhat bemused. You see, thanks to the Boomers efforts we are typically Natural Pluralists who accept diversity. Of course, this doesn't make us less racist, sexist or homophobic either, but it does mean that such impulses are transmitted across motherboards hardwired to value difference. This frequently leads to some confusion and even the occasional short circuit. But, in confusing times, it's OK to be confused.

I would argue that it is our Instinctive Relativism and Natural Pluralism that spawn the accusations of amorality. But it's simply not true that we don't believe in right and wrong; rather that we're often not sure what they are. We are governed by uncertainty and, admittedly, this is a dangerous position. But, in the contemporary world, it's still better than many. As a general principle, it must be worse to think you're right and be wrong (ask Tony "Boomer" Blair) than to admit that you're just not sure.

Does this sound too scary? If so, then you may be as reassured as I am dismayed by our fifth characteristic: I have come to realise that, for all our checkered past, we have grown into a generation of moderate conservatives (or "Mod Cons"). Dave the rave will certainly be chuffed.

I suspect there are various reasons for this; the most obvious being the simple fact of age. The second can be found in some of the factors I outlined above. For example, though many of us are the children of broken homes, that has often provoked nothing more than a determination to provide the opposite for our offspring. We may be having kids and getting married later and the divorce rate may still be high, but the remarkable thing is that the vast majority of us are still aspiring to the nuclear family and, ultimately, doing it.

The third reason for our Mod Con status is connected to the second but subtly different, too. Brought up in more laissez-faire environments than ever before, most of us had little struggle to enjoy spells doing drugs, each other and, indeed, nothing at all; and we don't do those things any more. It's not so simple as to say we "grew out of it" because that somehow implies a movement through age strata and a grudging acceptance of responsibility. Rather, we believe that we could still do all those things if we so desired; but we don't.

If the realisation we're a generation of Mod Cons dismays me, it's my final characteristic - effectively a love of mod cons - that gives me most pause. Earlier in this piece, I described my peers as "yuppies" but that doesn't quite hit the mark. "Comfort Junkies" is my preferred term and, what's more, our desire for what we perceive to be "the good things in life" usually outflanks all other characteristics with ease.

For all our one-time dread of yuppie aspiration, we have grown comfortable with its fruits. We don't eat sushi because it says something about us, we eat it because we like it. We don't wear Calvin Klein underwear to make a statement, but because it's what we damn well wear. We don't even drive SUVs around our crowded cities because of some misplaced one-upmanship, but because they're genuinely frightfully convenient if you've got two small kids. And we'll let nothing disturb this convenience. Our Mod Con tendencies will never get in the way of our mod cons and our pluralism will never outgun our desire for comfort. It is the one thing about which we're never relative. And this scares even me.

As Generation X reaches middle age and inevitably takes charge, it's possible to envisage dithering direction guided only by the side its bread (wholemeal, stone ground, from the deli) is buttered (spreadable, Danish, unsalted). But it's also possible to imagine humane and pragmatic leadership that's adaptable to the new challenges it will undoubtedly confront. I would finally suggest that the way this particular cookie will crumble comes down less to the characteristics of the generation than the generation's recognition of the two prime characteristics of its era: unprecedented prosperity and (at least local) peace. We have been very, very lucky. Me? I choose to be optimistic; the exception that proves the rule. And, in the meantime, like the Troy I never was, I sit back and I smoke my Camel Straights and I ride my own melt.

Celebrity, for those who can't be bothered to do it: The Gen X-ers who slipped off their sofas and slouched their way to stardom


Richard Linklater

The director seemed to have reached his Generation-X zenith with his non-linear classic Slacker in 1991 - but since then he has dazzled while refusing to be pigeon-holed into any particular genre or medium. His output is prolific and completely uncategorisable: recent credits include School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation. A stoner auteur turned modern-day Kubrick.


Damon Albarn

Having helped to spearhead the provincial, insular attitudes of Britpop, Albarn has spent the last 10 years making up for lost time in a prolific, genre-hopping spree that has taken in world music, hip hop and electronica among his various side projects (with collaborators including punk legends and cartoonist former flatmates). Back in the 1990s, who'd have put money on him being the last man standing?


Kate Moss

The perfect slacker career path: hang about at JFK airport, smoking cigarettes and acting gangly. Get discovered. Fly around the world looking awkward but beautiful as the face of modern androgyny. Date rock stars.


Geoff Dyer

Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, is considered by many to be the only significant work of fiction to come out of the slacker movement. His preparation for writing a book about hanging out in Brixton, unemployed, smoking too much dope, was to live exactly that lifestyle for many years. But do not imagine that Dyer - who later wrote the best-selling Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It - lacks any direction: his writing is rammed with a bewildering array of cultural references that at some point he has found the time and energy to digest.


Tom Hodgkinson

The Idler magazine, brainchild of Hodgkinson and a team of like-minded professional time-wasters, has evolved from what appeared to be an in-joke dreamt up in the pub to a viable publishing empire, with spin-off best-selling books (Crap Towns, The Cloudspotters' Guide) - not to mention pioneering the reintroduction of absinthe into the UK - all because of a dedication to the life of idle leisure.


Louis Theroux

The epitome of a Generation-X role model turned good: Theroux (just to make it better, the privileged son of a famous writer) has honed an air of feigned nonchalance to his documentaries, allowing him to disarm his subjects with an apparent ad-hoc approach to his art, as if embarrassed to reveal any real work or research went into it.


Chloë Sevigny

She shocked the world by getting high and swearing in Kids; surprised everyone by turning in an Oscar-nominated performance in Boys Don't Cry; and then took the unusual move of performing oral sex on camera in The Brown Bunny. But you can't keep a good Gen X-er down, so to speak, and she has now settled into a role as muse, credible actress and darling of the fashion A-list, thanks to a dedication to thrift stores. Only a Gen X-er could ride that paradox.


Jamie Oliver

He may seem the epitome of a Thatcherite entrepreneur, but Oliver helped to revolutionise the way in which cooking was perceived by young males in Britain. Effortless, impressive and trendy - all of a sudden scootering down to the local butchers was made to look like

a lifestyle choice, thanks to a few skewed camera angles and a laissez-faire attitude to recipes. Extend this to school dinners and philanthropy and, in his own haphazard way, he has entirely changed the culture of eating in Britain.


Alain de Botton

By no means a slacker or underachiever, Alain de Botton nonetheless typifies the last two decades' attitude towards serious thought: package it up in handy, bite-sized pieces, apply it to trendy lifestyle issues and you need never plough through the impenetrable, repetitive ideas of Jean Paul Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein et al again (or ever). After all, why worry about moral imperatives and the nature of being when we've got neighbour envy to concern ourselves with?

Mark Hooper

The Quiz: Which generation do you belong to?

1. The record that changed your life was:

a Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's... The Sex Pistols

b Sgt Pepper The Beatles

c Nevermind Nirvana

d Is This It The Strokes

2. Your favourite writer is:

a Mark Perry

b Robert M Pirsig

c Douglas Coupland

d JT LeRoy

3. The slogan that best sums up your life is:

a No future

b Love is the answer

c God is dead

d Have a good time, all of the time

4. Your ambition was to:

a Die before you grew old

b Save the planet and defeat The Man

c Get high and watch TV

d Be famous

5. Keeping the flame alive:

a John Lydon

b Keith Richards

c Eddie Vedder

d Pete Doherty

6. The defining TV show:

a Never watched it

b Ready, Steady, Go

c The Last Resort


7. The defining cultural moment of your life was:

a The Pistols' 100 Club gig

b Dylan goes electric

c The fall of the Berlin Wall

d Arctic Monkeys, The Grapes, Sheffield

8. The embarrassing cultural sell-out of your times was:

a Toyah

b Wings

c Ben Elton

d Sandi Thom

9. Your first job was:

a Chip shop. Lasted three days.

b US diner. Lasted three months.

c Wendy's burgers. Lasted 13 years.

d Coder for games company. Outlasted the console.

10. Knowledge is:

a Overrated

b Power

c Wikipedia

d Everything

Mostly A: Faded Punk

You hit pubescence in the early 1970s, hated everything, and then found a world of like-minded misfits to spit along with. Now middle-aged and mortgaged, you console yourself by listening to Stiff Little Fingers loudly on your iPod as you commute to work.

Mostly B: Baby Boomer

You helped to invent youth culture, so you've got every right to sneer at the unfocused, illiterate, apolitical legacy you see hanging about in the shopping centre. And another thing: no one cares about melody any more.

Mostly C: Generation X

You spent your formative years on the sofa absorbing popular culture: and now you sell it back to eager marketing execs for a tidy sum. You work in media: it never occurred to you there was any alternative.

Mostly D: Generation Y

You missed out on the scruffy guitar revival of the 1990s in favour of the far superior tight-trousered guitar revival of the 21st century. You grew up online and think progress is about looking back as well as forwards. You will be a high-achiever, if a little self-absorbed. MH

What comes after X? The new demographics deciphered

Boomerang Generation

Born: mid-1970s to mid-1980s

Middle-class, over-educated generation paralysed by lack of job prospects and forced (via economics and inertia) to remain living with their parents, thus voluntarily eschewing the traditional "rebellion" years.

Generation Y (part I)

Born: early 1980s to late 1990s

The first generation to grow up with the internet, Gen Y-ers are defined by the broad tolerance of alternative lifestyles and minority cultures, although somewhat paradoxically, they are also more spiritual and religious than their immediate predecessors. They are typically well-informed and socially responsible, but also largely apolitical.

MyPod Generation

Born: mid-1980s to late 1990s

Named after an amalgamation of MySpace and iPod, this marks the demographic for whom "virtual" relationships are as real as physical ones. Social networking is extended to cyberspace. Marked by a paradoxical sense of insularity and the breaking down of traditional conventions of private space (ie, they play music on their phones at the back of buses).

Generation Y (part II)

Born: late 1980s to late 1990s

A recent variation on previous post-X theories, this "new, improved" version is just leaving school now and is inspired by Blair's individualism. They are ambitious, selfish - how else do you pay your way through university nowadays? - but hardly idealistic: they will go where the money is. Sometimes defined as "cats" (ie, independent, self-reliant) compared to Generation X's "dogs" (ie, loyal, community-minded). MH