Trying to define the Gen X crowd can feel like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.
Is it even possible to reconcile the early '90s images of flannel-wearing, underachieving slackers with those of dotcom world-changers who appeared only a few years later? Even though the bubble popped, there are still more billionaires under 40 today than at any time in history. And somewhere along the line, those apolitical, begrudging baristas with no prospects became the zealously engaged leaders of things like MoveOn.org and the Howard Dean campaign. In every industry and every segment, Xers are shedding the psychographic and behavioral certainties that were supposed to define them.
Yet ask most Xers to define themselves, and you'll usually get a mildly defensive shrug. That's not something I think about, says Greta, an Xer cohort of mine who is not nearly as famous as those whose voices follow here. I think labeling generations like that is some kind of Boomer preoccupation. Her expression as she says this is one of disdain.
Born between the mid-'60s and late '70s we Xers complete a generational trilogy. Our grandparents were members of the G.I. Generation now revered for a culture of sacrifice earned during the privations of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Most of our parents were Boomers, whose strivings for self-awareness and self-fulfillment veered, in too many cases, into narcissism, over-consumption and downright silliness. (Anyone remember Iron John?) As the third of these generations, we seek a middle course between our parents' and grandparents' examples a return to psychic normalcy.
Xers grew up after the idealism of the '60s devolved into assassination and burnout, after Watergate had (at least temporarily) shredded belief in government, and against the backdrop of Iran-Contra. After the excesses of the Left and Right, we were post everything: post-political, post-feminist, post-Modernist, post-consumer. Our apparent pose of indifference was misread as apathy, but what we were cultivating were our defining values: irony, realism and pragmatism.
Xers were also the first cohort to experience contemporary, globalized childhood, the first to have grown up with computers and, maybe more importantly, the first to play video games. Where our parents tuned in and dropped out, we logged in and booted up. Our childhoods were mediated by a modern and professional consumer culture, which got better and better at parsing and fulfilling our desires. And our adolescent sexuality was the first to be shaped simultaneously by the threat of AIDS and the seduction of MTV.
We learned to think dichotomously reveling in our culture and questioning it, living in the moment but always aware of the social systems behind the faade. Those systems were rapidly changing, too. Xers were, for example, the first to experience mass divorce and the complex politics of the post-nuclear family. This is perhaps one reason why we're shrugged off marriage and deferred having children of our own doing so barely merits a mention in the profiles that follow.
As these snapshots of Gen Xers reveal, there's often little love lost for the Baby Boomers, whose numerical superiority has been a source of lifelong consternation. We've struggled in their shadow, both in the workplace and on the cultural and political stage, and we will end up watching them redefine retirement (at our expense) just as we have watched them redefine every other institution they have encountered. (Grant us our irony, Boomers. We need it to deal with you.)
What's less clear is what will happen to Xers as we enter the next phase of life. The wide array of social values we have exhibited so far, and the uneasy relationship we've had with any kind of self-definition are likely to be the only constants in our ever-morphing generation. Not that this will stop people from trying to peg us down. So here's my vote: perhaps the X in Gen X should stand for paradoX.
Andrew Zolli, founder of Z + Partners, is a forecaster, design strategist, author and Gen Xer. He can be contacted at [email protected]
WHO HE IS:
Founder and chief technologist of Geekcorps, a nonprofit technology volunteer group. Zuckerman also helped found Tripod, a pioneer in the Web community.
BA in philosophy from Williams College. In 1993-4, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Legon, Ghana and the National Theatre of Ghana, studying ethnomusicology and percussion.
Collecting music, especially angry, nihilistic post-punk (Mission of Burma, Husker Du, Jesus and Mary Chain) and obscure world music (Tuvan throat singing, Finnish folk-pop). I've spent substantially more money on music in my adult lifetime than on either cars or clothing. :-)
GEN X VIEWS
Labels like these tend to be advanced by marketers and demographers, not by the people they describe. It's more convenient for advertisers, but it's an unrealistic way of looking at human societies. Yes, I have certain cultural commonalities with people who grew up watching the same TV shows and listening to the same music, but I've got a great deal more commonality with people who work in the same field I do, or share some of my interests.
[Gen X] is useful to marketroids and almost no one else. If I was forced to describe it, it would be a generation [that spent] childhood terrified of nuclear war, their adolescence terrified of HIV/AIDS and who, perhaps, have a hard time getting worked up about anything as adults.
We used to hear [the term Generation X] a lot when we were starting Tripod usually in the phrase Gen X slackers. Obviously, there was some perception that Gen Xers had no ambition or career goals. I think the overnight conversion of alleged slackers into entrepreneurs during the late '90s did a lot to deflate that particular myth.
Entire demographic slices of people can't be expected to have a legacy, but for the psychographic I represent people who live and work on the Net I think our contribution will be increased globalization of work and social circles. My social and professional circles the people I interact with daily, sharing ideas and hatching plans includes people throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, as well as in my small community in rural Massachusetts. Folks who are lucky enough to share my lifestyle are a powerful counterforce to a mainstream American culture that's become increasingly parochial, insulated and isolated from the outside world.
WHO HE IS:
Editor-in-Chief of Maxim magazine
Used to DJ a 70s show in college, so his guiltiest Gen X pleasure is disco. I can't really tell if I'm listening to it ironically or unironically.
GEN X VIEWS
Gen X is sort of defined in the negative as being between that important generation we all recognize being the Baby Boomers, and the important generation we all recognize as the young kids, Gen Y. There's nothing uniting Generation X except that it was the first generation that wasn't the Baby Boomer generation. I don't have that much in common with someone 15 years younger than me but who would still be defined in Gen X because things move faster these days. So I remember when computers came to high school. We didn't have computers in grade school, there was one mainframe and a couple of terminals in high school, and by the time I got into college everybody had a computer. That's a different experience from someone born just five years later. I remember when MTV launched, the kids today don't remember a time before MTV. Even some people in Generation X just have a vastly different experience because of how fast-moving everything is. Gen X is defined as almost the absence of a generation
We as a generation were more obsessed with pop culture than ever before and probably ever since. We started out watching as much TV as we could and it's ended naturally with the Internet and video games. But we did expand the pop culture front from Maxim to The Simpsons to Grand Theft Auto. Gen Xers evolved the pop culture landscape to something that really seemed important, at least until 9/11.
WHO SHE IS
President of New York- and L.A.-based market research firm Youth Intelligence, which was recently acquired by Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
BA, English literature at Duke University
Entertaining, being the dinner party girl; nostalgia for simpler stay-at-home lifestyle when women didn't have to try and be superwomen.
GEN X VIEWS
We're a generation that feels like we were going to have this fabulous life, and everything from the economy to marriage to corporations tanked and we're sort of stuck wondering what is it that I'm supposed to want. Superwoman doesn't exist, being a great wife may not exist, and being a great career woman you might get laid off. While it's not totally pessimistic, there's a Gen X tendency to think, gee I kind of thought it was going to be different for us.
We're a generation that went through a mid life crisis 20 years too early. Rather than reaching 55 and saying, oh I don't want to be an advertising exec, at 25 we said, hey I don't want to wind up 55 and miserable with my life. Problem is, we don't have clear-cut paths to follow that will bring us happiness and success. So we're inclined to reevaluate what does bring happiness and what does bring success. Whether or not other generations had it clearer, we feel like they did.
We're an underrated generation. We're the generation that had to struggle so that Gen Y could figure out what they wanted. Unfortunately others see all the negatives like the slacker misnomer. That we're lazy and don't want to commit, that we're entitled, but in reality we're just confused. It's not that we don't want to work hard, it's that we don't want to end up in a job that we're miserable about. We don't want to end up feeling like we wasted this time.
WHO HE IS
Alvin H. Baum Professor, University of Chicago Department of Economics, a research fellow with the American Bar Foundation and editor of the Journal of Political Economy.
Three years postdoc Harvard Society of Fellows; PhD in economics from M.I.T.; BA, summa cum laude, in economics from Harvard University.
Still likes 80s group Soft Cell, which he calls pretty classic pathetic '80s music.
GEN X VIEWS
Gen X was describing somebody other than me. The [categorization implied] a lack of opportunity and hopelessness, which was crazy. The people who were stuck in the tail end of the Baby Boom generation were the ones who faced an uphill battle with bigger classes, a harder time getting into good colleges and lots of competition for jobs. In comparison, the economy we've faced, by and large, has been really good.
I was too young to remember the '60s or '70s, and it seemed they really did have cultural movements going on anti-war, feminism and black power. [Generation X] is the absence of a big cause. But was one generation being lazy versus another? I find that hard to believe. In more of an economic way of speaking, differences across generations are a lot smaller than differences within a generation.
It was a fabrication of bored journalists and idea entrepreneurs who could get themselves on television by talking about Generation X and maybe sell a few books.
WHO HE IS
Chairman and CEO of ObjectVideo. He also founded Proxicom, an e-business solution company which he took public in 1999 and sold for $450 million.
Bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Maryland
Technology. I grew up with it and I have been fortunate enough to make money from it.
GEN X VIEWS
In a global environment, labels that are so hemispherically driven are not accurate. If you took that same age group and said what attributes are there for individuals born during the time period from India or China all ethnic backgrounds that have made big contributions to technology to entertainment in this country it just doesn't fit. I'm not big on the box that kind of gets drawn around certain attributes. That's one of the attributes though, not conforming.
Every generation has challenges and opportunities. The world got a lot smaller during that time because of global communications, the Internet and understanding other cultures. That's a unique moment for a generation to have lived through.
It's too early to measure any Gen Xer [historically], no matter how successful they are, without the benefit of time. And sometimes time is a benefit and sometimes it's a punishment. One negative for the generation was the creativity and the craziness of the late 1990s too many people believed their own press and it got a little out of hand. Fortunately, gravity was reestablished and people are more sober, from work expectations to wealth expectations.
WHO SHE IS:
Founder and editor of Jane magazine. She was also the founding editor of Sassy and hosted television talk shows on Fox and Lifetime.
Degree in communications from Oberlin College in Ohio.
The 90s grunge thing. I hate to say it but I still dress really grunge, as much as I try to fight it and look clean I still feel like I have grunge in my bones.
GEN X VIEWS
Part of being Gen X is not wanting to be an employee, wanting to be the boss. Always wanting to start your own thing. It's an entrepreneurial kind of spirit. Always wanting to push the social norms and conventions a step further.
The idea that Gen Xers were just down on everything their parents and previous generations had done, and they didn't care about making changes, all they wanted to do was X-out everything I don't relate to that. Gen Xers have a healthy level of disrespect for authority.
I remember being a little girl and my mom driving me to school and explaining Watergate to me and I think that had a very profound effect on me. Because if you don't believe in your president, who are you going to believe in? You want to take things to another level and you want to get integrity back.
Gen Xers looked at the Clinton scandal with Monica Lewinsky as kind of a joke, because we'd seen politicians do harmful and untruthful things when we were young.
The other thing a lot of us lived through is our parents' divorces. I'm still not married. We have a kid we want to have another one, but the idea of getting married it has a joke element to it. My mom's married for the third time, my dad was married twice.
As far as being marketable, nobody felt that we were marketable. I always thought it was a fallacy because I always bought a lot of things.
We are really active, we're not slackers at all how can people be slackers and put out best-selling books and movies? So that was a misinterpretation, but we were all so relieved not to be called the me generation that we were OK with it.
WHO HE IS:
The cohost of CNN's Crossfire, a daily political debate program, and CNN political analyst. Prior to hosting Crossfire, he cohosted CNN's Spin Room.
Trinity College in Connecticut
Jerry Garcia was a genius
GEN X VIEWS
It's a category invented by someone else. The one thing everyone my age has in common is total contempt for the relentless solipsism of Baby Boomers. Not only did we grow up around them, but in a lot of cases we were educated by them. Do you know how many teachers I had that claimed to be at Woodstock? More than a dozen. There has never been a generation that has talked and thought and prattled on about itself more. Maybe ours will be the generation that finally forces people to stop talking about Woodstock, and if that's our legacy, it will be worth having lived. We're also decentralized. The main thing that sets the Baby Boom apart from the generation that followed it is group movements. When you think of the period from, say 1966 to 1973, the thing you think of are mass movements, large groups of people doing things together like the anti-war movement, feminism, civil rights. A lot of people my age reject that idea that the only way anything gets done in society is when a bunch of strangers get together and start shouting. People I know tend to analyze the world much more in terms of individuals than in terms of groups. When was the last time you heard a 32-year-old person talk about a movement? They're corrupt, they're bloated, they've sold out their founding values. That's the word decentralized.
I'd bet that all the early adapters for every technology product are in Gen X. Bill Gates and others made it possible, but we're the ones who buy the products. The first generation to integrate technology into daily life is this generation.
WHO SHE IS: Vice president of production and operations for the marketing division of Lifetime Entertainment Services, since May 1996. She is also president of the Board of Directors of NAMIC, Inc., a trade group focused on industry diversity. Alonzo moved with her family from the Dominican Republic when she was 7.
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science degree in communications from St. John's University in New York.
X-FACTOR: Disco music, from Kool and the Gang to KC and the Sunshine Band.
GEN X VIEWS
When you think of Generation X you think of a group that is comfortable with technology, independent and doesn't take things for granted. When people talk about the Baby Boomers, they think of motivated, driven people. With Gen X, there's the stereotype as far as being unmotivated or a slacker you don't think of progress or ambition and that's just not true. There are people out there who are like that, but that could apply to any generation.
It's a group that's going to be challenged a lot more when it comes to dealing with politics and world issues and the economy. It's going to inherit a lot of things that were set forth by the Baby Boomers and before, and they're going to be taken to task to try and fix the situation. It's a group that's going to finally understand that we live in the world, we don't just live in one continent.
We grew up in an environment which segregation was no longer an issue and world travel and exposure through the media and technology have opened up the thought process for this group. We're a lot more open about reaching outside of the comfort zone.
What I hope the lasting legacy of this generation will be is open-mindedness and acceptance of different people, cultures and lifestyles. I hope that becoming a global economy and culture is what we bring to the next generation.
WHO HE IS:
Managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm. He was the founding VC investor in Hotmail (MSFT), Interwoven (IWOV) and Kana (KANA). He also led the firm's investments in Tradex and Cyras (acquired by Ariba and Ciena for $8 billion), and most recently, in pioneering companies in nanotechnology and molecular electronics.
EDUCATION: At Stanford University, he finished his BSEE in 2.5 years and graduated No. 1 in his class, as the Henry Ford Scholar. Jurvetson also holds an MS in electrical engineering from Stanford. He received his MBA from the Stanford Business School, where he was an Arjay Miller Scholar.
X-FACTOR: The hero worship of Steve Jobs and what Apple was able to do bringing computers to the masses.
GEN X VIEWS
I don't associate myself with the term. [Among my peers there is the] entrepreneurial, computer-oriented spirit. That seems to resonate among a lot of the people I know who are about my age. I associate more with individuals and people who have a sort of young-minded mentality. I work in venture capital, so we deal with entrepreneurs, and so I understand entrepreneurs of that generation perhaps a little better than other generations.
Defining moments [fall within the Gen X time experience], and maybe its the geek in me, but the personal computer was one of them. Maybe because I'm involved in technology, that jumps to mind as a defining moment for a generation. It was extended and enhanced by the Internet. Many of the Internet entrepreneurs were folks of that generation, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and with the right skill sets when that really hit. What resonates is a love for technology, a complete disinterest in politics and the media. I haven't watched television in 19 years, and I have no desire to, and I'm deeply cynical about politics.
When we were in elementary school learning about the presidency it wasn't this glorified version. We learned there are some criminals and all different types. It's a different projection than our parents' generation would have grown up with.
WHO SHE IS: President and CEO, the polling company inc. and WomanTrend
EDUCATION: BA, magna cum laude, from Trinity College and law degree from George Washington University, with honors
X-FACTOR: Guilty pleasures: watching Family Feud host Richard Dawson kissing everybody on Game Show Network reruns., and I Love the 70s or I Love the 80s on VH-1.
GEN X VIEWS
We Gen Xers should start saying we're the generation formerly known as X. It's meant as a slight, the term was coined by a Baby Boomer to insult the population as over-educated, underemployed slackers living off mom and dad. Dull, lazy, disinterested not engaged in either culture or politics or the arts and sciences, just into watching brain-numbing videos on MTV. That's either born from ignorance or jealousy or both.
The most distinguishing characteristic about the generation is that there is no distinguishing characteristic, no defining moment. We've been much more free to be defined by the little things and the smaller moments and the unexpected transitions and events.
This generation is entrepreneurial and that comes from the necessity to be self-reliant, as 40 percent of Gen Xers lived in a single-parent household by the age of 16. [There is] a self-reliant, entrepreneurial germ that spawned a generation from latchkey kids to entrepreneurs. It just comes from not relying on anyone else for your sustenance, happiness or success.
We're more shrugged shoulders, less raised eyebrows. Our skepticism is high because we really have lived through so much. We were strapped into car seats during the oil crisis in the 1970s, we watched Iran-Contra, and the Challenger blew up right before our eyes, dashing what had been generations' worth of hope about exploration and boundlessness and discovery. In many ways, 9/11 was the event that separated past from future or adolescent/post-college years and adulthood for many Generation Xers. All of a sudden, they saw themselves as full-fledged adults, needing to be responsible and to pay attention to current events and politics in a way they never had.
WHO HE IS: President of Vibe magazine and executive producer of Weekend Vibe, a syndicated weekly TV show. He served as executive producer for the inaugural Vibe Awards, a two-hour prime-time special that aired on UPN.
EDUCATION: Master's degree in marketing and finance from Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a BA in political economy from Williams College.
X-FACTOR: Entertainment that expanded the experience of American audiences like television shows Good Times and The Cosby Show, and music like the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight.
GEN X VIEWS
The term Gen X always kind of mystified me because I felt it was a term marketers ascribed to this age group. I also thought of it as being associated with slackers and Seattle grunge. That's opposed to the guy I was, a young African American from the Midwest.
The reality is it's a generation of folks who had a sense of entitlement that didn't really know what war was. One whose expectation of government was pretty low.
You're going to see a legacy from Gen X of concern for the environment, with greater concern around issues like HIV. Another aspect is openness toward alternative lifestyles.
Older generations perceive our generation as becoming more mainstream. We're not like those kooky kids anymore. They question whether or not the baton can be passed on. We have a more complex world to navigate given the recent international turmoil. We have to bear the financial brunt of Social Security, and we're going to be paying for this war. And then there's terrorism, which we're going to learn how to deal with in ways our parents never had to.
Because we've been open as a generation, we're more apt to engage in dialogue and not always take an America's first philosophy. It's only going to be through dialogue that we're going to navigate this geo-political landscape we find ourselves in.
WHO HE IS: Chairman and CEO of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), which is developing vehicles intended to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of access to space. It's the third company Musk has launched. He cofounded PayPal, the world's leading electronic payment system, and was the largest shareholder prior to its acquisition by eBay in 2002, and cofounded Zip2 Corporation
EDUCATION: A physics degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a business degree from Wharton. Musk was going to study energy physics at Stanford when he decided to start Zip2.
X-FACTOR: Raised in South Africa (he traveled to Canada when he was 17 and moved to the U.S. a few years later), he didn't escape the video game craze.
GEN X VIEWS
I'm sort of reluctant to put myself in any group. I'm not representative of much. My experiences and my background, they're out on the tail end of any demographic. If you want to categorize a demographic you want to be in the center of the bell, so to speak. I'm probably mostly not.
And, I don't think of generations in that context. It's more nebulous and less discrete than people would like to make it. People like to put things in buckets, but I would argue against putting them into buckets of one generation versus another.
Maybe that's one of the characteristics of Generation X: most of the people I know would not want to be identified as a particular generation and therefore that's an identifying characteristic.
The things I think of as being different from my parents are an affinity for electronics, computers and software. And probably a more open social viewpoint. There's quite a few chapters unwritten [in terms of Gen X contributions]. It was the generation that built the Internet. Almost all the principals involved in building the Internet were of the age group. A tremendous amount of capital was placed into the hands of Gen Xers. It may be the generation that enables travel to other planets.