Douglas Coupland defined a new generation in his 1991 novel, Generation X. But how are those cynical, anti-establishment kids going, now they’re in their 40s? Lindsay Baker investigates.
It’s a familiar and ongoing feud: baby boomers in one corner and millennials in the other. It seems the two generations are constantly at each other’s throats. Less familiar, though, is any mention of that other generation, the one born in between the boomers and the Millennials. Whatever happened to Generation X? Where has it been, that lost generation of people now aged between 35 and 55, first identified back in 1991 by author Douglas Coupland? How has it evolved, and what, if anything, can we learn from it today?
Those were the questions that occurred to British Gen X-er Tiffanie Darke, whose book Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened to Generation X? has just been published. Working in the media, she would attend regular meetings with advertising agencies. “They were completely obsessed with these two groups,” Darke tells BBC Culture. “The job-for-life boomers with good pensions, who are rich in both time and cash, and the anxious millennials who are financially less secure, but tech-savvy.” After a while, she began to think: “Hang on, what about me? What about the in-between generation?”
Back at the start of the 1990s, Darke was doing a ‘McJob’, working in a pizza restaurant to raise money in order to travel around India. Coupland’s book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture “articulated exactly who I was,” she recalls. The book characterised the Gen X-ers as listless, cynical and anti-establishment – characteristics that resonated not only with Darke and her friends but millions of others around the world. The ‘loadsamoney’ culture was seen as uncool and uncouth by the Gen Xers, who went travelling to broaden their minds, favoured jobs in creative industries over the more ‘yuppy’ sectors, and gave birth to rave culture, the movement fuelled by techno music and – in part but not completely – the drug MDMA, that swept through Britain in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It was the “3rd Summer of Love”, declared the magazine I was working on at the time, The Face – with waifish newcomer Kate Moss on its cover. Ravey days
Darke was at the centre of that culture, and remembers it primarily for its loved-up, hedonistic joyfulness and sense of inclusivity – it appealed across all boundaries of class, race, gender and sexuality. She was even present at the impromptu, now notorious all-weekend rave at Castlemorton, Worcestershire, which was eventually shut down by police. It was a cool, rebellious culture, and one based on a “liberal, egalitarian mindset” she says: “At a rave you would talk to anyone, everyone was equally valid – crusties and travellers would be there, plumbers, homosexuality was celebrated, black music was celebrated. And it evolved organically and slowly,” says Darke.
“It was a pre-digital time, so in order to meet up you had to actually be there physically, at that bus shelter, in that field or warehouse.” In 1994 the UK government passed the Criminal Justice Bill, which made the spontaneous gatherings illegal. But this just spawned more organised, monetised events, says Darke. “The scene became very mainstream, it tore through the whole country. It was even credited with putting an end to football hooliganism once it had reached the terraces.”
Still, the party continued throughout the 1990s, with grunge music in the United States and, in Britain, Britpop, Brit Art, the rise of the ladette and Cool Britannia. Vanity Fair declared: “London Swings Again!” The reason the Gen-X sensibility was strong on tolerant values, and evolved so organically and successfully, in Darke’s view, was because it was based on real connections and hard-fought experiences. “You had to put real time and effort into belonging to the scene. Now with the internet and social media it’s too easy, too promiscuous, you can join and leave 20 tribes in an hour,” she says. “No wonder millennials are having a huge identity crisis.” Hence the rise in “slow artisanal crafts, like cross stitch or cheese making or micro brewing. It’s a counterpoint to fast technology.”
Though a “blessed time” it was not always rosy in the Gen-X garden, and Darke also describes in her book how women in particular were “cannon fodder” in the evolving story of work/life balance (or lack of it, in most cases) and to some extent also in changing gender politics. Nor does she gloss over the sometimes harsh realities of life as a middle-aged Gen Xer. But she is adamant that her generation is or certainly should be “giving back.”
In Darke’s opinion, Generation Xers should be on a mission to provide a “bridge” between millennials and boomers, especially now that it has largely gone from being anti-establishment to being part of it. Generation X can play a healing role and help promote tolerance, is Darke’s message. “We all need to remember what was important in the pre-digital world, and before the toxic smartphone culture. I’m as guilty as anyone of that, it’s alluring and addictive, but it’s important to look up.” All grown up
Tiffanie Darke’s appraisal of the Gen-X story is convincing and passionately expressed. But how does the original creator of the term Generation X see its evolution – and where we are now? Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland is now 55 and so at the more senior end of the generation he wrote about all those years ago. In his recent book of essays Bit Rot, Coupland writes: “While I may sometimes miss my pre-internet brain, I certainly don’t want it back.”
What does he or doesn’t he miss about it? “I’m not being coy: I don’t remember it,” he tells BBC Culture. “I started forgetting it about two years ago and now it’s all gone. Sometimes I can trick my brain into thinking it’s the 20th Century by reading a book, but the moment I stop, I’m right back to here.” Though the fact that Gen X straddles the analogue and digital eras is, he says: “A scared trust. Once we go, there’ll be no living memory of the analogue era.”
So does he think that algorithmic culture has surpassed or will surpass human intuition? “Actually, yes. I know you’re supposed to say ‘no’ and cheer, ‘Yay humanity!’ But intuition is doomed.” Having been artist-in-residence at the Google Cultural Institute, he gained an idea of “the magnitude of it all. If we’re alone in the universe, then it’s by far the largest thing ever built in the universe.”
So how would he describe Generation X’s trajectory? “I’ve never discussed Gen X that way, but I like what Tiffanie Darke has done. It’s as good as it gets with generational observation; she’s crazy smart,” Coupland says. “Conceptually, Gen X went from being the bash-it-with-a-stick piñata generation to being the serious generation that is heir to the greatest generation – my parents’. Boomers haven’t changed a bit. In as much as there is a Gen X, it’s paying for school bills for their kids and nursing care for their parents. There’s not much free time to be either pro or anti-establishment. They’re too busy working themselves into the grave.”
Coupland feels “neutral” about millennials, he says. “I will say that pretty much everything they say about millennials is what they said about X except that millennials seem unable to cope when things don’t go their way.” And does he envisage our culture accelerating at the same pace it has been in the past few decades? “Yes, faster actually. Data is the new time. The Cloud is the new infinity. It’s all really happening right in front of your face.”
But we certainly shouldn’t be afraid of what the future holds, in his view. “No. Things are actually pretty good right now,” he says. “We’re just conditioned to using alarmism as our default setting. I’m not in the least bit worried, nor should you be.” His optimism may be be less evangelical than Tiffanie Darke’s, but it is no less persuasive – and soothing. As someone who has been described as “clairvoyant”, what does Douglas Coupland think the future holds for Gen X? “A really good bottle of Pinot Gris, a comfortable bed, good wi-fi, and nobody around to bug them.”
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