Don't look now, but generation X is middle-aged

September 27, 2009 | Shannon Proudfoot

Generation X, consumers of popular culture that they are, can be forgiven for feeling a little long in the tooth these days.

Many of them remember Bruce Springsteen's smash hit Dancing in the Dark, which in the mid-’80s was a staple of early MTV, MuchMusic, and Gen X high school dances. He turned 60 a few days ago.

And that girl in the video—Courteney Cox—who would become a staple of Gen X TV, first on Family Ties and then on Friends, just last week took on a new role: a 40-year-old single mom in the new series Cougar Town.

This past summer saw the untimely deaths of a trio of icons: Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and John Hughes. They were Baby Boomers, sure, but became famous as creators of Gen X cultural touchstones.

Even Douglas Coupland, who effectively christened generation X with his 1991 novel of the same name, has moved on. He's touring to support a new book about the Millennial generation, entitled Generation A.

“Generation X is now well on its way into mid-life, there's no question about that,” says Neil Howe, a Virginia-based historian, noted expert on generational change, and author of a series of books about generations, including the Gen X-focused 13th Gen.

“You think of Michael Jordan, Michael J. Fox, Quentin Tarantino and some of the big early actresses like Jodie Foster (and) Winona Ryder. And Barack Obama was born in 1961.”

The parameters of Gen X vary slightly, depending on who's counting, but tend to encompass those born between 1961 and 1981. Arriving at the tail end of the baby boom and just after, they were children of the divorce revolution, teenagers in the early years of MTV and disillusioned young adults during the recession of the early 1990s.

The classic Gen X childhood was filled with upheaval and preoccupied adults and short on protection, Howe says, and as a result they had to fend for themselves from the beginning.

“Xers got noticed with a lot of talk about slackers and dysfunction and basically this image of an under-socialized, somewhat wild generation of hardened kids who took pride in their resilience, their individualism, their cynicism (and being) very much outside the system,” he says. “They didn't vote, they didn't take part in community affairs, they dressed dark.”

That disengagement continued into adulthood, he says, pushing down voting rates and making Xers reluctant to run for public office.

Movies such as Reality Bites and Say Anything traded in the young-adult angst of Gen X, but Gisele Baxter, a professor of English and popular culture at the University of British Columbia, says pop culture is starting to grow up with them. Work-oriented comedies such as The Office show adult Xers languishing in jobs distinctly less glamorous than they dreamt about, she says, and trademark Gen X irony drips from everything.

“You really are starting to see a lot of reflection of the Gen Xers growing up in what I call the new satire: the shift in emphasis from Saturday Night Live, which was in many ways a Boomer show, to Jon Stewart (and) Stephen Colbert,” she says.

Lisa Chamberlain, a 40-year-old Xer and author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction, says they've always lived in the shadow of the Boomers, even now that they're hitting middle age and being eclipsed by the shiny new Millennial generation.

“Generation X, we were hip for like five minutes in the 1990s,” she says. “Our moment in the sun came and went pretty quickly and it wasn't very sunny while it did last.”

The image of surly slackers living their lives to a grunge soundtrack isn't the true spirit of her cohort, she says. Rather, she believes the grown-up version of Generation X is about leaping off the corporate ladder to define your own version of success.

“You look at somebody like Tony Hawk, who took what was essentially a hobby and turned it into a way to make a living, and he makes a very nice living as a skateboarder and he's 41 years old,” she says. “This will probably never change for Generation X and I don't think it should.”

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