Course Project by Lindsay Hunt at Uion College, NY
Originally published in The Huffington Post on August 20th, 2014
Are generations born in bubbles? Do they mature outside political, social and family histories? Are they cocoons placed into society, all ready and packaged to present a particular image in time and space? According to most articles published on the Millennials, it seems the answer to these questions is a big, resounding "Yes."
It is time to stop constructing a generation disconnected from the past and from the rest of world. It is time we recognize the impact that Generation Xers across the globe have had on the Millennials' outlook on life, work, politics, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, activism or culture. Let's not sell our Millennials short. Let's add nuance and perspective to the conversation. Let's burst that bubble, shall we?
Let me start by painting you a broader picture. Let me give you a slice of GenX growing pains from various parts of the world. Contingent on an individual's date and place of birth, we are looking at world events and their impact between 1980 and 2010. And depending on which nations we are considering, the "Generation X"ers are called the "Golf Generation" in Germany, the "Metapolitefsis Generation" in Greece, the "Coca-Cola Generation" in Brazil, "Generation Mitterand" in France, the "Lost Generation" in Japan, or the "War Generation" in Serbia.
In countries like Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, East Germany, and Russia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the communist regimes in the late eighties and nineties led youth to take crash courses in capitalism and to straddle two political systems. This period of radical change meant that many Xers were abandoned to their own devices given that previously grounding institutions like pro-communist youth organizations and professional schools were disbanded. These, among other radical changes, forced Russian GenX'ers, according to sociologist Elena Omelchenko in Generation X Goes Global, to confront cataclysmic conditions including pay for education, a growth in youth unemployment, crime and drug use, and the problem of child homelessness and neglect. In other words, their experiences radically differed from those of their GenX colleagues in most Western countries, while, nonetheless, sharing in a sense of loss, marginalization, questioning and reevaluation.
In China, not regimes but traditional ways of life, old cityscapes and ideologies were destroyed for state-monitored growth in capitalism and the development of new market economies, leaving "the Sixth Generation" to grow up with few certainties, ideals, heroes, few government-sponsored jobs and a general distaste and subsequent distancing from government corruption. But it was politics, namely the terror of the Tian'anmen Square demonstration and massacre, as Asian Studies scholar Harry Kuoshu underscores, that became Chinese X'ers' most defining life event.
South and East Africa also underwent a series of massive social and political transformations with deep-seated personal and political effects. The "Uhuru Generation," a Swahili term for "independence" from British colonial occupation of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, experienced the effects of global neoliberal policies and failed local promises that left many disillusioned and calling for change to increase employment opportunities, health care and education for all. These conditions, explains anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi, linked the North American and East African "X" generations through hip-hop as a powerful site of hybrid political expression.
South Africans, contrary to their North American counterparts, lived in the hyper-political environment of the final years of Apartheit. Therefore, as South African sociologists Jan Schenk and Jeremy Seekings underscore, the GenX'ers we have come to know as Douglas Coupland's aimless, whiny, slacking and fictional (anti-)heroes, "stand in stark contrast not only to the US black and white protesters of the 1960s, but also to the ambitions, anger, harshness, and the very reality of the most young South Africans during the late 1980s and 1990s." What their work also accentuates is that most studies on Generation X and the Millennials do not engage enough with race and class, even as the Millennials are crowned the most diverse and technological of all cohorts.
In Indonesia, the expansion and subsequent collapse of the Thai currency in 1997, left a new middle class responding to this crisis by pooling resources, sharing access to media, and, in some instances, turning themselves into creative young entrepreneurs. Anthropologist Brent Luvaas reveals that those young people whose tastes ran more toward punk, hardcore and metal, "started making their own stuff, launching their own skate and punk-influenced clothing lines, founding their own magazines and record labels [and] forging an archipelago-wide network of bands and brands modeled [on] the imported alienation of America's Generation X." In other words, this group literally marketed alternative designs and expressions that were often as critical as they were consumerist, rebellious in their ability to innovate, reach out, and take self-initiative to such a degree that Luvaas crowned the Indonesian "Xers" "Generation DIY."
In Latin America and the Middle East, the clash of authoritarian regimes and revolutionary shifts toward freedom and equality still determine the landscape of today, with young people since before the 1990s feeling or remembering the impact of the terror and barbarity of multiple dictatorships and needing to redefine themselves as modern individuals. This "Global Generation," as Professor of Middle Eastern History, Mark LeVine, calls X'ers, is clearly connected to the Occupy movements that began with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, then spread to a host of Latin American countries, appearing in Seattle, Washington and Wall Street, Europe and the Middle East years later.
The conclusions we can draw from this fascinating, albeit narrow slice of history is that there are rich connections to be made between the life and times of Generation X'ers around the world and the Millennials of today. A more broad and deep engagement might allow us to discover that the alienated and disillusioned youth of yesterday strongly impacted the activists and revolutionaries of today. We may discover that the entrepreneurial mindset we think is Millennial-born has strong roots in the marginalizing effects of political disenchantment, lack of access to technology and education, and the need to reevaluate and question conventional values and practices. We also may begin to understand that the deep hybridity and remix culture enhanced by today's technological opportunities clearly connected to the GenX experience of living and breathing "in between" regimes, cultures, languages and identities. And we may discover that technological transformation was at the heart of every "X" life as television satellites then the Internet augmented and altered their world experiences and modes of expression, as they retired the tape deck for the CD and the iPod, the typewriter for the personal computer and beyond.
Change, transformation, uncertainty, paradox and the need to reject, question and develop a new, altered, or remixed set of values, morals, freedoms, and structures are qualities that mark Generation X deeply and distinctly. The Millennials deserve more. Their identities deserve not to be isolated from the world at large and disconnected from the life experiences of their elders. Let's stop engaging with the Millennials as a Bubble Generation.
This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on May 27th, 2014
In my previous post, "Millennials and Boomers: Don't Forget Generation X," I ask to pay tribute to a generation that is often passed by. I believe that the scarce attention paid to Generation X has resulted from a lack of understanding about the meaning and identity of this cohort. To begin, it is worth noting that the label itself has been somewhat of an enigma, a question mark, a blank, an identity squeezed between two poles--the Boomers and Millennials--twisted into a demographic that seems to contribute little, disregarded as dark matter lost in disillusioned space. Who cares, say the critics. Whatever, reply Xers.
What did ever happened to Generation X? And why should we care? Why should you bother reading about a generation that might coincide with your birth date (were you born between 1960 and 1980 in the US?) but seems to have nothing in common with you at all? Because Generation X is more than just a demographic. Generation X is a cohort with personal and political experiences that have marked the way we look at the world and we live in this world.
To grasp Generation X, we must start with its label. Most people think that it was born in 1991 when Canadian writer and visual artist, Douglas Coupland, published the popular book Generation X: Tales of An Accelerated Culture. That's not the case. In fact, it all began much earlier, in 1953 when, as Dr. John Ulrich eloquently details in GenXegesis, "The Queen's Generation: Young People in a Changing World" was published in the Picture Post in the United Kingdom. This piece was later published as a three-part series titled "Youth and the World" in the United States' magazine called Holiday.
The 23 young people around 21 years of age from 14 countries around the world who were interviewed for this piece came of age after World War II. The editors concluded that their opinions did not reveal a clear pattern for the future and their concerns did not point into any clear direction. This lack of conclusions and these unknowns about the future of tomorrow led photographer Robert Capa to call this "The Generation X".
Generation X did not fall into oblivion then and there. The label reappeared in 1963 in a book titled "Generation X" by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson. In this context "Generation X"--surrounded by quotation marks--portrayed a cross-section of young people from all walks of life, from the controversial and sometimes violent rockers and fashion-oriented mods to prostitutes, high school and college students. These youth discussed their needs for self-expression, for the hopes of a better future, more active participation in contemporary life, less corruption in government institutions, acceptance of more alternative lifestyles, and a general search for the identity of a "new man or woman" in an increasingly technology-driven age.
When Hamblett and Deverson published a message in the Observer in which they asked the youth of Britain to come forward and participate in their project, they opened a space for individuals to speak for themselves, in their own language, about matters of interest to them. In the process, tell Anushka Asthana and Vanessa Thorpe in "Whatever Happened to the Original Generation X?", they empowered the young and shocked the more traditional public still reacting to the austerity of the post-war years.
Keep in mind that this was also a time when youth gained voice through fashion, music, and popular culture (think the Beatles) while experiencing a sense of helplessness and discontent in matters concerning society and politics (think the Reagan and Thatcher era). It was this self-expressed shock-effect that attracted many to Hamblett and Deverson's book, which became an instant hit. Mick Jagger, say Asthana and Thorpe, "was said to be a huge fan and John Lennon wanted to turn it into a musical."
When punk rocker Billy Idol found "Generation X" on one of his mother's book shelves, the title seemed more than appropriate for an emerging band searching for a new identity and a rebellious voice. The band, named none other than Generation X--now not surrounded by quotation marks--would disregard musical rules and write songs meant to defy social expectations while ironically becoming the first punk band to appear on the BBC Television music program Top of the Pops. When in 1976 Billy Idol started his new band, Generation X, he remixed Hamblett and Deverson's pop sociological book with a dose of punk and rock and gave the "X" a whole new sound.
While the moniker's sound does not end with Billy Idol (as can be read in Generation X Goes Global), this span of 20-some years infuses the label with new insight. The stories of the past add to today's understanding of Generation X as a cohort that places emphasis on the importance of moving into new, alternative, and tech-driven spaces from where they can reject or rewrite the past and the future, redefine and accept themselves and others, question and reenvision storylines, and participate in the construction of their own lives. As such, Generation X is both a worldview, consciousness, or spirit that transcends time and a time-bound cohort whose approach to life and work reaches both into the past and toward the future.
This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on May 2nd, 2014
Raise your hand if you can identify anything about Generation X. So many books and articles published in recent years tend to mention Gen X only in passing as a small, insignificant, "in-between" cohort leaving few lasting impressions. Instead, we hear about the Millennial state of mind, and how the Millennial-Baby Boomer relationship appears to be flourishing and providing all the nourishment the current generational identity checks seem to need.
As someone who has researched Generation X around the globe for years, I know that the Millennials and their younger "Generation Z" siblings owe a great deal of their generational identity to Generation X. Born between 1960 and 1980 in the United States -- now between the ages of 34 and 54-years-old -- Gen Xers laid the political, intellectual, social, creative and personal ground upon which the Millennials today walk, talk and text.
The transitional and transformational time when Generation Xers grew up, as well as their current impact and influence at the height of professional careers, should not be ignored or erased. To understand how the Millennials think and act today and might change the world tomorrow, the cloak of invisibility must be lifted.
Let's start with the numbers. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown is a recently-published book based on data collected by the Pew Research Center. While Paul Taylor's project provides valuable insight into the world and mind of the Millennials, I was struck by how an entire generational identity could be determined by scientific data sets based on a subjective selection of birth dates.
Chapter two starts with the claim that, "Millennials and Boomers are the lead characters in the looming generational showdown by dint of their vast number and strategic location in the life cycle." My first reaction was, Where did the Xers go? Taylor considers Baby Boomer birth dates to range from 1946-1964, Generation X birth dates from 1965-1980, and the Millennials to begin in 1980, with no end date in sight. A closer look at these dates, which each researcher can determine as he or she chooses, uncovers that the supposedly "vast numbers" attributed to the Boomers and Millennials are based on dates that have reduced Xers' existence to a mere 14 years, compared to 18 and 20 years in the other two cohorts. Indeed, this way, the booming sound of the two demographics does become quite loud, leaving that mysterious Generation X to fend for itself, lost in the middle.
Most troubling is any thinking that Boomers and Millennials are "also each other's children and parents, bound together in an intricate web of love, support, anxiety, resentment, and interdependence." While some certainly are each other's parents and children, what happened to the Generation X parents who between the ages of 20 and 40 have given birth to many Millennials born between 1980 and 2000? Was the legalization of the birth control pill in 1961 so powerful?
Why has parental status and impact been thwarted when the Millennial psychology has in fact been heavily influenced by GenX life experiences and beliefs related to politics, family, class, religion, culture, technology and sexuality, among many other subjects?
The Pew study is no exception of the degree to which Generation X's impact is minimized in studies concerning the Millennials. In a book titled, Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever, authors Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber reduce Generation X birthdates to such a degree -- to a mere 13 years -- so as to argue that, "sheer numbers mean that Generation We is going to have a gigantic impact on American society, and in turn, on the world." Their approach undermines the gigantic impact of a supposedly inclusive "We" generation by both excluding worldwide perspectives from their research and squeezing Gen Xers out of the equation.
Proclamations about how U.S. Millennials will rule or change the world seem to include little to no understanding of the historical, political, social and personal factors that have shaped the lives of their peers around the globe. Particularly ironic is to talk about the impact, reach and global connectivity of a generation when applying a microcosmic and U.S.-centered vision alone, as over 35 international contributors will tell you in Generation X Goes Global.
A more comprehensive approach teaches us that cohort birth dates vary by country and experience, that generational engagements can be complex and contradictory, and that cultural influences shift and change as people move from city to city, leaving bits and bytes to be remixed across nations and people. For instance, current political activism has strong roots in Generation X's punk and DIY culture. The U.S.-born underground feminist punk movement of the 1990s known as the riot grrrls, whose goal was to bring issues of rape, abuse or racism to light, has moved through time and space to inspire a group of young Russian protesters (ranging from ages 20 to 33) calling themselves Pussy Riot and challenging Vladimir Putin's politics through guerrilla performances posted to the Internet.
To engage with the Millennials means paying tribute to a past generational worldview with a long and strong history and a spirit that has gone viral. Let's not forget about the contributions from Generation X when we talk about the Millennials. We are not going away anytime soon.
In recent months I have been reading books and articles on the Millennials. I have found that most authors prefer not to engage with the complexity of Generation X, thereby erasing or happily ignoring our impact and influence on the next generation. For instance one book, which will remain unnamed, reduced the demographic of Generation X to 10 years, while attributing 20-25 years to the Boomers and Millennials. Others seem to believe that there are clear divisions between one generation and the next, and that one can easily jump over the X'ers to understand the philosophies and approaches to life and work of the Millennials.
The truth is that Generation X has much to do with the way our kids today think about life, love, work, family, friends, religion, authority, and innovation. Their DIY approaches, for instance, directly derive from Generation X, as do their anti-hierarchical and questioning stances, the importance they place on happiness and work-life balance, or their increasingly diverse and accepting worldviews. Let's, not shortchange the Millennials of the rich historical influence of Generation Let's not forget the "X" when we talk about the NeXt generation, shall we?
Reports about the use of technology by Millennials usually center on their ownership and their use. For example, one article titled "Generation Y precedes GenX in Technology Alphabet," quotes that Millennials spend more time online than they do watching television and that, "Nine out of 10 Gen Yers own a PC, and 82 percent own a mobile phone, according to the study from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research." Yes, but the bigger question is: "what do they do with this technology? Are they passive consumers or active producers? Are they prosumers? Or do they simply Facebook, text, and watch Youtube videos? In another essay titled "Access to Technology Defines Generation Y; Molds Outlook," the Editor in Chief, Airan Scruby, very simply states that, "Generation Y also watched the defining tragedy of their generation, the events of Sept. 11th, 2001, live on television." Please. 9/11, terrorism, and the war on Iraq are undoubtedly the events that mark the historical presence of the Millennials, but on 9/11/2001, they were between the ages of 20 and 1. The global consciousness so often attributed to this event and to the rise of the Internet began much earlier, with the televised landing on the moon, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. While there is no doubt that the World Wide Web heightened and facilitated global connections, and that Millennials have grown up in this connected environment, Generation Xers have already been defined as the first global nomads by sociologists (Michel Maffesoli) and magazine editors (Tyler Brule of Wallpaper) alike. Xers physical and philosophical nomadism did not only consist of rejecting a collective consciousness, but they embraced a do-it-yourself individualism that has changed many parts of contemporary art and life. As Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World, eloquently remarks: "technology [gave] Xers the chance to inhabit the I and we at the same time" (128). They changed the world by embracing a more participatory, DIY culture and language.
Studies repeatedly call the Millennials, the most tech savvy of any generation, because of their habit-altering uses of cell phones and computers. Yes, Millennials are using more technology than any other generation. Yes, their changing habits are redefining the way we do business, the way we educate, and the way we relate to one another. But while many Millennials, now in their twenties and thirties, are contributing to the changing face of a tech-entrenched society, most of them use technology in passive and uncritical fashions. Most of our understanding and translation of new media technologies into new models of meaning-making was actually enabled and is still being led by Generation Xers and second generation Baby Boomers. We may not constitute the largest group of users of text messaging systems or social networking sites (although the numbers are rapidly increasing), and we may not have been texting in the crib, but because we witnessed the growth and impact of new media technologies, we recognize more readily the critical and creative potential and dangers of new media.
In the prologue to the book Generation X Goes Global, titled "American X: The Ironic History of a Generation," Dan Leidl motions to the work of a series of GenX'ers who have and still are changing the business landscape in the United States. He gives credit to individuals at the Harvard Business School for developing new codes of morality and ethical behavior. Other leaders, from Executives Without Borders to Honest Tea to Google, Teach for America, and KIPP charter schools, have been working toward models that are "a kinder, gentler, and a potentially more impactful affair" (xix). How can we begin to define and outline the making of these new business models and their impact on the future of our children? Are they actually making a larger societal difference, or do they remain isolated practices in a sea of profit-making?
Christine Henseler, Jan. 9, 2013
On August 24th, 2002, The New York Times published an article titled "For GenXers, A Wake-Up Call". In this piece they discuss the Vice-Presidential selection of Paul Ryan, age 42, in relation to his demographic identity as a Generation Xer. As many articles have, this one also imposes a "GenX" label on a person who is part of a huge demographic born approximately between 1960 and 1980, and it compares all individuals of this age group to the pronouncements of Douglas Coupland, Kurt Cobain, or Elizabeth Wurzel. While these writers and musicians certainly contributed to the making of a generational ethos, it is important to note that our generational voice is not represented by one or two figures from the past, but by a larger generational consciousness that has moved through time and space and has been gearing into action on a variety of fronts, as demonstrated by the many Occupy and Anonymous movements around the world.
The power of our generational voice is not only rooted in commercial and popular culture (which is why demographic data don't readily coincide with cultural representations), but in the witnessing of deeply disturbing and life-changing political, historical, and personal events around the globe (the 1990s being the most war-torn years in recent history). This is a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all. As pawns of huge political events and wars (the fall of Communism, the Berlin Wall, apartheit, independence from dictatorial regimes, and so on), this is a generation that has felt the need to critique and express itself in its own ways, through its own linguistic styles, whether that be through grunge, hip hop, MTV, its own leadership and business models, and its own uses of new media technologies. This is a generation that can see through the constructed messages of old propaganda machines, such as the one Paul Ryan represents, as clearly as we can laugh at the failed attempts of advertising messages or make sarcastically poignant remarks about the sad state of human affairs.
This is all to say that this is a generation whose "X" does not just represent a demographic or age-cohort, as the New York Times article implies, but an ethos and a way of looking and experiencing the world that Paul Ryan does not even come close to representing, despite his McJob or like of grunge music. You see, Generation Xers will not boom onto the political stage. When we reach the political stage, which we already have, you will not hear us coming.
~ Christine Henseler, August 26th, 2012
I have been reading Louis Menand’s book titled The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. His work made me realize that the Golden Age of the American university (from 1955-1975), and its subsequent phases (1975-90) had direct and parallel effects on Generation X in the United States. Menand explains that the academic Golden Age in the US was powered by Baby Boom births, by high economic growth, by the Cold War (Sputnik and its ensuing panic), and by government and military investment in science education. The numbers of Americans, he says, who graduated from undergraduate institutions increased from 500 to 900 percent during this time (64).
After 1975, education only grew 1 percent annually. And instead of growing in student numbers, it diversified in regard to student composition (from white men to underrepresented and international groups of students). In other words, it is during the educational prime of the X’ers, that not only the diversification of the student and faculty body took hold, but alongside it, academies began to question and redefine the state of disciplines and of the humanities. Some of the main principles of the past, including the notion that scientific facts served as the standard for excellence in research, the specialization of the research professor and its effects on the creation of academic disciplines, began to splinter and authority was questioned through more interdisciplinary approaches, the creation of programs that centered on perspectives that disciplines were leaving left out (women and gender issues, queer issues, and so on), and the social privilege of academic professionalization and its relation to larger cultural issues. Because of the shrinking size of academia, Menand points to the fact that placement of PhD’s between 1989 and 1996 had to confront a market where supply outpaced demand for new professors, meaning that, as is often heard in studies on Generation X, American society was now confronted with “a lost generation of scholars, a lost cohort” (147).
I wonder, to what degree did developments in higher education (on an institutional level) in other countries around the world feed into the worldview of the “Generation X” identity as lost, questioning, searching, or re-engaging and redefining academia through different paradigms?
~ Christine Henseler, July 28, 2012