Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Generation X was much maligned, but it has matured and, amid its creativity, can offer the world a unique gift
2016 marks the silver jubilee of Douglas Coupland’s seminal novel Generation X. Though he popularised rather than coined the phrase, it has come to be associated with him. Is this, then, a reasonable moment to reflect on Gen X and its progress through life?
A feature of modern life is the way we so thinly slice each generation now. Where history once dealt in epochs, we can barely go a decade without uncovering emerging generations, each with their peculiar ways. Are they really so distinctive? The challenge for Generation X is the way it is sandwiched between two very visible and dominant cohorts: the baby boomers and the millennials. No-one is really sure when X began and ended; Douglas Coupland thought it should mean people born in the early sixties; most demographers apply it to those born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s. If so, then Generation X is probably the 35 – 50 age group in 2016.
The X denotes an unknown, a blank, even perhaps, a sense of nothingness. There was certainly a lot of soul searching about this generation and a fear that it would be lost in some way. The people making this judgment belonged to the generation which shaped the world for X-ers; an environment noted for materialism and the penetration of market values into all areas of life. It seems to be a distinguishing feature of the generation in power, to obsess over the failure of the next cohort to assimilate to their own failings.
X-ers are sometimes termed latchkey kids, a group which grew up in two income households and, with the greater absence of both parents, became peer-oriented in its thinking, setting a trend which has continued for others. And they watched their parents divorce in ever greater numbers. To many they were slackers; cynical, disaffected and reluctant to grow up. In the 1990s they became, it was alleged, a collection of unfocussed twenty-somethings, unsure what to do with their lives and tempted not to do much at all. They were MTV watchers, consuming the despairing grunge of Nirvana.
Is any of this fair? There are often elements of truth in stereotypes for them to have any traction at all, but usually the truth is embellished for effect, sometimes cruelly. The interesting thing about X-ers is they routinely top polls among employers for being the most entrepreneurial and hard-working of all groups. The digital revolution has not simply been pioneered by millennials; Generation X has made a huge difference to this landscape. Their choice of social media – Facebook – might be passé to their successors, but they have helped to shape the early landscape of digital technology.
One great gift they may offer our world is the unique ability to straddle the gap between boomers and millennials, whose relationship is increasingly fractious and bitter as the latter struggles with a hostile economic climate in stark contrast to boomers – a fact which does not stop boomers lecturing them on what they need to do. On a range of political, social and educational issues, Generation X can see it both ways and help one to understand the other.
This is just as true of discipleship and church life, suggesting that X-ers, the oft-termed young families that prove the engine for church growth, have a pivotal leadership role to play which balances the aspirations of several cohorts, while also harnessing its own zest for personal development to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. If millennials can smell inauthenticity from ten paces, X-ers spot material disaffection and long for soul – a much needed gift right now.
Barack Obama was the first US President from Generation X and his values and preoccupations bear the hallmark. But the boomers are not giving up so easily. By early 2017, they will occupy the White House, 10 Downing Street, the Elysee Palace and the Chancellery. This may be the encore of the post-war generation; let’s hope they surround themselves with a few X-ers among their ministers and advisers, for they have a job of interpretation to do.
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