By Jules Lewis Gibson
Sandwiched between the money motivated Baby Boomer “More” generation and the fame obsessed “Me” Millennials, Generation X has always been ignored like a middle child no one notices. The true character of this misunderstood generation is vastly different than the “slacker” stereotype now that the Brat Pack is all grown up. Befittingly, the name itself is a case of mistaken identity.
Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, concerning young adults in the late 1980s, popularized the iconic name. He erroneously attributed the moniker to a quote from Billy Idol in a 1989 magazine article. At the time, Idol was a member of the punk band Generation X, which he had actually named after Deverson and Hamblett’s 1965 sociology book on British youth, Generation X —a copy of which was owned by Idol’s mother. The name was originally intended to personify the Mod subculture in Britain in the late 1950s, nevertheless, the name stuck. The enigmatic label proved appropriate for a generation who came of age on autopilot by parents who were far too busy and self-consumed to find out what this new generation of youth was all about.
Now twenty-five years later, Gen Xers are taking over corporations and governments around the globe as the Boomers head into retirement, whether they like it or not, at a rate of 10,000 a day for the next 16 years or so. Unsurprisingly, the media attention on this generational shift tends to focus on the Boomers retirement act or the socially tolerant, liberal-leaning Millennials. Once again, Generation X is an afterthought.
Due to decades of perennial recessions, corporate shake-ups, booms and busts, many companies have a looming problem on their hands. They have downsized and laid-off in mass, thereby, leaning out their middle management ranks. Now, they lack the essential tier of management with the maturity and experience to lead. The president of one of the largest publishing companies in Florida recently defined the problem; “I have an office of 60 something’s and 20 something’s, but no one to run the company when my senior executives retire in the next few years.”
Thankfully, the generation quietly waiting in the wings is exactly who corporations and government need to lead them into the future. Never before has a generation been more prepared for the unknown. The skills Generation X had to acquire throughout their life of reinvention, uncertainty and change are precisely the skills we need in our leaders of tomorrow. The world is in unchartered territory and the stakes are high. We need leaders who are adept at thinking on their feet and creative problem solving. When society and business shifted beneath their feet, the generation that long ago shook off its disengaged-slacker stereotype became entrepreneurs, DIYers, bureaucracy skeptics and independent thinkers who embrace collaboration. Its members have entered full maturity and are ready to put their stamp on their community and the world.
The Origins of Gen X
Born into perhaps the most anti-child phase in American history when the birth control pill became widely available in the early 1960s and abortion was legalized in 1973; these contributing factors resulted in diminished numbers of births compared to the Boomers. Due to lower birth rates combined with miscalculations in generational cycles, Gen X has long been minimized as the small group sandwiched between the enormous Boomers and Millennials, but that is simply not accurate. To the contrary, 2014 Census numbers show Generation X (born 1961-1980) at 84 million compared to Boomers (born 1943-1960) at 66 million and Millennials (born 1981-2001) at 87.5 million. If the proper twenty year age cycle of a generation is given to Gen X, the numbers become more equal. The surge in legal and illegal immigration is also a significant factor in current population numbers. In truth, Gen X is an exceptionally large group, only slightly smaller than the Millennials.
As this sleeping giant of a generation unceremoniously assumes leadership roles across the country and beyond, perhaps it’s time someone acknowledges who we truly are. To understand this diverse group of individuals marching into middle age, one must peel back the facade of the disenfranchised, slackers who lack enthusiasm, drive and dedication.
The reason Boomers never understood the Xers is undoubtedly due to the extreme fundamental differences between their realities. Boomers grew up believing in the American dream, apple pie and a bright future. When their ideals were shattered by war and segregation, they embraced peace and love determined to change the world. Along the way, they traded their peace beads for a Benz and the real revolution began. They did not mature into the peace loving, commune living hippies some expected, instead their revolution took a sharp right turn on Wall Street, cocaine replaced weed and the almighty dollar fueled the party.
Back at home; Generation X came of age without a net. From a young age, latchkeys tied to our backpacks, we were told the world owed us nothing. Unsupervised, we watched too much TV, some skipped out of homework and fell into escalating levels of crime. According to Douglas Coupland in Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, self-consumed Boomers sometimes regarded their children as “obstacles to their self-exploration,” resulting in permissive parenting on a grand scale. In addition to many hours bored and lonely, Coupland concluded that Generation X was “rushed through childhood.”
It’s difficult to maintain the customary optimism of youth when the world crumbles around you beginning with President Nixon waving goodbye to his dignity and office. Marriage disintegrated, mom went to work, gas became scarce, Iran-Contra imploded, the Space Shuttle exploded, Chernobyl melted down, layoffs escalated, Enron stole the kitty and Clinton fondled the intern.
Ready to leave our less than perfect childhoods behind, we launched out of universities into a recession while corporate anarchy unleashed a dotcom drunken investment frenzy and the Internet Age roared to life. Anticipating the 1999 super dance party that Prince sang about, instead Y2K panic and the 911 tragedy ushered in the new millennium, briskly followed by infrastructure deficits, takeovers, acquisitions, downsizing, supersizing, re-fi and wars without end.
Then, as we finally embraced marriage and parenthood at what should have been our peek earning years, global market instability strikes. Our homes become sink holes, the corporate ladder broke, salaries and careers stalled. And now, our child stars act like porn stars, we consciously uncouple, date by text, proclaim juice a food group and downward-dog our way to satisfaction. Perhaps, we should not blame the Boomers for not understanding us, who could possibly survive the mayhem?
GEN X All Grown Up
The generation that weathered a lifetime of storms is a resilient, scrappy menagerie of survivors. The most educated generation in American history and, yet the first ones not doing better than its parents. Yet, despite the relentless barrage of disappointment we endure, we are surprisingly a fairly content bunch. It’s our reward for our hard-earned indifference to a system that failed us.
As Whitney Collins, writes in his article, Generation X’s Journey from Jaded to Sated in the Weeklings, “That’s what happens when resentment turns into resilience and you step out into the world with no one really watching. And it’s a nice landing spot, this hammock of ‘good enough’ that’s sandwiched between the Boomers’ ‘More, more, more!’ and the Millennials’ ‘Me, Me, Me!’”
Our natural skepticism from being repeatedly burned may actually help us. After all, most of the trouble – from the Bush 1 recession to the most recent economic pit of despair- stemmed from unchecked optimism. Xers have paid for trickle-down politics repeatedly. In fact, Forbes’ recent list of five “must have” characteristics of a modern employee are tailor made for Gen X: Embrace Change, Autonomy, Have a Voice, Share and Help Others, Filter and Focus. These traits are at the core of our DNA. Our collective apathetic shrug is exactly what is needed for the coming decades.
Overall, we are a self-reliant group who do not require constant guidance and positive affirmation that attention-seeking Millennials demand. Our parent’s did not micro-manage our lives, quite the opposite, so we learned to figure things out on our own. In a corporate world built on quicksand, our nimble ability to maneuver is valuable. Our laundry list of skills and experiences acquired while leapfrogging through career landmines make us abundantly qualified to navigate the future.
GEN X Women
As leadership seats become vacant and the next generation of leaders ascends the throne of boardrooms, political parties and educational institutions, perhaps the most impressive mavericks among the Gen Xers will be the women. They are the first generation of women in history to be raised to believe that they are truly equal to men. Astonishing as that sounds, it is in fact true. We were the first girls to believe we could be an astronaut, a physicist, a professional athlete, a rock star and even the president. The expectations are high and the burden of accomplishment is heavy.
Reminded often of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we headed out to conquer the world and find our amazing happily ever after. We expected to find the glass ceiling shattered beneath our feet. Prince Charming behind the picket fence, home early from his high paying job patiently waiting to cook us dinner. His affable demeanor would greet us with encouraging words to show his unbridled support for our ambitions. To complete the picture two adorable, low-maintenance children we popped out at will play quietly in our Disneyesque backyard oasis. Instead, we learned the cruelty of fairy tales early on.
While women have made tremendous advancements in education and careers in the past few decades, in truth, few have risen to the top seats. Recognizing the shortage of female colleagues at the highest levels of corporations and government, Sheryl Sandberg ignited her generation with her book, Lean In.
She noted that, “Women are not making it to the top of any profession in the world. But when I say, ‘The blunt truth is that men run the world,’ people say, ‘Really?’ That, to me, is the problem.”
She encouraged women to push forward into their careers, step up and speak up. She recognized our female traits of pleasing others before ourselves, incessant apologetic attitudes and selling ourselves short in business and our personal lives.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the phenomenally popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, points out with her usual frankness that women need to give ourselves a break, especially since we’re forging a totally new path.
“When I look at my life and the lives of my female friends these days — with our dizzying number of opportunities and talents — I sometimes feel as though we are all mice in a giant experimental maze, scurrying around, frantically trying to find our way through. But maybe there’s a good historical reason for all this overwhelming confusion. We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map. As a result, we each race forth blindly into this new maze of limitless options. And the risks are steep. To make matters even more stressful, we constantly measure ourselves against each other’s progress, which is a truly dreadful habit,” she reminds us.
Gen X women have developed an exhausting bar of excellence. Well aware that we have to jump higher, and do it better and faster than the guys in order to be noticed, some of us have become overachieving maniacs.
Understandably this transformation of the female experience has had a daunting effect on our relationships with men. Women no longer have to be in – or stay in – a relationship with a man that doesn’t work for us. Most Western women are no longer dependent on men for money, social standing, to legitimize our children, or to even raise them at all. While many women are perfectly capable of bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, and totally taking care of themselves, it doesn’t mean they necessarily want to do it alone.
While women can afford to be choosier and raise the bar, finding adequate partners who are kind, generous and responsible, as well as supportive, domestic and truly willing to take on half, if not more, of the responsibilities at home so, that we can conquer the world. Let’s just say, that’s a tall order for most men.
It’s just as difficult and confusing for men, in this topsy-turvy world that barely resembles the traditional passive-aggressive relationship many men grew up seeing in their home. Dad was the undeniable king of the castle, while Mom tended to the children, pursued a job in some cases, but she never dared assume that her work would ever be as important or lucrative as her husband’s. She dutifully kept all of her balls in the air, had dinner on table and learned the art of manipulative negotiation, also known as; making a man believe everything is his idea. Many good Gen X men are lost in modern relationships, unsteady in a delicate balance between adoring doormat and macho jerk.
Another by-product of the cultural shift taking place today is that women are forgoing motherhood in significant numbers. According to new research from the Center for Work Life Policy, titled, The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33-to-46-year-old Generation, the study showed that over 40% of college-educated women between the ages of 41 and 45 surveyed didn’t have children, and that’s obviously towards the end of the childbearing years. While many women have made the conscious decision to remain childless, others haven’t exactly made the choice; they merely ran out of time.
Demanding careers, inability to find an acceptable mate and enticing opportunities crowded out the possibility of having children, thereby, running out their biological clocks. Some women with abundant resources and layers of support opt to adopt or hire a surrogate past their prime baby-making years. Actresses Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock led the celebrity alternative mommy pack, giving “single mothers” a sexy new image. For mere mortal women, such options are unrealistic, leaving them with few options, but possibly many regrets.
However challenging our paths may be, women of Gen X appear aptly prepared for the journey. Instead of lamenting our challenges, let’s celebrate the amazing strides we are making for the future of the female race. Perhaps Gen X women will prove to be the group that really does save the world. On the cover of a recent Inc. magazine, the headline, “The Next Steve Jobs: 8 Women Who Could Own The Future,” brazenly affirms that the hierarchies have apparently decided the next big global game changer is going to be a woman.
The suggestion that the most consequential person to have a fundamental impact on society in the coming decades could be a woman affirms the significance of Gen X. From the menagerie of this culturally diverse generation, the individual finally has an opportunity to emerge beyond the collective crowd of conformity. The women who grew up without a discernable playbook are creating new normals, smashing barriers and redefining success in our wake.
By Jules Lewis Gibson, Founder of GRAVITAS Magazine