Blame Generation X
Gen Xers created the world of avocado toast and woke hysteria that they now blame on Millennials
“They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. … What worries parents, teachers and employers is that the latest crop of adults wants to postpone growing up.” —twentysomething, TIME Magazine, July 6, 1990
This year, I noticed an uptick in the Gen Xers in my life—both online and off—proudly proclaiming their difference. “We were the last good generation,” they all seemed to say.
Just a few months ago, the writer Antonio García Martínez penned an essay titled “Gen X Marks the Spot: On the Trials and Tribulations of the Last Good Generation.” In it, Martínez argues that Gen Xers born between 1965 and 1980 are in a particularly hostile generational situation, sandwiched between two cohorts who frankly suck: the Baby Boomers and millennials.
The piece is premised on the idea that Baby Boomers and millennials are joined in being big, evil cry-bully cancellation hounds—the apex of these purity spirals being their attempt to cancel podcast host Joe Rogan for entertaining controversial topics like alternative theories about COVID-19 on his show. Were Gen X in charge, Martínez postulates, there’d be no Rogan witch hunt. There’d be no witch hunts, period. Gen X was the last to stick it to the man, from his view, the last “to go flying down shoddily built plywood ramps on bikes and skateboards with no helmets on, and we somehow now inhabit a world where the youth are less wild and reckless than we were or are, despite being treated more gingerly than newborns.”
Tell that to all my millennial friends who ended up in the hospital after shot-gunning Four Loko and lived to tell the tale, dude. Kidding aside, I’m not sure that I buy these claims to generational superiority.
I think that almost every trait people hate millennials for is either a Gen X invention or something Gen X significantly popularized.
Millennials might have perfected or updated the tech, but we didn’t pioneer it. It isn’t one or two flukes, either—the list is a mile long.
Off the top of my head: avocado toast and trend-seeking more generally; BuzzFeed, Gawker, and their respective styles of journalism; witchcraft as we know it today; the girl boss; the lax Silicon Valley wunderkind, replete with jeans, hoodie, and “startup campus”; the type of cloying fandom that empowers fully grown adults to pepper their everyday speech with Harry Potter-isms; the theater kid mentality; geek culture and the cultural baggage that comes with it; branding oneself; social media as a product and an ethos; living your life like you’re in a Real World house; and oversharing online, including the type characteristic of Xennial Kim Kardashian.
And do you know which kids were the first to receive participation trophies en masse? You’re never going to believe this. Gen X! Reading Douglas Coupland’s seminal Generation X feels like a case study on millennials, minus Instagram.
We’re not so different after all, Antonio.
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Here, I’ll give you three broad examples of the ways in which we’re similar: contemporary tech culture, self-branding, and political correctness.
Gen Xers founded many of the companies that shape modern Silicon Valley, from Google, replete with its aspirational “campus culture” and lack of dress code, to MySpace and Twitter. Old-before-his-time millennial Mark Zuckerberg might have founded Facebook, but according to reporter Alex Williams, it was Sean Parker, Facebook’s Gen X president, who created the Facebook mythos: “Sean Parker, the company’s founding president and, effectively, its id.”
To toggle to East Coast tech culture, and by extension, digital journalism, the iconic millennial sites Gawker and BuzzFeed, which helped define the culture of the early 2010s, were both founded by Gen Xers. It follows that not only the work culture at these companies could be credited to Gen X, but the work products, too. All those listicles? That wasn’t us. I mean, it was us sometimes; millennials definitely got paid pennies to write them. But the structures that made them possible and perfected the process of getting people to click on insipid “content” as a way to extract their data or sell them ads—those were built by the anti-establishment rebels of Gen X. Same goes, by the way, for the rebranding of status-obsessed bitchiness and high school cruelty as the cutting-edge of political culture, a style perfected at the Gen X-spawned Gawker.
Millennials don’t have ownership over the whole self-branding thing, either.
If you want to get really prickly, you can extend that to online oversharing: Would we have YouTube vlogging without Jennicam, who streamed her life 24/7, or Ze Frank, who mixed confessionals with political commentary on the show?
We might have taken it to new heights on apps like Instagram, sure, but we didn’t introduce it. I was still a twinkle in my Gen X father’s eye when The Real World premiered and romanced him and his peers with the prospect that everyone could be both a voyeur and an exhibitionist.
While Gen X talks a big game about “never selling out” (Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain both killed themselves over it, according to popular legend), I have my doubts about that. I don’t think it’s that you all “didn’t want to sell out.” For starters, so many in your generation were absolute sellout trailblazers: Jay-Z and Kim Kardashian, to name just two.
I think you didn’t realize that MTV and nationally distributed magazines were “the Man.” Media had a more DIY aesthetic in the ’90s, making it seem as if there was no qualitative difference between public access and an extensive network on the surface. Maybe Gen X did eventually realize they’d been duped, though: I recall a spate of movies in the late ’90s whose villains all seemed to be evil record-company executives. A cinematic anxiety dream, if there ever was one.
My final point of contention is that my generation constantly gets blamed for wokeness.
The consensus seems to be that Boomers spurred proto-wokeness and that millennials functioned as a sort of “lab leak,” spreading the ideas through social media.
Gen X, who was brazen enough to say “the quiet part out loud” on national television, is caught in the middle … right? Nice try. If we’re to believe The Diversity Myth and The Culture of Complaint, two book-length polemics about “politically correct” campus culture in the ’90s, Gen X wasn’t exactly immune to this thinking.
I think we’ve got it wrong. I think “political correctness” was still new enough to be cool in the ’90s. With the backdrop of the stuffy Pat Robertson types still representing the adult establishment, these ideas felt fresh and transgressive. They might not have been widespread on TV, but the seeds were there among younger people. What protected these ideas from spiraling out of control anywhere but on college campuses was the speed at which media moved—ideas spread much slower in an analog world.
To give the devil his due, I can acknowledge the probable existence of some Gen Xers who really believed that it was cool to be non-ideological and thus rejected political correctness on grounds that had as much to do with aesthetics as politics. There might even have been a broader appreciation for irreverence and agnosticism among the slackers born before my time. But where exactly did that aloof Gen X coolness get us? Maybe they didn’t want to defeat the Man, but they didn’t successfully evade him either. (Though, my sense still is that those “irreverent Gen Xers” were the people who would eventually become woke.)
Still, it’s worth noting that Gen X only started walking their political correctness back once millennials took it a step further, as young people are wont to do to distinguish themselves from the older cohort.
If I’m right, why this generational blurring?
I think the reason is threefold. The first is simple: While helpful, defining groups of people by generation isn’t foolproof. It flattens our understanding of different demographics. It wouldn’t hurt—to borrow a term coined by Baby Boomer Kimberlé Crenshaw—to be a little more intersectional in our analysis. We shouldn’t consider cultural trends just by year but by race, class, and geography. Many of these delineations have more to do with class and geography than the year someone was born, for example.
The second is that much of what we know about these generational cohorts are flattened by poorly contextualized statistics, bad journalism, and TV. Most millennials aren’t and weren’t Girls’ Hannah Horvath, just as most Gen Xers weren’t Daria. And let’s be honest with ourselves—we might poke fun at articles like Time magazine’s “The Me, Me, Me Generation” (which first introduced negative millennial stereotypes to a broad audience) or its equally famous “twentysomething” (in which Gen X received the same treatment), but they do have an impact on the Zeitgeist. Aside from getting things plain wrong, the press often only sees trends in the rearview mirror, creating weird lags. For example, a lot of the traits we think of as characteristic of Zoomers were pioneered by my generation, my favorite example being “weird Gen Z humor.”
The third reason is my favorite and most underappreciated.
Gen Xers and millennials were, by and large, parented by the same generation: Baby Boomers. So, of course, Gen X would end up our cultural older siblings.