All grown up and in their forties: Whatever happened to Generation X?

What’s become of Generation X – those born between the late 60s and early 80s – now they are in their forties and middle aged? We’ve gone from raves to school runs, says Gen Xer Suzanne Harrington.
All grown up and in their forties: Whatever happened to Generation X?

We are Generation X, and we are pretty special.

We are the only ones who straddle two worlds without getting vertigo – unlike Boomers, we are not too old to fully adapt to the digital world, but unlike Millennials, we remember life before online.

And now we are in our forties. We are middle aged.

Where once we inhabited the ecstatic kingdom of rave, where strangers hugged and friendships formed in blissed out spaces, now we are on the school run and living in a world of Trump and Brexit.

Our values, with which we imprinted the culture – inclusivity, equality, open-mindedness – are under attack from reactionary populism.

Are we too knackered from parenting and mortgage repayments to even look up? Or as the title of a new book wonders, “Now We Are 40 – Whatever Happened To Generation X?”

Actually, this title is wildly misleading as the book is by former Sunday Times Style editor Tiffanie Darke, so it would be reasonable to point out that her experiences are not representative of the average Gen Xer, other than she once went to raves and now she doesn’t.

While the rest of us were dancing in fields and abandoned warehouses, she danced with Beyonce – just the two of them – in the front room of Donatella Versace’s palazzo.

She also “ate sushi or Roberto Cavalli’s lurid purple yacht, shared a tete-a-tete with Tom Ford in Claridges, watched Daniel Craig snog Kate Moss at a McQueen party, arrived at the Venice Film Festival by speedboat with Julianne Moore, binged on caviar at Pucci with Kylie, and sat next to [Dolce & Gabbana model] David Gandy more times than he would have liked.”

She adds, “I won’t pretend it wasn’t fun, particularly as those were the days before mobile phones.”

It’s all a bit Edina Monsoon.

Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler are part of Generation X.
Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler are part of Generation X.

Generation X are those of us born between the late Sixties and the early Eighties.

In the 1950s, before any of us existed, the term was used to denote a ‘generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty’.

(Plus ca change, eh, Millennials?)

The next we heard of Generation X was in 1976, when punk pin-up Billy Idol named his band after the demographic, having come across the term in a 1965 book of the same name by journalists Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett, writing about Mod culture.

In 1991 Douglas Coupland published his first novel, the seminal Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture, giving us ideas like slackers and McJobs.

“I just want to show society that people born after 1960 think about things,” Coupland told the Boston Globe in 1991.

“We’re sick of stupid labels, we’re sick of being marginalised in lousy jobs, and we’re tired of hearing about ourselves from others.”

Yet instead of getting better, the McJob degenerated into the zero hours contract – which means that Millennials, aka Generation Sensible, are too enslaved scraping their inflated rent together to have as much fun as we did. Sorry guys.

Each generation has its own special pair of golden nostalgia goggles to look back upon the decade in which it came of age.

The Silent Generation talk about the Fifties with fondness as a time of innocence, yet the idea of living in a repressive racist homophobic prefeminist world would horrify the rest of us, never mind its lack of wifi.

So it might be a Gen X thing to say that the Nineties were pretty damn good in terms of hedonism, barrier breakdowns, optimism, and joy - I remember a lot of that.

We are sandwiched between Boomers (who “have got all the money and all the houses, and are really only getting started, because everyone lives for hundreds of years now…. No one goes on cruises anymore, that’s so Pensioners from the Last Century. Boomers go wolf trekking in Eritrea and swipe right on silver Tinder.”) and Millennials (who “we are reminded constantly, work hard, are annoyingly entitled, love an artisanal coffee and a skinny jean, and are changing the culture, reshaping society and rewriting the rule book of living”).

Except every generation does this – it’s how we evolve – which is why every previous generation feels a slight irritation with the one which follows.

Darke is clearly no different.

“The only slightly self aware Millennial is Lena Dunham,” she writes.

“We have Caitlin Moran, Tina Fey, Sharon Horgan, Simon Pegg, Amy Poehler and Sheryl Sandberg. Okay, maybe not Sheryl Sandberg.”

Caitlin Moran.
Caitlin Moran.

So what are we famous for?

Coupland’s portrayal aside – listless, cynical, directionless slackers – we may have actually done some good.

“Race, sexuality and gender politics have come a long way thanks to us,” Darke writes.

“We have also placed a much higher value on emotional intelligence and happiness….

“We have advanced the idea that looking after ourselves extends not just to the emotional, but to the physical too.”

From flat whites to green juices, yoga mats to non-religious spiritual quests involving everything from meditation apps to shamanic ayahuasca [DMT] trips in the South American jungle, Generation X is all about physical preservation and consciousness expansion.

We are not satisfied to plod along uncomplainingly towards the carriage clock of retirement – even if such a thing still existed – but are all about self-fulfilment, meaning, altruism.

We will never be richer than the Boomers, but maybe we can be happier.

We’re giving it our best shot.

Or is Generation X having a massive midlife meltdown?

While Darke breezily skips the idea – “It’s hard to have a moment in front of the mirror these days that doesn’t feel tinged with nostalgia” (for what – your collagen?), the journalist Miranda Sawyer, born in 1967, tackles it head on in her book Out Of Time: Midlife, If You Still Think You’re Young.

She did the “death maths”, calculating she’d be in her sixties by the time her kids were at university, and writes about status envy, fear of the future, lacerating self doubt, and existential dread.

She writes about her realisation that “The time I had was a limited resource. Life was an astonishing gift and both were diminishing every day.”

Happily, she took up running and got over it, but her book serves as an illustration that anyone can have a midlife wobble.

(I was lucky to have mine early at 38, when my alcoholism finally floored me – midlife, as a result, has been pure joy, for all the clichéd reasons of swapping tequila for green tea, from being face down to being in downward facing dog. The irony is not lost on me, but then we Gen Xers have always been big on irony.)

So where are we now?

“Generation X reorganised the value system,” writes Tiffanie Darke.

“We worked to make things better, more socially equal, to create more opportunity and more wealth – but here we are: it hasn’t turned out quite right.”

Yet we remain forever young, inside our heads at least, with our nerd culture, our nostalgia (vinyl sales are at a 25 year high, Kodak is reviving its Ektachrome range, print book sales are recovering) and our total addiction to social media, spending longer online per week (6 hours 58 mins a week) than Millennials (6 hours 19 mins).

We like our Adidas Gazelles, our tattoos and our gigs, just like we always did – the only difference these days is that we don’t get mashed up anymore, so we can do the school run the next day.

And anyway, who wants a three day midlife hangover?

We’re too grown up for that now.

In the 50s, before any of us existed, the term Generation X was used to denote a ‘generation of young people about whose future there is great uncertainty’.

(Plus ca change, eh Millennials?)

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