Generation Xers were the demographic that advertisers coveted most. They starred in fashion editorials and cult films and inspired trends. Grunge, their musical expression, graced the covers of music magazines, storefronts and MTV. They invented and were the first users of social media: IRC chat, Friendster, MySpace. And yet, as a generation, they lack their own identity on social media today, at least if we accept the meme as a measure of social relevance. Their digital footprint is conspicuous by its absence: one only has to scroll social media to see that the two sides of a fierce debate are divided between boomers and millennials; there is a deep void in the middle. The Wall Street Journal noticed that absence; a few days ago, it wondered: “How has Generation X avoided memification?” The newspaper concluded that Generation X was so bland that it lacks material for mockery.
Take the popular expression “Ok, boomer,” which went from social media to the mainstream media thanks to the young New Zealand politician Chlöe Swarbrick: after being interrupted by a member of the New Zealand parliament while giving a speech on the climate emergency, she reprimanded her interlocutor with a succinct “Ok, boomer.” From that moment on, boomer became synonymous with anyone over 30 who has a condescending attitude toward the young, thus absorbing both Generation X and more grown-up millennials (who, because they are the next generation, are also known as Generation Y) and distorting the term’s true meaning.
Let’s review. The term boomer comes from the post-World War II baby boom. Baby boomers are now over 60 years old, while millennials, or Generation Y, are approximately between 25 and 40 and owe their name to the proximity of the change of millennium when they were born. Generation X, named after Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name, falls in between the two. The novel did not coin the term, but critics and readers saw the spirit of their times in that story of three thirty-somethings who converged in a California desert that was beginning to reinvent itself as an orchard of technology. Alongside Coupland, authors Bret Easton Ellis and David Foster Wallace also spoke to a disenchanted youth; their books featured characters who were brimming with apathy and cynicism. Musically, Seattle grunge defined Generation X, with Nirvana leading the charge.
While there are other films that are part of its moral and aesthetic legacy — Everything Is a Lie (1994), Singles (1992) and Clerks (1994) — Reality Bites (1994) offers the most apt imagery that any publicist could have dreamed up for Generation X. At the height of their attractiveness, Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder starred in a fashion editorial shot in 35 mm. He sported falsely greasy hair and carefully neglected clothes. She had a haircut that fell somewhere between a bixie and a bob and wore short, flowered dresses. It was simple, practical fashion. “Today there is a lot of focus on climate change, but in the 1990s, we began to be concerned about the ozone layer, the degradation of which we hoped to combat simply by reducing the use of hairspray,” notes Esperanza, 48, who worked in a second-hand clothing store in the mid-1990s. “We also tried to stand up to the capitalism represented by the fashion industry by looking to recycling; the streets were filled with fur coats rescued from our grandparents’ storage trunks and la la la dresses that had lain dormant in our mothers’ closets since the 1960s. We looked askance at brands; only Doc Martens or Converse were allowed, provided that they were not too shiny.”
It was also the age of unisex clothing and perfumes, a term that was as scary to some then as gender fluid words are now. Today, if Harry Styles or Timothy Chalamet wears a boa or pearls, social media goes crazy; but 30 years ago, the late, lamented Kurt Cobain arrived at his concerts in a skirt or dress, and women had unconventional female role models like Elastica singer Justine Frischmann, whose relationships with musical and aesthetic icons like Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn presented roles to which we were not accustomed: relaxed masculinities and strong femininities. Yes, the pop backroom was the same redoubt of machismo and misogyny as any other music scene in any previous generation, but at least its images were groundbreaking.
“It is really difficult to associate values with groups. I highly doubt that the concept of generation can be transplanted from one culture to another, just like that,” explains Francisco Nixon, a singer, composer and member of Australian Blonde and La Costa Brava. “Even in the case of literary generations, which is a much more narrowly defined concept, it is problematic. I always had the feeling that it was the invention of fashion magazines to gain publicity for brands. As in ‘I have a pound of millennials for so much [money].’” The fact that as soon as Fox realized the “Ok, boomer” meme’s virality they sought to trademark it to develop a television program, and someone bought the okboomer.com domain and priced it at $100,000, proves Nixon right.
The film Reality Bites had a budget of $11 million and grossed nearly $40 million. It had stars and an omnipresent soundtrack, but it was not a mass phenomenon. Perhaps few people felt represented by it. Fashion magazines created a monetizable juggernaut but labeled Generation X as lazy, cynical and hermit-like. While boomers embraced hard work and millennials are concerned with activism and diversity, what exactly was Generation X claiming? “Talking about an entire generation’s moral values without having the data seems over the top to me,” Nixon opines. “In general, people adapt to their circumstances, and I don’t think the differences between generations are significant. The proof is that we can read The Iliad today and it’s understood. The people from 3,000 years ago are basically the same today, [it’s just] the accessories change. Skinny pants, elephant feet. With a hat, without a hat.”
Gen Xers escaped en masse from the label with which the media tried to pigeonhole them. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Baby Boomers proudly boast of being members of their generation. That’s a sense of belonging that would never have occurred to Generation X respondents; that’s to maintain “their dignity,” Francisco Nixon observes. Esperanza concurs: “It was a ridiculous label; we only shared the same age. But having been 20 years old in Madrid in the 1990s isn’t the same as it was in Mansilla de las Mulas or Botswana. At that time, I lived with my sister, who is only a year older, and we had nothing in common… I aspired to make a living in fashion, and she was studying economics. Aesthetically, culturally and politically we had nothing in common. Feeling identified by the traits that the media associates with a generation is as absurd as saying: ‘I am a Taurus.’”
The generation that entered adulthood in the late 1980s is reluctant to allow themselves to be pigeonholed, a fact that is not lost on Forbes, which still doesn’t understand why Generation X’s relevance at the time is not commensurate with its media presence today. “As the smallest generation, sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials, we’re used to being overlooked. But here’s a serious question: why is Gen X-centric marketing still missing the mark so badly?” asks journalist Danielle Wiley. Perhaps because of the cynicism that stood out among Gen X’s attributes. Generation Xers were the first to grow up in front of TVs that indiscriminately broadcast advertising, and they learned to figure out what a product is very quickly. But nostalgia is that generation’s kryptonite, perhaps because they were the first whose childhood was spent in peace and with an acceptable level of well-being, which gave them a safe haven.
“[Advertising agencies] were completely obsessed with these two groups: The job-for-life boomers with good pensions, who are rich in both time and cash, and the anxious millennials who are financially less secure, but tech-savvy,” Tiffanie Darke, author of Now We Are 40: What Happened to Generation X?, explained to BBC Culture. After a while, she thought, “Hang on, what about me? What about the in-between generation?” Douglas Coupland thinks the answer is that they’re paying for their kids’ school tuition and their parents’ care and don’t have much time to be pro- or anti-establishment, she says. Francisco Nixon sees the role of social media in all this as well. “Social media isn’t about reality but about competing discourses. In this context, positions are simplified to the point that everything is reduced to an antagonism between two positions: us and them. Friend and foe. Truth and lies. There are two positions because there cannot be three.”
It is said that Generation X began to erode after the 1993 Perry Ellis fashion show, in which Marc Jacobs transformed grunge basics like baggy flannel shirts into luxury items. “Marc sent me and Kurt [Cobain] his Perry Ellis grunge collection. Do you know what we did with it? We burned it. We were punkers — we didn’t like that kind of thing,” Courtney Love, the Hole lead singer and widow of the late Nirvana singer, Kurt Cobain, said in an interview. The death knell came at the end of the 1990s, when Douglas Coupland came across a billboard in Paris advertising a Citroën model called Generation X. The writer was certain that the advertising had misinterpreted his novel. Perhaps he would have understood if he had visited Spain in the mid-1990s first. With Reality Bites still in theaters, a car brand was selling and copying its aesthetics and unabashedly using its soundtrack, a slogan that became an instant joke: “Young but over-prepared.”
If advertisers invented love to sell nylon stockings, as Don Draper claimed, generations were invented to sell cars. When Coupland was asked what he thought the future of the generation he named was, the writer was clear: “A good bottle of Pinot Gris, a comfortable bed, good Wi-Fi and no one around to bother them.” Not even The Wall Street Journal.
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