Gen X Turns 50 — ‘We’re doing well, thanks for asking’

By Cindy Drukier
Cindy Drukier
Cindy Drukier
Cindy Drukier is a veteran journalist, editor, and producer. She's the host of NTD's The Nation Speaks featured on EpochTV.
December 30, 2015 Updated: October 29, 2018

NEW YORK—The first cohort of Generation X turned 50 this year—you probably didn’t notice. That’s OK, they didn’t notice either.

Squeezed between two oversized and overbearing cohorts—the tenacious boomers and the upstart millennials—Gen X has slipped through the cracks as what Pew Research called “America’s neglected middle child.”

Jump to Timeline of Significant Events, 1974-1986

There’s a staggering amount of literature on the boomers as they’ve passed through every life stage (written largely by boomers). And the millennials—now the biggest bulge in the workforce—are the darlings of the advertising world. Marketers are obsessed with understanding millennials, millennials, millennials (shades of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia“).

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Gen Xers

But being under the radar isn’t just a demographic phenomenon for the post-boomers, it’s a defining characteristic for an aptly named generation.

“X refers to the mathematical symbol for the unknown. It implies that while all previous generations had some point of reference that provided them with a social anchor,” Gen X did not, said Mike Coomes, who researches generational characteristics at Bowling Green State University.

There was no Great Depression, major war, or a civil rights movement; terrorists were not yet brazen enough to attack the homeland.

With nothing to galvanize them outward, Gen X turned inward.

I think if I could classify our generation as anything, I would say it was a generation of introspectives. I find it a particularly spiritual yet not religious group of people, and a real questioning—not with the force of the Vietnam War or fighting for choice or something that intensely personal, but maybe because there weren’t those huge fights at that time—they had been fought already—our generation went inward.

Gen Xers didn’t just turn inward because there was nothing to capture their attention outward—they were purposefully turning away from a world that didn’t hold much promise from what they could see.

I think the ’60s started out as this great new experiment in optimism and an explosion of cultural awareness, maybe the first youth-centric culture. But as the ’70s wore on, the realization that the experiment had failed, that we didn’t have all the answers, that we couldn’t trust our own president, all that resulted in a kind of loss of innocence. … Now we had to look inside for answers.

Lacking any defining moments, the constellation of social trends shaped who Gen Xers became. And despite the pessimism of the 1970s, the cynicism of the 1980s, and the skepticism of the 1990s, the traits they picked up through those experiences have served them reasonably well.

Zachary Alford was David Bowie’s drummer, 1995-1998. Read an exclusive about David Bowie HERE

Taking stock as the first Xers turn 50, believe it or not, they turned out OK. And more than that, they have been quietly shaping the world for the better.

The X Factor

It certainly wasn’t always obvious Gen Xers would turn out OK. Almost from the start, the moniker was synonymous with a litany of negative stereotypes—stereotypes cemented into the zeitgeist largely thanks to Canadian writer Douglas Coupland and his wildly impactful novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” published in 1991.

The novel’s three twentysomething guides—Dag, Andy, and Claire—seek to flee the trappings of service industry McJobs, unaffordable housing, and overly commercialized everything by rediscovering themselves in the California desert (Palm Springs).

They emerge from a backdrop of rising divorce rates, Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, and a growing suspicion that the planet is dying.

Coupland’s generational stand-ins offered a shorthand that stuck: those born after the boomers were cynical, overeducated, underachieving slackers adrift in a world with no signposts for how to spend unprecedented levels of freedom.

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While the novel struck a chord at the time (Cosmopolitan called it “a modern-day ‘Catcher in the Rye'”), Dag, Andy, and Claire are now 50. A lot has changed, but somehow the stereotypes about them have not.

University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has been tracking 5,000 Americans born between 1964 and 1981 for the last 28 years. The Generation X Report in the fall of 2011, declared Gen Xers to be “Active, Balanced, and Happy.” One article examining the report’s findings ran the headline: “Generation X members are ‘active, balanced and happy.’ Seriously?”

Why hasn’t Gen X been able to shake the shackles of its misspent youth (and what youth isn’t misspent?)?

Partially, they haven’t tried very hard. It’s an introspective generation that never felt a need to explain itself.

There have been a few efforts. In 1997, Time magazine ran a cover story: “You called us slackers. You dismissed us as Generation X. Well, move over. We’re not what you thought.”

Others have whined and stamped their feet too, but the message didn’t get out. Why? Because it’s hard to find people to step up to the megaphone if nobody shows up to the rally.

According to a Pew survey from September, only 58 percent of Gen Xers self-identify as Gen X (compared to 79 percent for boomers).

I never considered myself part of that. … The people they were talking about were whiny and lazy and all this stuff I couldn’t relate to, so I never called myself that.

I don’t identify as any gen anything.

Part of the problem could be that there’s no consensus on Gen X birth-year brackets. It’s pegged as starting anywhere from 1961 to 1966, and caps off between 1977 and 1985. Probably the most popular range is 1965–1980 (Pew Research, the Department of Defense, and the Urban Dictionary, and others).

Jeff Gordinier tried to awaken a sense of Gen X pride in his 2008 book, “Gen X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking.”

He describes Gen X as the dark horse demographic: Uninterested in the limelight chased by both the boomers and millennials, Gen X meanwhile has been quietly doing the work of keeping America great.

“I felt that you’ve got a whole lot of people … who are doing remarkable things and someone should say it,” he said in a YouTube interview about his book.

The challenge, said Gordinier, is convincing Gen Xers they’re real.

Unlimited, Unsupervised

Gen Xers faced some tough social trends growing up, which had a profound impact on the adults and parents they became.

Soaring divorce rates (22 percent in 1960; 48 percent by 1975) and working moms created a legion of latchkey children, left to their own devices during those prime after-school hours.

As much as Gen Xers have sought to correct this wrong in their own parenting, their unsupervised youth forged some useful traits, which have become the hallmarks of Gen Xers in the workplace—independence, resilience, adaptability, entrepreneurship.

Gen Xers also grew up with high levels of immigration. In 1945, just over 38,000 new legal permanent residents were created in the country; in 1965 it was 323,000, and half a million in 1976.

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Thus, they learned in multicultural classrooms (22 percent of Gen X are immigrants), children of every color watched “The Jeffersons” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” and they backpacked across Europe and Asia. As a result, Gen Xers are confident and comfortable with diversity—handy traits for thriving in the global village.

Gen Xers also got educated in record numbers, especially women, who outnumbered the men on campuses for the first time; 66 percent of Gen X women attended some college, compared to 58 percent of men.

Most importantly, it was an era of unprecedented freedom to explore options. There was very little pressure from parents and society to enter college with a career plan and stick with it. As a result, most Gen Xers didn’t plan careers, they just let them happen.

“There were no boundaries. … You could do whatever you wanted to do and no one’s going to judge you. … It was all just whether you could survive. It’s really just on you.

A lot of people I know who are my age went down many paths. … My father paid for me to live in New York City for three years if I would work on poetry.

On the flipside, the recession in the early 1980s introduced the disturbing concept of job insecurity. The fact that their parents had sacrificed family time for work, and yet still lost their jobs, was an important learning moment.

Then, when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, they learned about job loss firsthand. During the Great Recession, they learned it again—Xers lost nearly half their wealth, compared to boomers who lost only about 25 percent, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

As a result, accumulating wealth has never been a prime directive. They’re the first generation that didn’t do as well as their parents, but that’s largely because they prioritized different things: They want a healthier work–life balance; meaningful jobs where they can make a difference; they’re loyal to people but not to companies; they believe in lifelong learning.

When Gen Xers turned away from the collective, they went local, focusing on family, friends, and community. They made choices to allow them to be present for their children—and they placed a premium on trying to raise them right.

I’m glad I didn’t raise my kids here in the city because of the pressure and the competition. … The change in scenery meant that they were going to be way different from me, and so the challenge was trying to figure out how to pass on my New York City upbringing to basically my two country girls.

Whereas baby boomers brought us terms like “latchkey kids” and “yuppies,” Gen Xers coined “stay-at-home dad” and “shared care.”

While some Gen X parents may be taking it too far—and may be criticized for smothering and coddling their children—they feel they got a lot right.

I think this generation is raising really good kids.

The Digital Frontier

Although the pace of technological change during the ’80s seems laughable today, Douglas Coupland wasn’t on Mars when he subtitled his book “Tales for an Accelerated Generation.”

There was a major shift and Gen Xers were the ones navigating the digital onslaught: the first home computers (Apple I in 1976), video games (“Space Invaders” in 1978), cable and satellite TV (first basic cable network in 1976), and ultimately the Internet (1989).

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(Public Domain)

Those who embraced it and kept pace, still retain an edge from having had to figure out technology, rather than being born into it.

For an astronaut, they have space. For people that are into technology, the Web was kind of space. It was the new frontier. … So I think a lot of people gravitated to it, and once you got the lay of the land, then you became very marketable.

For the most part, Gen Xers flourished in the new space—they transformed the media landscape and changed the way the world does business.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (1964-borderline); Wikipedia founders Jimmy Wales (1966) and Larry Sanger (1968); founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, Elon Musk (1971); and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin (1973)—all Gen X.

Not everyone rushed toward it, however. Some sidestepped it, which was still possible—barely.

Things were moving so fast in terms of technology that as a generation not used to it necessarily, we were sort of exhausted by it and overwhelmed by it, rather than a generation starting out with it.

Since then, the pace of innovation has continued at warp speed and those who didn’t pick it up from the get-go were forever left behind.

I’m still not terribly computer savvy and many of same-age friends are not computer savvy. …  [My daughter] she’s 9 and she’s coding. And I don’t know what that means, frankly, but she’s doing it.

Gen X is the last generation to know what it’s like on both sides of the digital divide. As children they memorized phone numbers, typed college essays, and made mixed tapes by pressing record on a cassette player when the song came on the radio. They know fast and can still value slow.

We are right at the cusp of life before computers and life after computers—so we’re kind of a link; the things that we saw, that you can no longer see.

I’m Still Not a Target Market

Coupland titled an entire chapter in his book “I Am Not A Target Market” conveying the generation’s distrust of advertisers and disdain for consumerism.

Those who do art should do it for the sake of art. Earning a living as an artist was the dream, but it wasn’t a business plan. That’s changed now, and they don’t like it.

The cinema industry, music industry—all the industries that are supposed to promote art and diversity—are being ruled by the profit motive instead. I’ve watched the business side of the music business get stronger and stronger to the point where the tail’s wagging the dog.

They also grew up as environmentalism and sustainability entered the collective consciousness, but worry that those lessons are being trampled on by the millennial renewal of consumer culture.

I assumed that by the time I’d be 30 or 40, everybody in the world would be meditating, and eating healthy food, there’d be no such thing as Styrofoam cups or junk food. … It looks like they missed half of the lessons that we thought were already done deals. … It was like watching the baton get passed and then the person just running in the wrong direction and going ‘Noooooo!’

To Gen Xers the Millennials may be a lost cause, but while there are still kids in the house, Gen X can wield its its power to influence the generation that’s yet to be named.

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Retirement Denial

Retirement is a sensitive topic for Xers, partly because they don’t perceive it as being on the doorstep, and partly because they are a lot less prepared than they should be.

You do what you want to do, then you move on to doing something else you want to do. That’s what I’ve always done and I’m sticking with it.

Northwestern Mutual’s 2015 Planning and Progress Study discovered that of the four generations surveyed, Gen X has the poorest financial habits.

A remarkable number still have student debt (32 percent of New Yorker Gen Xers); many have aging parents at home (20 percent), still support dependent children (44 percent), and carry bad mortgages (42.1 percent of Gen X mortgages are underwater).

Working late into life for a career you love is one thing, but according to Northwestern Mutual, 82 percent of Gen Xers anticipate working past 65 because they won’t have the savings to retire.

Over one-third of Gen Xers don’t even know how much income they need to retire, and nearly half have never discussed retirement planning with anyone.

Life of an artist is feast or famine, it’s true. I’m a little more fortunate than a lot of … my peers, because I got in on the real estate game in the early ’90s. So I do have some real estate and that’s my retirement plan.

Pragmatic and distrusting of institutions, Gen Xers don’t expect government to take care of them. In an AARP survey of New York voters, 33 percent of Gen Xers expect Social Security to play no role at all in their retirement.

We realize there’s not going to be Social Security for us. If we think the government’s going to help us out, we’re kind of kidding ourselves. … We look out for ourselves. For most of us, we are not looking for handouts.

While retirement is still a long way off for the youngest Gen Xers, it clearly doesn’t feel like a reality for the 50-year-olds either.

No. Ha ha! I certainly don’t feel the way I thought 50 would feel! I still feel like a kid.

Not even a little. I don’t know what that means.

I still think I’m trapped in a 30-year-old body. I don’t think I’m 50. … I see people at 50 doing stuff that 50-year-olds a generation ago wouldn’t even dream of doing. So I think no boundaries have led to us questioning what does old mean. I don’t feel old.

Gen Xers have always bucked authority and broken the rules, and they may be doing it again as possibly the first generation to make it 50 without thoughts of death changing their outlook. It’s not that they refuse to get old, it just hasn’t occurred to them yet—maybe it never will.

Click to enlarge timeline

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Amelia Pang contributed to this story.

Photo credits: Space Invaders (CTRPhotos/iStock); roller skates (StockPhotosArt/iStock); TV dinner (Ednam/iStock); Apple MacIntosh (Public Domain)

Correction: A previous version misspelled Douglas Coupland’s name.

Cindy Drukier is a veteran journalist, editor, and producer. She's the host of NTD's The Nation Speaks featured on EpochTV.