If Nevermind changed the world, the world changed back pretty fast
– Jeff Gordinier, X Saves the World (2010)
Twenty years ago a few things happened that defined a generation. Canadian author, Douglas Coupland, wrote a book which sent a wave of discontent and discussion through many ideological young men and women. The book was called Generation X. In the same year Richard Linklater released the film Slacker, depicting a group of social outcasts and misfits, who drift through an American city seemingly without any real purpose. The film was a huge underground hit. At the same time a little known Seattle band, Nirvana, released their second album, Nevermind, which propelled them to rock superstardom. If 1991 marked the cultural awakening of a generation with energy and potential not seen since the 1960s, we have to ask – twenty years on – what happened?
The demographics of Generation X are sketchy. Generally it includes everyone born between 1965 and 1976 (or 1971 and 1983 depending on what you read). To confuse things further there was a 1980s band named Generation X, fronted by Billy Idol. The band itself was inspired by Generation X, the 1964 study by British journalists, Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson. The book portrayed the daily lives of British teenagers, both poor and wealthy, in their own words. Still, it is Coupland who is often given credit for, if not the term ‘Generation X’, at least popularising it. In his novel, Generation X, three disillusioned and intelligent young adults search for meaning in what they perceive as a corrupt and pressured world. They quit their jobs and eventually move to an isolated spot in a desert in an attempt to be free from modern society.
Coupland’s novel was hailed by Cosmopolitan magazine as ‘a modern- day Catcher in the Rye’. It transformed the author from being, in his own words, ‘strangely clueless’ into the spokesman for an entire generation. Scruffy teenagers, who did not care about how they looked and wrote poems in their local coffee shops, were suddenly cool; they became a fashion. Advertisers were quick to tune in to the potential of selling to the newly-identified demographic. The irony became that, despite the Generation’s idealism and supposed rejection of commercialism, it quickly developed into a ‘product’ in itself to be consumed by millions desperate for an identity.
Hollywood and television quickly got involved with films like the Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder slacker-romance film, Reality Bites, and the Claire Danes-fronted, My So-called Life television show. MTV was eager to provide a soundtrack. Fashion took the ‘grunge’ look of those with little interest in clothes and made it cool to wear ripped jeans and baggy shirts. Time magazine talked about a new ‘lost generation’ on its front cover, and Kurt Cobain singing ‘all alone is all we are’ became an MTV staple; the Nirvana hit was regularly played on both mainstream and college radio stations.
Advertising executives relished the challenge of targeting this new generation. Marketing strategists wrote papers on selling techniques, and Coupland himself was offered – and refused – ten thousand dollars from corporations to speak on ‘How to sell to Generation X’. In the end they did not need him. Millions of dollars were made by the selling of a brand, a fashion statement which was Generation X, a cool alternative where image was everything. Even Coca-Cola got in on the act by launching a drink in 1993 called OK Soda which aggressively targeted the Generation X market. It had an advertising campaign backed with statements like, ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything’. By the time Coupland did an interview in 1995 for Details magazine he had clearly had enough: ‘X got hypermarketed right from the start, and now I’m here to say that X is over.’ Twenty years on, with MTV claiming it will ‘no longer target Generation X’, and Pepsi advertising ‘Generation Next’ on its drinks, whatever happened to those caught up with the original ideology of Generation X – if, indeed, such a thing ever existed?
Moe Bowstern was featured in a Newsweek feature about Generation X back in 1994. She had dropped out of mainstream society and belonged to an alternative group called the Autonomous Zone in Wicker Park, Chicago, which she described in the article as, ‘a non-hierarchical, anti- authoritarian collective that will not buy into the crap that we can’t change our lives’. She helped run community groups and a homeless shelter, and appeared to live free from material desires and comforts. She even suggested to the reporter that she did not need to buy much because, ‘you can find perfectly good furniture in the garbage’.
Today, the forty-three year old independent lady Newsweek had declared a typical ‘X-er’, explains: ‘We lived our days struggling against the bland corporate cruelty of The Man.’ Seventeen years after the article she professes she ‘still subscribes to many of those ideals. To Love over Gold, to a lifestyle committed to the value of hands-on experience and a rejection of consumer culture’. In fact she claims to have spent ‘only eighty dollars on furniture since the publication of the Newsweek article’. She says she had no idea or interest in what mainstream media was doing to target her age group.
Patty Pino is the forty-four year old creator of theslackerfactor.com, a website aimed at keeping alive the Generation X ideals. She told me, ‘the sense of the Generation X ideals still exists. My friends and I don’t walk around like billboards for corporations and avoid wearing logos whenever possible’.
The reality, however, is that most subscribers to the original ‘Generation X lifestyle’ have since ‘grown out’ of, or given up on it. The twentieth anniversary of the Coupland book will be a strictly nostalgic affair reminding them of their youth. Yet how can it be that some, like Moe Bowstern and Patty Pino, have not changed their ideological beliefs? Can a forty-four year old still be ‘Generation X-er’ in 2011?
It is worth noting that Coupland wrote Generation X after being inspired by Class, written in 1983 by a respected American professor, Paul Fussell. He argued that beside the usual class system there existed an ‘X Class’. This was defined by a group of people who were unaffected and disinterested in status, financial success or materialism. ‘You are not born an X person, you become an X person; or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable.’ Pino, unaware of the Fussell study, described Generation X as ‘someone who doesn’t live up to the expectations of others – family, employers, society – and, typically, doesn’t care’.
Belief in boycotting the world is, of course, nothing new. Cults of restless and frustrated youth can be traced through recent history. The beat generation of the fifties sought a life of irresponsible pleasure while avoiding any form of commitment. The iconic Catcher in the Rye antihero, Holden Caulfield, quit school and wondered aimlessly in New York. The hippie culture of the sixties and seventies long advocated non-conformity and encouraged the youth to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’. In the seventies and eighties London’s punks were angry, rebellious and subversive. Then, in 1991, Coupland presented his updated version of educated adults in their twenties and thirties who did not aspire to goals or social norms. A cartoon inside the book sums up the very essence of the X lifestyle. A man says to his father: ‘Hey, Dad, you can either have a house or a life. I’m having a life.’
Helen Childress is the writer of the 1994 film Reality Bites. At the time of its release many hailed the twenty-four year old Childress as a promising new talent in the film business. Reality Bites depicted an intelligent yet aimless generation who, Childless felt, ‘had nothing to believe in’. The characters portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder drift along, searching for meaning. They have clear characteristics of the X ‘class’ identity.
Many wondered what Childress was going to write next; and, seventeen years later, they are still waiting. The last society heard from her was a 1994 interview in which she stated, ‘I know this sounds totally naive and idealistic, but I would rather get a job at Kinko’s and write poetry than be in a position where I feel like I’m Willy Loman’, (the tragic hero of Arthur Miiller’s Death of a Salesman). Internet rumours are rife that Childress continues to write, but does not want to sell out to Hollywood.
Coupland has become one of the bestselling authors of recent times. Richard Linklater is now a well-established and respected film director. His successes include the Zac Efron film, Me and Orson Welles. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, was an outsider – and drug-abuser –
who had difficulty accepting both the pressures of fame and the weight of expectation. He took his own life in 1994. A year later Coupland was declaring Generation X finished, and that ‘marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world’. Moe Bowstern agrees. Feeling that the Newsweek article did not represent her or her friends, she states, ‘we didn’t even consider ourselves to be Generation X’. Pino also rejects the idea, saying, ‘most of us really despise that Generation X label’.
If an entire Generation X never existed, at least the X identity lives on. It is not a soft drink product, not even a book, a film or a brand of coffee. It is a philosophy – an outlook on life. It is not youth culture, although perhaps its ideas are more popular among the young. It is the poor hobo riding the trains in America, or the unemployed millionaire wondering the streets of London looking for meaning to his life. It is the youngster working weekends in McDonalds and reading Dostoevsky on her lunch break. You can still see elements of it today, from anti-corporation magazines like Adbusters to the global success of Starbucks.
The marketing and selling of Generation X as a consumer product twenty years ago failed because it had no influence on, or interest for the real X-ers living on the fringes of society. For those caught up in the commercialism of Generation X, it was like any fashion – a passing trend. As the author of X Saves the World, Jeff Gordinier, explained, ‘I’ve been a slacker. I wasted my time. I drank beer, I played chess with old guys, I sat around, I wrote a couple pieces, but, you know, so I slacked. Who hasn’t? It was good times’. Only Coupland knows what happened to the characters in the book that made his name. It seems logical to assume they would be living similar lives to people like Moe Bowstern. For there are people who are still there doing their own thing, living on the outskirts of traditional culture. In doing so they have found peace and been able to accept the world as it is. ‘I have learnt how to accept most things that came my way,’ Bowstern told me, ‘and to find the sweetness of a moment in almost every day.’