Guide To America's Twenty-Somethings


From The Straits Times (March 27, 1993)

by Ong Soh Chin

Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture attempts to sum up the American babybuster generation, the generally blasť, cynical twenty- somethings partial to snazzy packaging and MTV- style visuals.

It follows that the book itself should make a statement. Its size makes it appear more like a user's manual. Unlike a normal paperback, it is broad, flat and square-shaped. The book cover comes in several colours so you can coordinate it to suit your bookshelf or the colour scheme in your room. It is different, cool and detached.

The layout is similarly unconventional. This is an unusual novel, for all along its side margins are clever terms and definitions for situations and afflictions particular to the twentysomething generation. For example, Mid-Twenties Breakdown is a "period of mental collapse occurring in one's twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments, coupled with a realisation of one's essential aloneness in the world. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage".

Generation X, basically, serves as a guidebook for the generation that history is yet to define. These are the twentysomethings, who live in the post-hippie '80s and '90s and feel that the movements of the '60s did not change the world. In fact, some believe that the '60s daisy-chain brigade has become the engineers of greed and money-grabbing during Reagan-era America.

This is now an America experiencing economic downturn. The legacy to the twentysomethings is a bleak future in which they can never hope to be as successful as their parents.

The book's Canadian author, Douglas Coupland, initially set out to write a user's manual for the twentysomething set -a book full of pithy and clever-clever definitions. But the project soon evolved into a proper novel about three protagonists -Andy, Dag and Claire, soulmates and neighbours living in Palm Springs, California.

Disenchanted with treading the career path and pursuing "pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause", the three friends have broken away from convention to live on the fringes of society. But they are no normal layabouts. All have college degrees, but choose not to use them. They are looking for a greater purpose in life -an affliction that, Coupland implies, is shared by many twentysomethings. Life is a series of vignettes, of incidents wherein one tries desperately to derive some deeper meaning.

Pragmatic amorality is a by-product of this way of thinking. A famous Roy Lichtenstein cartoon in the book shows a slightly distressed young woman assuring her mother: "If the marriage doesn't work out, we can always get divorced." This cynical disbelief in marriage as an institution is matched by an equal disregard for a proper career, with babybusters dropping out to "do their own thing". In another Lichtenstein cartoon, a man tells his Dad: "You can either have a house or a life ... I'm having a life."

These twentysomethings are guilty of Tele-Parablizing, defined by Coupland as "morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots". But unlike the popular TV series, Melrose Place, which makes a travesty of babybusters, Coupland's book never fails to hit its emotional marks. Unlike Melrose Place, Coupland's book features no manipulative TV-type scenarios like unplanned pregnancies or relationship problems. Instead, the problems faced by the characters in the book are almost indescribably metaphysical.

They are the problems of the soul -the struggle to keep one's own in an increasingly materialistic world. Coupland's writing is funny but detached, just as Andy, Dag and Claire are sympathetic yet distant. Just as the characters think they are creating their own histories, Coupland, too, has created his history for his generation.

He has also succinctly summed up the spirit of the times for the twentysomethings -it may be bleak and uncertain, but you may as well make the most of your youth, intelligence, culture and good looks while they last.


Homeowner Envy: Feelings of jealousy generated in the young and disenfranchised when facing gruesome housing statistics.

Terminal Wanderlust: A condition common to people of transient middle-class upbringing. Unable to feel rooted in any one environment, they move continually in the hope of finding an idealised sense of community in the next location.

Historical Underdosing: To live in a period when nothing seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines and TV news broadcasts.

Occupational Slumming: Taking a job well beneath one's skill or education as a means of retreat from adult responsibilities and/or avoiding possible failure in one's true occupation.

Ultra short-term nostalgia: Homesickness for the extremely recent past: "My, things seemed so much better in the world last week."

Underdogging: The tendency to almost invariably side with the underdog in a given situation