'Generation X'


From CNN Show: Heads Up (May 28, 1994)

MICHAEL KINSEY, Host: Well I never thought I'd hear myself say these words, but I don't understand the younger generation and I think many people watching this show may have the same problem. The purpose of this program, Heads Up, is to have people on who aren't ordinarily on CNN, and I think we've got someone today who is not ordinarily on television at all. His name is Douglas Coupland. He's the author of the novel a couple of years ago called Generation X, which coined the term that has now become quite common. He's written other novels and books more recently, and we will duly plug him, I promise, eventually, but right now let's talk a little bit about Generation X. Just give us, if it's not too painful, a working definition of Generation X.

DOUG COUPLAND, Author, 'Generation X': This is going to sound heretical coming from me, but I don't think there is a generation X. What I think a lot of people mistake for this thing that might be generation X is just the acknowledgment that there exists some other group of people whatever, whoever the might be, younger than, say, Jane Fonda's baby boom. I think that's-

MICHAEL KINSEY: It is a shocking idea to baby boomers that there are people younger than us.


MICHAEL KINSEY: And offensive, I might say.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well it's sort of weird because baby boomers like, you know, in cafeterias they've got those little red lights that make French fries look really hot and actually they're cold? And it's like the baby boomers have been kind of under that light for 35 years.

MICHAEL KINSEY: You're darned right.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: And suddenly there's big denial fest going on that suddenly, like, they're not under that light anymore, and it must be painful. I empathize.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Yeah, I do, too. Well I have to- I think you guys are in denial and I'll empathize with you in just a minute.


MICHAEL KINSEY: You know, one of the world's most famous baby boomers, President Clinton, actually brought up Generation X in a talk he gave the at University of California last week and we've got a little clip of it. We're going to show it right now.

Pres. WILLIAM J. CLINTON: Americans of my generation have been bombarded by images on television shows and even one book about the so-called generation X, filled with cynics and slackers. Well, what I have seen today is not a generation of slackers but a generation of seekers, and I am much encouraged.

MICHAEL KINSEY: I guess the first question is give us a working definition of the word 'slacker' because that is a word you hear a lot in connection with- well, first of all, let's not be too coy. Generation X is the generation- the working definition of the generation after the baby boomers. People in their 20s, early 30s right about now. Can we settle on that?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: You can say that and they'll buy into it.

MICHAEL KINSEY: All right. I'm saying that. What is a slacker? How would you define a slacker?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Oh, I don't know. I think- well, you know, a hundred years ago you and I would both be dead, or we'd be blind or maimed or something. I think that science allows people to live longer and because people live longer, adolescence, or the process of maturation, takes longer, too, and I think slackers are someone who takes longer to become an adult, maybe.

MICHAEL KINSEY: So it's the guy or woman in their 20s who's still living at home, say?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Not necessarily at home, no.

MICHAEL KINSEY: No, but doesn't have a real job, [unintelligible].

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well I think there's also a willful marginalization of refusing to participate in the density of information which we all live in nowadays.

MICHAEL KINSEY: What does that mean? Help me out.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well, I mean, God, since 1980, what have we introduced to the world, Michael? We've had CNN-

MICHAEL KINSEY: You're not saying they're willfully refusing to participate in CNN are you?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: They love CNN. They watch CNN in endless rotation.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Oh thank goodness.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: We've had bar coding, cable vision, satellite TV, cordless phones, cellular phones, just in time delivery, fax machines, affordable PCs, very cheap. We've multiplied exponentially the amount of information that we put in the culture and I think the slacker is someone who's just saying woah, I think I want to step back a bit and reflect upon, maybe, the changes all this information is having on us.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Yeah, but my impression of observing people in their 20s is that they are more into the information revolution, they're more into things in general- machines, CD players, fax machines, computers, than their-

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: But that's good. I mean, I think it's sort of a dar- from a Darwinian standpoint it's really stupid to be afraid of technology because it's never going to go away. I mean, you can't de-invent a coffee cup and you can't de-invent a CD player or a TV, so you might as well get used to it and go with it.

MICHAEL KINSEY: My working definition of a slacker is from the movie Reality Bites. That guy played the boyfriend. Did you see that movie?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well I- yeah, I saw that, yeah.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Yeah, Evan somebody, the actor.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Oh, Hollywood's Ethan Hawke.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Ethan Hawke, right. And he's sort of alienated, as you say from-

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: That's sort of a dumb cliche.

MICHAEL KINSEY: How is he different? How is that image, which is pervasive, he represented a cliche, I agree with you, of the 1990s guy in his 20s, how is that different from the James Dean model of the rebel without a cause in the 1950s? Too hard for you, that one?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well I mean, you were there, Michael, you tell me.

MICHAEL KINSEY: I was there. I was three years old or something.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: No wait. You were born in 1951. I did some research.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Right. So when Rebel Without A Cause came out it went what year, '56, something like that?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Yeah, '55, '56.


DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I don't know. I wasn't there. Don't ask me.

MICHAEL KINSEY: All right. We'll skip that one then. What is a McJob?


MICHAEL KINSEY: That's another term which you're credited with inventing, a very good term, I think.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I think a McJob is, well that's a, if I can remember correctly, it's a zero benefits, dead end, oh God, let me try this again. McJob


MICHAEL KINSEY: Well let me help you.


MICHAEL KINSEY: It would be- a model of a McJob would be a job working at McDonalds.


MICHAEL KINSEY: Service sector.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: You say, yeah, I don't know if we're allowed to say the name of the corporation on TV.

MICHAEL KINSEY: You're wearing a Microsoft T-shirt so I wouldn't be too reluctant.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Okay. A McJob is just sort of a dead end, going nowhere, like zero paying, zero benefits, do you know those little Playskool figurines where, you know, you can take one out and put another person in? It's kind of like one of those jobs there. I mean, when people say, the government says, oh people are employed, you know, I don't know. Does working at one of these places count as employment? Sure. But it's not something you'd, you know, get a mortgage on a house over or get a get married about.

MICHAEL KINSEY: And it's one of the complaints of the generation X generation that more of them are stuck in these jobs than their predecessors with the yuppie generation when they came out of college.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I don't know if it's a complaint. I think the fact of the matter is that the economy is reconfiguring itself towards a polarization of people who have information and people who've sort of lost the information game of musical chairs, and you're either the person who's designing the spread sheet in which the beef patties go into, or else you're sitting there asking, 'do you want fries with that?' I don't think- we've lost that middle ground, I think.

MICHAEL KINSEY: But the complaint, as I've heard it, and I wonder if you think it's valid- of the twentysomething people is it's not so much as who's got information, but who got there first? The yuppies got there first and got all the good jobs, and they're the pig and the snake of the aging process.


MICHAEL KINSEY: And that therefore there's no room.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: No, I don't think that anymore.

MICHAEL KINSEY: You've changed your mind?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I don't think that anymore. I think twentysomethings are like the French. They just like to complain, you know, it just is something that goes along with being in your early 20s, you know, every people in their 20s thinks, you know, it's a very scary place. Your 20s think. I mean, I had a terrible 20s and I don't think I've ever found anyone that had a good 20s.

MICHAEL KINSEY: We've exposed how old I am, so how old are you?


MICHAEL KINSEY: You're 32. You barely qualify anymore.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Oh I don't qualify, period. I mean, I think that's why you don't hear the term twentysomething very much anymore. It's probably because the people who were twentysomething back then are now in their 30s. I mean, you have to remember, when Generation X, the book, first came out in 1991, there was no cultural awareness at all, period, that there was any gener- everyone from age one up until age 40 was considered a member of the baby boom, and I think what you have around- and we've gone from that in three years to cultural cliche, that, at least we have some sort of agreement-

MICHAEL KINSEY: That's what makes America great, Doug.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Well, but there- it's sort of weird, the number of people that are in denial of how there must be some sort of group, and what I'm saying, I mean, the title of the book, I- it was never the title Generation X.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Where did the title come from?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: There was this guy Paul Fussell-

MICHAEL KINSEY: Paul Fussell, yeah.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Paul Fussell, who wrote a book called Class, which is about class stratification in the States and for people who didn't want to be part of the class merry-go-round, he invented the 'X' class, and I read that and I thought, gee, that sounds an awful lot like this particular group of people. So that was where the term came from.

MICHAEL KINSEY: And it's taken off since then?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: It would appear so, yeah. It would appear so, but, you know, I want people, you know, to remember that, you know, you don't have to be a part of any generation. I think it's weird. If you take, say, a sample baby boomer, just take, let's get random, like blonde- okay, Boise, Idaho. She's 42 and she's worked down at the check out counter at a Lucky and so, a representative baby boomer. What do you think about, oh I don't know, Clinton's policy on this? Well we believe this and we believe that and we also think- and the frightening science fiction-like aspect of it is that all baby boomers seem to agree. It's like one entity divided amongst a million separate little beings, whereas I think if you were to ask, you know, younger people who are, well, of this generation that there may not exist that, you know, refuses to be named, you know, what do you, as a group, think about a certain issue, they'll say well, you know, I think this personally, but I'm not going to speak for anyone else and I think that's presumptuous and I'd never presume to speak for anyone else.

MICHAEL KINSEY: All right. Well hold on. We've got to take a break. We'll come back with more libel of the baby boomer generation in just a moment.

[Commercial break]

MICHAEL KINSEY: We're talking about generation 'X' with Douglas Coupland, who doesn't do much TV but did do these- well I'm sure what the heck they are, but they're something or other for MTV and let's watch one of hem.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Here you are, you have this meat and bones in here, your corpse, and then here you have this invisible entity that resides inside of you, the you of you. Well, what is you? What is the link between the meat and the bod? Where do you begin and end? This 'you' thingamajig, is it an invisible self woven from your memories? Is it a spirit? Is it electric? What exactly is you?

MICHAEL KINSEY: Well what exactly was that?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: That was a- what do you call them? They're called interspatial spots. They're used on MTV in between the Skittles commercials and the Motley Crue video. It's- they called up and they wanted to know if I wanted to do something- station ID spots I think, and- I went to art school. I didn't go to college or anything, and so I sort of jumped at the chance. I was between books and they were wonderful. They just gave me, you know, here's your budget, do what you want and they didn't interfere at all and so we did six spots. I don't know, we don't get MTV in Canada, where I'm from, so I don't know when and if they aired.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Let me ask what will strike you, maybe, as a very leaden question?


MICHAEL KINSEY: Is this supposed to be ironic in some way?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Ironic? No, no. I would hope that they were new and different and beautiful and not in the least ironic. I've actually moved away-well, I mean, ironies do something [unintelligible].

MICHAEL KINSEY: Let me ask you about it. I wanted- that was the segue, cause I anted to ask you about irony. I mean, it does seem the generation X people are sort of obsessed with irony. I mean, the key gesture is this. You say something-

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Oh, the air quote, yeah.

MICHAEL KINSEY: And you go like this and that was called an air quote.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: The air quote, yeah.

MICHAEL KINSEY: And it means I'm only saying- I'm saying that I'm saying this, I'm not really saying it.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I- okay, I'm not really saying this but, like that. What-

MICHAEL KINSEY: Am I- is that an unfair generalization?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Hmm- let me think this over a sec. We can always take out-cut out the boring bits.

MICHAEL KINSEY: I'm afraid not, but go ahead.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Really? Okay. I think that if you're exposed to a relentless amount of information, particularly TV, that you get used to knowing the mechanics and the subtext of the way things work, and that tends to make you ironic. I noticed that when- the fact that there was another generation was actually acknowledged in the mass media, that marketers and people swooped in and thought, oh good. Now we can make millions of dollars, and lately, there is a sort of peeved, angry tone, that marketers haven't been able to capitalize on this group as a target market. Because I think-

MICHAEL KINSEY: And why is that?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: One I think- and I'm very proud of this group that will not be named, that refuses to take an identity, is that it can tell, because, having been raised with so much information and, pretty clearly, TV, that when something is being directed towards it, when marketers are trying to make someone complicit in their own duping or their own- it's almost as if the media wants to feed back a Disney version of a generation to itself.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Yeah, but I must ask you whether this pride you have is justified? I mean, doesn't The Gap, don't Nike and Microsoft, for example, quite consciously play on this kind of generational sensibility and do it quite successfully?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Do they? I mean, I don't know. I think-

MICHAEL KINSEY: You're being manipulated and you don't even realize it.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I'm not being manipulated. I love Microsoft and their products.

MICHAEL KINSEY: Well leave Microsoft out of it. How about The Gap?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I think The Gap- I mean, but notice how they have to continually mutate, that, well that's inherent in advertising. But I don't know. I think they're kind of losing it, too, I mean, that whole sort of Zsa Zsa wore khakis thing. I mean, I don't know what's the deal with that.

MICHAEL KINSEY: It doesn't do it for you? We have to take another break pretty soon and before we do, I want to ask you one more, my, one of my favorite terms.


MICHAEL KINSEY: This one- I don't know if this one's from your book, from Generation X- a veal fattening pan.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Yeah. Those are those little modules everyone works in, the disassembled little fabric-covered wall partitions that give you the illusion of our own space, when, in fact, it's just a money-saving device for the corporation.

MICHAEL KINSEY: There's quite a few of them in this very bureau.


MICHAEL KINSEY: So you're saying, and I think you're right, that this is a more common working environment for people in their 20s, that people, older people, might not be as aware of?

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I think it's actually the dominant working environment in the culture now. It started out- when it started out it was mainly young people who got, you know, that end of them, but now everyone works in those. I mean, when the economy started to go downwards, it impacted first on younger people and then, now, of course, it's- another cultural cliche is fifty- and sixtysomethings being booted out of their corporations.

MICHAEL KINSEY: All right. On that depressing note, let's take another break and we'll cheer up in just a minute.


[Commercial break]

MICHAEL KINSEY: Well, Doug, you've been resisting, very unfairly, in my view, generalizations about the twentysomethings, the generation Xs, but one generalization is they're very computer literate, comfortable with computers, and I understand you have been

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against videotape