Generation X'd


From Details Magazine (June 1995)

by Douglas Coupland

You were born in the 60s. Does that mean you'll have to pay for it the rest of your life?

Five years ago, when I was twenty eight, I wrote a book called Generation X. It was about three strangers who decided to pull back from society and move to the fringe of Palm Springs, California, where they worked at dreary jobs at the bottom of the food chain. Together, they spent time trying to relocate their individual identities inside a new psychic landscape where personal memory fights for real estate with commercial memories. As they searched for meaning, all three sensed that their withdrawal was an act of sanity rather than negation; their worldview was simulataneously ironic and sentimental, and it reflected a way of thinking I had never before seen documented.

The book's title came not from Billy Idol's band, as many supposed, but from the final chapter of a funny sociological book on American class structure titled Class, by Paul Fussell. In his final chapter, Fussell named an "X" category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence. The citizens of X had much in common with my own socially disengaged characters; hence the title. The book's title also allowed Claire, Andy, and Dag to remain enigmatic individuals while at the same time making them feel a part of the larger whole.

Generation X's tiny, March 1991 printing had no publicity, and received almost no reviews. But that summer a Texan my age named Richard Linklater released the movie "Slacker", which was filled with overeducated and underoccupied oddballs who loosely paralleled the characters in my book. And in Seattle, a new form of music was exploding. Its attitude had everything to do with withdrawal, contemplation, and seeking the margins - albeit with the volume knob cranked to eleven. As the media goes, two's nothing, but three's a trend. Thus were born the most abused buzzwords of the early 90s: "generation X", "slacker", and "grunge".

The problems started when trendmeisters everywhere began isolating small elements of my characters' lives - their offhand way of handling problems or their questioning of the status quo - and blew them up to represent an entire generation. Part of this misrepresentation emanated from the baby boomers, who, feeling pummeled by the recession and embarrassed by their own compromised 60s values, began transferring their collective darkness onto the group threatening to take their spotlight. The result? Xers were labeled monsters. Their protestations became "whining"; being mellow became "slacking"; and the struggle to find themselves became "apathy". Once I understood this boomer angst-transference, their criticism took on its own twisted logic and instantly became benign.

Then the marketing began. Urban Outfitters. Those Bud ads where people rehash 60s TV sitcoms. Flavapalooza. Irony, which most young people use in order to make ludicrous situations palatable, was for the first time used as a selling tool. This demographic pornography was probably what young people resented most about the whole X explosion. I mean, sure, other fringe movements of the past - the 20s expats in Paris, the 50s Beats, 60s Hippies, 70s Punks - all got marketed in the end, but X got hypermarketed right from the start, which was harsh.

Around this time my phoe started ringing with corporations offering from $10,000 and up to talk on the subject of How to Sell to Generation X. I said no. (The Gap asked me to do an ad. It was tempting, but I politely refused.) In late 1991, after both political parties had called to purchase advice on X, I basically withdrew from the whole tinny discourse.

And now I'm here to say that X is over. I'd like to declare a moratorium on all the noise, because the notion that there now exists a different generation - X, Y, K, whatever - is no longer debatable. Kurt Cobain's in heaven, "Slacker"'s at Blockbuster, and the media refers to anyone aged thirteen to thirty-nine as Xers. Which is only further proof 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.

Now that we are relieved of the X burden, what to do? Well, it's still a good policy to continue defying labels: Once people think they've pigeonholed you, they'll also think they can exploit and use you. (I know of what I speak.) Refuse to participate in all generational debates. As for the marketing exploitation, a good thing about the X sensibility is that it's always a few steps ahead of the media game. Marketers have known that to pump money out of baby boomers, all they need do is play a Beach Boys song and show a clip from Vietnam. With X, they naively continue to assume that any generation actively enjoys participating in its own selling out. Wrong. Let X = X.

One would think that boomers, coming of age in the 60s, would be thrilled to see the notion of individualism adapting itself to a changing world. Instead, all they see are monsters. Andy Warhol once said that he liked sci-fi movies where the monster lays an egg at the end because it guarantees a sequel. Well, my three characters didn't lay eggs at the end of Generation X, but maybe other eggs were laid instead. I'm thinking of millions of monster eggs out there sometime in the future, all hatching small, slimy, horned babies crawling toward some form of truth, tirelessly, en masse, waging war against the forces of dumbness.

So please, be a monster.