Call Me X

Before I even had a chance to ride it, the media beat my horse to death. Years after everyone got tired of hearing the term Generation X, headlines and advertisements continued trumpeting the arrival of this new target market. But as unpleasant as this force-feeding was, the bile it forced up has been even worse. Now, everywhere I turn, some nose-pierced mosher or career-minded college student is spewing: "I'm NOT Generation X."Well, I am. And I want my label back.I'm not a tattooed 20-year-old slacker with a cynical attitude, a messy dorm room and a pile of Lollapalooza ticket stubs. I'm a disillusioned 31-year-old with a couple of Consolidated CDs, no pension plan and broken dreams of corporate yuppiedom. I have a college degree and a "professional" job that pays less than $21,000 a year. And, judging by the public and private discourse on the "slacker phenomenon," I sometimes think I'm the only one who actually read Douglas Coupland's book. (Evidence of this lies in the fact that, of all the people who've bashed his theories on American youth, practically no one has ever mentioned that Coupland is Canadian).I was a 25-year-old loser when I read Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. I had watched the generation before me -- the tail-end baby boomers -- graduate from college to gluttonous success. As a student in the late 80s, I though their path was the only way: Get a degree and get rich. I stayed home Saturday nights studying, hoping better grades would give me a leg up in the corporate world. I graduated in 1989 with an A average and visions of BMWs and Rolexes dancing in my head.Then I got a job. It paid $6 an hour. I consulted my predecessors -- two friends in particular. One of them was 10 years older than me and making almost $40,000 a year. The other was 6 years older than me earning nearly $50,000. As they heaped money-making advice on me, I learned their stories. Neither had worked as hard as I had -- in college or after. By virtue of birth and sex (both were men) they had stumbled effortlessly into financial comfort.I thought something was wrong with me.Several years later, I had yet to break the $18,000-per-year mark when someone handed me a copy of Coupland's book. In it, I read about a group of college graduates who had flunked out of corporate life. But they weren't losers.As the story unfolded, so did the Big Lie that was the 1980s. The decade of Reagan and Ralph Lauren had pushed an impossible ideal of conspicuous consumption and gluttony. As the baby boomers gobbled up the last of the post-war wealth, their example suggested there was plenty more for everybody. But the twentysomethings who would follow were in for a nasty surprise: The wealth was gone.Coupland's messages were liberating and liberalizing. Through an effective divide-and-conquer technique, I had been lied to. Wealth, I realized, isn't the simple product of hard work and entrepreneurial ambition. Instead, wealth is only attainable at the price of someone else's poverty. That someone else was me.For the first time, I could see that it wasn't my fault. And I wasn't alone.The characters in the book were 27 -- two years older than me. As I age, so does the generation that book spoke of and to. But now, this generation has been robbed again. We've been kicked out of our own age group on the basis we're too old. Generation X, that ugly appellation, now refers to an entirely different group of people: young hipsters in their teens and early 20s. No longer an important commentary on postmodernity and economics, the term has been stripped down to a vague comment on fashion and attitude. Someone stole my very vindication and offered it to the young, the pierced and the grungy. But the biggest insult of all is that these youngsters, for whom my raison d'etre was pilfered, snub their noses at it.Youth, especially in the case of college students, is a time of wild optimism, of limitless possibilities. How can someone who's still in college know the bludgeoning that awaits them after graduation? How can someone who never dreamed of Christian Dior suits know the pain of settling for thrift store flannels? How can someone who never aspired to be a yuppie understand the failure and alienation of a true slacker?I once used the term Generation X in a conversation with a 21-year-old who had graduated college just two weeks earlier. Before I could finish my sentence, she lunged at the opportunity to cast off the label: "I don't buy that," she said. "I'm not Generation X."But I wasn't talking about her.If I can't have the dreams of my youth, if I can't even have financial security, can I just have a term that helps me grieve? Can I have a few words that explain my failure? Can I please just have my label back?

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