How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking

Somewhere in between the ceaseless celebrations of the Baby Boomers turning 60 and the Millennial generation discovering they were suffering from a quarter-life crisis, the cultural powers that be forgot to take note of a major milestone: Generation X began to turn 40.

Molly Ringwald, of the quintessential Gen X film The Breakfast Club, celebrated her 40th birthday earlier this year. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel might well be spending her days taking notes on perimenopause -- she's turning 41 in July. And if Kurt Cobain were still alive, no one would be thinking of him as an angry young man. He would be 40-plus too.

Yet Generation X, those born roughly between 1965 and 1980 (it's worth noting that demographers disagree about the group's exact parameters, preferring to use the dates 1963 to 1977), remains forever young in the public imagination, still those 20-somethings sitting around Seattle and Austin grunge bars and coffee houses exchanging ironic witticisms about life and doing not much else with their time. "Somebody seems to have forgotten Generation X," writes Jeff Gordinier, author of the just released X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. "The stodgy old species known as the 30-something has been shuttled off like Molly Ringwald herself, to some sort of Camp Limbo for demographic lepers."

Gordinier seeks to rescue Generation X from the shadows in this rollicking book. (Hint: if you don't think Gordinier is funny, read his hilarious take-down of a Newsweek article on Boomer friendships in his introduction), He revisits Gen X highlights from childhood in the inflation-ridden 1970s through slacking during the recession of the early 1990s to the dot-com boom and bust, and what came after. He looks at the careers of folks as disparate as director Paul Thomas Anderson and Meetup founder Scott Heiferman and his partners to prove that, well, Gen X doesn't deserve its slacker reputation. They work, those 30- and 40-somethings. They really do -- when they can get work, that is. Generation X, it seems, has a nasty habit of getting bushwhacked by bad economic conditions time and time again. Yes, they've produced a few Internet millionaires, but Census Bureau figures reveal that the men of Generation X are grossing less than their fathers at the same age. And if you think you detect a tone of slight bitterness in my reportorial voice, in the interests of full disclosure I admit to a birth date that marks me as a full-fledged member of Generation X.

Yet in his attempt to shill for a group that is genuinely in need of some good public relations, Gordinier lets some less than exemplary Gen X traits slide. When it comes to solipsistic spending, for example, Generation X puts Baby Boomers to shame. What other generation can claim to have made $1,000 architecturally inspired infant strollers and $5 cups of designer coffee into necessities? Gordinier could also have devoted more page space to the women of his generation, who are now on the forefront of the work/life balance debate.

Yet Gordinier is ultimately an optimist, believing Generation X is only now coming into its own as a true force for change. He points to a growing number of 30- and 40-something social activists, arguing that the sheer number of political, international, economic and environmental disasters that have occurred over the course of George W. Bush's presidency leaves Generation X with no choice but to begin to go about the business of fixing our society. In short, he believes the group will turn into the demographic equivalent of Winston Wolf, the clean-up character played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction:

We're equipped. We're wary enough to see through delusional "movements": we're old enough to feel a connection to the past (and yet we're unsentimental enough not to get all gooey about it); we're young enough to be wired; we're snotty enough not to settle for crap; we're resourceful enough to turn crap into gold; we're quiet enough to endure our labors on the margins. Beyond that, we're all we got. Nobody else is going to do it.
Gordinier's probably got a point. But this GenXer needs to make a stop at her local coffee house before she gets to work. I hear they have a great new South American blend, and I'd like to try it out. We 40-somethings need all the energy we can get, you know?

AlterNet met recently with Gordinier in his suburban New York City town to discuss what makes Generation X distinctive, if demography is destiny and which generation can legitimately claim Barack Obama as one of its own.

Helaine Olen: Why did you write this book?

Jeff Gordinier: One day I was looking out there, and the sun was going down over the Hudson River and these angels appeared. I realized the angels were Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, and they spoke to me and they said, "Tell our story, Jeff! It's time!"

No, no. What happened was my son Toby was born on Jan. 27, 2006. My editor at Details called me at home when Toby was maybe a week or ten days old. I was really tired, frustrated and vulnerable. And he wanted something for the April issue. We were riffing about Generation X, I was whining and this screed poured out about the fucking crap culture and American Idol culture that I found so abhorrent. Whatever progress had been made in terms of fostering an alternative viewpoint in America, it failed miserably. The Generation X viewpoint had been marginalized.

Olen: What is the Gen X viewpoint?

Gordinier: I think the Gen X viewpoint is indirection. The Boomer and Millennial viewpoint is "I want to be in the fucking spotlight." Gen X'ers are uninterested in the spotlight. They're more interested in dodging it and doing good work quietly. I think there's a sort of comfort in the margins. Our influence on American culture has been in the shadows. It has been from the margins, even if we're talking about something as macro as Google. Its genesis was microcosmic.

Olen: Where do you think that comes from?

Gordinier: I think it's partly just because we're smaller. You know, we're sort of sandwiched between two larger demographic groups. We were marginalized from the start. But the first president I can remember is Nixon. The first war I can remember is Vietnam. That has to do a number on you when you're a kid. Oh, war. The war we've messed up. Oh, the president that resigned because he messed up. It sort of plants a seed of questioning, I guess.

And, let's be honest, punk rock has a lot to do with it. It just does. Not just the music but the sensibility. That attitude is so different than the Boomer attitude. The attitude of people like Jello Biafra and Johnny Rotten, so scabrous and questioning and unwilling to be pinned down, unwilling to be lumped in. That seems to be so much a part of the Gen X sensibility.

Olen: Is demography destiny?

Gordinier: It's weird the degree to which it seems to be, don't you think? Yet, people are unaware of how much they were formed by shared cultural influences. You know, whether it was just watching Gilligan's Island in reruns, or having some faint memory of Watergate and Vietnam, going through this phase in which a lot of people's parents got divorced, not in my case, but that's, I think, something that impacted a lot of X-ers.

I think a huge influence on us was the stock market crash of 1987, even though, maybe, at the time, you weren't even aware that it would be important. But I mean, that happened October 19, 1987; I graduated from college in 1988, so just a few months later, and lo and behold, I couldn't find work. That affects your sensibility. It changes what you expect. I mean, it's a little like my grandmother's Depression mentality.

Olen: One of the odd things I find is that when you say Gen X, people still envision a bunch of slackers hanging around a coffee shop in Seattle, in Austin. But Gen X'ers are well into their 40s. Why does this persist?

Gordinier: There's a kind of cut-and-paste media laziness to a lot of the coverage of things like this. 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. But for the most part, I was just unemployed, looking for work. I mean, I wasn't slacking. I wanted a job, you know? We had a hard time finding work. That's different than not wanting to work at all.

And how can you still even use the word "slacker" about the generation that created Google? I mean, Generation X has reinvented global business. We have. I mean, I haven't. If we're speaking collectively, we're talking about people who have changed the way the entire world does business. That's pretty big, and this kind of becomes absurd to continue to call those people "slackers."

Olen: You write in the book that the Internet reflects Gen X values ...

Gordinier: I think something like YouTube reflects Gen-X values. Craigslist, certainly. Wikipedia. Google. But instead of Gen-X values, why don't we talk about Gen-X head space. I think that, when you look at something like Wikipedia, something that's crowd-source like that, I mean, it reflects the same obsession with encyclopedic knowledge that, I think, a lot of Xers have. Instead of baseball statistics, a lot of X guys, for instance, are obsessed with Guided By Voices' B-sides. It's similar to me to a Tarantino movie, or a Beck song -- these pieces of art that are larded with cultural references, cultural allusions.

Olen: Yet, reading your book, it seems to me you think the dot-com boom was to Gen X what the apple was to Adam and Eve.

Gordinier: These dot-com guys, at the beginning, they were pretty cool. They were like punks. They were just true to themselves, and the companies that were created were based on cool "kill your idols" kind of ideas. So you couldn't hate them quite so much. It seemed like the right people were getting money. And -- it was just contagious. I think that there was this vast collective acknowledgement of money and sort of wanting money.

And I think the other thing is that, it's not just money itself. I think Gen X'ers, our alternative sensibility, in some ways, segued. We're tempted by all things small-batch, and microbrewed, and indie. Organic. Those are not bad things, but in some ways, they are a mask for the same Yuppie sensibility that afflicts the Boomers and the Millennials in a more mass way. So it leads down the same road, don't you think?

Olen: Just because it looks good or tastes good, it's still a $1,000 stroller or a $25 bottle of beer?

Gordinier: Yeah, we're all weak. Everybody has their vice.

Olen: So how is Gen X an alternative force in the culture? You could say Gen X has had amazing PR. We buy insanely expensive stuff, because it looks or tastes cool. We move to working class neighborhoods like Park Slope or Wicker Park and soon they are only working class neighborhoods in our heads because our arrival eventually ensures that the true working class can't afford to live there. How do you reconcile this -- if you can?

Gordinier: Well that's the great Generation X original sin, isn't it, that our own connoisseurship became corruption. That's a huge question. Everyone is susceptible to the Yuppie Virus. In a way, Gen X'ers are their own virus. It's true, that urge for the margins is partially what erodes the margins. It happened in Pasadena. When I was in high school, there was this whole area called Old Pasadena that changed my life. Where I grew up -- San Marino -- was really, really right-wing. Old Pasadena was like a Bukowski Wonderland. It was old dive bars with pockmarked drunks. It was literally porn shops. There was this place called the Espresso Bar. It was one of the first places I went where there were poetry readings, and they had this cool jukebox with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Husker Du. So Old Pasadena was like a refuge for those of us who were mods or punks or whatever the identification you had.

Old Pasadena is now Tiffany's and Pottery Barn and trattorias. We were unknowingly, as high school kids, the emissaries of gentrification. We carried the virus. But what do you do? I don't know; I'm not equipped with all the answers on this. It is the great conflictedness at the heart of the X experience, isn't it? It's a profound question you ask. Like I go back there now and I'm horrified. I can't go back to Old Pasadena anymore. I literally want to cry.

Olen: You say in the book that Barack Obama is a Gen X figure. How so?

Gordinier: Barack Obama is our people. I mean, he has a Gen X sensibility. Did you read Dreams From My Father? It's a remarkable book. It's so shockingly honest, and not just about drugs, or whatever. It's honest about dissent and his doubts about forms of protest. It's stunning to read that. When he was at Occidental College for a couple years, he attends and speaks at this rally against apartheid in South Africa, and midway through the rally, he's struck by this wave of doubt. He's not sure that he's accomplishing anything. He feels that members of the board of trustees of the college are looking out their windows laughing at them. He feels like there's a charade going on. That struck me as a Gen X sensibility. That line of thinking can lead to apathy and disengagement, but in his case, it certainly didn't.

Olen: You write about music, so I can't resist asking this. What do you think Kurt Cobain would be singing about if he were alive now?

Gordinier: I think that the idea of Kurt Cobain surviving is inconceivable. I mean, he was imprinted with death from the start. But here's a thing. Eddie Vedder, at the very height of Pearl Jam's commercial triumph, retreated. He retreated into, you know, seclusion. And he sort of became a temporary Howard Hughes. It turned out to be a brilliant move, both creatively and commercially. Pearl Jam, against all odds, survived. I'm not a huge Pearl Jam fan. But I'm impressed by what they've managed to do. I mean, they've come out on the other side of the '90s with their loyal fan base, they'll probably be making music for 25, 30 more years. So I have to believe that Kurt Cobain would've desired a similar course of action. But maybe that's applying too much heroism to him.

Olen: Talk about the Millennials for a minute. You do in the book ...

Gordinier: A few years ago, I visited Princeton. I was talking with some students there. And I was really shocked and appalled by their -- first of all, every single person was like, "Well, wait a second, why are you still a writer? Why aren't you the editor-in-chief now?" And they would actually say this to you. And I said, "Well, I don't actually aspire to be an editor-in-chief. I want to be a writer." "Well, why? I mean, isn't there more money being an editor-in-chief?" I mean, it was just inconceivable to them that I would choose the lesser-compensated option.

Olen: I'm going to take a counterpoint with you for a second. Yes, Millennials can be humorless, but they get off their goddamn asses. X'ers tend to be ironic and funny, but we can barely get off the couch. I was absolutely shamed during the New York primary a few weeks ago. These 20-somethings -- they were out on the street corners handing out Obama and Hillary literature. They were at my commuter rail station. What do they have that we don't?

Gordinier: Confidence.

Olen: Is that what it is?

Gordinier: And entitlement. The entitlement comes from this blind confidence they have. That, in a strange way, we have to envy. And we could probably use a little bit more of that. I think that entitlement that a lot of Millennials feel is attributable to not having crawled their way through the wreckage of some of the stock market meltdowns yet.

But I'm coming around a bit on the Millennials. I met a kid recently, a 24-year-old kid who's working for Do Something. And I was impressed by what he was doing. I was also put off by his robotic use of jargon, by his self-satisfaction, by his, like, "Yes, I'm doing something good for the world. Now I'm going to tell you all about it." As an X'er, I found it sort of distasteful. But maybe we could learn a little bit from that.

Olen: So how do you get X'ers off the couch? We are the original couch potatoes, after all.

Gordinier: Well, I think Barack Obama's doing it. And I think part of it has to do with the incredible suckitude of the last eight years. I mean, it's astonishing what we've been through. Wait, what the hell am I saying? I'm a Yuppie. I haven't been through it. But what we've witnessed. Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, the erosion of civil liberties, I mean, it's -- regardless of what party you're with, or like, what political perspective you have, these have been really distressing years. And I think, for Gen X'ers I know who are Libertarians, or are kind of old-school liberals, it's been so troubling that they've -- felt themselves compelled to get up and do something.

Olen: So is that where X'ers are headed?

Gordinier: I remember when my wife and I saw the Democratic National Convention on TV in 2004, and Obama spoke, and I was crying. Shit. I mean, real tears. I cried. I was like, "Fuck! What's happening? This guy's awesome!" My wife said, "I'd follow this guy anywhere. I'd vote for this guy. Who is this guy?" It was just a remarkable speech. And then we thought, "We'll get burned. We'll get burned. Let's face it. Don't believe in this. You know, he's a cool guy, but let's not get all full of hope or anything. Hope is a trick."

I think that, not just Generation X, all sorts of people who are reflexively sarcastic suddenly feel compelled to put that aside. So when you say, "Where is Gen X headed?" Maybe that's where we're headed. Maybe we become sappier. Maybe we become a little less sarcastic for a while. I don't know. It's hard, though. I mean, what -- are we gonna put Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert out of work? What happens to Sarah Silverman?

Olen: So you don't think Generation X has peaked, the question you posed in your 2006 Details article that led to this book?

Gordinier: Nope. Strangely, I think we're just getting started. I actually think we're on the brink of new accomplishments, even though they might be quiet, under-the-radar accomplishments. And time is on our side, weirdly enough. I mean, look at it this way: Eventually, whether they'll admit it or not, the Boomers are going to die.

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