How Generation X Works

How do you define Generation X?

When Gen-Xers were very young, they roamed unbelted across the backseats of their parent's cars -- child safety seats were optional. No one called 911 when they spotted kids alone in a vehicle. Unsupervised 10- and 11-year-old kids babysat their younger brethren. While their parents toiled at the office, latchkey Gen-Xers of the 1970s ranged freely, a herd of nomadic cyclists with sprinkler-damp hair, Popsicle fingers and playing cards threaded through the spokes of their bikes.

When Xers were teenagers, their parents bought the first home computers and marveled as kids learned to program in BASIC. Carbon paper was out; joysticks were in. Gen-Xers were the first gamers, the first kids to be weaned on cable TV, the first members of the MTV generation.


Born of unprecedented freedom into an era of infinite technological promise, Generation-X seemed, at first, to have been born into a golden age. Xers soon encountered some unease, however. As they became sexually active, AIDS appeared on the scene. As they graduated college, the 1987 stock market crash swallowed the job market. Then, the dotcom bubble burst in the mid-90s, and the jobs Gen-Xers had tried to create for themselves evaporated like smoke.

Some Xers traveled the world -- "Generation X" author Douglas Coupland dubbed this group the "poverty jet set." Some, like Kurt Cobain, started bands and created the soundtrack of a generation. Others lived in their starter apartments well into their thirties, playing video games and holding down menial jobs. Films like "Singles," "Reality Bites" and "Clerks" painted a picture of Generation Xers as overeducated underachievers, slackers and losers.

But is the image of lazy, grunge-y, plaid-wearing twentysomethings an accurate picture of Generation X? Behind the mass-media stereotypes, Gen-Xers were (and still are) quietly changing the world.


Generation X Characteristics

Jeff Gordinier, author of "X Saves the World," writes that Xers are "said to be the defiant demographic, dedicated to shredding whatever raiment the marketing apparatus tries to drape us in; because we'd prefer not to be categorized at all, thank you very much" [source: Gordinier]. Still, like other generations before them, Xers share a common past and certain characteristics. Here are just a few:

  • Gen-Xers are geeks. Some of the most influential Web sites of today -- including YouTube,, and Google -- sprang from the minds of yesterday's video gaming, flannel-wearing slackers.
  • Gen-Xers are independent thinkers. Gen-Xers are often referred to as first latchkey kids. As the divorce rate rose in the 1970s, Gen-Xers were left to look after themselves while both parents entered the workforce. As a result, many Gen-Xers developed independence and self-reliance. They prefer to do things their own way and thrive in casual, friendly work environments [source: Theilfoldt and Scheef].
  • Gen-Xers are artists. There are well-known Xer artists (director Quentin Tarantino and actors Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt come to mind), as well as those who are known only inside their own circles of expertise. Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher of Yee-Haw Industries are making waves in design, bringing back old letterpress techniques. Abattoir's up-and-coming Chef Joshua Hopkins is reimagining whole animal and farm-to-table cooking. Sarah Marks and Lori Kishlar of Third Half Studios regularly make the rounds of festival and craft shows with their macabre anime-like melamine dinnerware, prints and textiles.

Citing YouTube, Google and other Gen-X triumphs as evidence, Jeff Gordiner writes that "GenXers are doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking." While the media focuses on the challenges Baby Boomers face as they enter old age and the triumphs of young Millennials like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, the contributions of Gen-Xers go largely unreported.


Generation X Facts

Think you know all there is to know about Generation X? Some of these X-facts might surprise you:

  • Douglas Coupland popularized the term "Generation X" when his novel of the same name was published in 1991; however, he didn't coin the phrase. The term "Generation X" first appeared as the title of a 1950s Robert Capa photo essay, though legend has it that Coupland took the term from Billy Idol's former band Generation X.
  • The defined era of Generation X is fuzzy around the edges. The period between 1965 and 1981 is most often cited as Generation X, but some sources list 1964 as Gen-X's inaugural year, and the cut off dates range from 1976 to 1981. We're playing it safe and saying that Generation Xers were born between the mid-60s to the early 80s.
  • With only 46 million members (as opposed to 80 million Baby Boomers and 78 million Millennials), Gen-Xers have barely half the market share of the generations that preceded and came after them [source: Stephey].
  • Generation X gives back. From huge Gen-X success stories like Google to hometown endeavors like Atlanta's all-volunteer fitness program Boot Camp 4A Cause (BC4C), Xers are known to be philanthropic. In 2010, Google's charitable giving totaled more than $184 million [source:]. BC4C is even more philanthropic, donating 100 percent of its net profits to local charities [source:].
  • Born Aug. 4, 1961, President Barack Obama just misses the Generation X cutoff. His wife Michelle Obama, however, can be considered one the very first Gen-Xers. Like other Xers, she's well-educated, with a law degree from Harvard. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a passion for public service that continues to this day through her popular "Let's Move!" campaign.
  • In the late 80s and early 90s, Gen-Xers turned the music industry on its head -- first with neo-folk music by artists such as Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls, and later with alt-rock grunge with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Lyrically and sonically, this new music evidenced reflected the rawness, depth and honesty of Generation X. Bassist Krist Novoselic referred to Nirvana's breakout hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as "a call to consciousness." [source:].

Now that you've got your X-facts straight, explore everything else Generation X has to offer. You'll find related articles and lots more information after the jump.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Arnold, Eve. "Robert Capra Remembered." The Independent. Oct. 13, 1996. (May 7, 2011)
  • "Bootcamp 4A Cause." 2011. (April 14, 2011)
  • Carlson, Peter. "Wild Generalization X." The Washington Post. April 11, 2006. (May 7, 2011)
  • "Philanthropy @ Google." 2011. (May 14, 2011)
  • Gordiner, Jeff. "How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking." Viking Press. 2008. (May 7, 2011)
  • "Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit." (May 7, 2011)
  • Stephay, M.J. "Gen-X: The Ignored Generation?" Time Magazine. April 16, 2008. (May 7, 2011),8599,1731528,00.html
  • Thielfoldt, Diane and Scheef, Devon. "Generation X and the Millennials: What You Need To Know About Mentoring The New Generations." November 2005. (May 7, 2011)