When happily ever after fails
and we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly— Don Henley’s End of the Innocence, 1989
Generation X: The Latchkey Generation
According to Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Generation X was born during the single most anti-child phase in American history. In the early 1960s, the birth control pill became widely available, and in 1973, abortion was legalized. These are two factors that are said to have contributed to the generation’s low numbers.
According to Jeff Gordinier, in his recent book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, Baby Boomers number 76 million and Millennials, 80 million. Generation X is sandwiched between them with 46 million.
From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, divorce rates in the United States more than doubled. In addition, between 1969 and 1996, the number of working mothers in the workforce also doubled. Consequently, many households were headed by working single moms. It’s estimated that as many as 40 percent of Gen Xers were latchkey kids who returned home from school to empty houses. Their childhoods and youth were marked by a lack of supervision, and excessive household and family responsibilities.
What is a Latchkey Kid?
The term latchkey kid originates from the latchkey of a door. A latchkey kid — sometimes just called a latchkey — is a child between the ages of 7 and 13 who comes home from school to an empty house. The child is left unsupervised until a parent returns home from work. The hours of unsupervision vary, but typically take place during what law enforcement refers to as the “danger zone” of 3 to 6 p.m.
In the 1970s, the rise in divorce coupled with a high rate of mothers in the workforce gave rise to the term. I had many Gen-X friends who wore a key tied to a cord around their neck. (This would be great training for all those lanyards we’ve had to wear in the workforce. Ugh.)
Here’s a quote from Jack London, the American novelist, from his 1909 book, Martin Eden: “The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap.”
Latchkey Memoir, Childhood Sexual Assault
That’s just to say, latchkey kids have been around for generations. They didn’t start with Generation X, but they were a very big problem for Generation X. A few years ago, I shared my story in a commentary I did for KOSU Radio about my own latchkey childhood memoir, which you can click here and read. If you’re a former latchkey kid struggling with a painful past, particularly as it may relate to childhood sexual assault, it might help you.
Also, my faith has helped me. I recommend these books:
- Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood
- One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
- The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life
Revenge of the Latchkey Kids
In 1998, Ted Rall wrote a book about Generation X being latchkey kids. He called it Revenge of the Latchkey Kids: An Illustrated Guide to Surviving the 90’s and Beyond. He said this about the book: “Revenge is my Generation X manifesto. As Xers entered marriage, parenthood and, God forbid, responsibility, the book made a splash with its anti-Boomer argument that neglect and abuse of Gen X in its youth would create an unusually self-sufficient generational cohort in adulthood. This prediction proved accurate…”
And, then there’s this from Bad Religion:
…In this world today there ain’t nobody to thank,
just blame it on the kids and toss ’em into the tank.
and if they yell for justice we’ll hide them from the light
so that when they learn the truth they won’t be scared of the night.
Put the key in the hole when you get home from school.
I’ll be home by 8:30, your father will too.
if you cause any trouble then I don’t want to see,
’cause you’ll go straight to bed and you won’t have no TV.
Gina’s Story: Latchkey Child
I think we’re alone now There doesn’t seem to be anyone around.–Tiffany, 1987
The pendulum swings wide on the consequences of the latchkey childhood. Unsupervised Gen X children and youth ran the gamut of those who watched too much TV and didn’t do their homework to those who fell into escalating levels of crime. For one Gen Xer living in Oklahoma, the pendulum didn’t just swing it spiraled downward into a heartbreaking tale of promiscuity, drugs and alcohol. And, even though her story is not the rule, many Gen Xers had friends like her.
Gina (not her real name) was born in 1967. Her parents divorced in the early 1970s, and her father lived in another state. Eventually, he became estranged. She was a latchkey kid throughout her entire childhood and youth growing up in Oklahoma City.
“When I came home I did things I wasn’t suppose to do,” the 41-year-old store clerk said. “I had to take care of my younger sister. I cooked for us.
“It was very lonesome. I filled my voids with bad things, with things I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I got into drugs, into alcohol.”
“The whole cheerleader thing,” Gina continues, “I never had a ride. I never had money for uniforms. Therefore, I never got interested in ball games. In junior high, I joined a softball team, but my mom never came to one game.”
Baby Boomers As Parents
According to Coupland, inwardly-focused Baby Boomers sometimes regarded their children as “obstacles to their self-exploration,” and thus resulted permissive parenting of grand proportion. In addition, on top of spending many hours bored and lonely, Coupland also concludes that Generation X was “rushed through childhood.”
“If she would have been home, I wouldn’t have gotten into those things,” Gina said. “I would have been more involved, more interested. I might have gone to Vo-tech, but my mom thought that was a blow-off.
“I wanted to go into nursing.”
Gina, who graduated high school in 1985, left Oklahoma City after graduation and became a dancer at a topless bar in a mid-size town about 100 miles away. Over the next 20 years, she endured multiple divorces, the heartbreak of infertility and numerous run-ins with the law. Coming to terms with her childhood has not been easy, but she’s working on it.
“I’ve always been at the base of the tree,” she continues. “I didn’t want to climb it. I didn’t want to fall, and the sudden stop at the bottom. But, I’m in the mid-branches now and heading to the higher branches.”
Today, the number of latchkey kids has declined. In 2000, Generation X parents along with school administrators helped to get federal legislation passed, which provided seed money for after school tutoring programs in lower-income schools. Unfortunately, Gen-Xers learned firsthand how dangerous the hours between 3 to 6 p.m. can be for children.