Who Is Generation X?

Gen Xers Banana Seat Bike
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An Overview of Generation X, the Latchkey, Baby Buster, Slacker Generation.

Greetings! My name is Jennifer. I started my first blog in 1999, and began writing about my generation in 2008. I’m glad you’ve come here to learn about Generation X. I can help you. Please feel free to email me if you have a question or would like to contribute a thought or two. I love to hear from readers. Use this contact form or email me at jenx67 dot com.

By the way, everything you could ever possibly want to know about me is right here.

What Is Generation X?

In this article you’ll learn the definition of Generation X and discover its years, size and characteristics including major, defining events like divorce, latchkey kids, the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. You’ll also learn about cultural touchstones like big hair and John Hughes films. There are nearly 3,000 posts on this blog. If you are looking for information about Generation X you have come to the right place.

Generation X Definition

Generation X by broadest definition includes those individuals born between 1961 and 1981. The collective persona of Gen Xers is frequently debated and discussed among academicians and marketing experts worldwide. It traditionally applies to North Americans (U.S and Canada); Australia, and various European countries. There are well over 50 million members of Generation X. We are sometimes referred to as Baby Busters because our birth years follow the baby boom that began after World War II. That boom began to decline in 1957. Sometimes, you’ll hear about Generation Jones, a small subculture or subset of Generation X born between 1954 and 1965.

What Years Are Generation X?

The years for Generation X vary from one historian, government agency and marketing firm to the next. Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, defined the generation in the broadest terms I have come across: 1961 to 1981. The United States Social Security Administration defines Generation X as “those born roughly between 1964 and 1979, while another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, sets the parameters at 1965 to 1977. But, I don’t see how a generation can only be 15 or 12 years in length. Childhood and youth comprise 18 years of our lives.

Generations stem from shared experiences. Depending on your birth order and the area of the country you grew up in as well as other influences, you may identify with one generation more than another. That is perfectly fine. All of this is subjective. It’s worth noting the simple definition of a generation found at Dictionary.com.

  • The entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time…
  • The term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
  • A group of individuals, most of whom are the same approximate age, having similar ideas, problems, attitudes, etc. (Compare Beat Generation, Lost Generation, etc.)
  • A group of individuals belonging to a specific category at the same time…

The point is, opinions vary on when generations begin and end. In my opinion, people should lay claim to the generation whose collective persona most reflects their own life experiences.

Generation X Ages

The age range from Generation X as of 2014 is 33 to 53 (my broadest definition). In 2011, the first Gen-Xer turned 50 years old and the youngest turned 30. We are currently the “sandwich generation” in America. We are caring for aging parents and raising more than 50 percent of the nation’s children under 18. (May 2014)

How Big Is Generation X?

According to Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X: Tales of 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 book, 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. This is expertly challenged, however, by the 2010 Census, which puts the total U.S. population around 311.8 million.

The following generations’ numbers are for everyone over 18. These individuals collectively represent 236.8 million Americas.

  • G.I. (born 1901-1924), 4.5 million
  • Silent (born 1925-1942), 26.2 million
  • Baby Boomer (born 1943-1960), 65.6 million
  • Generation X (born 1961-1981), 88.5 million
  • Generation Y (born 1982-2001) 18+, 52.0 million
  • Two-thirds of the remaining 75 million are Gen Y who are under 18
  • The remaining one-third (25 to 30 million) is Generation Z.

So, why do we hear that Generation X is so small when the numbers tell a different story? That’s a great question…

Characteristics of Generation X

When it comes to generations, characteristics and traits are often referred to as the collective persona. Not everyone buys into generational theory and some accuse historians and marketers, etc., of stereotyping people. I am not one of these people. I love the book, Generations, by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss. These historians came up with an a “bold and imaginative” theory that is based on recurring generational cycles in American history beginning in 1584. This theory is difficult to summarize, and I couldn’t do it justice even if I tried. A brief overview of the framework, however, may inspire you to check their book out of your local library.

Basically, the historians maintain that generations fall into one of four archetypes and occur in one of four cycles that go on repeating themselves. The archetypes are prophet, nomad, hero, artist and the cycles are high, awakening, unraveling and crisis. Everything they’ve written about Generation X has been spot-on for me. Others may see it differently. With that, here are some of the stereotypical traits of Generation X.

Adrift, Apathetic

In youth and childhood, Generation X was often described as being adrift. The archetype of loner emerged. In reality, members, especially young men, were disenfranchised by a loss of familial support and later technology (think: video games).  In adulthood, the introspective, disconnected Gen-Xer has re-engaged through social media to find that they are not so different than everyone else. Facebook is dominated by Generation X and here we have discovered we were all hiding the same things from each other all these years.

Cynical

Gen-Xers distrust authority and large institutions including corporations, religious institutions and the government. The following is a list of historical events that occurred during Generation X’s coming of age, which contributed to the Gen-Xer-As-Cynic stereotype.

  • The Energy Crisis of the 1970s Watergate
  • Iran Contra (1980s) Nuclear Disasters including
  • Three-Mile Island
  • Silkwood/Kerr McGee
  • Union Carbide and Chernobyl
  • Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
  • Widespread Layoffs of the 1980s
  • Dot Com Boom and Bust of the 1990s
  • Corporate Greed
  • Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal

In more recent years, the Great Recession has underscored and validated that cynicism. It was Generation X, not Gen Y that founded Occupy Wall Street.

Entreprenuerial

A lot of Gen Xers struggled to find jobs after college. According to a report by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the year my husband graduated from college (1988), there was a sharp rise in joblessness among college-educated men age 24 and under. (It rose from 4.8 to 7.9.) READ: No Golden Age For College Graduates published in July 1988. This trend continued until 1991.

The situation wasn’t much better for Gen X women. Thus, many Gen Xers roamed aimlessly after college, unable to secure what they were told a degree entitled them to: A job or at least something more than a McJob. To compound matters, the student loans that Generation X used to finance college, were loaned at a much higher rate than what Baby Boomers enjoyed. For example, my sisters, who are eight and 10 years older than me, borrowed at a rate of 3 percent. My loans, however, were at 8 percent. The cost of a college education was higher for Generation X and the jobs were scarce. When you did find one, you couldn’t make enough money to make your loan payments. So we deferred them and deferred them, and some defaulted. It was all so very messy.

These are some of the themes explored in the iconic Generation X movie Reality Bites. Janeane Garafalo plays a college graduate working as a sales associate at The Gap. The movie made Winona Ryder the darling of Generation X. This and more helped nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of Generation X. Famous Gen X entrepreneurs include the founders of Google, Twitter and Amazon. Interestingly, it also helped nurture one of the prevailing and negative stereotypes of Generation X: the slacker who lives in his parents basement until he’s in his 30s. This image of Gen Xers caused many to distance themselves from identification with their generation. Today, younger Gen Xers take far more pride in the Gen X label than older Xers who endured the original stereotype. Generation X was at one time very much a pejorative.

Educated

Compared to the generations that came before it, Generation X is a highly-educated generation of Americans. More than 60 percent of Gen-Xers have attended college at one time or another. But, don’t get me started about how they tried to force the metric system on us or killed off our arts and music programs.

Ethnically Diverse

Generation X grew up without segregation. They grew up loving Bill Cosby and watching Different Strokes and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. These cultural influences contributed to a generation that is more accepting and more inclusive of others. Generation X has long embraced diversity. Hip Hop is also widely attributed to Generation X.

Individualistic

Our mothers worked. Our fathers left. Sometimes, it was the other way around. Either way, divorce was a major factor in the developing resourcefulness, independence and self-sufficiency of Generation X. Autonomy was a consequence of unstable childhoods. Interestingly, the lack of coddling in childhood has created a generation of parents who coddle their kids’ every whim. This over compensation is frequently defined as over-parenting. (More on Gen-Xers as parents below.)

Casual Disdain for Everything, Especially Authority

Generation X has often been criticized for a snarky and casual disdain for authority. In the workplace, they want freedom coupled with responsibility and they hate being micromanaged. This has created decades of conflict between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. The American workforce is an interesting state of transition right now because every day thousands of Baby Boomers retire.

Technologically Astute

Gen-Xers have come of age during an interesting time in the world. They remember rotary dial phones and the explosion of mobile technology. They remember Liquid Paper and plunking out term papers on typewriters. They grew up in a world without social media, and yet have adapted to it – even invented it – exquisitely. My friend Shawn who works in IT explained this so well with the following quote. “I prefer this disposition in life over being from the past and moving to the future. Or being from the future and wondering about the strangeness of the past.”

Flexibility

Maybe it was our turbulent childhoods, but Generation X has proven highly adaptable to change. We saw our parents lose so many jobs, we remained committed to making changes whenever necessary in order to get ahead. This has contributed to Generation X being viewed as disloyal to employers or uncommitted to jobs. In reality, Gen-Xers are committed to their own survival.

Work-Life Balance

Gen-Xers value work-life balance. How else could we coach soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring all while serving as Boyscout Troop leader? Gen-Xers value work-life balance because they know the job you sacrifice everything for might not be there tomorrow. So, why give it all and lose your family in the process?

Unprotected Childhood

Generation X was born during the greatest anti-child phase in modern American history. Our childhoods were underscored by the following: Legalized Abortion (Roe vs. Wade) Invention of Birth Control Divorce Absent Fathers Working Mothers Latchkey Kids For more about latchkey kids, I invite you to read a 2009 blog post I wrote about Gina, a member of the Latchkey Generation.

Gen-Xers in NYC, 1973 | A brother and his little sister, Gen-Xers, New York, 1973
Gen-Xers in NYC, 1973 | A brother and his little sister, Gen-Xers, New York, 1973

Generation X Historical Events

Generation X and The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended racial segregation in schools. Generation X in its entirety was raised in schools that were racially diverse. In 2010, a Florida newspaper ran an article about Generation X being the first “colorblind” generation.

Divorce, Working Moms and Latchkey Kids Shape Generation X

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.

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. 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.”

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. Generation Xers understand firsthand how dangerous the hours between 3 to 6 p.m. can be for children Bonus: For an interesting perspective on growing up without a dad, read My Uncles Can Beat Up Your Uncles.

Generation X, The Cold War and Terrorism

Generation X War InfographicPretty much everything I have to say about Generation X and the Cold War is summarized in a commentary I wrote for KOSU Radio in September 2011.

  • Cold War Archives
  • 5 world views shaped by sesame street and the Berlin Wall
  • Berlin Wall film premiers on PBS [The Wall – A World Divided]
  • Thawing of Cold War Precipitated Hundreds of Base Closures
  • 4 examples of cold war culture that shaped our fear of Russia
  • My Perestroika and the Rise of Soviet Nostalgia

I created a war infographic that features all the wars and conflicts since the birth of Generation X in 1961 leading up to 2012.

Generation X Parents

I will be walking one day Down a street far away And see a face in the crowd and smile. –Amy Grant, 1991 During childhood, Generation X became the most unprotected generation in modern history. There were no after school programs when we were growing up. Our families were broken by divorce and addiction. Sexual abuse was rampant and largely unchecked. These terrible experiences birthed a generation of helicopter parents. Over-parenting is the norm among Gen-Xers. (We wrote the book on extreme kid birthday parties.) The downside of all this is obvious, but the upside is found in something Tami Erickson said about Generation X. She called us the most devoted parents in American history. I loved that.

Here are some posts I’ve written about Gen-Xers as parents.

  • The Growing Backlash Against Gen X Parents: Helicopter Parents and Overparenting
  • Generation Latchkey
  • Latchkey Memoir
  • Generation X: Most Devoted Parents In History Create World’s Rudest Kids
  • Teacher’s Guide To Gen X Parents
  • Bring Your Mom To Work Day

Here are some other Generation X labels I’ve used to help categorize content about Generation X parents.

  • Generation X Men
  • Gen X Moms

Generation X Books

Check out Generation X titles via my Generations Bookstore on Amazon.

Gen X Characteristics | An infographic covering the confusing and sordid parade of pop culture and cartoon characters stalking the minds of Gen Xers for decades.Cultural Touchstones of Generation X

This article is an ongoing project and regularly updated. I am still working on the cultural touchstones list. Until I get it done, here is a list of my personal favorites.

Cold, Sugary Cereals

Saturday Morning Cartoons

MTV

Grunge Music

Kurt Cobain

Flannel 

Designer Jeans

Big Hair

Michael Jackson

John Hughes Films

Berlin Wall and the Cold war

Latchkey Kids and Divorce

To the right is a fun infographic I created about the sordid parade of cartoon and pop culture characters Generation X grew up with. Click here to see My Confusing Life, a spin on My So Called Life.

If you still haven’t figured out if you’re Generation X, take this fun quiz to answer the question, What Generation Am I?

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Who Is Generation X?
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A definition of Who Is Generation X including years, size and characteristics plus major, defining events like divorce and the Cold War.