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. More than 45,000 people visit this site every month and 4,000 people subscribe to the monthly newsletter.
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What Is Generation X? A Definition
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 2,000 posts on this blog. If you are looking for information about Generation X you have come to the right place.
Generation X, by broadest definition, includes those individuals born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s. The collective persona of Gen Xers is frequently debated and discussed among academics and marketing experts worldwide. The term traditionally applies to North Americans (United States and Canada); Australia; England; Ireland and various other European countries.
Today, 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 and was further hastened by FDA approval of oral contraceptives in 1960. By 1965, 6.5 million women were on “the pill”, and in 1973, abortion was legalized. Please read A Nameless, Unlucky Generation.
What Years Are Generation X?
The years for Generation X vary among historians, government agencies and marketing firms. I pretty much stick to 1961 to 1981. Here’s how a few others break it down.
- Neil Howe and the late William Strauss defined the generation in the broadest terms I have come across: 1961 to 1981. They wrote this book, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? about Xers. It’s available on Amazon and I highly recommend it.
- The United States Social Security Administration defines Generation X as “those born roughly between 1964 and 1979.
- Another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, sets the parameters at 1965 to 1977.
- George Masnick of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies sets the Baby Buster years at 1965 to 1984.
Primarily, generations stem from shared experiences. Depending on your birth order, the area of the country where you grew up and 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…
Ultimately, opinions vary on when generations begin and end. You must decide for yourself where you belong. In my opinion, people should claim the generation whose collective persona most reflects their own life experiences.
Generation X Ages | How Big Is Generation X?
The age range for Generation X as of 2016 is 35 to 55 (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.
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 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 with a relatively simple answer: immigration.
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, marketers and social scientists 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 a “bold and imaginative” theory that is based on recurring generational cycles in American history. That history began 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. Keep in mind, much of this persona was fleshed out in the 1980 and 90s. Today, Xers are in or approaching middle age and a different persona has emerged.
Adrift, Apathetic, Cynical
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. We’ve discovered that our stories aren’t unique. In fact, the narratives are strikingly similar. Facebook is dominated by Generation X and through millions of status updates we’ve discovered our shared history, our shared secrets.
Many 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
- 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.
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.) 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 believe a Bachelor’s degree entitled them to: A job — or at least something more than a McJob. To make matters worse, the student loans that Generation X used to finance college, were loaned at much higher rates than what Baby Boomers were afforded. For example, my sisters, who are eight and 10 years older than me, got 3-percent loans. My loans, however, were 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 or defaulted on them. It was all so very messy. People talk about Millennials and the student loan crisis, but it began way before they ever signed their first promissory note.
Xers are reportedly the hardest working generation in the workforce — the “workhorses of America.” Longtime, mid-level careerists are finally ascending to the corner office and their no-nonsense leadership will bring refreshing changes to the workplace. This includes greater workplace flexibility and an ability to understand the needs of a multi-generational workforce better than anyone.
Many of the aforementioned problems are among 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. In addition to making Winona Ryder the darling of her generation, the film helped nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of Generation X. In fact, famous Gen X entrepreneurs include the founders of Google, Twitter and Amazon.
Unfortunately, the movie also helped nurture a negative stereotype of Generation X: The Slacker who lives in his parents basement well into adulthood. This image is one of the reasons many Gen Xers distanced themselves from identifying with their generation.
Today, younger Gen Xers take more pride in the Gen X label than older Xers who endured the original stereotype. In fact, “Generation X” pretty much remained a pejorative until Millennials began receiving an insane amount of media coverage around 2012.
Educated, Ethnically Diverse, Individualistic
Compared to the generations that came before us, Generation X is a highly-educated generation of Americans. More than 60 percent of Gen-Xers have attended college at one time or another.
Generation X grew up without segregation. They grew up loving 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. Moreover, Hip Hop is widely recognized as the music born of Generation X.
We also pride ourselves in being individualistic. Our mothers worked and our fathers left. Perhaps for you 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, 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, Flexible
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. A frien 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.”
Maybe it was our turbulent childhoods, but Generation X has proven highly adaptable to change. We saw our parents lose so many jobs. As a result, we remained committed to making whatever changes were 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.
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 Boy Scout Troop leader? Gen-Xers value work-life balance because they know the job you sacrifice everything for might not be there tomorrow. Why give it all and lose your family in the process?
Unprotected Childhood: Latchkey Generation
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
- Absent Fathers
- Working Mothers
- Latchkey Kids
For more about latchkey kids, I invite you to read a post I wrote about the Latchkey Generation.
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.
Other key historical events are listed under cultural touchstones portion of this article. They include nuclear events like Three Mile Island, the Gulf War, the Cold War, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Berlin Wall.
Divorce, Working Moms, 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.
Rushed Through Childhood
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.
Generation X, The Cold War and Terrorism
Pretty much everything I have to say about Generation X and the Cold War is summarized in a radio commentary I wrote in September 2011. Also, you may be interested in some of these posts. Search the Cold War tag to find all these posts:
- 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
Click this link to see the war infographic I created to features all the wars and conflicts since the birth of Generation X. It starts in 1961 and goes up to 2012.
Finally, for additional information on events of historic significance, read 5 Forgotten Protests of Generation X. They include Love Canal, Earth Day 1990 and protests against apartheid.
Boys to Men
Generation X Parents
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
Books on Gen X
Also, you can check out a great collection of Generation X book titles via my Generation X Bookstore on Amazon.
Cultural Touchstones of Generation X
This article is an ongoing project and I would love to have your help. I’m alway adding to the following list of cultural touchstones. If you have an idea or contribution please leave me a note or send me an email or Facebook message. You may also want to check out a fun infographic I created about the sordid parade characters Generation X grew up with. Click here to see My Confusing Life, a spin on My So Called Life.
- Cold, Sugary Cereals
- Saturday Morning Cartoons
- MTV – MTV had a big impact on fashion. Think Madonna with her lace everything. Bustiers, bangles and chains. Also, Michael Jackson jackets and gloves. MC Hammer pants, parachute pants, acid-washed jeans and much more.
- Grunge Music
- Kurt Cobain
- Environmental Disasters – Three-Mile Island, Love Canal, Union Carbide
- Designer Jeans — Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jordache, Chic, Bill Blass
- Big Hair
- Michael Jackson
- John Hughes Films —The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc.
- Berlin Wall and the Cold War
- Latchkey Kids and Divorce
- HIV/AIDS and the Safe Sex Movement
- Boom Boxes followed by Walkmans –They gave us the ability to make our music “mobile”
- The word ALTERNATIVE — Applied to everything from people, music, clothes and more.
- Just Say No to Drugs Campaign
- Microwaves and the Explosion of Fast Food Chains
- Dance Aerobics and the Fitness Movement
- Cable TV and Satellite –The expansion of television from just a few channels to a few hundred! Remember when the weather impacted reception? We were always adjusting the antennae. “Just a little more to the right,” my dad would say as I stood in front of the TV trying to get the clearest picture. Also, who can forget the excitement of waiting for Saturday morning cartoons?
- VHS and Video Stores — Weekends started with a trip to the video store. The whole family debated and negotiated what to movie to rent. (Be kind. Rewind.)
Xennials and Generation Jones
Finally, sometimes, you’ll hear about Generation Jones, a micro-generation between Boomers and Generation X. Gen Jones was born between 1954 and 1965. There are also the Xennials, another micro-generation born between 1977 and 1984.