There was no respect for youth when I was young, and now that I am old, there is no respect for age – I missed it coming and going. –J.B. Priestly
Who Is Generation X?
An Overview of the Latchkey, Slacker Generation
A definition of Generation X along with the years, size and characteristics including major, defining events like divorce, the Civil Rights Act and entrepreneurialism.
January 15, 2012
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 Definition
Generation X by broadest definition includes those individuals born between 1961 and 1981. The collective persona of Gen Xers (discussed later) is frequently debated and discussed among academicians and marketing experts worldwide. It traditionally applies to North Americans including people from the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and various European countries.
Generation X (the generation) should not be confused with Billy Idol’s band, Generation X, or the comic strip of the same name.
What Are The Years For Generation X?
The years for Generation X vary from one historian, government agency and marketing firm to another. 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.
The point is, opinion varies on when generations begins or ends. In my opinion, people should lay claim to the generation whose collective persona most reflects their own life experiences.
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
- 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 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 mile markers on the dominant Generation X trajectory. Key Events and Milemarkers for Generation X:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
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.
How Divorce, Working Moms and Latchkey Kids Shaped Gen Xers
I think we’re alone now
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around…
– Tiffany, 1987
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 as Entrepreneurs
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 were told a degree entitled them to: A job or at least something more than a McJob.
This is one of the challenges explored in the iconic Generation X movie Reality Bites. Janeane Garafalo plays a college graduate who works as a sales associate at The Gap.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 also rose sharply.
This and more helped nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of Generation X. Famous Gen X entrepreneurs include the founders of Google, Twitter and the Brazen Careerist.
Interestingly, it also helped nurture one of the prevailing and negative stereotypes of Generation X: the slacker who lives in 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 came up with the original stereotype.
Generation X As Cynical
Much has been written about Generation X being a cynical generation distrusting of authority and large institutions both corporate and 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
Generation X Parents
Here are some posts I’ve written about Generation parents and over-parenting and Gen Xers as helicopter parents.
The Growing Backlash Against Gen X Parents: Helicopter Parents and Overparenting
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.
This is a brief, not exhaustive overview of Generation X. I’d love to hear your thoughts, as the information on this page represents several years of reading, writing and thinking about Gen Xers.
Generation X Infographics
Here is an infographic I created covering all the wars and conflicts since the birth of Generation X in 1961.
Here is a fun infographic I created about the sordid parade of cartoon and pop culture characters Generation X grew up with.
Generation X Books
Check out Generation X titles via my Generations Bookstore on Amazon.
my Generations Bookstore on Amazon.