A guest post about how Generation X got its name
by L. M. McDougald
The Gen X label, as we know it today, is the primary definition for those born roughly between 1961 and 1983. As these odd creatures grew up in a swirling jumble of punk, pollution and porn, the world was becoming anything but child friendly. These kids were already cynical adults by age 7 and left on their own to figure things out for themselves, often taking longer to get a handle on life, family and career. So, where exactly did this mysterious label come from?
If you look at the occurrences of the Gen X label over the last 61 years, one can easily point to three specific years that stand out in our collective conscious: 1953, 1964 and 1991. After 1991, the label evolved into a core marketing term loathed by frustrated advertisers struggling to get Gen X consumers to try new products (an attribute I personally admire).
Some descriptions (and birth years) of Gen X overlap with what I call Generation Me [AKA Millenials], but it’s clear that the Gen X description is incomplete and often misguided.” – Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–And More Miserable Than Ever Before.
Gen X Original
We named this unknown generation, The Generation X, and even in our first enthusiasm we realised that we had something far bigger than our talents and pockets could cope with.”– Robert Capa, Magnum Photographer
Most historians agree that the first appearance of the term “Generation X” was verbalized in 1953, by war photographer Robert Capa, almost a decade before the actual folks were born and officially christened as Generation X. Capa’s “Generation X” described young people with a fatalistic view of the future. The label read like an aimless particle in space or an unknown variable in an algebraic expression. If one cannot understand it, X is a placeholder until further study can manifest a clearer definition.
In a Huffington Post article, Christine Henseler dissects the Gen X label origins:
Most people think that it was born in 1991 when Canadian writer and visual artist, Douglas Coupland, published the popular book Generation X: Tales of An Accelerated Culture. That’s not the case. In fact, it all began much earlier, in 1953 when, as Dr. John Ulrich eloquently details in GenXegesis, ‘The Queen’s Generation: Young People in a Changing World’ was published in the Picture Post in the United Kingdom. This piece was later published as a three-part series titled ‘Youth and the World’ in the United States’ magazine called Holiday.”
Gen X 2.0
In 1964, the first printing of Generation X by Hamblett and Deverson (What’s Behind The Rebellious Anger of Britain’s Untamed Youth: Generation X), was published in an attempt to capture the voices of the nation’s youth at the twilight of Beatlemania. The sentiments taken from the Mod subculture and other rock youth groups in the UK revealed a cross-section of kids with a palpable discontent for their parents, civic and political institutions, and a disillusioned outlook on the future.
The quotes below were taken from an article posted on February 28, 2014, The Original Generation X, on BBC.com.
“Marriage is the only thing that really scares me…”
“Religion is for old people who have given up living…”
“I’d prefer to do something for the good of humanity…”
“You want to hit back at all the old geezers who tell us what to do…”
Two years before the original book, Generation X was published, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, echoed some of the explosive opinions expressed by the youth culture.
…my glazzies were stuck together real horrorshow like sleepglue.” – Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
Billy Idol and Generation X
In 1976, Billy Idol would name his punk band – Generation X, after Hamblett and Deverson’s book, appropriately fusing the Gen X label to punk music. In its active years, the band was an underground punk phenomenon until Billy Idol would make a name for himself in the 1980s with Rebel Yell and White Wedding, among other hits. Generation X’s music would later gain popularity, as rabid fans of Billy Idol would unearth his earlier work with Generation X. Like the enigmatic Gen-X generation, the band, Gen-X would disappear into the cracks of culture and re-emerge in screaming fits of unwarranted exposure.
Gen X 3.0 Reloaded
In 1991, two symbolic events would further define an isolated and exasperated youth culture, the release of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales Of An Accelerated Culture and Nirvana’s Nevermind album – both creating an enriched sound and philosophy of Gen X in the wake of Operation Desert Storm and the year’s end collapse of the Soviet Union.
I just want to show society what people born after 1960 think about things… We’re sick of stupid labels, we’re sick of being marginalized in lousy jobs, and we’re tired of hearing about ourselves from others.” – Douglas Coupland, Boston Globe, 1991 (Wikipedia)
This book review of Coupland’s Generation X, written by Michael Hutak, describes the early 1990s third wave of despair, hopelessness and insights into the Xers of the struggling to navigate a stagnant economy, not far removed from the discontent of the previous incarnations associated with the Gen-X label.
In 1991, I was in my junior year in high school, ditching classes on a regular basis, frequenting Rocky Horror Picture Show performances at the Balboa Theater and drinking MGD’s (Miller Genuine Draft) with my friends on a trestle in San Timoteo Canyon at midnight waiting for the next train so we could hurl our empty beer bottles into an open railcar. I fantasized that I was an empty bottle in a pile of woodchips and ride the train forever.
In his book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, Chuck Klosterman suggests that the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is “the seminal foundation for what became “Generation X,” and similar to Capa’s first utterance of the “X” label, Klosterman’s view of The Empire Strikes Back “set the social aesthetic for a generation coming in the future,” as if it were a predetermined outcome.
…all the clichés about Gen Xers were true – but the point everyone failed to make was that our whole demographic was comprised of cynical optimists.” – Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
Generation X will continue to define itself by action and though, this generation may be comfortable with their imposed namesake, this they will speak for itself in ways that may not be realized until a later date in history. It truly is a generation that doesn’t have time to explain itself, but not inclined to take anyone else’s word for it.
For more information on how Generation X got its name, as well nicknames for other generations, read this article in Time magazine.