Name: Generation X
Birth Years: 1961-1981
Then generation born from 1961-1981 has been called “The Baby Bust,” “Survivor Generation,” and “Generation X.” William Strauss and Neil Howe called them the “13th Generation” because they are the 13th generation since the 1620s. Generation X is the term most frequently used in the media and for that reason I will refer to the generation by that name. The name originated from the fact that, unlike the Baby Boom Generation, definitive consumer preferences were hard to nail down.
Generation X was born into a second turning. Their Silent “Artist” Generation (born 1925-1942) and leading edge Baby Boom “Prophet” Generation (born 1943-1960) parents were beginning to question the conformist culture they had been raised with. Beginning with tumultuous events of 1963, adults of parenting age began to rebel against the idea of family, work and “a home in the burbs” as the epitome of human existence. Across the airwaves in 1965, came the edgy British sound of the Rolling Stones singing “I can’t get no satisfaction,” decrying the mindless consumerism of the day. There was an awakening to new possibilities. African-Americans began to demand that America live up to its creed of equality for all. Women began demanding inclusion in academia and business. Many began to question the billions of dollars and thousands of lives spent on a War in Vietnam. A new consciousness was emerging.
I wrote yesterday that Baby Boomers had purposely been taught to be inner-directed idealistic thinkers. As they became young adults in the early 1960s they exhibited those qualities, although in ways many G.I. “Hero” Generation (born 1901-1924) and Silent Generation adults had not anticipated. The mantra was “I gotta be me,” and if that meant quitting jobs and dissolving marriages to “go find yourself,” then so be it. Divorce rates doubled from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and the bulk of the divorces were among Silent Generation adults, the parents of the trailing edge Baby Boomer and leading edge Generation X children. In a few short years during the 1960s, children went from being a central focus of a fulfilling life to being an obstacle to self-discovery in the minds of many.
Popular media, legalization of abortion, and the behavior adults flashed “children not welcome” signs and Generation X kids got the message. As marriages fractured, parents began to look for fulfillment in other directions. The world of their children was a secondary concern. Generation Xers were the much written about “latchkey kids” left home alone. Many children concluded they were on their own at an early age.
As the leading edge of Generation X kids entered grade school and started to become aware of the world beyond their homes, the news was not good. As they saw newspapers and heard the evening news casts, the stories were filled with body counts in someplace called Vietnam. Riots, protests, and assassinations were recurring stories. Stories about threats from places like China and the Soviet Union were frequent as well. There was a brutal murder of Olympic athletes from some place called Israel. There were airplane hijackings and stories about ever escalating crime rates. Then there came economic turmoil. That was followed by the President’s resignation from office, supposedly the most respected person in the land. More economic turmoil, more gas lines, more crime, and more drugs followed.
As the first year of Generation X kids were about to enter their senior year of high school in 1978, a story broke about Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, being declared an environmental disaster by President Carter. Three months later came another story about a mass suicide/murder of more than 900 people (including a US Congressman) led by Jim Jones in Guyana. Four months after that came news of a narrowly avoided nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
As this first year of Xer high school graduates either went to college or went to look for jobs, it only got worse. In November of 1979, Americans were taken hostage for 444 days in Iran. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, setting off an international crisis. President Carter reinstated draft registration in 1980 for all males born after 1959. By the end of that year, the nation sank into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression with inflation above 15% and soaring unemployment. It was also about this time that young adults were beginning to learn about something called AIDS. This was the experience of the leading edge of Generation X as they came of age.
Yesterday I wrote that childhood for the Baby Boomer Generation was one of continued descent into dysfunction with each passing year. For Generation X it was one of continued ascent out of dysfunction. The group of children born 1961-1964 was the most dysfunctional cohort of the century. Strauss and Howe, used a number of measures shown in the graph below. Compared to any other young adult cohort in the past several decades, this group was responsible for the lowest aptitude scores and the highest rates of alcohol consumption, violent crime, drunk driving, substance abuse, arson, and marijuana consumption. From my own study I know you can add suicide to the list.
All of these dysfunctions slowly began to subside with the Xers born after 1964, partly because the economy began to improve from about 1983 and partly for reasons I will address shortly. But there is yet one more defining moment for the Xer Generation.
In an effort to interest children in science and technology, NASA teamed up the education leaders to put a school teacher in space. Teachers around the nation had their classes follow the preparation of educator Crista McAuliffe, the first private citizen to go into space, as she prepared for the January 1986 lift off. Generation X occupied all grade levels from high school down through kindergarten, with kindergarten being the trailing edge of the generation. When the 28th came, televisions in schools all around the nation were tuned in to watch the historic accomplishment. Instead, they witnessed the horrifying explosion of the spacecraft shortly after lift off. Most Baby Boomers can point to the assassination of President Kennedy as a defining moment in their lives. For most Generation Xers it was the Challenger explosion which they probably experienced more intensely than did most adults. It was just one more reminder of how everything from families to federal governments was an unsafe place for your hopes.
The consequence of growing up in the environment Generation X encountered was they became the most independent thinking and inner-directed group of the four generations I have discussed. They learned early on to rely on their own resources. They considered much of adult wisdom to be shibboleths not worthy of their attention. They were the most atomized of the four generations and tended to form “tribes” for mutual support. (Does playing “Survivor” with competing “tribes” sound familiar?) Earlier Nomad generations like the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) were known for the street gangs they created. They were more worldly wise at an earlier age than other generation. They were “wised up” as they used to say generations ago.
In some ways, the Generation X experience was similar to the experience of the Silent Generation forty years earlier, although by any measure the threats were much more severe for Silent children. The difference was that during the Silent Generation’s childhood years, the struggle for adults was mostly with outward circumstances as they rallied together as a community and protected their kids. Adults during Generation X’s childhood were inwardly focused as they searched for purpose and vision, all the while ignoring the plight of their children.
Xers entered young adulthood as the third turning was starting. The Baby Boomer attitude toward them was in some ways similar to the attitudes the G.I. Generation exhibited toward the Silent Generation. The G.I.s had experienced the Depression and World War II. The Silent Generation was born too late to fully experience the secular crisis and they were considered lesser for it. Baby Boomers and experienced the spiritual crisis of the 1960s with the March on Washington, Kennedy Assassination, Campus protests, and Woodstock. Generation X was born too late to experience this and they were somehow lesser for it. In the minds of many Baby Boomers, Xers were irreverent cynical slackers.
It has been said of the G.I. Generation that their attitude toward authority was “Establish authority.” The Silent Generation attitude was “Respect authority.” The Baby Boom Generation attitude was “Rebel against and seize authority.” For Xers the attitude was “Whatever.” Growing up, Generation X had its fill of institutions, from family to government, which promised and never delivered. If you want something, you have to get it yourself.
For business, this meant unusually high levels of entrepreneurial activity. Corporations learned that Baby Boomers valued advancement and status, and used those as motivators. When Generation X young adults began to enter the market these strategies did not work as well. Xers would take half cuts in pay to quit a corporate job and work someplace that allowed for more flexibility and creativity. The dot.com boom was a Xer driven phenomenon and while it went out of control, the impact of Xer entrepreneurialism is still present.
For families, this meant cutting through the cultural clichés and really getting focused on the kids. Many Xers expressed a desire to give their children the attention and security they believe was denied them. For spirituality, this meant impatience with hype and wanting authenticity. By and large, cultural and civic institutions were neither entities to be revered nor antichrists to be toppled. They were irrelevant.
Generation X entered the job market when entry level jobs were scarcer. As the 1980s advanced, the rate of change accelerated. The expectation of a lengthy career with a corporation never crossed the mind of many. They were free agents, taking advantage of the best opportunities and that didn’t always mean more money. There has also been a certain thrill seeking quality to their endeavors. From extreme snowboarding to bungee jumping, it is about living it to the fullest. The same is often true for work and relationships. The very idea of sitting in one place with the same company is anathema for many.
As the 1990s unfolded the entrepreneurial bent and technological savvy of the generation also evidenced itself. Entrepreneurs became quite wealthy, even with the dot.com bust. Globalization has become the issue of the last decade and if you look very deeply you will find that it is often Xer expertise and creativity that is literally reconfiguring how the world connects. Globalization is integrating more people than ever into a prosperous world economy but in the US it is also dislocating many people as entire industries fall and rise at unnerving speed. Many of the jobs most affected are those of Xer young adults. The greatest social inequality within any generation is within Generation X.
When it comes to relationships with their elders, especially Baby Boomers, Generation X gets it both coming and going. On the one hand, Xers are a generation of amoral capitalists exploiting others with their entrepreneurial activities. On the other hand, they are immoral slackers for whom we need to cut welfare benefits so they will get a job.
In the arena of politics, Boomer President Bill Clinton turned to Xer George Stephanopoulos for his savvy and political insight. The Christian Coalition turned to Xer Ralph Reed. Xers have tended to like free spirited politicians like the independent Jesse Ventura who was elected Governer of Minnesota or the Republican maverick John McCain. But as with most other institutions, Xers tend to keep their distance from political institutions.
Childrearing by Xer parents has shown increasing levels of protection and nurture over the years. Baby Boom parents in the early 1980s saw punk rock culture and dysfunctional behavior of children and young adults. They made child rearing a social cause. The changes they made within institutional structures was in part the reason for the improving behavior of trailing edge Xers. Boomer parents emphasized instilling team work and achievement, all the things they saw lacking in Xer kids. (Thus, in essence creating a new Hero generation staring in 1982, much like Missionary “Prophet” Generation (born 1860-1882) did with the G.I. Generation, and for many of the same reasons, notably the destructive rebellious behavior of Lost “Nomad” Generation (born 1883-1900) young adults.) Leading edge Xer parents shared some of the same concerns as Boomers but the focus has moved gradually toward protecting children from decaying culture and threats of the world.
The first Generation X children began to turn forty in 2001. William Strauss and Neil Howe suggest that Nomad generations began to transform as they reach midlife. A pragmatic social conservatism sets in. In the case of this Nomad generation, Strauss and Howe predict that they will move from being X to X-hausted. They are entering midlife in a time of growing crisis. Their elders are engaged in paralyzing and rancorous divisiveness. They are looking ahead and seeing that the social benefits Baby Boomers will enjoy likely won’t be there for them at the end of life. (If history is any indicator, they are probably right.) Those who have done well to this point in life will be inclined to become more risk averse and protect what they have. Those who have not done so well will desire to hold on to what precious little they have.
The trend will be toward increased concern about the plight of children and protecting them. (Possibly even over protecting them.) They will likely emphasize all the things they felt were missing in childhood like strong families and compliance with the rules for the sake of the greater good. They will in essence be creating a new Artist generation much like the Silent Generation that is passing from the scene. In fact they have probably already begun this process in the last five to ten years.
Politically, they will likely become the arbiters between the competing factions of Baby Boom leaders, keeping the course from straying to far from radicalism in any direction. The have successfully played this role in past fourth turnings except for the one that began in 1860.
Sampling of Generation X
George Clooney (1961- ) Actor
Ann Coulter (1961- ) TV Commentator, Author
Eddie Murphy (1961- ) Actor, Comedian
Barack Obama (1961- ) US Senator, Illinois
George Stephanopoulos (1961- ) TV Journalist, Former Presidential Advisor
Ralph Reed (1961- ) Christian Coalition Leader, Political Advisor
Jeffery A. Rich (1961- ) CEO Affiliated Computer
Brian L. Roberts (1961- ) CEO Comcast
Meg Ryan (1961- ) Actress
David P. Steiner (1961- ) CEO Waste Management, Inc.
Jim Thune (1961- ) US Senator South Dakota
David Vitter (1961- ) US Senator Louisiana
Steve Young (1961- ) NFL Quarterback
Clint Black (1962- ) Singer
Matthew Broderick (1962- ) Actor
Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson (1962- ) Baseball and Football Player
Jon Bon Jovi (1962- ) Singer, Actor
Garth Brooks (1962- ) Singer, Songwriter
Roger Clemens (1962- ) Baseball Player
Sheryl Crow (1962- ) Singer Songwriter
Tom Cruise (1962- ) Actor
Scott T. Ford (1962- ) CEO Alltel
Jodie Foster (1962- ) Actress, Director
Mike Judge (1962- ) Cartoonist (Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill)
Demi Moore (1962- ) Actress
Jerry Rice (1962- ) NFL Player
Jon Stewart (1962- ) News Satire
Johnny Depp (1963- ) Actor
Brad Henry (1963- ) Governor of Oklahoma
Whitney Houston (1963- ) Singer
Helen Hunt (1963- ) Actress
Randy Johnson (1963- ) Baseball Player
Michael Jordan (1963- ) NBA Player
Karl Malone (1963- ) NBA Player
Mark McGwire (1963- ) Baseball Player
Brad Pitt (1963- ) Actor
Mark Pryor (1963- ) US Senator Arkansas
Rick Rubin (1963- ) Record Producer, Def Jam Records
Quentin Tarantino (1963- ) Movie Director, Screenwriter, Actor
Barry Bonds (1964- ) Baseball Player
Jeff Bezos (1964- ) Founder and CEO of Amazon.com
Dan Brown (1964- ) Author
Nicholas Cage (1964- ) Actor
Melinda Gates (1964- ) Philanthropist
Teri Hatcher (1964- ) Actress
Sallie Krawcheck (1964- ) Chief Financial Officer Citigroup
Rob Lowe (1964- ) Actor
Christina Norman (1964- ) President of Music Television Network
Jay Sugarman (1964- ) CEO iStar Financial
John E. Sununu (1964- ) US Senate New Hampshire
Michael Dell (1965- ) Founder, Chairman and President of Dell Computers
Mario Lemieux (1965- ) NHL Player
Larry Wachowski (1965- ) Movie Director
Halle Berry (1966- ) Actress
Cindy Crawford (1966- ) Supermodel
Gail Devers (1966- ) Olympic Runner
Janet Jackson (1966- ) Singer
Adam Sandler (1966- ) Actor
Mike Tyson (1966- ) Boxer
Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) Singer
Matt Drudge (1967- ) Internet Journalist
Faith Hill (1967- ) Singer, Songwriter
Michael Johnson (1967- ) Olympic Runner
Julia Roberts (1967- ) Actress
Deion Sanders (1967- ) Football and Baseball Player, Sports Commentator
Andy Wachowski (1967- ) Movie Director
Gillian Anderson (1968- ) Actress
L L Cool J (1968- ) Singer
Timothy McVeigh (1968-2001) Bombed Oklahoma City Federal Building
Barry Sanders (1968- ) NFL Player
Will Smith (1968- ) Actor, Singer, Partner in Overbrook Entertainment
Jennifer Aniston (1969- ) Actress
Tucker Carlson (1969- ) Journalist, TV Commentator
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter (1969- ) President Def Jam Records
Sean “P Diddy” Combs (1969- ) Singer, Businessman
Trey Parker (1969- ) Animator, Co-Creator of South Park
Renee Zellweger (1969- ) Actress
Catherine Zeta-Jones (1969- ) Actress
Matt Blunt (1970- ) Governor of Missouri
Mariah Carey (1970- ) Singer
Matt Damon (1970- ) Actor
Jennifer Lopez (1970- ) Singer, Actress
Tim Story (1970- ) Film Director
Lance Armstrong (1971- ) Cyclist
Jeff Gordon (1971- ) NASCAR Driver
Pete Sampras (1971- ) Tennis Player
Matt Stone (1971- ) Co-Creator of South Park
Picabo Street (1971- ) Olympic Skier
Ben Affleck (1972- ) Actor
Cameron Diaz (1972- ) Actress
Eminem (1972- ) Singer
Jennifer Garner (1972- ) Actress
Mia Hamm (1972- ) Soccer Player
Shaquille O’Neal (1972- ) NBA Player
Gwyneth Paltrow (1972- ) Actress
Manny Ramirez (1972- ) Baseball Player
Dave Chappelle (1973- ) Comedian
Oscar De La Hoya (1973- ) Boxer
Nick Lachey (1973- ) Singer
Derek Jeter (1974- ) Baseball Player
Hilary Swank (1974- ) Actress
Drew Barrymore (1975- ) Actress
Angelina Jolie (1975- ) Actress
Tobey McGuire (1975- ) Actor
Alex Rodriguez (1975- ) Baseball Player
Tiger Woods (1975- ) Golfer
Lindsay Davenport (1976- ) Tennis Player
Reese Witherspoon (1976- ) Actress
Sarah Michelle Gellar (1977- ) Actress
Clay Aiken (1978- ) Singer
Kobe Bryant (1978- ) NBA Player
Katie Holmes (1978- ) Actress
Usher Raymond (1978- ) Singer, Producer, Actor
Jennifer Love Hewitt (1979- ) Actress
Christian Aguilera (1980- ) Singer
Michelle Kwan (1980- ) Figure Skater
Jessica Simpson (1980- ) Singer, TV Personality
Michael Vick (1980- ) NFL Quarterback
Venus Williams (1980- ) Tennis Player
Hayden Christensen (1981- ) Actor
Paris Hilton (1981- ) Celebrity, TV Personality
Beyonce Knowles (1981- ) Singer
Brittney Spears (1981- ) Singer
Justin Timberlake (1981- ) Singer
Serena Williams (1981- ) Tennis Player
Elijah Wood (1981- ) Actor