I remember the day I really started thinking about generational awareness, a topic (hell, a term) that before then mattered very little to me. I was a couple years into college and heard about a book circulating among the underground literati on the cusp of going mainstream.
The book’s author was Douglas Coupland, a first-time novelist from Vancouver who had unwittingly ordained himself the new voice of a generation. The book was called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. I found it at a little bookstore near campus—the only copy left—and when I bought it the clerk told me they couldn’t keep the book on shelves for more than a few days before selling out.
I had no idea what to expect when I started reading that night, but within a few pages I knew I had to read the book cover-to-cover and fast. It’s not so much that I personally identified with the characters in Coupland’s novel, but he had managed with refreshing clarity to capture a sense of restlessness and anxiety that I immediately recognized as common to those my age. The characters were imperfect but accessible composites of hundreds of people I knew, and I guessed that everyone in my age-range reading the book was having a similar reaction.
But the book also left me lacking. I suspected that when it finally broke through to popular daylight, beyond its college town appeal, it was going to become source material for caricaturing an entire generation—and that’s more or less what happened. Coupland was no more to blame for this than any other artist is for what comes after their vision meets an audience. Popular media likes categories, caricatures and, above all, cash. Generation X was a ready-made template for the first two with the third to follow en masse. Looking back, the outcome was almost inevitable.
It wasn’t until I read another book from a writer removed from my generation by several decades that I realized what Coupland was really trying for with his novel. That book was Class by author and World War II veteran Paul Fussell, a largely tongue-in-cheek satire about social classes—all of which Fussell found ripe for sarcasm. But the last chapter of the book was different. In it, Fussell described the sort of person who could not be so easily lumped into a particular class; whose intellectual curiosity and imagination superseded simple social boundaries; and who adamantly refused to bow to class silliness. He said people of this sort (and Fussell considered himself one of them) were part of “Category X”.
Years later, I read an interview with Coupland, who by then had written another half dozen books, in which he was asked if he ever intended for “Generation X” to become the dubious moniker of a generation. His response was an emphatic “No,” and he went on to explain how he’d been influenced by the last chapter of Fussell’s book and was trying to capture the spirit of Category X in his novel. He bemoaned the fact that popular media had turned his work into a cheap way to classify an entire generation as the home of lazy, obstinate slackers who couldn’t hope to live up to the Baby Boomers’ achievements.
Other pop media concoctions were adding to the stereotype. Richard Linklater’s movie, Slacker, about a loosely connected group of directionless twentysomethings in Austin, came out in 1991, the same year as Coupland’s novel. The movie Singles, about a group of confused twentysomethings in grunge-soaked Seattle trying to figure out love and life, debuted in 1992. And the movie Reality Bites, about a group of directionless college grads and dropouts in Houston, who were examples of the stereotype in a storyline that tacitly challenged it, joined the chorus in 1994.
In the same timeframe, MTV launched its first reality show, The Real World–a show about a group of late teens and twentysomethings living in the same house who “stop being polite and start being real.” More than a few people on the show took the “stop being polite” part to an extreme, and the accusation of a housemate being a “racist” was thrown around so much that Saturday Night Live turned it into a punchline.
There were several others, but you get the idea. Directionless. Confused. Lost. Irritable. A generation of unfocused malcontents. I personally found plenty to like in all of those movies and shows, but the central theme wasn’t doing us justice (I started referring to those in my gen as “us” by this time)–and from where I was standing, the situation sucked. We’d been typecast in quick-drying cement.
Fortunately, a few other voices were starting to be heard as well. Feverishly seeking generational redemption, I found the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe (also hit shelves in 1991) and the duo’s follow-up,13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, that plowed into the generational fray in 1993.
I learned more actual facts about my generation in those two books than I had from any other source. Bolstered by their even-handed approach to discussing each generation’s historical context, I decided I needed to talk to these guys.
More on that in the next post…