I remember when I was twenty-two, brimming with excitement to start my life as a self-sufficient adult. With my resume primed to showcase my newly-earned Bachelor of Science, I was ready to join the rat race. Like an open runner’s track, the workforce was beckoning me to spring from the starting blocks and find my stride. I was youth, hope and optimism, ready to run with life. But I was naive. Oh, so naive.
Leaving my childhood and college years was easy. Stepping out into ruthless adulthood was not. I had the desire. I had the skills. I was responsible and hard-working. What I lacked was a stiff upper lip against adversity.
You see, it was the 1990’s and I was a member of Generation X. Time and time again as I tried to find my stride out of college I was hit with the broad-stroke stereotypes of my generation. I was disheartened to find that older generations – the people to whom I looked for guidance, wisdom and (gulp) job opportunities – looked at me and my fellow Gen X’ers as a bunch of slackers. They labeled us as authority shirkers, MTV-watching latchkeys, deviating skeptics and generally hopeless, direction-lacking grunge hounds of the future. The Gen X stereotypes were haphazardly tossed about by Baby Boomers and Traditionalists like a bad joke that was amusing only to the ones telling it: the ones I call “generation bashers.”
Generation bashers are the folks who belch out criticisms such as, “Kids these days. They wouldn’t know responsibility if it knocked them flat on their asses.” And, “Our generation knew what hard work was all about. Our parents didn’t coddle us into mediocrity. WE had to WORK for what we got.” And, “The next generation is a joke. These kids don’t have a clue about what real life is and one thing’s for sure, they won’t be able to handle it when it shows up on their doorstep.” The worst of this bashing was unleashed when my fellow Gen X’ers and I were just starting to enter the workforce. Unfortunately, statements like those perpetuated negative stereotypical views which traveled world-wide, as if zipping along a taut, endless web of tongue-wagging. And this was before the internet.
In 1990, Time Magazine ran a story about “twentysomethings,” calling my generation lost and frustrated, among other, far from flattering generalizations. In 1991, Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was published. Coupland, on the cusp between a Baby Boomer and a Gen X’er himself, wasn’t necessarily joining the generation bashing, but his novel followed the stories of a handful of “lost” Gen X’ers and popularized the name Generation X. Things really took off from there. Many print articles and commentaries about our lost, hopeless souls found their way to publication during this time period, and as if they weren’t enough, the movie Reality Bites joined the cause. At least the film’s portrayal of a group of friends showed some positive aspects of being a Gen X’er. While it depicted us as cynical and lacking direction, it also made us look kind of cool.
Unfortunately, our elder Baby Boomers and Traditionalists didn’t see anything cool about it. They still considered us slackers. They held tightly onto their purpose of derogating our generation with white-knuckled fists, waving their contempt in our faces. Over and over. I can’t speak for my fellow Gen X’ers, but for me it felt terrible to be ridiculed and labeled as a hopeless slacker. When you hear it enough…well, you know the outcome. It was hard not to believe it. And when I couldn’t get my career started right out of college, the effect was compounded: I started to feel like I really was a hopeless slacker, letting everyone down.
My personal story trying to overcome the Gen X stereotypes is somewhat cliche, so I won’t bore you with it. Fast-forward from a few years of waffling and wallowing in defeatism after college to finding the inner strength to change direction, go back to school, work hard to build a productive career, raise a family and so on. The point is, the bashers were wrong. I am not now and never was the hopeless slacker they painted me to be. And guess what? It turns out that Generation X never was either.
The statistics prove it. Now in our 30’s and 40’s, Gen X’ers are established, productive and generous. Our generation is the most-employed generation in US history. We are also the most technologically adaptable. We have lived through numerous advances, such as vinyl records, 8 tracks, tape cassettes, CDs, MP3s, VHS, DVD, BD (Blu-ray), everything “I” (Ipod, Ipad, Iphone), smartphones and whatever may come next. We adapt to these changes readily and with zest for the possibilities. Looking back at a defining moment during our generation’s history, we don’t really have one. Instead, we are often saddled with being the generation of divorce and AIDS. But we also experienced the most casualties on 9/11. Many of those casualties were first-responders, which speaks to our dedication to community. We have been the most affected by the tough economic times of the past several years, making Gen X’ers the ones who have struggled more than any other generation, according to Forbes. But look at us now. Despite our struggles, Gen X’ers are far more committed to volunteering than our predecessor generations. Despite loss and adversity, we have a healthier work/life balance and a stronger commitment to marriage and family. We are self-reliant, entrepreneurial, and community-oriented. In short, we’ve done well.
Some say Generation X finally grew up. We know that we grew up long ago and had we been given an honest chance when we first started out – had the Baby Boomers and Traditionalists let our lights shine through before stomping them out with their unfounded contempt – we may have been able to stretch our legs and find our strides sooner. Even Time Magazine recognized this in 1997 when it ran a retraction article about its mischaracterization of Generation X. Keep in mind, that’s a mea culpa about the mischaracterization of an entire generation – about 84 million people. That’s a pretty big oops.
We deserve some positive recognition now. We certainly have earned it. My fellow Gen X’ers and I may not be a part of the larger generations between which we sit. The Baby Boomers and the Millenials have their own culture or “defining moment” (Vietnam for Baby Boomers, the Gulf and Iraq Wars for Millenials). But we’ve got substance. We are making our mark. I like to think that our shiny counterparts serve as our bookends and we – well, we make up the story.
Which brings me to my point in calling to other Gen X’ers. Since our story tells a tale of rising from adversity and proving the naysayers wrong, let’s not be generation bashers too. We know what it is like to be the downtrodden. We know what it’s like to be doubted. To be misrepresented. To be dismissed as a whole. We know how lousy that feels, especially when we always knew what we were capable of and have generally delivered much, much more. As we become the elders, let the light of the next generations shine through. Don’t bash and trample them. Don’t discourage and defeat them. Guide and share your wisdom with them. Hire them for jobs. They are different than us and that’s okay. Let them be different. Let them grow into the generation they are supposed to be, without the disdain, without the criticism, without the burden of negative stereotypes.
Gen X’ers, we have a duty to believe in the next generations more than our predecessors believed in us. We proved them wrong. Let’s continue to do so. Let Generation X be remembered for more than they made us out to be. Because we are.