Non-fiction

Doesn’t Smell Like Teen Spirit Anymore: What happened to Generation X?

Bitching and moaning about your generation is pretty de rigueur for the young in post-war America. Presumably this is because once a “Greatest Generation” has been christened, there’s nowhere to go but down, so why not race to the bottom? The 60s counterculture story begins with overly crowded California universities and feeling “commodified, man.” I love bemoaning the plight of my own generation: the economy tanked as we got out of college, which will cause career setbacks that we will never recover from, the baby boomers will live long enough to suck all of our social services dry and we will never be able to retire, we are stuck with an unbearably stupid moniker “Millenials.”

But in my mind, no generation will ever take the sullen, cynical, self pity crown from Generation X.

Courtesy of an illegal streaming site/20th Century Fox. Back in the scowling, nose piercing 90s...

Born between ’61 and ’81 (give or take), Generation X was known for being sarcastic, cynical, and depressed. The Golden Era of MTV was for such as them. In fact, Beavis and Butthead: Gen Xers. Bart Simpson started as a Generation Xer, however as he has been 10 years old for twenty two years, Bart may now be part of whatever the generation after the Millenials is called. The stereotypical Generation Xer was supposed to be bummed out all the time, stoned, and spoken for by Kurt Cobain.

But what’s happened to them now?

Let’s turn to the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, shall we?

If we could use only three words to describe [members of Generation X], the most applicable choices would be active, balanced, and happy.

If it seems odd that the Longitudinal Study of American Youth is studying people who are between 30 and 50 years old, you should know that the study started in 1986 to see how the then-seventh graders were relating to math and science. Now the surveys are being applied more generally to measure things like life satisfaction and how well Generation X responded to the swine flu epidemic (seriously).

And this report on Generation X portrays them as a bunch of young, happy, sociable parents. For God’s sake, look at how the report is illustrated:

Actual disgusting stock photo from the report (from Think Stock).

In 1994 if you had asked these people: “Thinking about all aspects of your life, how happy are you? If zero means that you are very unhappy and 10 means that you are very happy, please rate your happiness” what would they have said? You think young, angry David Cross was happy? (Actually, he was probably a lot happier in 1994. He seems pretty unhappy now). But ask them in 2009 and what’s the result?

The mean level of happiness was 7.5 and the median (middle score) was 8. Only four percent of Generation X young adults indicated a great deal of unhappiness (a score of three or lower). Twenty-nine percent of Generation X young adults were very happy with a score of 9 or 10 on the scale.

Un-fucking-believable. There are three conclusions to be drawn from this I guess:

  1. Maybe Generation X wasn’t really all that sullen. Maybe teenagers are. Then later in life you mellow out, you join a church (like 33 percent of Generation X) get married and have kids (71 percent of them) and get a job you find satisfying (2/3s of them).
  2. Don’t choose a spokesman for a generation while that generation is a bunch of teenagers. As time goes on, it seems increasingly like Kurt Cobain is more of a spokesman for the ages of 14-20. That sounds like a slight, but as his on-going popularity attests, Cobain profoundly hit on something there. I graduated high school 10 years after he died and kids were still wearing Nirvana shirts.
  3. Never, ever, be defined by what MTV does. They know nothing.
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