Is 'Generation X' real or imagined?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I sometimes get challenged from readers of my U.M. Reporter column about my focus on the concept of "Generation X." Some claim that it is just a word game, that there is no such thing as a coherent group of people defined by that label, despite what definition I or others might try to apply to it.

Obviously, I disagree with this point of view. I think there is a "Generation X," and I think it has some definite parameters, related to both age and experience. The problem with most people is that they want to judge the Gen-X concept by some type of hard scientific criteria, leading many to conclude that there is no such thing. But the concept of generation is a cultural one, so its definition is always going to be somewhat fuzzy.

In a column a few months back, I attempted to talk about the history of the term, "Generation X" and the the distinctiveness of the group it describes with reference to Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer. I'm going to print the column below. It's a bit long, but I would be interested in feedback if you have thoughts one way or the other. Is there a "Generation X?" If so, what is its defitinion?

"GEN-X RISING: 'Inward generation' must find courage to engage surroundings"

By Andrew C. Thompson

Most people would say that Generation X received its name from the 1991 publication of Douglas Coupland's novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. The media picked up on Mr. Coupland's name for the generation of seekers the book describes, and the label stuck.

The popular definition of Generation X evolved into something like the following: the rising generation of young adults, characterized by a deep sarcasm and sense of irony, who are frustrated by the rampant materialism and lack of meaning they see in the world and yet see no clear alternative.

However, Mr. Coupland never claimed to coin the term. He borrowed the "X" from an earlier novel, Paul Fussell's Class (1983).

Moving further back in history, Generation X was also the name of a punk band formed by Billy Idol in 1976. And even earlier than that, Generation X was a cult novel written in 1963 by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson, both Britons. The Generation Xers that they described were actually Baby Boomers, but ... well, let's not get that complicated.

As a descriptive term, "Generation X" has an interesting history. The complexity of that history is fitting, because the generation of people it labels — those born between 1965 and 1981 — is complex as well. And if the popular definition that has evolved is, in some sense, correct, then Generation X is a generation that desperately wants to find its way home. We Gen-Xers find ourselves in a fog, and we strain to see the light emanating from the lighthouse. We know there must be a safe harbor somewhere, but the path from stormy sea to solid ground is not clear.

The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) never wrote specifically about Generation X by name. However, he was concerned with the youths he saw growing up around him in the 1970s and 1980s. Nouwen's classic, The Wounded Healer, took a hard look at the generation of youths contemporary with the time of its publication in 1979. He called these kids "the inward generation," and he said that they were "the generation which gives absolute priority to the personal and which tends in a remarkable way to withdraw into the self."

Nouwen saw something characteristic about Gen-Xers long before they were ever called Gen-Xers. Namely, they see a lack of value in the world around them. Things seem to exist on surface levels only, and so the deep hunger that we all have for meaning gets turned inward in a search for something real.

"Everywhere we see restless and nervous people, unable to concentrate and often suffering from a growing sense of depression," Nouwen wrote. "They know that what is shouldn't be the way it is, but they see no workable alternative."

The search for a relief from anxiety takes on many forms, which are often unhealthy. Even people of faith have a difficult time.

Seekers after success come to embrace a worldly version of it that is related solely to salary level and hoarding material possessions.

Seekers after salvation come to privatize it in such a way that it is relegated to the salvation of individual souls, disconnected from the rest of the creation.

Seekers after discipleship come to understand a version of it that disconnects religious life in the church from secular life in the world.

Privatization, personalization, individualization. Call it what you want to. This is the tendency in Gen-X youths that distressed Nouwen. It smacks of a cynicism about the world so great that an "inward turn" is the almost compulsive reaction by a generation that hungers for something the world is not offering.

Nouwen believed that the cynicism of the youths he encountered was based on the ultimate danger to life posed by nuclear weapons. He wrote The Wounded Healer in the midst of the Cold War, when "the nuclear option" was something other than a tactic for dismantling the filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

Today, I suspect that the deep unhappiness of Generation X is based less on unconscious fears of nuclear holocaust and more on the pace of life — driven by developments in technology that race along faster than the human mind and human heart can keep up.

If we are indeed "the inward generation," then it is time that we gathered the courage to turn around and begin to engage a world that, admittedly, can seem huge and threatening. Truthfully, the world needs us. And fog or no fog, the ship that we steer must find its way home.



Blogger Art said...

It's somewhat subjective, isn't it? I mean, there's never been a totally agreed-upon definition for "baby-boomers' either. And if there were, some who fell into that demographic would object to the label... Yet, like many things, we know exactly what is meant when "baby-boomer" or "Gen-X" is mentioned. I think both can be useful labels so long as we don't make blanket generalizations.

2:25 AM  
Blogger RevErikaG said...

"Gen X" like "Methodist" were prejorative when first used. Gen X was meant in part to describe us (I fit into the category)as a bland generation that could not be defined in the ways that our parents or grandparents generations could. Part of the reason I see that it continues to perplex people is that it is enigmatic. I appreciate your challenge to our generation to find its identity in community and the world, rather than in the individual. That's a major task.

2:00 PM  

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