Generation X: the Invisible Minority

...They possess only a hazy sense of their own identity but a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix...This is the... generation... who fall between the famous baby boomers and the boomlet of children the baby boomers are producing...born during a period when the U.S. birthrate decreased to half the level of its postwar peak, in the wake of the great baby boom, they are sometimes called the baby busters. By whatever name, so far they are an unsung generation, hardly recognized as a social force or even noticed much at all...
— Gross, D.M. and S. Scott, Proceeding with Caution, Time Magazine, 1990
GenXers are doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking.
— Jeff Gordinier, X Saves the World, 2008

As the only Generation X person at a recent meeting, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find myself listening to yet another older person sharing an uncomplimentary perspective about Gen X, lamenting our generation’s apparent unwillingness to contribute money to good works like his generation did. Somehow, it never seems to occur to people who make such comments that the economic conditions in which my generation came of age have resulted in a generation with less wealth than the one that preceded it. 

We have higher costs of living combined with sky-rocketing education and healthcare costs, and incomes that barely keep pace with inflation. We had to buy our houses later with less wealth, higher leverage, and less income security. All of this means that we have far less discretionary spending money, and yet, in my experience, my generation gives much of our time and money to good works. 

Ironically, there I sat offering pro bono consulting to this group instead of meeting with one of my paying clients—and this really nice, well-intending gentleman didn’t get it. When I mentioned this alternative perspective on my generation, he quickly referenced an article he had read that inspired his comment—no doubt another article written about my generation by an “expert” on my generation, usually a Boomer with a less-than-charitable perspective. 

Later in the day, I found myself hosting a Pity Party for myself, pitying my poor timing to have entered the world as part of what must be the most disparaged and misunderstood generation in America.  I mean, seriously, what is it with X-ers? Most of the time, we are simply ignored, but when occasionally noticed, it seems we are most often denigrated. Now, I’m sure that placing any faith in a generation with a lackluster name of “X”—thus labeled and depicted most often by Boomers, as a generation of apathetic, whining, entitled slackers—might seem like a losing proposition. After all, according to legend, we are the generation who raised ourselves—the vigilantly self-reliant “latch-key kids,” able to make it on our own despite unfavorable odds, yet prone to cynicism and unwilling to sacrifice our overall well-being for the corporate America that downsized our parents, and then, offered us temp jobs and pink-slips rather than career tracks and pensions. 

Forced to play by ourselves, we changed the rules of the game. When we joined the workforce, our characteristic independence justified further alienation instead of celebration. Our failure to defer to tradition with loyal enthusiasm was mistaken for brazen disregard. Our willingness to question positional authority was mistaken as having problems with authority.  Our desire to balance our professional and personal lives was viewed as a lack of career ambition. The message that we received upon entering the workforce was that we were a generation of entitled slackers unwilling to work hard and pay our dues. 

What we know is that we have always worked harder than most to get far less than we deserve. We are the first generation as adults to earn less than our parents while working more. We have less or no job security, less or no social security, and less or no health insurance—and yes, sometimes we complain about this, as some will no doubt, interpret this writing now. At least we have legitimate complaints worthy of some attention. 

Growing old to face diminishing returns on stock and sex options seem like luxury problems to us. Nonstop advertising featuring wealthy Boomers bemoaning their brokerage fees or reveling in the latest, greatest age-defying “fifty-is-the-new-forty” products and “now-we-can-have-sex-again-whenever-we-want” drugs exasperate us. We were born late to the party and the generation who knew we were coming had their cake and ate ours too. Then, when we observed that they ate more than their fair share, they labeled us entitled, cried “Let them make cake!” and offered us a recipe for success featuring ingredients that were only available sometime in the eighties. Is having the decency to grow old gracefully and keep your sex problems to yourselves really too much to ask?

If this sounds like sour grapes, don’t worry—most of us have gotten over our initial disappointment at the future we inherited and long ago channeled our energy into creating a better world for ourselves and future generations. Contrary to popular opinion, we’re not cynical about the world. We care. We just don’t expect others to care for us. 

That’s not cynical.  That’s just the way it has always been for us, and most of the time we’re too busy working to bother trying to correct ignorant opinions about us, especially when doing so simply plays into this notion that we’re a bunch of whiners. Far from whining, we X-ers are usually content to work quietly behind the scenes and let others who seem to need the constant attention bask in the limelight. After all, there have to be listeners for others to be heard. We simply require two things: don’t take credit for our work, and if you’re going to talk about us, say something nice for a change.   

In recent years, a lot of Boomers have realized that their legacy is incongruent with the idealized promise of their youth, and they are predictably positioning themselves as the generation that will lead and mentor all others to “Save the World” while casting Millennials in the starring role in this Boomer-glorified future. Having neither the influence of Boomers nor the potential of Millennials, comparatively tiny Generation X has the luxury and curse of being a largely unnoticed demographic. Since we lack the—shall we say—self-promotional savvy of the ME generation that precedes us or the recently branded WE generation that follows us, we generally don’t compete for the spotlight and others seem content to ignore us if they even realize we exist.  

Take the website Generation We, which passes the “Save the World” torch from Boomers to Millenials with nary a nod to the Gen X-ers in between who, incidentally, created much of the technology to make such a movement possible. Nowhere on the website is any mention of Generation X while front and center is the following: 

Millennials are the largest generation in American history. Born between 1978 and 2000, they are 95 million strong, compared to 78 million Baby Boomers. They are independent—politically, socially, and philosophically—and they are spearheading a period of sweeping change in America and around the world. No one knows the Millennials like Eric Greenberg. In Generation We, Greenberg explains the emerging power of the Millennial Generation, shows how they (and their supporters from other generations) are poised to change our nation and our world for the better, and lays out a powerful plan for progressive change that today's youth is ready to implement. 

The website and video contrast Millennials with Boomers, often parents of young Millennials, positioning Millennials as the next progressive generation after Boomers. In the video, there are many inspiring, well-spoken Millennials describing themselves, “We are more globally oriented. We’re more ethnically diverse…more technically adept…less politically partisan…better educated. We are the first generation in American history to inherit a nation in decline.” It’s a very hopeful, optimistic portrayal of a generation who is going to restore America and the world, a portrayal that could easily refer to Generation X, the actual next generation to inherit a nation in decline already busy making a difference in the world.

If one agrees with the questionable categorization of all those born between 1978 and 2000 as Millennials, Millennials are the most largely populated generation since Boomers, those born between 1943 and 1960. However, the people behind this website seem to be conveniently re-branding some Generation X-ers, defined as those born between 1961 and 1981 (see Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe), as Millennials. If accurate, this would mean that the Millennial generation spans 22 years, leaving a scant sixteen year span for Generation X (1961 – 1977) with a 23 year span for Boomers—or maybe these older Gen X-ers are conveniently re-branded as Boomers? A more conservative, and in my opinion, more accurate definition of Millennials is those born between 1982 and 2001, making the time-span a more realistic nineteen years. 

No matter how we define the Millennial generation, there is no doubt that they will significantly shape the face of our nation in years to come, and it is heartening to have their voices join those of the preceding generations. Beloved by Boomers and befriended by X-ers, it seems that the Millennials are the generation about which and for which hope springs eternal. However, the experience of an X-er is often a little like being invisible smack in the middle of a post-sixties love-in. If it weren’t for our carefully cultivated capacity to validate our own reality, we wouldn’t know we exist. Meanwhile, we X-ers go quietly about our business, making our way in the world with guts if not glory, making a difference without making a fuss, a largely forgotten and under-appreciated talent stage-left of the center-stage Boomers and Millennials whose “Save the World” production would be far less successful without our valuable contributions. 

Yes, there are some wonderfully wise Boomers who are leading efforts that will leave this world a better place, and yes, there are some wonderfully bright Millennials who give us all hope for the future. The thing is that I also know many people of other generations who are wonderfully awake people making a difference, and I happen to think that it’s going to take all of us working together to bring out the best in our humanity, which if you ask me, is really what needs saving.  

I often find myself wondering what it would be like to live in a world where adults of various ages assume the following about adults:

  1. Older does not always equal wiser. 
  2. Younger does not always equal inexperienced.
  3. There is a difference between maturity and age.
  4. There is a difference between quality of experience and quantity of experience.

In my opinion, wisdom and leadership have less to do with age and more to do with maturity that transcends an outdated concept of age attached to physiological years on the planet and includes intellectual, emotional and spiritual qualities of experience that may or may not correspond with the quantity of one’s years on earth. As the next generation in the traditional, chronologically-driven leadership trajectory, I can only hope that we Gen X-ers are wise enough to listen to the voices of wisdom no matter who's speaking—to respect the wisdom of our elders, our juniors, and our peers. 

Oh, and by the way, if anyone is still wondering if we really exist, one of us was just elected President of the United States.