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Throughout the twentieth century, American historians and social commentators have placed labels on various generations in an effort to capture their characteristic spirit. Generation X--roughly defined as the more than 79 million people born between 1961 and 1981--has been characterized by the media as lazy, laconic, and unfocused, but in the eyes of many, the pejorative label represents propaganda rather than reality. For those outside this generation, the X stands for some unknown variable, implying young adults searching aimlessly for an identity. Many members of Generation X think otherwise, however, and they fill in the blank with such descriptors as diverse, individualistic, determined, independent, and ambitious.

The term "Generation X" worked its way into popular vernacular after the release of Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, about three twentysomethings who are underemployed, overeducated, and unpredictable. Other nicknames have emerged, such as the more neutral "13ers" (which indicates the 13th generation since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). However, most of the other markers have negative overtones, such as "slackers," "latch-key generation," "MTV generation," and "baby busters." Many members of this generation reject these labels for they not only stigmatize and stereotype, but also reinforce the negative behavior they describe. On the other hand, Karen Ritchie, author of Marketing to Generation X, actually prefers the label "Generation X," for she sees "something anticommercial, antislick, anti-Boomer, and generally defiant about the X label." She also predicts that soon enough, and rightly so, this generation "will name themselves."

The members of Generation X can be seen as natural products of the intellectual atmosphere in which they have grown up, for they are the first generation to be raised in the age of postmodernism--a widespread cultural development of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Understanding the often rocky transition from modern to postmodern culture is necessary to understanding how many members of Generation X think and operate. While modernism values a single world view rooted in objective science, postmodernism values multiple world views based on subjective experiences and contingencies. Information and knowledge is gathered in a linear fashion by the modernists, but for postmodernists, particularly those of Generation X, information comes from fragmented and non-linear sources, often in the form of hypertext or visual images. While the modernists revere the classics of art and literature, postmodernists have a broader frame of reference: they not only revere the classics, but they also grant status and value to the productions of popular culture. Ethics for the modernists can be rigid, even self-righteous, but postmodernists have a more situational ethic that resists the concept of "Universal Truth." Monolithic institutions such as government, education, corporations, and the press which are seen as authoritative by the modernists are viewed with caution and distrust by members of Generation X.

Xers have grown up during the cultural transformation from modernism to postmodernism. The sensibilities of postmodernism are naturally appealing to many members of Generation X, because their young adulthood has been constructed by the postmodern society. Paradoxically, they have simultaneously been victimized by a society trying to come to terms with a paradigm shift that many find threatening. Members of Generation X often represent that threat to their elders. As a result, these youth are both the product and the scapegoat of a culture in a state of flux.

True to this variable spirit of postmodernism, Generation X defies homogeneity. Extremely diverse in race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, Xers often feel a collective uniqueness that has emerged from shared experiences and cultural circumstances. The unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by the uneasy discomfort of the late 1970s and the self-involved consumption of the 1980s, have been the foreground to the 1990s--a decade laden with problems. Social ills like the rise in teen suicide, widespread homelessness, proliferating toxic waste, violent crime, the AIDS epidemic, and a "down-sizing" workforce, coupled with fundamental changes in social structures like the family, caused by rising divorce rates and working parents, have been the realities of the world as Generation X has come of age. Like most younger generations, many Xers resent their parental generation--the baby boomers--for leaving them to repair or endure a society on the brink of collapse. Considering the problems Xers face, it is perhaps no wonder that one of their favorite T-shirt slogans is "NO FEAR," and it is also representative of the contradictions of their culture that NO FEAR is the corporate brand name of a line of sports clothes.

Lack of fear, however, is not enough to manage America's social problems, and many baby boomers voice concern that most members of Generation X evince distaste for politics and public affairs. The trust of all Americans in their government has reached increasingly low levels in the 1990s, as members of Generation X have come of age politically. Because they view politics as a hostile and corrupt environment, Xers have tended to be disgusted by political machinations, and thus often disengaged. Political apathy among young people is not a new phenomenon; personal challenges such as education, careers, and relationships often consume their time and energy, leaving little left over for political affairs. Furthermore, political scientists report that, historically, levels of public participation increase with age. However, Xers have never experienced political innocence and have lived within a negative climate of politics their entire lives. This climate has caused many to turn their backs on political involvement, in turn causing a potentially devastating problem in terms of Xers' future civic and political responsibility.

Neil Howe and Bill Strauss provide a more pragmatic perspective in their oft-cited 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, in which they lay out a five-point political credo of Xers: 1. "Wear your politics lightly"; 2. "Survival comes first"; 3. "Try to fix only what's fixable"; 4. "Clean up after your own mess"; and 5. "Personal style matters." Howe and Strauss posit that for the 13th Generation, "national politics will drift toward the personal, no-nonsense, survivalist approach." Xers are already employing this do-it-yourself attitude by saving early for their retirement. According to Richard Thau, in a 1994 poll of 18-34 year olds, 82 percent believe that Social Security, the U.S. government's largest benefit program, will deconstruct before their retirement. Thau is the Executive Director of the Third Millennium, a political advocacy group centered in New York with hundreds of members who are dedicated to speaking out on behalf of the interests of the Generation X age group. Likewise, Hans Riemer and Chris Cuomo cofounded 2030, what they describe as a "political action-tank" for Generation X. In Riemer's words, "so much of what is going wrong today requires innovation and new thinking, and we can respond to these requirements at a more rapid pace than other generations could." These informed Xers are responding to the concerns of "massive ignorance" through practical action.

Xers' cautious and fiscally conservative sensibility has been a challenge to America's mostly middle-aged advertisers and marketers who have recognized Generation X as a viable and large market. However, they are also the best educated generation in America's history and were raised on commercial hyperbole. While Xers might respect and enjoy advertisements that are crisp, sophisticated, humorous, and informative, they are savvy enough to realize when hype or insincerity is at work. Karen Ritchie recognizes that "no icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective."

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