COLUMN ONE : Smashing the Gen-X Stereotype : Born between 1961 and 1981, they were supposed to be slackers. But today their successes are as plentiful as Web sites, and the words ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘self-reliant’ are more apt descriptions.


It was the early 1990s and recent college grad Stephanie Brail was doing precisely what someone of her generation was supposed to be doing. Nothing.

Like many so-called Gen-Xers, the 80 million Americans born from 1961 to 1981, she was rudderless. The English and music major drifted for several years, working at a nonprofit here, writing a freelance piece there. In between, there was a lot of time in coffeehouses.

Eventually, she started to teach courses about computers, something she had used in one form or another since childhood. Soon people--particularly baby boomers less comfortable with the emerging technology--hired her to create Web pages. By 1996, she had established her own business, now known as Herspace Media Inc., a profitable and respected Web design firm in Venice.


“I took the slacker route [to success],” jokes the 29-year-old. “I know there is this cultural stereotype that we’re lazy, but you know all these Internet companies are built on Gen-X kids working 80-hour weeks. We’re a bunch of maniacs.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Earlier this decade, Gen-Xers were supposed to be headed straight for Palookaville. They were supposed to enter a dismal economy with low-wage/low-benefit jobs or to find none at all. And if there were jobs, they were supposed to be too busy playing computer games, watching television or being alienated to earn a paycheck.

But, in an irony befitting the marked generation, something happened on the way to the millennium. Slacker successes seem as plentiful as Web sites these days. Business journals have dubbed them the Entrepreneurial Generation and often feature rags-to-riches tales such as that of 30-year-old Jerry Yang, the billionaire co-founder of Yahoo, and 28-year-old Sky Dayton, the multimillionaire behind Pasadena-based Earthlink, to name a couple.

Instead of inheriting McJobs, they’ve created a world. For the past couple of years, they’ve started their own businesses at more than twice the rate of other Americans.

To be sure, they’re not all getting rich. They still lag behind boomers in relative earning power at comparable ages. And some are trapped in temp positions. But the point is: Beavis and Butt-head have clicked off MTV, are off the couch and are working. Very hard.

“Those slacker stereotypes were just silly. Totally irrelevant,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging. The people of this generation “are very serious. They are very focused. They embody the traditional American virtue of self-reliance.”


Like most self-respecting generations, Gen-Xers blame their brooding, grungy, body-pierced image on the generation before--the baby boomers. Gen-Xers admit they had a hand in their own bad press, but say that the boomer-dominated media of the early ‘90s blew it way out of proportion.

1991 Book Set Negative Tone

The trouble began in March 1991 with Douglas Coupland’s book “Generation X.” X as in Brand X. X as in the anonymous signature of an illiterate. X as in a random variable.

In keeping with these themes, Coupland’s book portrayed the generation as hopelessly bored and aimless. A few months later came Richard Linklater’s independent film called “Slackers,” which also portrayed the youths as bored and aimless. And finally, there was the Seattle grunge scene, where distorted music was performed by bored and aimless (but extremely wealthy) youths.

There seemed to be a pattern.

The early ‘90s media ran reams of condescending stories, television programs and films about the so-called slackers.

The Washington Post called them “crybabies.” Pundit Michael Kinsley, now editor of the online magazine Slate, said they were “soft.” And countless TV sitcoms and movies showed them as the dazed and confused inhabitants of “Biodome” or “Wayne’s World.”

That’s not to say the stereotype didn’t contain flecks of truth, admit many Gen-Xers. Catherine Hazelton, 24, of Pasadena said her early college days supported some of the pop culture cliches.


“Oh, we were coffeehouse chic,” said Hazelton, a board member of the California branch of the National Organization for Women. “We’d sit around talking and playing cards all night. I remember thinking, ‘Is this it? Is this all there is? Are we just going to play gin rummy until we die?’ ”

Of course, sitting around drinking beverages is a time-honored rite of passage reaching at least as far back as the Lost Generation of the 1920s. And although Gen-Xers may have put on a cool or diffident exterior, they were worried about plenty on the inside. Topping the list were a rotten economy, a mountain of college debt and, chances are, a parental divorce. (Around 40% of Gen-Xers have parents who split up.)

“When you come from a home where your mother and father don’t live together, it takes you longer to figure out who you are,” said Tracy Townsend, 28, a theater technician and poet from Venice Beach. “As a generation, I think we had a lot to sort out.”

‘It Just Seemed Like a Joke’

The Gen-X label never resonated with the people who bear it. To them, the phrase had about as much meaning as the Pepsi Generation.

“We laughed about it,” said Hazelton, an aide to Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena). “It was obvious that whoever came up with it was completely out of touch with our generation. It just seemed like a joke that people outside the generation were attempting to define it.”

Not only is Gen-X’s soul difficult to fathom, so is its actual birthday. Some demographers, who have dubbed members of the generation the baby busters, contend that Gen-X began in 1965, when birth rates began to decline, and ended in 1977, when rates rose again.


And most distressing--or fitting, perhaps--is that the Census Bureau recognizes baby boomers as a distinct group but fails to confer a similar honor upon Gen-X. A call to the Census Bureau’s public information office inquiring about Gen-X elicited this response: “Generation what?”

Cultural historians, however, are almost totally in agreement that the generation does indeed exist and that its birth years fall between 1961 and 1981. They say joint experiences, not birth rates, determine a generation.

“A generation is a group of people who share a common location in history and as a consequence have a collective persona that not all members share, but that they all can relate to,” said Bill Strauss, historian and coauthor of “The Fourth Turning” (Broadway Books, 1997), which studied generational change. “That generation [from 1961 to 1981] fits that definition.”

But midway through the ‘90s, one person who wasn’t buying any definition of Gen-X was--in yet another classic bit of irony--the term’s creator. In a 1995 magazine article, Coupland urged Gen-Xers to reject attempts to pigeonhole them.

“The problems started when trendmeisters everywhere began isolating small elements of my characters’ lives--their offhand way of handling problems or their questioning of the status quo--and blew them up to represent an entire generation,” wrote the Canadian in Details magazine. “I’m here to say that ‘X’ is over. I’d like to declare a moratorium on all the noise.”

Marketers back in 1995, most of them baby boomers, disagreed. To them, Gen-X did describe most of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old block they were salivating to sell to, these mysterious strangers who had a purchasing power estimated at anywhere from $150 billion to $600 billion.


But initial marketing, which attempted to exploit Gen-X stereotypes, failed miserably. A memorable example was OK Cola, a soft drink from the Coca-Cola Co., heavy with attitude and extra caffeine. The product came in gray cans covered with cynical epigrams such as “What’s the point of OK Cola? Well, what’s the point of anything?”

Sales went nowhere and the product was shelved.

“Boomers put [Gen-Xers] in a box. They thought all you had to do to understand them was to watch the movies ‘Clerks’ and ‘Slackers,’ ” said J. Walker Smith, a baby boomer and coauthor of “Rocking the Ages” (HarperBusiness, 1997), a report on generational marketing. “They were wrong.”

Smith’s Atlanta-based firm Yankelovich Partners Inc. conducted a generational poll in 1997, expecting the worst of the Gen-X stereotypes to be affirmed. “We were surprised to find this is not the disaffected generation,” Smith said. “What they are is very aggressive, very ambitious, and materialistic. The whole notion of the American dream resonates with Gen-X.”

It is an American dream with a twist or two, of course. Yes, Gen-Xers want to marry, although they’ll do it later than previous generations. They want to buy a house, though it will be substantially more expensive than their parents’ home. And they want a career, though they are more likely to go into business for themselves and change jobs more frequently than previous generations.

Gen-X’s American dream strives to be more inclusive than past generations. At 70% white, compared with 77% for boomers, Gen-X has grown more accustomed to racial, ethnic and religious differences, according to Torres-Gil of UCLA.

“This is the age group that is experiencing the full diversity of America,” he said. “They are comfortable with it and to their great credit they tend to take it as a norm.”


For many of today’s young feminists, diversity issues dominate the agenda, said Hazelton.

“Our generation doesn’t really care about an Equal Rights Amendment,” she said. “But we do care about women of color and women of all classes. We’re trying to focus on pragmatic solutions to women in poverty rather than worrying too much about the glass ceiling.”

Theories About Political Apathy

One arena where Gen-X has reinforced negative stereotypes, however, is in the voting booth. Although most age groups experienced voting declines in the last presidential election, the 18- to 24-year-olds stayed away in droves. Less than a third bothered to vote, compared with 42% in 1972.

“It’s truly pathetic and embarrassing,” said Richard Thau, 34, head of Third Millennium, a nonprofit Gen-X advocacy group in New York. “This generation is disconnected from national political issues,” he said, adding that the political apathy won’t make it any easier to protect Social Security benefits for Gen-X.

Excuses abound for the Gen-Xer aversion to the voting booth. Some say that, without the galvanizing power of a civil rights or an antiwar movement, Gen-Xers never needed to be as politically active as their forebears. Absent the need, the habit never developed.

“In the 1960s, there was no choice but to be political,” said Brail, who resents some baby boomers’ holier-than-thou attitude. “The times we grew up in were very different.”

But many argue it’s not apathy that’s keeping Gen-X away from the polls. It’s cynicism. After all, this generation grew up in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate.


“They don’t trust large institutions,” said Torres-Gil. “They don’t trust government, corporations or labor unions to bail them out of anything. They’ve seen too many lies and outright failures.

“This, in part, is why [Gen-Xers] developed their reputation for doing things for themselves,” he added.

Gen-Xers counterbalance their voting lapses with volunteerism. According to Independent Sector, a Washington-based research group, nearly half of all 18- to 34-year-olds donate time to their community, church or civic organization annually.

“If you want to get a young person to teach a person to read, to volunteer in a soup kitchen, it’s no problem,” said Thau. “This generation truly thinks globally, but acts locally. They deserve credit for that.”

Gen-X’s image is on the upswing. But will the turnaround in perception be enough to salvage their legacy?

Researchers aren’t sure.

“I think history may well look upon Gen-X as a wasted generation,” said Strauss, who is researching a book about the generation after X, the so-called Millennials. “[It’s] unfair, but that’s what happened to Fitzgerald’s generation--the Lost Generation. That label stuck with them.”



A Gen-X Profile


Gen-X (born 1961-1981): 80 million

Total U.S.: 273 million

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., Yankelovich Partners Inc., American Demographics, Third Millennium, Independent Sector.