“You are More Than the Sum of What you Consume”: Generation X and Consumer Society

Nellay123 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
by Mindy Clegg

Public discussions of generations lately most often only focus on two generations–the boomers (1946-1965?) and millennials (1985-2000?). Yet many in our culture do not identify with either. One such group, Gen X, represents a midpoint between the two. And it’s a cohort that exerts more cultural influence than is generally understood.1 Once dubbed “slackers”, for a while Gen X elicited the concern common in our discourse since the 1950s (when “teens” as a social and consumer category were born2). Those who were born from the late 60s into the early 1980s qualify, around 80 million people by some estimates.3 But we rarely hear about the social and cultural contributions made by Gen Xers to the modern cultural landscape, despite the current surge in 80s nostalgia (such as Stranger Things, which is so full 80s nostalgia that they even brought back New Coke for a season 3 promotion!)4.

Despite the lack of attention from the major media outlets, several Gen X themed thinkpieces have been published in various venues across the web. They center on pop cultural phenomenon, generally speaking. Youth is also part of the prism, another unsurprising facet to these works. It is hard to ignore experiencing history in part through our relationship to pop culture in the postwar age or to fail to note how that shaped people (individually and collectively) during their teenage years. But these thinkpieces on Generation X rarely explore groundshaking events in the same way that discourses on boomers or millennials do, through events like the war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement for boomers or the 2008 economic crisis and the still ongoing student debt crisis for millennials. Nor do they seem to recognize the role Gen X played in shaping the modern subcultural landscape, which signals a deep politicization of popular culture. Gen X embraced subcultures readily, and carried that on into building the modern internet age.

As a cultural historian myself, I embrace the focus on pop culture in defining generational cohorts to a certain extent. After all, in the postwar consumerist world where young people had an increasing share of the buying power, cultural experiences helped define a generation’s cohesiveness – think of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Beyonce’s Lemonade album. But under closer inspection, those generational moments often break down.

Many boomers would fondly remember discovering obscure blues or jazz records in a used record shop, reading Leroy Jones/Amri Baraka or Malcolm X for the first time, joining a feminist march or a pride parade, becoming a Union member and participating in a strike (the PATCO strike comes to mind), watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus, seeing Saturday Night Live for the first time, or participating in an anti-war demonstration or Civil Rights protest as far more formative than the Beatles’ introduction to America. Millennials might point to digital downloads of music, their first gaming console, participation in the anti-war or environmental movements, the rise of reality TV and internet influencers, or maybe comedy shows that mock the mainstream news cycle as defining cultural events. Homogeneity of generational experience was always a mirage but we have to start somewhere.

With regards to generational discourse in the public sphere on Gen X, where do we stand? In one recent article, written by USA Today columnist Drew Weisholtz, the death of actor Luke Perry (known for Beverly Hills, 90210 and the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) functions as a larger discussion on Gen X aging. A laudable goal, with Weisholtz attempting to get his generational cohort to dwell on our collective health and mortality.5 But the overly centralized focus on Perry’s death at 53 seems somewhat odd. Certainly Perry was a fine actor and remains memorable for his role in 90210 and Buffy. He had made a recent appearance on Riverdale, too. But he was one of many young, handsome actors that young Gen Xers had crushes on back in the day. Teen magazines had pin ups of other young stars, like Johnny Depp, Wil Wheaton (a good candidate for king of Gen X geeks)6, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix, and many others. Some actors who became touchstones did so for reasons other than sex appeal – the Gen X director Kevin Smith and his erstwhile side kick Jason Mewes come to mind as Jay and Silent Bob, two Gen X hetero-life partner stoners who provide comic relief and the occasional bit of wisdom in the View Askewniverse.7 Smith’s films illustrate a certain slacker ethos of Generation X, including a love of comic book and Star Wars conspiracy theories. Plus, Smith himself also had a recent brush with his mortality after a heart attack that led him to embrace veganism, something never mentioned in this article on Gen X and health.8 But Weisholtz also assumes that we are stuck in our youth. If ever a generation had little nostalgia for their youth, it might be Gen X, even as we embrace popular culture well into our middle age. The 1970s and 1980s gave us Watergate and the rise of the religious right, latchkey kids and rising divorce rates, homelessness and the AIDS crisis. We grew up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation and the age of terrorism (which goes back well into the 70s and 80s). Aging and mortality was never alien to us, since, as Gen X blogger Jennifer Chronicles noted, many of us were “rushed through childhood” (in the words of Douglas Coupland) and lived through very real fears of annihilation as detente came to an end, and President Reagan reignited the Cold War.9

Weisholtz rests his assumption on a set of shared cultural experiences – a mirage in ANY generation, but especially in Gen X.10 As a cultural historian of the late Cold War, I’d argue that if Gen X was marked by anything it was by the diversity in our culture consumption, embracing both mainstream pop and underground DIY cultures. While boomers made up the first wave of producers and consumers of underground counter and subcultures that scared the establishment, Gen X embrace of punk and hip hop also caused a cultural panic. The punk panic of the 1980s came in the form of Very Special Episodes like the infamous Quincy MEepisode “Last Stop, Nowhere.” The 1992 presidential election saw a conservative backlash against metal band Bodycount’s debut album, specifically the track “Cop Killer.” The band, led by rapper Ice-T appeared at that year’s Lollapalooza, which largely attracted middle class, suburban teens seeking out an authentic experience. Body Count appealed to a distinct working class metal subculture, but was imagined to be (by the political establishment) indoctrinating white, suburban youths into anti-police viewpoints—hence the panic over the album. Of course, this ignores the fact that many working class whites had their own antagonistic relationship with the police, which Ice-T might have been hoping to connect with on a deeper level. Bodycount’s more recent song, “No Lives Matter” attest to that point. Overall, the types of youth-oriented cultures enjoyed by Gen X blossomed in the 70s and 80s – from new kinds of music, genre fandom, to gaming (both video games and various kinds of table top and role playing games or RPGs).

Weisholtz and Jennifer Chronicles have not been the only bloggers recently discussing Gen X.The Baffler’s Miya Tokumitsu recently reflected on the experiences of late Gen Xers through the apparent vapidness of the show My So-Called Life, starring Claire Danes.11 Tokumitsu argues that Danes’ Angela Chase represented something of a blank canvas for late gen X teen girls (not unlike the vampire novels Twilight, written by gen Xer, Stephanie Meyers). The show represented the end of history12 and teens were reconfiguring themselves in response, “waiting” for history to start again, according to Tokumitsu.13 Tokumitsu pulls off a great analysis of how producers of pop culture during that time (many of whom were boomers—see for example John Hughes, born in 1950) sought to speak to this younger and alienated generation. Perhaps the fact that this show only lasted one season speaks volumes on how successful these particular producers were in that endeavor.

In an essay published at Medium, Timothy Kreider focused on the zine as a cultural zeitgeist for Gen X.14 Kreider only saw his identity in terms of generational cohort in retrospect. He changed his views after a friend had recommended Burn Collector, a collected zine by Al Burian from the 1990s that was recently republished.15 Alienation from pop culture, he argues, marks Gen X more than anything else – ironic in that he discusses one of the most culturally engaged aspects of Gen X, zine culture. Zines, it should be noted, were not new in the 1980s and 1990s. An active zine culture existed in the fandom community especially among war gamers for decades.16 Gen X applied greater access to technologies used in zine making. They also expanded zines into newer cultural and political arenas, from skating, art, and literature, to sex and political activism, both as producers and consumers. See for example Barnard’s College zine collection, which highlights the contributions young women made to the DIY zine culture.17 The association of zines with Gen X rests primarily on that expansion into multiple territories. Many zines circulated farther and wider, in some cases globally, such as the punk zine Maximum RocknRoll. Kreider’s major take away was that he glossed over his generational engagement while it was happening, instead only recognizing it now in the present as he hits middle age. Many people likely had this same kind of “Come to Jesus” moment, no doubt. But it does get at how Gen Xers seem to have a tendency to not see themselves in those more collective terms, showing how deep the subculture phenomenon goes.

These thinkpieces on Gen X are few and far between, as noted by blogger Jennifer Chronicles in a somewhat gloomy posting from 2015. She is unwilling to concede that erasure, however, which she partial grounds in her own religious faith, further illustrating the diversity of identity of gen Xers. In fact, many Christians now see themselves as a sub-or even a counter-culture.18 Like many other identities in the modern era, a generational cohort is a social construct. People often privilege other identities that extend above and beyond one’s generation. So, where does this leave us on the thinkpieces based on a generational cohort?

Like other social constructions, generations are defined by our interactions with each other, the exertion of power of a master narrative through the mass media, and no small amount of wishful thinking. I argue that the political and economic realities matter as much as the cultural ones in defining generation cohorts. The rise of Cold War 2 (Electric Boogaloo) or the growing distrust of political figures matter as much as receiving an Atari, boombox, or a Walkman for Christmas. I’d further argue that our engagement with youth and popular culture draws all of the postwar generations together more than it divides them. We are full tilt into the age of consumerism, for good or ill. But specifics of consumption matter, ironically making Gen X even harder to define.

Gen X took much of what they found, often originally produced by boomers, and turned it around in a rich set of subcultures, helped along by new technologies (blank tapes, desktop publishing software, greater public access to Xerox machines, even access to the internet etc). These subcultures spread globally in translocal communities well before the September that Never Ended, (when America Online went live September 1993, allowing wider access to Usenet). Gen X were the first generation with regular access to the net, in fact, shaping much of our current expectations.19 Consumption, already politically charged in the contentious 1960s, became even more so in the 1970s and 1980s, as a variety of people sought to better represent themselves to themselves and the world, including young people. They craved authenticity in a consumer driven world while trying to rebuild a sense of community through consumption. More than unity, Gen X sought to find their “tribe” and to make meaning out of those connections. Consumerism and engagement with consumption had become a fixed part of youthful cultural identity, which has spilled over into adulthood.

The problem with identifying generations is the problem with every other kind of social construct: not everyone agrees on a definition. But the reality is that many people identify via their generational cohort, myself included. The most useful lens we can put to such theories is how it shaped modern patterns of consumption and political engagement within the realm of consumerism. Each successive generation since the 1950s were targeted by commercial interests by their generational cohort, which led to more engagement with pop culture, but also greater politicization of pop culture.20 Each generation’s counterculture struggled with that reality, which hints at the difficulties of rebellion through consumerism. Generation X was a single generation in that process, but possibly the hinge point of those historical changes.

1The title of this essay was taken from a track on KMFDM’s 1996 album, Xtort, “Dogma” lyrics by performance artist Nicole Blackman. Ed Mazza, “Generation Xers Have the Most Gen X Response to Being Left Off the List,” Huffpost, january 1, 2019, (accessed 18. 2019),https://www.huffpost.com/entry/generation-x-forgotten-again_n_5c4539d5e4b027c3bbc2fc87.

2Jon Savage, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture, 1875-1945, (New York: Penguin, 2007).

3“Generation X,” Wikipedia, June 20, 2019, (accessed June 23, 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X.

4Danielle Wiener-Bronner, “Coca-Cola is Bringing Back New Coke in Honor of ‘Stranger Things’,” CNN Business, May 21, 2019, (accessed June 23, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/21/business/new-coke-stranger-things/index.html.

5Drew Weisholtz, “How Luke Perry’s Death is a Wake-up Call for Generation X,” Today, March 7, 2019, (accessed June 16, 2019), https://www.today.com/health/luke-perry-s-death-generation-x-s-wake-call-t149917.

6See wilwheaton.tumblr.com.

7The duo is set to star in the third Jay and Silent Bob stand alone films, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, set to premier in October, 2019. The characters are part of the larger, View Askeneverse films, which loosely connect most of Smith’s films. Seehttp://www.viewaskew.com/main.html. Interestingly, Smith’s connecting of his films into a universe likely says much about his generational experiences! I’ll have more to say on that in October to coincide with the 25th Anniversary of his debut film Clerks.

8Lisa Respers France, “Kevin Smith Tweets He Had a Massive Heart Attack,” CNN, February 26, 2018, (accessed June 30, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/26/entertainment/kevin-smith-heart-attack/index.html/. Smith discussed his decision to go vegan at the urging of his daughter with podcaster Joe Rogan, “Joe Rogan – Kevin smith Going Vegan After Heart Attack,” Youtube, May 30, 2018, (accessed June 30, 2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FO_Hr1JaKA.

9Jennifer Chronicles, “Who is Generation X? Stories for a Lost Age,” Jennifer Chronicles: Family, Faith, and Generations, (accessed June 16, 2019), https://www.jenx67.com/who-is-generation-x.

10PAPPADEMAS, “Gen X is Having a (Very Gen X) Moment,” Medium, June 12, 2019, (accessed June 23, 2019), https://gen.medium.com/gen-x-is-having-a-very-gen-x-moment-3782644b92bf.

11Miya Tokumitsu, “Girl Uninterrupted: Gen X Teendom at the End of History,” The Baffler, No. 45, (accessed June 16, 2019), https://thebaffler.com/outbursts/girl-uninterrupted-tokumitsu.

12Although not a new terminology (used by Thomas More, Karl Marx, and Georg Hegel among others) the phrase end of history was used to describe the end of the cold war and the apparent victory of liberal, capitalist democracy in first in an article and then in a book: Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: Free Press, 1992).

13See the current incarnation of the magazine online at https://thebaffler.com/, a magazine founded in the late 80s by Thomas Frank and Keith White, and recently both found in print and online.

14Timothy Kreider, “ What Would Your Teenage Self Think of You,” Medium, June 3, 2019, (accessed June 16, 2019), https://humanparts.medium.com/what-would-your-teenaged-self-think-of-you-f2ce0c351e55.

15Al Burian, Burn Collector: Collected Stories From One Through Nine, (Portland: Microcosm Publishing, 2011).

16See for example Jon Peterson, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games, (San Diego: Unreason press, 2012), 392 among other citations.

17“Zines,” Barnard College, (accessed June 16, 2019), https://zines.barnard.edu/node/84631.

18Jennifer Chronicles, “A Nameless, Unlucky Generation,” Jennifer Chronicles: Family Faith, and Generations, March 2, 2015, (accessed June 16, 2019), http://www.jenx67.com/2015/03/a-nameless-unlucky-generation.html.

19“Eternal September,” Wikipedia, May 31, 2019, (accessed July 27, 2019),https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_September.

20See for example, Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).