by Mindy Clegg
In a thread on a Gen X subreddit, a poster named QueenShewolf wondered about the truth of Gen X cynicism as her own Gen X siblings seemed far less “cynical and disconnected” than herself, a millennial. Some responded that they were certainly cynical, others felt they were merely realistic. Skepticism drove some of this more cynical or realistic worldview, based on their experiences growing up in the 70s and 80s. Many expressed distrust of institutions because of growing up during Watergate and the Reagan administration. Cynicism has its uses, according to the posters in the thread. Being at least a bit cynical about the world around you can help you engage more critically for one. But is too much cynicism dangerous for making positive social change? Has Gen X adoption of cynicism meant that our generation has been less engaged in larger social and political life, leaving it to other generations to shape? While there is some truth in the charges of ironic cynicism, some of that has been imposed on us from without. I argue that Gen X has made some positive contributions to our culture that are often overlooked. Our generation might be more cynical, but we also helped to create durable non and even anti-commercial culture, despite our paucity of numbers.
The term Generation X came to describe to the generation that was born from the mid-60s to early 80s. The term was popularized by Douglas Coupland, a baby boomer. Paula Gottula Miles said that he settled on the “X” to illustrate how this generation had no great existential experiences unifying them “unlike previous generations.” Instead, “they do have as a unifying childhood experience … a phenomenal rise in the divorce rates, and a national debt that went from the millions to the billions.” Such shared experiences (which are apparently less meaningful than wars or political assassinations) meant they shared a common cynicism, as illustrated by his work.1 But I would argue that Coupland ignored major events that had a formative impact, such as the Reagan era weapons build-up, the end of the Cold War itself, and several major conflicts that saw major acts of genocide (Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
Others pointed to the end of the liberal consensus and the rise of the era of neoliberalism as key to understanding the Gen X attitude. Joseph P. Shapiro argued that we felt we could not count on the American Dream. Cynicism and irony became shells Gen X built to insulate themselves from disappointment as the American Dream moved out of reach. Miles argued that this embrace of cynicism constituted “a sort of intellectual or cultural social movement” itself. Miles noted that Gen X as a group, “lack faith in many of the core, formerly unifying value systems in this country.”2 According to her, we have embraced the personal over the larger community.3
In a blog post, Simon Stevenson wondered about the roots of Gen X anger. He noted similar issues that Miles discussed. He called Gen X the “remix” generation, as we “took… diverse elements [of culture] and smashed them together.” Post-punk, indie, dance music, and hip-hop all shaped our understanding of cultural production. Stevenson argued that our embrace of diverse music shows just how strange our relationship is with commercialism. But he felt that we are also “too cool for our own good.” More worrying, he believed Generation X was “leading the revival of the right” more so than our older and younger counterparts. More than just cynics, we are a hyper-individualist generation, which is a key aspect of capitalist post-modernism that typifies the neoliberal era.
Both the mainstream and some of the underground culture Gen X consumed embraced a cynical distance of cool post-modernity, but this aloofness was hardly new to the social-mediated age. In a recent video about the Gibson girl, Kaz Rowe noted how the originator of the term Charles Dana Gibson, saw an idealized women regularly on the streets which he turned into his famous illustrations.
She quoted him as saying “I got mine from the crowd,” meaning the women he regularly encountered in public spaces. These young women were imagined as effortlessly fashionable, deeply aloof, but only so men like Gibson could project their ideals onto them. These young women pushed back against this idealization. Rowe quoted at length an article from an Indianapolis newspaper published in 1895. It quoted a Chicago woman describing an outing as a Gibson Girl, to comic effect as Rowe noted. She illustrated how the Gibson Girl aesthetic was a commodified version of the more political charged “new woman” which resulted in a tension between feminist ideals of the “new woman” and its commercialization. This was not unlike attempts to commodify aloof young women in the 1980s and 1990s. We can see that in films like Heathers or the mainstream embrace of the Riot Grrl movement. In both cases, a cynical mindset was seen as a feature, not a bug, though any deeper political aspect was often downplayed for aesthetics. If the Gibson girl emerged on the scene with modernity, the cynical Gen X girl arrived just in time to define the age of post-modern, neo-liberalism. But not so fast, as Marc Levy agrued Boomers were projecting their own cynicism into the culture of their children. He listed out a litany of reasons why so much of Gen X embraced a more cynical world-view. He used popular culture in which we were immersed to give context and explanation. He blamed the boomers for the general condition of cynicism among our generation. I would argue that just looking at the pop culture produced for Gen X might be reductive, and robs Gen X of our agency as a generational cohort.
If the narrative of Gen X is that we’re highly cynical slackers, and always has been, we should not gloss over how Baby Boomers helped shape that narrative. It is also true that many Gen Xers took on cynicism as a key aspect of their identity. Meanwhile, our contributions to culture have often been ignored and overlooked. Quite a few members of Gen X took punk’s DIY attitude to its logical conclusion, building up alternatives to the mainstream culture where young people could practice forms of consumer democracy.4 The insistence on understanding Gen X only via the lens of negative cynicism—aloof, scathing, tuned out—ignores the many contributions made by Gen X to the culture, especially to popular culture. As a generation, we leaned hard into culture not just based on cynicism, but on anti-commercialism. The internet provides an example of that. In the early days of the World Wide Web (WWW) after Eternal September in 1993, Gen X found new ways to make and share culture. When we say the WWW, we don’t mean the internet itself. That existed prior to the WWW, as did cultural exchange on the internet.5 Many Gen Xers with access to computers created the earliest culture on the WWW. They often created culture for its own sake, for the pure fun of it. A good example is the Brothers Chaps, creators of the website Homestar Runner, which started as a book project in 1996. They still make videos for the Homestar Runner website. Despite its online popularity in the early 2000s, the series was never sold off to be monetized by a corporation. Today, it remains a sort of underground phenomenon for those in the know. Projects like Homestar Runner perhaps smacked of a kind of cynicism that questioned the mode of production for much of our pop culture. But the videos they made had a playful sense of optimism, too.
Their work tells us that we can create things for its own sake, rather than for simply building wealth. This sort of culture both appeals to our sense of insiderism that makes cynicism so attractive, but to our instinct for community building via the production of culture.
Digging deeper into the history of phenomenon such as post-punk or the early WWW culture, a new way of thinking about the cynicism of Gen X presents itself. The poster on reddit could be correct—Gen X is not nearly as darkly cynical as we are often perceived. A recent Ted-Ed video details a historical overview of cynicism as a philosophical stance, starting with Diogenes of Sinope. His primary philosophy, the narrator noted, was later taken up by the hippies and I’d argue some punks.
He and they placed great value on questioning society. He and others have even sought to live outside of society, because of their cynical skepticism. The culture built by Gen X has been commodified to some degree, of course. If it proves profitable, corporations will seek to domesticate and re-sell it to a larger audience. Yet democratic cultural spaces continues to exist today. Some of that is due to us cynical Gen Xers.