We are a small and cynical generation who started life with rotary dial phones and now upgrade our iPhones at every opportunity. We grew up on HR Pufnstuff, but somehow have the attention span to read all of the George RR Martin books and watch both HBO dragon series. We’ve been going to rock shows since the 1980s and can afford to pay about tenfold what we did then to see the same bands now.
We are the children of the lost generation or boomers who got pregnant early—young hippies who did not want their kids to have parenting like they did, so they just skipped the parenting altogether. In my family, I had lost generation grandparents (born between wars, and not old enough to be part of the “greatest” generation that built the world after WWII), and I had young hippie parents who didn’t really “parent.”
Like the lost generation, GenX gets a bit forgotten. There aren’t as many of us as there are Boomers and Millennials who sandwich us with their weird cultures. There are plenty of famous GenX-ers, but even they seem to have quieter careers than those who came along later. I was born the same year as Snoop Dogg, Ewan McGregor, Winona Rider, and David Tennant.
Riot grrls and ladettes
Coming into adulthood in the 1990s was different for women. Different than it was for men, and different than what coming of age has been for women of other generations. We were the first (and possibly only) generation brought up with the assumption that we were equals with our male peers. I mean, we knew about income disparity and fought for bodily autonomy on many fronts, but we started off with the assumption that, “anything you can do, I can do better.” We weren’t wrong, but many of us found the journey more treacherous and riddled with sexism than it really should have been.
One thing that felt somehow important to prove was that we could keep up with the men when it came to alcohol and drugs. Many of us adopted “fun” personas that involved drinking men under various tables and into various beds. During the great Seattle heroin epidemic of the early 1990s, I knew of more women who died of overdoses than men. Every month or two I’d hear about another friend of a friend who had slipped away before her 23rd birthday.
Of course, drugs and alcohol also helped numb the reality of the sexist culture we found ourselves in. There was a sort of feminist optimism in the 1970s and 80s as more women chose careers that had been previously occupied by men. Women my age naively thought that we would come into the working world with the same privilege as men and be treated and paid fairly in the workplace.
My first job was at Tower Video, and I have to give Tower props for giving women the same opportunities as men (even in an industry still very male-skewed). But they did nothing to mitigate the constant sexual harassment from customers and even sometimes coworkers. Women in public places had to expect to be hit on constantly. It was annoying and exhausting, and even a bit scary. But I grew a thick skin and learned how to decline sexual advances with a smile.
My second job was at Kinko’s, where the corporate HR department meant there were more rules about sexual advances in the workplace. I felt less like fair game in my blue apron. But when it was time for my six month review, the manager’s only criticism was that I wasn’t perky enough. Perky!
I was good at customer service and problem-solving. I could troubleshoot the early Macs and un-jam the giant copiers. But I wasn’t perky. This is not something he would have said to my male coworkers, and I knew it.
It’s enough to make a young woman a little bit angry. It’s no wonder that the Riot Grrl movement emerged in the early 1990s, as women my age came to understand that the cultural story of gender equality was a steaming pile of bullshit.
On the other side of the pond, the “ladette” archetype emerged as Britpop took over the world. I found it hilarious that the Brits needed to invent a new label for women that were doing what me and my peers had been doing all along: keeping up with the lads.
I don’t know any women of my generation who spent their twenties planning families or going to grad school. I mean, I know such women do exist in my generation. I just haven’t met them. Me and my peers were going to rock shows every week, cultivating drinking habits, collecting obscure CDs and ominous shoes, and just generally giving a big middle finger to the culture that told us to be nice and docile and PERKY.
Vexed by millennials
I’m good friends with some millennial women, and the older ones feel pretty similar to me culturally. But their generation made a swift return to gender roles that vexes me.
For one thing, they seem to want to get pregnant. GenX women got pregnant accidentally sometimes, but many of us chose not to go down the path of motherhood. Others waited until their late thirties to even start to think about it. Raising a family was not on my radar as life goal, and I think many of my generation feel the same. We thought we had more interesting things to do than uphold the status quo.
Millennials also seem much more interested in material wealth and social status than my generation ever was. You won’t find many GenX “influencers” trying to capitalize on a lifestyle. Instagram is packed with Millennials (now in their forties) showing off makeup tutorials, home decor, and vacations. This kind of status maneuvering takes us back to the 1950s.
If I’m honest, I see a lot more interesting stuff happening in GenZ. They are busy dismantling gender, undermining racism, and railing against capitalism that destroys the environment. While GenX lamely adopted cynicism and retreated from the status quo, GenZ is actually trying to fix stuff. And with enough crypto, they might just get somewhere.
We are not boomers
A GenZ colleague once threw an “OK, Boomer” at me as a joke. I laughed, but I was seething on the inside. If there’s one thing you should never do to GenX, it is to mistake us for boomers.
The baby boom started after the end of WWII and lasted roughly through the 1950s. This HUGE generation grew up with all kinds of weird privilege never seen before or since by humans. In the United States, post-war prosperity meant that most people could afford to live well. There was disparity, especially along racial lines, but nothing close to what is happening now.
The hippie generation railed against their privilege and envisioned utopias that never came to fruition. Then the 1980s came along and they took corporate jobs to support their cocaine habits. This is—of course—a ridiculous over-generalization of what happened to the boomers, but I think it paints a picture.
Boomers were in many ways naive, and I would argue they still are. They want social change, but they think showing up to a rally with a homemade sign is the best way to get things done. They are the white saviors and the Karens who believe they know what’s best for everyone.
It’s only natural that GenX rejected hippie naïveté. We got interested in philosophy and economics. We wanted answers, and when we got close to those answers we realized that the issues were so baked into the infrastructure of capitalism that there was no way to fix the system without dismantling it from the inside.
The boomer women I know grudgingly took over many of the domestic roles that their mothers had, and they usually had a full time job on top of it. They were tired. Many ended up single moms. They showed my generation what not to do: Don’t get into a shitty marriage. Don’t get stuck with kids on your own. And for god’s sake do not become a secretary.
They left us with a murky legacy. Their feminist idealism hadn’t really changed much. We could now become doctors, lawyers, or executives, but the paths to those careers were still fraught with sexism. We could be wives and mothers, but the boomers had demonstrated how that depleted and overburdened women trying to do everything on their own.
We wanted none of it. Which left us a bit adrift as we came into adulthood. Eventually some of us landed on career paths or started families, or both. I would guess that my generation constitutes a lot of late bloomers. We didn’t even have GPS on our phones to help us find our way.
How GenX women finally grew up
At a certain point, we got tired of going to shows and getting drunk. We just wanted a paycheck and a hot bath. So, one by one, we got jobs with weird titles at startups. We still weren’t going to buy into the status quo, but it turned out that our wayward youths had made us pretty savvy.
I’ve had a lot of jobs in my 32 years as a working adult, and it would be hard to identify a “career path,” but I now have a career, and not just a job. I’ve figured out how to apply some creativity and question the status quo in every job I’ve ever had. I’m not afraid to speak up in meetings or share my opinions with senior leadership. There’s something to be said for having very few fucks to give.
Your boss is probably a GenX woman. We’re in our fifties now, and despite having circuitous career paths, we have largely ended up finding spaces where we are valued for things other than our relative perkiness.
I know a lot of GenX women who do some type of writing. We are a generation of readers, and we’ve spent a lot of our lives in an era before the written word was overshadowed by YouTube.
Arguably, GenX men have been equally lost in the shuffle. They largely rejected the macho archetypes of their fathers. They are likely to call themselves feminists, but at the same time they have not made lifting up women a mission. They started their startups and came up with weird job titles so that women would not suspect we were actually being hired as secretaries.
GenX men got to be the creative geniuses while women’s good ideas were passed over or passed off as their own. They claimed to be feminists while still secretly objectifying and fetishizing women. Not all men, of course. Don’t @ me.
I was born at a strange moment in history. I have still spent more of my life in the twentieth century than the twenty-first. I have spent half of my life in the pre-internet era. When #MeToo came along, I was kind of like, “Isn’t this what we were shouting about in 1993?”
I still don’t see a lot of viable role models for young women trying to make a life. We have been fighting our way through, but it shouldn’t have to be a fight. Maybe in this new gender landscape, being a woman will be less of a burden. But probably not anytime soon.
The good news is that many GenX women have managed to dodge the status quo and have a pretty good life. We’ve had to be scrappy and put up with a lot of bullshit along the way. But now we’re (probably) your boss.
One Comment Add yours
I’m an elder millennial so while I identify more with other millennials I was heavily influenced by Gen X-ers. I’m so appreciative that you were the first generation to start marrying later, focus on your career and individuality, and have kids later. To this day I remain childless and while I got married young (23!), I divorced young as well and it was honestly the people who were abit older than me who made it okay to be single and childless in your 30’s. In previous generations any woman over 25 would be ridiculed for being single. Now we can be 45 and single and most people won’t think it’s that strange (save some small town folks). Great article! It was interesting to read your thoughts. 🙂