Those ’70s kids who toted Star Wars or Grease lunch boxes are now toting briefcases. Those ’80s Madonna wannabes and punk-skate kids are now commuting to work. A good many of them are, anyway. Hard to know for sure. Elusive to pin down, this bunch can’t even be counted correctly because the years that define this generation are up for debate: 1961-1981, 1965-1976, 1965-1980. No matter; what it boils down to is less the actual years and more the attitude. It’s a common thread—a gross generalization, if you will—about a group that prizes its individuality. Welcome to Generation X, the term coined by Douglas Coupland in his best-selling 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
Nestled between two larger generations, the baby boomers (76 million strong) and Gen Y (81+ million), Gen X is nothing to sneeze at. The nose count for Gen X—or more precisely, 27-to 38-year-olds—is estimated at more than 44 million. And they represent 18 percent of total US spending power—that’s $736 billion, according to American Demographics.
“X is a term that defines not a chronological age, but a way of looking at the world,” says political cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall in his article, “Marketing Madness: A Post-Mortem for Generation X.” Researchers, writers, market pundits and social commentators have described these young people and their “way of looking at the world” as cynical, entrepreneurial, apolitical, educated, tolerant, skeptical, and practical, to mention just a few. Figuring out what shaped their beliefs and values, how they think today and, most importantly, what they’re buying and where they’re buying it, is what every manufacturer, advertiser and retailer wants to know. Here it is.
Growing up X
MTV, AIDS, Space Invaders, Kurt Cobain, The Breakfast Club, the fall of TV evangelists, The Simpsons, Thriller. If you were born between 1965-1976, these influences were part of your culture, part of your upbringing, part of you.
Jon Resh of Chicago, a Gen X writer, designer, publisher and former punk musician, says the Gen X sensibility was shaped primarily by one element: MTV. “MTV changed everything. Our view of the culture was filtered through MTV—not just music but fashion, visuals, language and vocabulary, political awareness. It broadened [our] generation, and also made it more homogenous. It formed our tolerance [of interracial couples, gays, etc.], and it made us question a lot of what we were supposed to accept.”
As influential as it may have been, MTV is only one segment of the bigger picture: television. Media’s huge influence on this generation has been attributed to the rise of dual-career households when little Xers were growing up. Women continued to push their traditional boundaries, their path to the workplace and other venues paved in part by the feminist movement of the ’70s. One small yet impressive example comes from Drs. Rick and Kathy Hicks in their book, Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: The number of women lawyers and physicians increased 300 percent from 1978-1988. Some women took jobs out of necessity; some didn’t. Regardless, after-school care didn’t keep up with the burgeoning demand, and school kids often came home to empty living rooms and plopped down with Doritos, a Dew, and the TV remote.
And when The Simpsons came to prime time, it was as pervasive and influential as MTV, says Resh. “Definitely. The Simpsons was universal for us. It cut across all lines, gender lines, too.” And apparently still does. Even as adults, most of this bunch would rather watch TV than read. Only 32 percent of those age 25-34 read a newspaper daily; but 53 percent watch one to two hours of television a day, according to Susan Mitchell in her book, Generation X: The Young Adult Market. There’s nothing to indicate those numbers have changed much. Perhaps this is why TV nostalgia, or rather Gen-X nostalgia, was so big at New York’s Licensing Show last summer. It was all there, says Courtney Rubin in “Reality Bites,” from junior macho like the Cartoon Network’s resurrection of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to sugar-and-spice like Cabbage Patch Kids and Strawberry Shortcake. Hollywood continues this trend with a line-up of upcoming movies. Joining The Brady Bunch and Scooby-Doo redux are remakes of the likes of Starsky and Hutch, I Dream of Jeannie and (dig out the pastel T-shirts and push up those suit sleeves!) Miami Vice.
Nostalgia surfaces in any generation, of course, but Xers have a special way of viewing their past—celebrating “not the best of [their] youth, but the worst,” says Rubin. A little Gen X humor, one might say. “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,” says Karen Ritchie, author of Marketing to Generation X.