THE BLOG
05/27/2014 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014

Generation X: What's in the Label?

In my previous post, "Millennials and Boomers: Don't Forget Generation X," I ask to pay tribute to a generation that is often passed by. I believe that the scarce attention paid to Generation X has resulted from a lack of understanding about the meaning and identity of this cohort. To begin, it is worth noting that the label itself has been somewhat of an enigma, a question mark, a blank, an identity squeezed between two poles--the Boomers and Millennials--twisted into a demographic that seems to contribute little, disregarded as dark matter lost in disillusioned space. Who cares, say the critics. Whatever, reply Xers.

What did ever happened to Generation X? And why should we care? Why should you bother reading about a generation that might coincide with your birth date (were you born between 1960 and 1980 in the US?) but seems to have nothing in common with you at all? Because Generation X is more than just a demographic. Generation X is a cohort with personal and political experiences that have marked the way we look at the world and we live in this world.

To grasp Generation X, we must start with its label. Most people think that it was born in 1991 when Canadian writer and visual artist, Douglas Coupland, published the popular book Generation X: Tales of An Accelerated Culture. That's not the case. In fact, it all began much earlier, in 1953 when, as Dr. John Ulrich eloquently details in GenXegesis, "The Queen's Generation: Young People in a Changing World" was published in the Picture Post in the United Kingdom. This piece was later published as a three-part series titled "Youth and the World" in the United States' magazine called Holiday.

The 23 young people around 21 years of age from 14 countries around the world who were interviewed for this piece came of age after World War II. The editors concluded that their opinions did not reveal a clear pattern for the future and their concerns did not point into any clear direction. This lack of conclusions and these unknowns about the future of tomorrow led photographer Robert Capa to call this "The Generation X".

Generation X did not fall into oblivion then and there. The label reappeared in 1963 in a book titled "Generation X" by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson. In this context "Generation X"--surrounded by quotation marks--portrayed a cross-section of young people from all walks of life, from the controversial and sometimes violent rockers and fashion-oriented mods to prostitutes, high school and college students. These youth discussed their needs for self-expression, for the hopes of a better future, more active participation in contemporary life, less corruption in government institutions, acceptance of more alternative lifestyles, and a general search for the identity of a "new man or woman" in an increasingly technology-driven age.

When Hamblett and Deverson published a message in the Observer in which they asked the youth of Britain to come forward and participate in their project, they opened a space for individuals to speak for themselves, in their own language, about matters of interest to them. In the process, tell Anushka Asthana and Vanessa Thorpe in "Whatever Happened to the Original Generation X?", they empowered the young and shocked the more traditional public still reacting to the austerity of the post-war years.

Keep in mind that this was also a time when youth gained voice through fashion, music, and popular culture (think the Beatles) while experiencing a sense of helplessness and discontent in matters concerning society and politics (think the Reagan and Thatcher era). It was this self-expressed shock-effect that attracted many to Hamblett and Deverson's book, which became an instant hit. Mick Jagger, say Asthana and Thorpe, "was said to be a huge fan and John Lennon wanted to turn it into a musical."

When punk rocker Billy Idol found "Generation X" on one of his mother's book shelves, the title seemed more than appropriate for an emerging band searching for a new identity and a rebellious voice. The band, named none other than Generation X--now not surrounded by quotation marks--would disregard musical rules and write songs meant to defy social expectations while ironically becoming the first punk band to appear on the BBC Television music program Top of the Pops. When in 1976 Billy Idol started his new band, Generation X, he remixed Hamblett and Deverson's pop sociological book with a dose of punk and rock and gave the "X" a whole new sound.

While the moniker's sound does not end with Billy Idol (as can be read in Generation X Goes Global), this span of 20-some years infuses the label with new insight. The stories of the past add to today's understanding of Generation X as a cohort that places emphasis on the importance of moving into new, alternative, and tech-driven spaces from where they can reject or rewrite the past and the future, redefine and accept themselves and others, question and reenvision storylines, and participate in the construction of their own lives. As such, Generation X is both a worldview, consciousness, or spirit that transcends time and a time-bound cohort whose approach to life and work reaches both into the past and toward the future.