On being X-ish

Now that I have described how I graduated into Generation X, I have a secret to confess: I’m starting to think that that might not be entirely wrong.

Let’s stick to cohort effects here, since it’s supposed to be a cohort term. And I should add that this is all very trivial stuff, I’m focussing on media, pop culture and technology experiences.

One of the major temptations of identifying as Generation Y had to do with pop culture. My teenage years were just past the wave of slackers and grunge and Seattle. I probably heard Nirvana’s music during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, but I didn’t know of them as a thing until about a year after he died. I’ve never even seen Reality Bites, but Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder are both 10 years older than I am, and their movies weren’t about my cohort.

I am, frankly, Spice Girls age: not the pre-teen thrilled girls waving things to be signed, but the teenagers who actually paid for the albums with their own money. (I didn’t, for reference. We were a Garbage family.) Britney Spears was born in the same year as me, and her biggest year career-wise was my first year of university. And obviously, when the term “Generation Y” was coined, the stereotypes of late university/early career certainly fit my friends better than the Generation X tags with managerial aspirations. The return of cool people listening to cheesy pop: Y-ish. So that was where I felt I fell. (In case anyone I knew at high school drops by: I realise I wasn’t cool. But you may have been, and don’t think I didn’t notice you danced to the Spice Girls.)

But then, there’s certainly a few small societal boundaries between me and people who were born in 1986. (I have a sister born in 1986, and thinking about the five years between us is often telling.) Starting at a global level, I was reading Tony Judt’s Postwar recently (recommended, I’ll come back to it here at some point), and I was struck because I remember 1989.

To be fair, that’s more important if one lives in Europe, which I never have, but most of my first detailed memories of newsworthy events have to do with the revolutions of 1989 and the 1990 Gulf War. I remember the USSR, again, from the perspective of a young child who was growing up in Australia, but still. I can read the science fiction people smirk about now, the fiction with the USA and USSR facing off in 2150, and remember, a little bit, what that was actually about. This is, well, frankly, more than a little X-ish.

While we’re talking about defining events, I recall that quite a lot of people talked about the children who won’t remember 9/11. (And by children, I now mean 15 year olds, of course.) Obviously this is more important in the USA, perhaps a little like the European children (by which I mean 25 year olds) who don’t remember 1989 in Europe. I obviously remember 2001, and moreover remember the geopolitical situation in the years before it quite vividly too, and that latter is again, more than a touch X-ish.

Turning to technology, which is fairly defining for me, we’ll start with Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Leaving aside the age effect where shortly everything cool will be against the natural order of things, it’s noticeable to me that the Web and email and so on fall in the “can probably get a career in it” bracket for me. Well, obviously not truly (the first version of the SMTP specification, which still more or less describes how email works today, was published in 1982), but my late teenage years were exactly the years when suddenly a lot of Australian consumers were on the ‘net. Hotmail was founded when I was 15 and I got an address there the following year. (icekween@, the address has been gone since 1999 and I’ve never used that handle since, partly because even in 98/99 it was always taken. But, actually, for a 16 year old’s user name I still think that was fairly OK considering some of the alternatives.)

In short, it was all happening in prime “get a career in it” time for me, and not coincidentally I am at the tail end of the huge boom in computer science enrolments and graduates that came to a giant sudden stop about two years after I finished. Frankly, X-ish. My youngest sister and her friends didn’t get excited about how they were going to become IT managers and have luxury yachts as a matter of course. (Well, partly age and partly not being jerks, there.) It’s a lot harder to get the “just a natural part of the way the world works” people excited about it.

Diagnosis: tailing X.

4 Replies to “On being X-ish”

  1. It is *very* weird to me sometimes that the vast majority of my friends never experienced that dread where we were all fairly sure we’d get bombed by the USSR and bomb them back until there was nothing left, nor do they remember watching people die all around them of AIDS and not knowing quite why.

    But at the same time…as life-defining as those events are said to have been, clearly they weren’t for me, because my head is not where the heads of the people who remember those things are. I got really angry once with someone who insisted on defining everything by generation, because she clearly couldn’t comprehend how alienating it was for people who were never, ever “in step”. Of course there’s the possibility that my parents being so much older than my friends’ parents played some role in that, but I don’t know…my parents’ friends’ children were all Boomers and I certainly don’t think like them.

  2. Yeah, I think year of birth can only be so deterministic in any case. I am fairly sure a lot of my age peers don’t have the foggiest about the USSR.

    I don’t actually think that much of this is actually terribly defining for me, other than ending up in university in time to catch the tail end of the dotcom boom. The rest of it has some impact on my sense of place in the world, but actually I think not a lot of impact on how I choose to live my life.

  3. Like you, I graduated into X, and am a woman working in tech around your age, though in a different country than you.

    The new classification does seem to make sense. I always wondered why the original Gen-X cohort was so small, and the media crowing about how the population of that generation was so tiny made no sense. Of COURSE a group of people born within only a 12 or 15 year span will be smaller than people born across two full decades! Even with the Gen-X range set from 1965-1984, there are only 70 million of us in the USA, compared to 81 million Boomers and 81 million (or more) Millennials. Why artificially narrow the demographic to prove a point that can be proven without such tricks? It’s bad math.

    My husband was aware of the USSR and politics related to it from a young age, as he’s a first-generation American. His mother escaped a Soviet country over 35 years ago to make a new life for the family. My first political memories are of the 1988 election and Mikhail Gorbachev, which is close enough. And we were both adults on 9/11, just like you. He’s into industrial music from the 80s and 90s, and I’m into new-wave, 70s/80s post-punk, and grunge. We always identified more with X culturally, and not just because of the music, but because we’re somewhat apathetic, prefer working alone, and have a deep distrust of authority.

    A small point about the grunge movement – it didn’t really take off in the States until early 1992, meaning that when the people born in the early 60s were counted as X, they weren’t “youths” when it hit. They were either over 30 or near 30 when they first heard that music, if they heard it at all. All of my colleagues born in the early 60s identify with Boomer and 70s culture, and have never listened to Nirvana et. al., whereas grunge hit exactly when we were young enough for it to make an impression. 90s alt-rock was pretty much all I listened to AND heard on the radio until I graduated high school.

  4. AIDS is another milestone. I grew up thinking AIDS was a death sentence, whereas people my brother’s age (25, soon to be 26) and younger see the virus as “living with HIV.” The infection rate among young adults is staggering for this very reason. That and, they went to high school in the Bush era, learning abstinence-only education, which has been an abject failure.

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