Gen-X’ers (born 1961 – 1980) had a relatively tough go of it when compared with other generations. In our early childhood we were either ignored or reviled (60’s and 70’s), and once we got to young adulthood, we were alienated and generally dismissed.
By the time we hit midlife (in just the last few years for the first Gen X’ers) we were a pretty jaded bunch. But we also had something unique from all those years attending the school of hard knocks: pragmatism. This generation, more than any other, does not have any illusions about the way the world is. We know what we need to do to get by in the world and we generally set about doing it. For the most part we don’t have high ideals or visions of world peace, but we understand how to get things done.
Barack Obama is an excellent example of this ethic. Although he talks often of ideas, hope and vision, these are more of a marketing effort to get the Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Millennials (born 1981 – 2005) to get on board with the direction. That, in itself, is a very pragmatic move. Rather than grabbing onto an ideology (as a Boomer might) he focuses instead on the goal and considers everything he needs to get done to get to the goal. Gen-X’ers are generally great marketers because they can craft the message to meet their market. I realize that there is some argument about whether Obama is Generation-X or not – more on that in a future post.
Individualism is also a hallmark of Generation-X. From our early years we had to go it alone, and most of us got pretty good at it. Later in life some of us are discovering that it can get pretty lonely without a cohesive peer group, and we are reaching out for community (see my previous article on Gen-X community). That, I believe, is the beginning of the disillusionment that also seems to nag our generation.
No Illusions lead to Disillusioned
The world that Gen-X grew up on was not desperate, not when you compare it with earlier cycles, such as the period between the Great Depression and the end of WWII. It was, however, a time of great discord and chaos. Institutions crumbled, and opinions became more varied and oppositional. It was near impossible to have a cohesive world-view, and the only one that worked well was Machiavellian: The ends justify the means. Gen-X knew better than to harbor any illusions about what was coming next, and that has led to a general sense of disillusionment.
In my own life I have played out this cycle in many ways. As a youth I was fired up about politics and ideology, but it quickly became apparent that the world had enough ideologists, and making a living should be my priority. After paying my own way through college and graduating at the age of 26, I started looking for job. My degree was in Fermentation Science, and I had several years of winemaking experience. But there were no jobs in winemaking up in Oregon where I was living, and the future started to look pretty bleak. What other skills did I have? Even with a college degree that was very vocational, my prospects were limited.
Eventually I found a position at a local brewpub that was starting up, and I became the head brewer for the place. It was a great job, and fit perfectly with my background, but I found that after just two years I was getting restless and bored with the work. By this point I had started a family (Caleb was born in 1996) and I knew I was going to be the main provider.
Thinking back through the early portion of my career I am struck by how on my own I was professionally. There was no institution or organization helping me find my way, and I am not sure if I would have accepted help from one anyway. Like most in my generation, I was used to going it alone. I certainly had lots of individuals that helped me along the way, but I never had the feeling of a team moving through life together (for more on this topic, see my post on Generational networks).
Fast-forward to today. I am 42 years old, with a wife and two kids (ages 8 and 12). I have worked for various companies over the years, taken time off, traveled the world with my family and found my own way for the most part. My career has been varied, from winemaking, brewing, teaching, programming, managing, selling and marketing. I am comfortable in many disciplines and work very independently, but I still don’t have a sense of belonging to a group with a greater purpose. Although some might think this is the perfect recipe for finding religion (and I did get laid off in January), I don’t think that is in the cards for me either.
Disillusionment is the obvious reaction to all of this. It’s not like some institution is going to fly in and save the day for me or anyone else in my generation. Depending on their needs there are companies out there who could really use my skills, but it won’t be about community. After many years of playing the market, I have not developed anywhere else to play. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
I won’t personally go the direction of disillusionment. It’s not in my nature. I see disillusionment as the combination of pragmatism and pessimism. It is a great source of depression really. My attitude is a combination of pragmatism and optimism, and always has been. Have a positive outlook, but look at everything with a clear eye. That is the gift that our generation has to offer.
6 thoughts on “GenX: Pragmatic or Disillusioned?”
Cant even tell you how much your outlook and employment history mirror me and my husband’s.
It is amazing the similarities amongst such a huge number of people contained in a generation. It’s that huge force of common experience and values that causes such consistent cycles in history. Kinda spooky really.
The amount of people that stare in disbelief when I tell them I AM NOT A BABY BOOMER (born 1964), was almost a daily occurrence. I remember a young marketeer refusing to accept that I was not a Boomer, when I had the hide to ask her to remove me from a list for a Boomer magazine! Thanks for your articles and this site, it reaffirms the image that I have of myself. I was never aware of the concept of the Jones generation but I have always identified as an early X’er. I don’t think like a Boomer; I don’t identify with their music for a start! My music was early 80’s music, not the 60’s sounds. Like your article above, I have moved through life basically doing it on my own. I have had so many different careers (and yes, paid for my own way at college) – my life seems like separate little lives all compartmentalised with the changes I make in my own thinking to adapt to the new realities of the world. Disillusioned? Yes, at times…Optimistic? Hmmm, I can be. Pragmatic? Definitely!!!
Thanks for your comment. I really do like the term pragmatic to describe our generation right now. It’s not whether the cup is half full or half empty, it’s that there is water in the cup and someone is thirsty!
And your comment about a compartmentalised (or compartmentalized as we would say here Stateside) life is very true. Feeling like individuals, who need to get by on our own, makes really opening up to community difficult. I think that compartmentalization results from that alienation. I will write more on that soon.
As a younger gen-x I had some hope. I worked hard and graduated from university early – right into a raging recession. Well, I still worked hard, and took the jobs that the boomers didn’t want with the sociopathic bosses (seriously, one has been institutionalized since). But I had hope, because I felt that one day, one glorious day, the boomers would all retire, and we would get a crack at things. But now, the boomers with all their voting majority have passed laws saying that it is discriminatory to retire them at 60 or 65, and they’re still hanging on like grim death to their plum jobs (how many of those bank ceo’s with the lovely bonuses for crashing the economy are boomers I wonder?), not so they can pay their rent/mortgage, but so they can afford to continue to dine nightly on prawn in a raspberry coulis and vacation thrice yearly in Tuscany. And now their kids are graduating from university. So, yes I guess it’s a good idea for Gen-X’s to band together – who knows what can happen if we do? Yes, you could say I’m somewhat disillusioned. Maybe we really need to spin our benefits, which is perhaps what this column is doing. It really ticks me off when I see article after article by boomers saying how lazy and immature Gen-Xers are, not just implying but directly saying that our economic “disadvantaged” status is all of our own doing. There was this huge write-up about how many Gen’X’s are living at home because they are too immature to get their life together (and no, I don’t live at home, but I know alot of Gen-X’s who have had to as a stop gap between jobs). At the same time, you get these articles where everyone’s so scared that the skilled workforce (read boomers) are retiring and there is “nothing to take their place”. Hi fellow “nothings”. I somehow think, if those boomers would go ahead and retire, that somehow the Gen-X’ers would manage to step in and get trained and fill the gap – don’t you think? And, I hate to say it, but it seems like the millenials see us as the boss on the Office or on JPod some undertrained, morally questionable, center-less, soulless, purposeless,pathetic loser. Question – is ranting one of the best skills of Gen-Xers? I will try to stop.
Re. individualism – I remember reading an article, written by a boomer, that said that the bumper sticker for Gen-Xers would be that “They’d rather be fishing…alone”. Perhaps our individualism is really seen through boomer eyes – the generation that founded itself upon social activism and political action. Perhaps our individualism is more “normal” than we think. However, if it is not to our advantage, maybe we need to act and communicate more cohesively, while not beating ourselves up over our tendency to be self-reliant. Maybe by standing outside society we can see its faults and problems and may even see a way to viable solutions. In a way, are we like a generation of Harry Potter’s — we’re living under the stairs, half-starved and overworked with our special talents despised and stifled by our “family”/society; except precious few of us get taken off to “Hogwarts” to get trained and have our talents blossom (and end up saving the world and our friends from evil). However, Harry, even without Hogwarts, has a much firmer grasp on reality and is sharper and more perceptive than the decadent, economically bloated and self-centered Dursleys. Sorry for the length of post.
@susan – thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that Gen X needs to “spin our benefits” more often. We are great at marketing as individuals, but as a group we have never really done that well. I like your analogy to Harry!