The New York Times Styles desk put out a dizzyingly elaborate package of Generation X–themed content today, in a tribute to the formative experiences of middle-aged people who nobody really cares about. Nor should anyone! Middle-aged people are boring and generations are fictitious, except for the specifics of how a particular age cohort’s life cycle coincided with the economic cycle (or with wars, back when wars were for everyone), and or maybe also which dumb asshole the older people who controlled the world had decided to make president, without your say-so.
Generation X was always a non-generation, the people born after postwar prosperity and fecundity had gone on the downslide. The Baby Boomers were real because there were so many of them, and because they grew up in a flourishing economy. The people who came afterward were just…people. Commerce and pop culture (which was commerce) didn’t particularly track and target them, because they weren’t a particular target, except inasmuch as at one time they were passing through the marketing band known as “youth.” But the Baby Boom was loath to exit that marketing band itself, and—but here come the abstractions and generalities again. Enough!
Alex Williams wrote an essay for the Times package about the misdefined or undefined experience of this generation, the reading of which generated some sort of infinite stack of contradictions for a reader in the right age bracket, because reading unpersuasive attempts to define the experience of this generation, while being acutely aware of the fictiveness and inaccuracy of those attempts, was perhaps the only real defining cultural experience of the era.
And so Williams wrote:
We don’t even have exclusive rights to our own name. Generation X was the title of 1964 book about mod-era British teenagers, a punk band from the 1970s featuring Billy Idol and satirical novel usually mistaken as a sociological treatise by Douglas Coupland — all boomers.
Which—OK, this was, in its categorical wrongness, the perfect summary of the ersatz generational experience. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland, was the one incontestable constituent of Generation X. It started the whole thing. Writing Douglas Coupland’s Generation X out of Generation X is like writing Queen Victoria out of the Victorian Era. But the Victorian Era was an era of rapid technological and industrial advancement, and she just sat around being queen without designing a single railway engine—nope. It’s her era. Generation X is Generation X.
Generation X was huge, in its time. The English tutor who lived downstairs from me in college, a delightful man who would finish his Ph.D. studies on Chaucer and then go into the business world because the academic job market was already hopeless, convened a book group for people to read and discuss it. The plot was about, I barely remember, alienated young adults dealing with their interrelationships and entry to adult life, but all the plot stuff happened in between thick outer margins packed with notes and captions and visual bits, a printed-on-paper rehearsal for the coming future when everyone’s brains and attention would be broken by feeds and tabs. A lot of the book, margins and text both, dealt with the belief of the characters, who were approximately Douglas Coupland’s age, that they were living in a world built for other people, and that attention—more than a quarter-century later, I suddenly see this particular prophetic implication come fully into focus—would always be somewhere else.
If there was any question about the boundaries of the Generation X generation, it was whether someone like me, born a decade after Coupland, even fit into it. The marketing industry, and the press that existed to reify the marketing industry, briefly experimented with new generational slices but quickly decided people my age counted. The goal was to put a brand on youth culture, after all, and so already someone my age, who was reading the book, was more salient and valuable than the person who had written the book. Even though the book was about being that person’s age, not my age. And now the marketers have kicked Douglas Coupland out of his own generation, and the New York Times is calling him a Baby Boomer.
It was inevitable. The second definitive thing about Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, besides how important it was, is how little evidence survives of how important it was. It has become the essential landmark of the Internet Event Horizon, the gap between those things that were around to be incorporated in real time into the eternal present of the World Wide Web, and those pre-Web things that were old enough that the World Wide Web reached back and made note of them for their nostalgia value. Like 120 Minutes or Operation Just Cause, it was lost to the illusion that if something mattered, the internet would know about it.
Generation X, with its oversized presence and invitation to self-identification, was exactly the sort of thing that would have dominated online culture. It just missed out on the timing.