Generation X Revisited

Voice Card  -  Volume 28  -  Larry Card Number 1  -  Wed, Apr 28, 1993 2:21 PM

20-Something: Those in Generation X gripe about having to live in the shadows.

Amy Harmon, LA Times

Their names are Oblivious Shadow, Agnostic w/o a Cause, Will Work for Pay, and Spent the 60's on the Slip and Slide. Their favorite topics include "Home Sweet Shoebox", "The Revolting Yuppie Excess I Witnessed Today," and that perennial favorite, "Wage-slave, Slacker, or What." For nearly a year now, they've been ragging on baby boomers and commiserating over their own putative impoverishment. They come from all over the country. Most of them have never met.

Welcome to the Generation X forum on the Well, an electronic bulletin board founded by aging hippies and now home to a rotating brigade of 20-somethings who use it to rage at, marvel over, and ridicule the "media virus" that has suddenly sprung up around them.

After decades of obsessing over the ubiquitous baby boomers, America has discovered that generation that grew up in their shadows. But the baby busters, as they have been called, are already sick of their newfound notoriety. They've been touted on magazine covers as an untapped market, and pictured on television as embittered slackers, at once alienated from and deprived of the American Dream.

Boomers are not, of course, the first to fret, "What's the matter with kids today?" And lately, the urge to account for the odd fashions and precarious finances of their offspring has been on the rise. Business Week, NBC, U.S. News and World Report, Advertising Age, the New Republic, the Atlantic, and the Economist have all weighed in on such questions over the past few months.

"I hate this press crap," groused a posting by Clay Graham, 25, who goes by the pseudonym "cyber23" on the conference. "I wish threy would just decide genX is dead."

But to marketers, Generation X is anything but dead. The 46 million young adults born between 1964 and 1975 comprise an estimated $125 billion market, whether they like it or not. Not surprisingly, many insist that that the feverish effort to analyze them, pigeonhole them, and convert them to better consumers falls considerably wide of the mark.

"I don't buy things," says Scott Lamorte, 24, "especially if they 're advertised."

Lamorte is a regular on the GenX board, which takes it name from the title of Douglas Coupland's 1991 book on the new generation. Among the most popular of the Well's 200 discussion groups, the board offers an unguarded look how these children of television, divorce, and downward mobility see themselves, their prospects, and the boomers who try to sum them up. X'ers may be poor, but the Well isn't free. Like everyone else on the system, they have personal computers, modems, and the wherewithal to pay $15 a month plus $2 an hour. But even those who possess the high tech basics of the 1990's are often employed in the part-time, no benefits pattern that has plagued this decade's colege grads.

The chorus of X'ers whose voices bounce around the Well isn't a perfect proxy for the entire generation, but it is in many ways typical. The GenX conferees are underpaid, cynical, and computer literate, and unlike many other computer forums, this one has as many women as men. Both sexes are fond of complaining.

"No one is listening to me," writes Cysna Bonorris, 27, a couple of weeks after two of her classes at San Francisco State University were cancelled by budget cuts. "Instead, they listen to the baby boomers, who are more numerous, and what do the baby boomers say? In the 60's they said 'no more war.' In the 60's the boomers had idealism and high hopes. But NOW, now when I really need them to speak out because no one will listen to me, now they say: 'I have a HOUSE. For god's sake, don't raise property taxes. Prop 13 was a GREAT idea. Yeah."

But, while the X'ers gripes against their elders sound like echoes of generations gone-by, there are a few which seem born solely of years spent in the boomers wake.

One complaint is the wake's size. The 69 million baby boomers are the largest generation of Americans ever born in the span of 19 years, making harder for X'ers to compete. Moans Jeffrey McManus, 27, a San Franciscan who helped to start the GenX board last summer: "They're everywhere. Even if some of them eventually die off, there'll still be enough of them clinging to the edge to keep us out."

Self-righteousness is another. Inheriting the biggest public debt in history would be bad enough, but when the people who racked it up are the same ones who proclaimed "All you need is love," X'ers say their much remarked cynicism is understandable.

It was when Bonorris was being ignored over on the Well's "Beatles" board last August that the idea for the GenX conference came to her. After conferring with Mcmanu, who had just finished Coupland's book, and ditched his last low-paying "McJob," that they decided to host a conference for GenX'ers.

The Well X'er populace quickly found its way to the new forum, anxious to commiserate over their bleak employment prospects and indulge in their own form of nostalgia. Who says the X'ers have no common culture? As cyber23 puts it: "Where else can you go and talk about who's better, Wilma or Betty?" That's right, the Flintstones.

Some of this is as shallow as it sounds, but it also reflects the X'ers chronic skepticism toward older people, history and themselves. Who cares where you were when JFK was shot? The critical question on the GenX board - one that elicited more than 200 responses since it was posted last August - is "Where were you when you first heard 'Rock Lobster'?" (referring to the 1979 song by the B-52s).