Are We Creating Another Generation X?

Generation X was largely defined by failing institutions, shared cultural experiences and change. Is history repeating itself?

ell your story…this is how Medium prompts you to start writing, but this isn’t a story about me. This is a story about Generation X and how the events that shaped this generation, of which I am a member, are at play again and how a post-Millennial generation is going to completely reshape the world.

First, let’s cover the basics. Generation X (Gen-X) is a small generation between Baby Boomers and Millennials, comprised of people born between 1964(ish) and 1981 (we’ll leave Xennials out of the discussion). For those in sales and marketing, Millennials are the ‘generation of the moment’ due to their massive size. These are people born between 1981 and around 1996, although I’d wager it goes even a little further to 1998 and the peak of the dot-com boom.

I’m not sure if Pew, Buzzfeed or CBSN ignored Gen-X, but this is pretty typical.

Gen-Z or Post-Millennials are the generation after Millennials. No one agrees yet on the dates since we’re in the midst of this generation and the subsequent one, but I believe they were born around 1998 through to the early 2010s with possibly the 2016 US election and Brexit marking the end. Currently, they would span just entering the workforce to children, largely impacted by the events of the 2000s through now.

Chart from “Catching some Zs” — https://factsandtrends.net/2017/09/29/genz-single-page/

While the world has forgotten about Gen-X, it’s worth revisiting the events that shaped them because these forces appear to be in play again.

Despite the popular Gen-Z moniker, I’m going to refer to this generation ‘Gen-X2’ as it looks like they are shaping up to be the spiritual successors of Gen-X, but with more power to change and shape the world around them.

Fair warning: If you are a member of Gen-X or Gen-X2 and either hate the moniker or disagree because your experiences are different, fair point! When writing about generational issues, broad assumptions work best, so my apologies.

Institutional Collapse

Institutions loom large as the guiding ideals and foundations of every generation. They are sometimes the yardstick by which we measure success or the standards by which we cling. As children, Gen-Xers looked to institutions with a trust that was passed down from our parents and society.

Time and again, Gen-X saw these institutions fail, leaving us with disappointment and bewilderment. These collapses led Gen-X to have a general mistrust of everything.

Major examples of Institutional Collapse take place from 4 years through 23 years after Gen-X starts (1964):

  • Marriage/Family — the highest divorce rate in the US occurred while Gen-X were children, leading to the term ‘latchkey kid’
  • Government/War —the Vietnam War stalemate, President Nixon’s resignation, Cold War (and nuclear destruction), Iran-Contra Hearing, defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Religion — Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was widely reported on starting in the 1980s
  • Sex — The AIDS epidemic where even our own bodies betrayed us
  • Economy/Jobs — a college degree was no longer a guarantee of a good job, Black Monday

Not all was lost for Gen-X. We evolved through having low expectations to realizing that we could make a difference. Gen-X has helped drive positive social initiatives, like driving the divorce rate down and ushering in same-sex marriage. Love Wins was largely supported by Gen-X lawyers and plaintiffs. Gen-X has gone from slackers to initiators of change.

Gen-X2 still sees similar Institutional Collapse from 3 years through 20 years after their generation starts (1998):

  • Government — 9/11, War in Afghanistan ending in a ‘stalemate’, Edward Snowden, school shootings, Russian election interference and the Mueller investigation, the 2019 government shutdown
  • Banking/Jobs — The Financial Crisis of 2008, risk of job displacement with AI and digital, retail closings, Gig Economy
  • Media/News — navigating false narratives and propaganda
  • Technology — yes, this is an institution to Gen-X2, look to Facebook/Cambridge Analytica and take your pick of any convenience vs. digital privacy debate, hackers

It is almost uncanny how the similarities are playing out. There are shared themes of fallen trust and disappointment for each generation.

Consider the Iran-Contra Hearings. For Gen-X, we saw the US government’s secrets and lies on display for the entire country. Oliver North’s assertion of a ‘neat idea’ behind closed doors could be compared to Edward Snowden’s reveal of NSA surveillance and the subsequent fallout of trust.

Can you tell if Oliver North or Edward Snowden said this?

“Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen, from the violations of and encroachments of adversaries.”

Even the current Gig Economy harkens back to the efforts by Gen-X to simply find work in a slow job market. Skilled Gen-X workers had to find whatever jobs they could, at least until the technology came along in the workplace (more on that below). Today, technology empowers skilled Gen-X2 workers to find short-term work in their field and get paid, with both groups struggling.

While these broad themes influence both generations, not everything is the same. Perhaps the biggest institutional improvement for Gen-X2 is that families are both diverse and stable, empowering them with the support structures to make real, impactful changes. Gen-X2 needs to be deft in navigating the complexities of Institutional Collapse and stand on their strong familial foundations to hold people and systems accountable.

You can already hear the challenging questions being asked against existing institutions and the reaction against it (ie. the case for sweeping social changes and government reform vs. the nostalgia of “Make America Great Again”). Specifically, you can see it and hear it in the voices of the teenage activists of the Parkland High School shooting (some of the earliest Gen-X2ers).

If there is one thing Institutional Collapse builds back up, it is challenging questions by the young.

2 Minutes Until Midnight (aka. The Sky is Falling)

Instead of looking to the skies for a threat as Gen-X did, Gen-X2 looks to their screens as nation-states and hackers launch digital attacks with not only security breaches but misinformation. Gen-X2 fears their schools as school shootings continue (at least in the US) and while they might be looking to the skies for problems, it is more to fear climate change than a nuclear threat (although, that looks to be changing for the worse with US-Russia nuclear relations).

As the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board prepared for its first set of Doomsday Clock discussions this fall, it began referring to the current world security situation as a “new abnormal.” This new abnormal is a pernicious and dangerous departure from the time when the United States sought a leadership role in designing and supporting global agreements that advanced a safer and healthier planet. The new abnormal describes a moment in which fact is becoming indistinguishable from fiction, undermining our very abilities to develop and apply solutions to the big problems of our time.
— from the 2019 Doomsday Clock Statement
Rachel Bronson, PhD President & CEO

All of these abnormalities, caused something interesting to happen the week of January 21, 2019, when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock to still 2 minutes until midnight. It moved here in 2018, the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, but the group felt this was an important moment to call attention to the chaos in the world.

Image from The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — https://thebulletin.org/

The closest Gen-X ever got was 3 minutes to midnight, but if you look at the all the times the clock moved, you see similarities between the generations. In 1972, right in the middle of Gen-X, the clock stood at 12 minutes due to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Treaty. From there, it ticked closer in 1984 due to rising US-Russia tensions until finally moving back away in 1988, just as another generation was coming in. Gen-X lived under fear of nuclear threat throughout their childhood (go watch The Day After if you need convincing).

Modified chart from Wikipedia’s Doomsday Clock

In 1998, potentially right around the time Gen-X2 starts, the clock stood at 9 minutes to midnight, but moved to 7 minutes by 2002, right after 9/11. While Gen-X2 was largely too young for that, the repercussions of terrorism lasted through to the start of their generation with the war on terrorism.

If we continue to track the clock around Gen-X2’s childhood, it ticks closer and closer to midnight. In 2007, it moved to 5 minutes as Putin threatened to pull out of the Cold War Treaty. Symbolically, it moved back 6 minutes in 2010 as things got better between the US and Russia, but by 2012, moved closer to 5 minutes and now it sits at 2 minutes.

If the trend holds, we might sit at 2 minutes for several years, followed by sweeping movements away again (an era of peace and stability).

Throughout the childhoods of both generations, we are being told the end is near.

A Captive Audience

Nothing distracts better from doom and gloom like entertainment and, as advertisers would find out, new technology meant new ways to reach young Gen-Xers.

Latchkey kids ruled the landscape in the 1980s and turned to television to raise them. Afternoons and Saturday mornings, we would bask in the soft blue glow of cartoons, puppets, and most importantly, commercials.

Before advertisers and service providers stopped caring about Gen-X (ie. today, refer to above graphic), they developed entire television shows to sell toys (He-Man, Transformers, My Little Pony) and we all bought in. No matter your childhood preference , you could find it on TV and then guilt your parents into buying the toy (or oddly enough, the cereal).

The rise of cable networks in the 1980s and early 1990s represented a massive opportunity for advertisers, including the launch of entire channels dedicated to advertising (QVC, Home Shopping Network) and even cleverly disguised advertising as entertainment (music videos on MTV). Gen-X couldn’t get away from being marketed to no matter where they looked as advertising became pop culture.

Gen-X, we all felt this way for MTV

Advertising has enjoyed a massive resurgence and reinvention thanks largely to the invention of the smartphone (iPhone, 2007) and the app economy. For Gen-X, commercials on television were the price you paid for being entertained. For Gen-X2, ads in your apps and your data are the price you pay not only for being entertained, but also for using social media or consuming services.

While Gen-X sat through MTV and spent our money on music and pop culture as a result, Gen-X2 is playing games like Fortnite and spending money on micro-transactions. These new changes are financially painful as Gen-X2 children are even being targeted by some tech firms and not all parents are educated on the risks.

Older Gen-X2ers are currently in the throes of making decisions whether or not the new targeted mechanisms are worth the services they are consuming. In some cases, they may choose to actively participate by following brands in exchange of convenience and experiences. With an individual’s data becoming valuable, trust is once again at the forefront.

“The citizens will divide between those who prefer convenience and those who prefer privacy.”
Niels Ole Finnemann

I’d like to believe that Gen-X is now able to get to the messaging underneath the advertisements without cynicism as many companies they work for are adopting diversity, inclusion and green programs. Gen-X2 has more complexities to navigate as data privacy becomes a daily battleground. They will need to make decisions on convenience and value against their rights in a way Gen-X never had to.

A New Hope, But First…

Despite the lack of attention many Gen-Xers received from our families and being constantly beaten down with doom, our cultural experiences united us and we came out stronger and more ready to change the status quo. This was no small miracle from the generation that was fed hope and wonder through direct marketing and hype, only to be collectively scarred during the disaster that ensued.

In some ways, Challenger was Gen-X’s defining moment. Consider the direct marketing done to generate excitement for the stagnant space program. I remember where I was for the Challenger disaster, looking to my teachers for answers as they quickly exited the room, gathered in the hall, and cried. When they came back, there were no answers. Obviously, rockets are dangerous, but we later found out that NASA knew about the very specific risks involved and continued with the mission anyway.

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
— Ronald Reagan

Gen-X certainly won’t forget them. The string of events surrounding Challenger and all the previously mentioned Institutional Collapse were the catalysts for Gen-X to see that no one with authority could be trusted and that it was up to us to change things for the better.

And so, we found hope lived in our living rooms as we watched television and movies. While the hope given to Gen-X through television and movies could certainly be compared to the messages of hope and friendship in Harry Potter, the breadth and diversity of Gen-X2’s culture is more broad and complex than it was during the 1980s as new dark forces weigh on their minds.

Harry Potter lives the life of a Gen-Xer every year and just when he thinks he’s done, he comes back to this (side note: JK Rowling is a Gen-Xer)

While 9/11 impacted the Millennials as children and teenagers, there is a darker cultural movement for Gen-X2. More than a single event or even various Institutional Collapses, it is a steady stream of news around nationalism and hate.

For context, we have to go back to the 1980s when television and movies brought a renewed celebration of America and democracy to Gen-X. Movies like Rocky and Olympic athletes like Mary Lou Retton and the US Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” fueled this sentiment. Live Aid, We are the World, and Hands across America built a real hope, inclusion, and patriotism, once you got past the marketing.

For Gen-X2, there is a movement of nationalism that mirrors that 1980s sense of American patriotism, but is driven by fear of change and ‘the other’. From radical white nationalism to fears of immigration and the caging of children, these images and stories are shaping Gen-X2's opinion of their older generations and institutions. They are finding hope in the same place Gen-X did, television and movies.

Gen-X2 had entire channels dedicated to helping them to grow up with a sense of inclusion, diversity, and hope (Nick Jr., Noggin, Disney Jr., and the perennial PBS). Shows like Dora the Explorer, Diego, Doc McStuffins and movies like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse show a diverse set of characters that more closely mirror the real world.

How can Gen-X2 reconcile the diversity they are seeing on the screen with the hate around them?

The battles that will shape Gen-X2’s opinions will take place in the context of entertainment, but be reinforced in their homes. While divorce made Gen-X a self-made generation, a stronger family unit means that today’s parents have more sway over their Gen-X2 children. This can allow for the perpetuation of both hope and hate.

It is up to parents to help shape the opinions of the children who will change the world.

It is worth noting that nationalism and these fearful movements certainly aren’t localized to America (Brexit and the Syrian refugees come to mind). With Gen-X2 primed to change the world, this might be nationalism’s last hurrah before globalism and hope takes back over.

The Pace of Technology

There can be no doubt that Gen-X made technology mainstream. Gen-X was the last generation to use the rotary phone, an invention largely unchanged for a century. That symbol represents the technological upheaval that Gen-X witnessed. Gen-X’s childhood was littered with gadgets that gave us personalization and empowered us to connect, be entertained and create.

Consider the sheer breadth of technology that rose during Gen-X’s youth:
Personal calculators, Walk-mans, home and portable video game consoles, personal computers, mobile phones, video recording (VCRs), camcorders, cassettes, and CDs.

I don’t have dysentery, but thanks for asking

The result has been Gen-X being the early adopters of technology. Not only did Gen-X usher in technology into business through the formation of IT departments, but Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Elon Musk (The Boring Company), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Alphabet) are all Gen-Xers.

Gen-X2 has a different relationship with technology. New devices have consolidated much of the functionality of Gen-X’s including music, phones, and video games. Barring real life activities, everything Gen-X2 could want is on whatever form factor screen size they pick.

Just as Gen-X used video games to figure out how to control technology, Gen-X2 has the opportunity to do the same.

As Gen-X entered the workforce, technology was used to digitize processes and make things better. The telephone, fax machine, PCs and servers were all used in new ways to do the same old things. The difference now is that Gen-X2 will use technology to fix things.

Technology’s role in organizing protests, such as we saw with The Arab Spring, was amazing. Gen-X2 will take it further. They will use new technologies to reform governments and build completely new business models. As Gen-X had to learn to become digital as the internet developed, Gen-X2 will have to learn how to deal with massive datasets, artificial intelligence, privacy and truly ubiquitous connectivity (5G).

This is the Way the World Ends

Gen-X2 won’t end the world, but they are going to fix what they see as broken, whatever that might be. I am convinced that those institutions that Gen-X has chipped away at will be completely transformed and replaced over the next few decades in ways we can’t even imagine.

It can be hard to quantify, but it certainly feels like Gen-X2 is already looking at the world with a spirit of change, at least I see it with my own kids and their friends. The question “Why” has new meaning today as Gen-X2 has the ability to not only answer the question but come up with real answers.

And like any good sequel, Gen-X2 is poised to surpass the original.

About Matthew Sekol:

Matthew Sekol has built a career on technology, backed by a degree from Penn State in English. With a mix of creativity and a passion for computers, he has a unique perspective on life, business, and technology.

This post was largely influenced by my own experiences and what I see in my children and their friends. It was sparked by a friendly conversation with some co-workers.

English major working in technology | dad | geek | runner | writer All writings are my own opinion!