Reasonable People Disagree about the Post-Gen X, Pre-Millennial Generation
Meet Generation Xennial (because no one uses Generation Y), born between 1979 and 1983. Did that timing help or hurt this micro-demographic?
Between Generation X and the Millennials, there’s a group of people currently in their late 20s and early 30s who don’t identify with either label. We call them the Xennials—a micro-generation that serves as a bridge between the disaffection of Gen X and the blithe optimism of Millennials. But why aren’t they as pissed off as Gen X or as confident as Millennials? Are they luckier than both the preceding and following generations? Or did they get screwed that much harder, thanks to a unique combination of developmental milestones and world events? Our authors, born on either end of the four-year-window, disagree.
Glad to be a Xennial
by Sarah Stankorb
I remember once claiming I was a Gen Xer, like my older brother.
“No,” he told me, rolling his eyes. “You’re… [weary sigh] something else.”
Evidently, I am a generational misfit.
I was born in 1980. According to some sources, this makes me a Gen Xer. According to others, I’m a Millennial. That makes me what then, a Xennial? I take online quizzes, like Pew Research Center’s “How Millennial Are You?”, and land dead between Gen X and Millennial due to my personal habits, body piercings, and so many more reasons.
Like many who lie between Generation X and Millennial, born roughly between the tail-end of the Carter administration and the ascendency of the Reagan Revolution, I often found myself wanting to identify with one category or the other. But I would argue that being at that cusp has offered better (if not always excellent) fortune to Xennials than what’s experienced by the generations on either side of our birth years.
Despite having hit our adult milestones in the 2000s—a historically shitty decade matched with our twenties, a notoriously rough patch in personal development—we landed in a fleeting sweet spot before the Recession that plagued Millennials’ launch. Yet we were still young enough that when the market crashed, we hadn’t yet invested much and didn’t lose as many homes or as much in retirement savings, unlike many Gen Xers, We at least had a chance to either get jobs or go to college as young adults, then attain more serious jobs, quit them, get other jobs, and find ourselves just a little before the economy truly tanked.
In the United States, our micro-generation attended much of secondary school in a pre-Columbine era. September 11 was formative for us—pivotal in personal and political ways—but much of our childhoods were spared the dark shadow cast by tragedy and war.
Our meager but meaningful cultural touchstones were often deemed unprofitable enough to be ignored. Consider Empire Records, which failed in the box office, but developed a cult following in our micro-gen. Or the amazing but low-rated My So-Called Life—a show I hand-wrote letters petitioning ABC to save—which lent us our only other recent moniker, Generation Catalano, after Jared Leto’s troubled dreamboat character. My Goth friends painted their nails black and sourced their drab duds from thrift stores, before Hot Topic appeared in our malls. Our teenage subcultures still felt organic and intimate and not immediately co-opted as moneymaking opportunities.
As listicles like this one note, those of us born in the fuzzy borderland between Gen X and Millennial are old enough to have logged in to our first email addresses in college. We use social media but can remember living life without it. The internet was not a part of our childhoods, but computers existed and there was something special about the opportunity to use one.
Sexting wasn’t part of our adolescence. Many Xennials didn’t get cell phones until our twenties (at which point, many friends told me, their Millennial younger siblings already had them). It isn’t a novelty to ask Siri a question, but we have some ability, or at least a latent space in our brains, to unplug. Technology unfolded around us, but we got to ease into it during that brief period before it became ubiquitous.
When I was a young teen, I desperately wanted to be a Gen Xer like my brother, with all their ultra-chill, above-it-all, despondent counterculture. (Of course, wanting to be counterculture makes you anything but.) With the rise of Millennials and the sheer tonnage of articles on their character, their trophies, their optimism, their creativity—a little part of me hoped I could consider myself a Millennial, to be so shiny, so new. But the label fit about as comfortably as a pair of skinny jeans.
Still, I’d argue that those of us in between X and Millennial got some of the best of both worlds; we lucked out on history’s unwind. We adapted easily to technological advances but weren’t as beholden to them as our juniors. We were by no means immune to the Recession, but many of us were able to duck its heftiest blows.
It’s an accident of birth. I’ve always wanted to call myself something, to know for whom I sing when I’m “talkin’ bout my generation.” If I take it down to the micro-gen, I see that I’m lucky. We were born in the quiet break between two generational moments. Between the out-all-night dark horse Gen Xers and the-sunny-still-somehow-optimistic Millennial, there we were. We were born at dawn.
Sarah Stankorb (b. 1980) is a contributing writer for CNNMoney and GOOD. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, Kiwi, Babble, Geez, and The Morning News.
Bah! We Xennials are a Sad, Sorry Lot
by Jed Oelbaum
I remember looking back on the early Clinton years, that prosperous era of my childhood, and laughing; it all seemed so mild, so antic and fraught. What was that whole grunge thing about, anyway? What were they so sad about? Kurt Cobain died when I was only 10. While his death would cast a dismal, raspy spell over the next decade of popular music, and I certainly did my time as an acolyte of dour rock, to me, Cobain and everything that went along with him were always history. From before my time.
The official cultural pendulum swung right by a chunk of us that hit the turn of the century in our late teens or early 20s, demarcating Generation X, the last cohort to really enjoy the fruits of the golden age of American prosperity, and the Millennials, who never even knew it in the first place. We “Xennials,” born somewhere in between Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, make up an unclaimed, misfit micro-generation, the poor suckers in the middle—first given a sweet taste of the good life, and then kicked in the face.
Our political coming of age, the first decade of the aughts, was a scathing corridor of division, total war politics, karmic letdowns, and Dick Cheney, begetting a cynicism that made the ennui of the 90s look like kitty-petting time in marshmallow land. I mean, cool war in Iraq you guys, but let me tell you a little something about WMDs and Abu Ghraib. From Bush v. Gore, (the first voting experience for many Xennials) to Sarah Palin, insult piled on injury, until when the entire economy broke and we all got fired, in a sense it wasn’t even so shocking—it figured, somehow.
Globalization, deregulation, outsourcing, tapering real wages—the pieces were all in place for decades before the reality fully dawned. This time it was different. The Great Recession not only brought us “staycations” and the end of free checking accounts, but also shocked us into a new normal, a smaller world where we‘d have to get used to less, corporations were people, and working your ass off became a status symbol. The combination of our loan burdens, job losses, and residual disbelief that this could actually be happening caused Xennials to lose more of their savings during this period than any other group (save for some younger Gen Xers). Wily Millennials, on the other hand, who grew up on the mean streets of late-era American capitalism and learned how to make stick soup at a young age, are doing just fine. As Xennials’ dreams of starting families or owning homes drift further and further out of sight, one thing seems clear: our normal is anachronistic and futile, and like a phantom limb, we’ll always feel the absence of these signifiers of success and adulthood that were driven into our heads as children. Meanwhile, Millennials made moving back in with mom and dad trendy.
And none of this even touches on the horrific landscape of popular culture we endured through our teens, arguably the most important time in a person’s life for getting way too into bands and quoting movies ad nauseam—our whole zeitgeist was tacky and directionless. Britney and the boy bands. American Pie and the Scary Movie franchise. Korn was a pretty big thing, along with Limp Bizkit and Sugar Ray. It was a corny, feckless, sugary period, framed on either end by teen dramas My So-Called Life and Dawson’s Creek, each its own particular soapy dreck. And somehow, throughout all of this, from the heyday of Gen-X angst to the bright-eyed Millennial morning, Green Day, those mewling punks turned song-and-dance men, remained continuously popular. Remember hearing “Time of Your Life” constantly? Ugh.
On an earlier internet, Xennials pushed the limits of our new media platforms. We personalized Friendster pages, wrung our hands over “oversharing,” and stole music like there was no tomorrow. Finally, in a move that marked the end of all culture as a temporal phenomenon, preceding the genre-less, post-modern free-for-all that young people have since enjoyed, greedy Xennials used up all the retro; in 2004, VH1 aired “I Love the 90s”—only four years after the decade’s end. At the same time, Nirvana was already playing on classic rock stations and statues of Tupac were being erected around the world.
We’re a weird brood of ugly ducks, us Xennials—too young for Caleco, too old for Uniqlo—we can’t live without our smartphones, but our clumsy hands still type better on a qwerty keyboard than a touchscreen. We’re not the future; we no longer demographically matter, and yet we haven’t become the establishment; we have no savings, and never made it to middle class. We were never very cool. Us Xennials are a sad, cynical, sorry lot. Or maybe it’s just me.
Jed Oelbaum (b. 1983) is an editor at GOOD. Previously he worked for Heeb Magazine. He has always been a cat enthusiast and chronic malcontent.