Expanded version of my paper on Generation X for ‘Douglas Coupland and the Art of the “Extreme Present”’

As I noted in my end-of-year post, ‘What I Did in 2020: A Brief Cultural Review’, more reflections on Generation X (1991) would follow and here they are in the form of an expanded version of my paper for the online conference, ‘Douglas Coupland and the Art of the “Extreme Present”’, 23-24 April 2021. This paper has got a sociological dimension that relates to a science-fictional perspective. Generation X is not SF in the same way that Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Generation A (2009) are (I’m not going to bother inserting ‘arguably’ in this statement; from my pov these books are SF). However, Generation X – i.e. the actual generation of people born in the 60s and 70s, including myself – is inherently science-fictional in the negative sense that we were brought up to expect a (millennial) future that has never quite materialised. The cultural markers of this expectation, such as Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the comic 2000AD (1977-) – which I’ve blogged about in three instalments here, here and here – and even my teenage obsession, Blake’s 7, remain more futuristic than the dull dystopian mundane realities of 2021. Obviously, we’re not the only generation who have been swindled out of their futures and we’re less than innocent with respect to our successors – I try and touch on some of that in what follows (although there is still more to write before I get it fully into the shape I want).

‘All Happinesses Are Sterile; All Sadnesses Go Unpitied’: A Gen Xer Looks Back on Generation X

Nick Hubble

In February 2020, I reread Generation X for the first time since the 1990s, tweeting as I went, and then forgot about it until December, when looking back on the year I realised that, despite being nearly thirty years old, it was one of the texts I’d read recently that spoke most strongly to my experience of the Covid pandemic. This was due to its discussion of ‘Survivulousness’ – ‘the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth’ (Coupland 69) – which is a familiar concept from cosy catastrophes such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), a novel which is referenced in both Generation X (58) and Girlfriend in a Coma. Both of these novels, and other texts by Coupland, evoke a strong sense of waiting for the end of the world, which is overdetermined; in Generation X the end is imagined as a nuclear bomb, in Girlfriend in a Coma (as far as I recall) it’s more generally connected to the end of meaning, in Generation A the focus is more directly on climate change. There is a tension between whether this end is the actual end of the world or simply the end of the world as we know it. The latter is part and parcel of the continual process of change that characterises the ‘accelerated culture’ that we live in, but it is always haunted by the former. Roberts (2020) suggests that the real anxiety is that because we are unable to control the end, we are unable to control the frame which gives meaning to our lives. Therefore, we like stories of the end (all that post-apocalyptic disaster fiction like The Road, which is really just a comfort read) because the clock gets stopped on a society we understand and our life has meaning within that frame. I think Coupland resists this kind of narrative. Generation X and much of his other fiction is about breaking that frame and taking the risk that our lives might not be easily understandable; that we might die outside meaning but that’s the price we pay for living. Or, to put it the other way round, the sterility of happiness and unpitied sadness are the price we pay for the ‘security’ of stable lives within a very rigid frame of meaning.

I wrote a short piece on rereading Generation X in a pandemic year for the online magazine Strange Horizons’ ‘2020 in Review’ round-up. Here, I implied straightforward identification on my part with Coupland’s protagonists on the grounds that ‘I grew up with a completely different worldview to my parents and did my share of McJobs in the 1980s [or, leastways the 80s British equivalents: bingo hall cashier, Travellers’ Fare retail assistant, tender clerk etc]’. However, the truth is more complicated than this because, apart from the fact that Andy, Dag, and Claire still appear impossibly glamorous to my postwar-Britain-conditioned sensibility, I’ve never really identified as being a member of Generation X until very recently when it finally dawned on me that, born as I was in 1965, being Gen X (which Wikipedia categorises as the generation born between 1965-1980, despite earlier classifications having it as 1961-1981) is the only thing that stands between me and being a boomer. That has seemed increasingly important in the changed political context following the global financial crash in 2008 and, more recently, the EU referendum result, the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the 2019 landslide election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. However, if I look back to the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t see boomers as ‘the other’; in fact, I don’t even think I had encountered the term beyond being aware of the fact of the existence of an historical ‘baby boom’ following WW2. To the extent that I thought about that generation at all, it was from a European perspective of ‘the 1968 generation’ that I viewed as politically radical and in some respects even revolutionary. In contrast, ‘Generation X’ seemed to be a term taken from market research rather than political analysis: a consumer-orientated soft-cultural product of the media, coinciding with phenomena such as the migration of ‘cult fiction’ from book shops into Virgin Megastores.

In any case, the ‘others’ in Generation X are not even boomers but yuppies and in 1980s Britain we did know what yuppies were: Tories and careerists who epitomised all that was wrong with Thatcherism. What I didn’t have was any sort of contextual sense of yuppies as a product of the counterculture, such as Dag’s former boss, Martin, who ‘like most embittered ex-hippies, is a yuppie’ (Coupland 25), and therefore I just didn’t understand that aspect of the novel at all. It just seemed very apolitical to me; even if you take into account Dag’s propensity to vandalise cars, it is very difficult to read any class politics into the text. In Britain, Andy and Claire would have been in the Labour Party and contributed to the 1997 Labour landslide which ended 18 years of Tory rule. Ironically, the failings of the resulting Blair Government – a legacy of social inequality, privatisation of public services, and neo-imperial military intervention – would eventually be related to a British Generation X, who came to be seen in similar light to the yuppies in Generation X (see e.g. Kennedy 2018).

By the point in the late 1990s that I got around to reading the novel, I was already a homeowner, which, Andy tells us, ‘has to be the kiss of death, personality wise’ (Coupland 166). I enjoyed the novel as a kind of Salingeresque fable but it seemed to relate to a period of life I’d moved on from. In other words, I missed out on any sort of positive sense of recognition from reading Generation X in the 1990s. It was only on reading Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats (2018) that I realised that not only were we Gen Xers a thing but also that we were on the wrong side of a cultural divide between ‘two sets of essentially well-intentioned people who share causes in common but are finding it increasingly difficult to communicate’ (187). As Kennedy explains:

Often, broadsheet cultural analysis positions Britain’s great cultural divide as a scission between baby boomers and millennials, but this elides the significant role of Generation X, those who came of age more or less in time for at least part of acid house and were on their second or third General Election when Blair smarmed his way into Downing Street. Many of the swing voters who backed New Labour, no doubt, were born in the Forties and Fifties, but the cultural pulse of Cool Britannia was supplied by a group who came into the world sometime between the Beatles’ shift into psychedelia and the supposed Year Zero of punk, Generation X were the tastemakers of Cool Britannia, and many of their cultural preferences have survived, in various mutant forms, into a present that pitches them into a complex rivalry with their successors. The tastes of my generation – that nameless one whose early adulthood was contextualised by the ‘maturation’ of Blair into a dogmatic interventionist – and the one beneath it are often conflated, incorrectly, as part of this antagonism, and this is most commonly seen in the derision directed at ‘hipsters’. (190-1)

There was much for me to recognise in Kennedy’s account because I am in many ways typical of those he describes ‘who participated in the Poll Tax Riots [in Colchester rather than Central London in my case] and have clear memories of the Miners’ Strike’ (204). I have also got some Public Enemy LPs (CDs, even) and am nostalgic to some extent ‘for postwar social social democratic norms and their attendant culture’ (210). Moreover, I lived in Brighton – ‘the last citadel of Cool Britannia’ (189), which he focuses on – throughout the New Labour years. In fact, I arrived there in 1992 at a very early stage of the gentrification (which is one reason that we were just about able to buy a house) and only left in 2010, shortly after voting for Caroline Lucas of the Green Party as the MP for Brighton Pavilion. However, in other ways I don’t quite fit the model: I never bought a Vespa or any buy-to-let properties, I’m not especially grumpy or contrarian, and although I had originally been a Labour Party member, I left in 1996 because I was already unhappy with the general feel of what Blair was doing. However, I still voted for Labour until 2010 and I was very happy on the day after the 1997 election (which marked the end of 18 years of Tory misrule), when complete strangers were greeting each other with ‘isn’t it great’ on Brighton seafront. So, on the whole, I was part of that Gen X culture and therefore when reading Kennedy’s entertaining but effective critique, I suddenly found myself pondering in Mitchell-and-Webb style, ‘are we [Gen Xers] the baddies?

I have explained this at some length because it gives some political background on the context of my rereading of Generation X. The more immediate context though was that I was feeling depressed in February 2020 following an academic year that had so far been marked by ill health and floods wreaking chaos on my 400+ mile weekly commute (although the year would, of course, get worse). The prospect of another night in a Travelodge room overlooking Poundland, which is where I stay while at work, drove me impulsively to grab my fluorescent pink paperback edition of Generation X off my office book shelves (the remaining contents of which were later devastated during the long months of lockdown when, undetected, the water cooler on the floor above malfunctioned and systematically flooded my office). Despite initial scepticism that this was a good idea, I quickly found myself hooked and my (random) decision to tweet my re-reading intensified the experience and it became a retrospective exercise in positive identification. In short, if I had to carry the label of Gen X for the various reasons listed above then at least I was going to properly embrace the cultural identification which went with it and own it.

A bigger question, though, is why has generational analysis become more important politically and sociologically than formerly? In the 1990s, when analysis of Generation X became prominent within the media, Alex Ross dismissed focus on generational identity as ‘a fruitless project blending the principles of sociology and astrology’ (qtd Ortner 419). However, attitudes have changed. In ‘Generation X: A Critical Sociological Perspective’ (2017), Stephen Katz notes the move away from ‘the assumption that time-based and age-based experiences are interchangeable in life-course models of cohort trajectories’ (Katz 12): turning 30, 40 or 50 today doesn’t have the same significances and associations as in the 1950s or the 1970s (and certainly bears little comparison with pre-WW2 experience). This shift was driven by the size of the baby boom generation in the context of the specific postwar conditions in the industrial west: prosperity, new media and communication networks, rapid social change. As Katz explains, these developments didn’t just set the template for one generation but also established the parameters for subsequent generations:

The utopian promises of accessible education, social mobility, scientific progress, racial and gender equality, political rebellion, and technological innovation that accompanied the Baby Boomer life course, and spread beyond its location, created compelling expectations for future generations such that they would become forms of pre-destined generational consciousness. Thus Generation X grew into a lived generational space whose boundaries, experiences and possibilities have already been extended by the previous generation. (Katz 15)

The obvious problem with the emergence of the Boomer generation laying down a pre-formed paradigm that Generation X and subsequent generations are trapped within began to manifest itself almost immediately. Katz provides a useful history of ‘Generation X’ as a symbolic label. The photographer Robert Capa used it for his 1954 photos of young people disillusioned by the future before them, with the ‘X’ standing for the as-yet unknown value of that future. A 1964 British book, Generation X, by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett, was based on interviews with mods and rockers, with the X functioning like the X of an X-rated film (and this title later remanifested as the name of the short-lived Billy Idol band in the late 1970s, which I was particularly aware of because I come from Bromley). When US demographers and marketers identified the emergence of a distinctive generation in the mid-1980s (Ortner 416), they were clearly in need of a label (‘baby busters’ didn’t catch on) and we can see how the two came together. However, it was Coupland’s Generation X that actually made the connection and ‘set and sealed’ the term into public culture:

While Coupland drew upon a punk image of blankness for his image of “X” […], he also wrote a compassionate and empathetic story that countered growing negative attributes defining Generation X and being made popular by films such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991). Coupland’s fiction exposed the conflicts and dichotomies of Generation X that, unlike the Baby Boom Generation before it and the Millennials who followed, were unique to this generation and created the “common destiny” (in [Karl] Mannheim’s terms) that united the generation’s disparate identities. (Katz 16)

In other words, Generation X is one of those rare novels that has had direct major real-world impact (as opposed to more indirect and diffuse forms of cultural impact, which it has also had). As is well known, Coupland was originally contracted to write a field guide to a post-boomer sensibility and took the opportunity to write fiction instead but his idea of ‘Generation X’ had already gone through several iterations as, first, a September 1987 article for the Vancouver Sun with illustrations by Paul Rivoche, and, then, a comic strip written by Coupland and drawn by Rivoche (see here). Evolutionary traces of these earlier forms are clearly present in the novel, which includes both comic panels and a handbook-style glossary of neologisms scattered throughout at the foot of many pages.

While Sherry Ortner highlights both the problematic issue of ‘the whiteness of Generation X’ (see 420-421) and more generally that the idea of ‘a single generational consciousness is highly implausible’ (420) because of social difference, she is also certain (writing in the late 1990s) that it exists as an element of social space and that the sociological/anthropological imperative is therefore to locate it correctly. Her argument is that the idea of Generation X is ‘an attempt to deal with profound changes in the US middle class in the late 20th century’ (420). In particular, that it is ‘first and foremost, about identity through work’ (422) – McJobs – but also concerned with home ownership. She then goes on to discuss theorisations of postmodernism and late capitalism as ‘a product of the expansion and transformation of the middle class’ (422).

At first this seems an analysis that applies more to the US than the UK because postwar Britain (1945-1973) is usually defined in terms of rising working-class income rather than an expanded middle class. However, by noting that ‘the lower middle class is really, one might argue, the working class in middle-class clothing (i.e., in its housing, as well as in other aspects of material culture)’ (423) Ortner makes comparison between the two countries possible. Irrespective of how they defined their class exactly, people in this category, felt economically secure in the 1950s and 1960s and as archetypally American (or British in the UK): ‘The culture of “the fifties,” with its conservative politics and its repressive gender and sexual relations, was arguably their culture, hegemonized in part by the growth of television’ (Ortner 423). We still feel the effects of this culture – Trump, Brexit etc – and it is directly acknowledged in Generation X by references to people like Irene and Phil who live in a ‘permanent 1950s’ (Coupland, 128); and who no longer seem quite so ‘sweet’ today.    

Such references to the 1950s and also to ‘Texlahoma’, the ‘asteroid orbiting the earth, where the year is permanently 1974’ (Coupland 46) bring to mind Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), in which the protagonist Ragle Gumm lives in an ersatz 1950s bubble that is being maintained for him in the novel’s radically-altered ‘present’ of 1997. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson argues that Dick’s novel has ‘paradigmatic value […] for questions of history and historicity in general’ (283). Jameson suggests that the 1950s America of small-town life and conformism has no reality other than its own mass cultural representation; and that, in effect, there is no such thing as history itself. Therefore, Time Out of Joint may be seen as both (an early) critique and mode of resistance to the condition of postmodernity: ‘Reification is […] built into the novel itself and […] recuperated as a form of praxis […]. [R]eification ceases to be a[n] […] alienating process […] and is rather transferred to the side of human energies and human possibilities’ (Jameson 285). In other words, Dick’s imagined future is something of a red herring beyond the fact that it serves to show up the reality of the 1950s Eisenhower America, which Dick was living and writing in, as a construct that can be moved on from; it finagles Cold War anxieties through sleight of hand in such a manner that they generate the possibility of a future rather an overwhelming sense of waiting for the end.

Something like this mechanism is also at work in Generation X. While Coupland is clearly dissatisfied not just with ‘knee-jerk irony’ – ‘The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation’ (Coupland 174n) – ‘but also with the still accumulating and apparently ineluctable inheritance of ironic postmodernism’ (Forshaw 39), the novel does embrace a Dickian mode of postmodern story-telling – indeed, that is pretty much what it consists of – which functions as a repeated attempt to escape from the Chinese-box-like restrictions of generation even if it is impossible to return to ‘genuine capital H history times’ (Coupland 175). In the process, what comes across from Generation X is the idea that the post-1974 period is a construct that we can possibly find a way from moving on from – as Andy, Claire and Dag do – without having to remain in that condition of waiting for the end which permeates the earlier part of the novel.

In conclusion, Generation X, which includes for Ortner both the children of lower-middle-class (in UK terms, this would include many we would categorise as working-class) families and upper-middle-class families, is characterised by the shared ‘structures of feeling generated around [the] abyss’ (Ortner 423) created by the top and the bottom of the middle class pulling apart from the early 1970s onwards (in the UK this was experienced as the halt in the rise of postwar working-class incomes). In Generation X this symbolic and material schism is marked by a sense of history having stopped around the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis with the result that the promise of Andy’s family’s photo, in which ‘we’re beaming earnestly to the right, off toward what seems to be the future’ (Coupland 153), has been stalled (or, as it’s put in The Gum Thief (2007): ‘Time stopped ten minutes before they cancelled the Apollo programme’ [237]). As Andy ruminates:

You see when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied. (Coupland 171).

While this might be read as postmodern melancholy, I would contend it should be interpreted as historical critique. In this respect, the novel’s ending with the rediscovery of ‘affect’ and Andy, Dag and Claire’s relocation to Mexico, represents – in Jameson’s terms – a recuperation of reification as praxis, which is in itself a form of agency, and an escape out of the restrictive category of generation. But although Coupland’s protagonists (arguably) escape in this manner, it is unclear whether the real-life Generation X have ever broken free of their lived generational space whose boundaries, experiences and possibilities were shaped by the previous generation. Rather, the alienation and rootlessness of Gen Xers in the 1980s and early 1990s was a manifestation of the return of the emotional truths repressed by their parents’ generation in the name of comfort and silence, but awareness of that hasn’t stopped a similar dynamic from developing between the Xers and their own children. Thirty years on from Generation X’s first publication, as the pandemic makes us painfully aware of the extent to which society is creaking painfully around us, it’s finally time to break free of those destructive cycles.

[The next enlargement of this draft essay will include more textual analysis of Generation X and, possibly, of Generation A, which would specifically concern the process of breaking free from the generational cycle. Also I still need to incorporate my analysis of Dag’s claim to be ‘a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body’ (Coupland 20) in relation to contemporary theory on that topic (Zita 1992)]

Works Cited

Coupland, Douglas. Generation X. London: Abacus, 1996 [1991].

Forshaw, Mark. ‘Douglas Coupland: In and Out of “Ironic Hell”’. Critical Survey, 12: 3 (2000): 39-58.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Katz, Stephen. ‘Generation X: A Critical Sociological Perspective’. Journal of the American Society on Aging, 41: 3 (Fall 2017): 12-19.

Kennedy, Joe. Authentocrats. London: Repeater, 2018.

Ortner, Sherry B. ‘Generation X: Anthropology in a Media-Saturated World’. Cultural Anthropology, 13: 3 (Aug., 1998): 414-440.

Roberts, Adam. It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? London: Elliott & Thompson, 2020.

Zita, Jacqueline N. ‘Male Lesbians and the Postmodernist Body’. Hypatia, 7: 4 (Autumn 1992): 106-127.

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