Monday, 20 February 2017

Book Review: Generation X, Douglas Coupland, 1991

If you'd asked me a year ago to define Millennials - as in, to provide my best understanding of society's definition of Millennials - I'd have told you that they're the first generation that expects life to be worse for them than it was for their parents.

I'm not sure how I'd have defined Gen Xers - one thing that sticks in my mind from something I read somewhere (maybe even from more recent Coupland? Maybe not) is that they were a generation who were thought to have been soft and good-for-nothing, until digital technology came along and allowed them to express talents and money-making potential that had been hidden unsuspected all along.

But now I reread Generation X for the first time in maybe a decade, and I realise that many (all?) of the things people generally say about Millennials were previously said about Gen Xers.

Take these stats from the back pages of Generation X (publication date, I reiterate, 1991):

"Percentage of US 18-29 year olds who agree that "there is no point in staying at a job unless you are completely satisfied": 58"

"Percentage of US 18-29 year olds who agree that "given the way things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations": 65".

But it's not just rereading Generation X that has taught me that Millennials are not the first doomed generation: the recent US presidential election did the same. At some point in my struggle to understand Brexit and Trump I stumbled across Professor Elizabeth Warren's 2007 testimony before the US Senate Finance Committee, which told me things like:

"the typical man working full-time today, after adjusting for inflation, earns about $800 less than his father earned back in the early 1970s"


"By the most obvious financial measures, the middle class American family of the 21st Century is beginning to sink financially"


"In 2004, the median homeowner was forking over a mortgage payment that was 76% larger than a generation earlier"


"Today’s family spends 74% more on health insurance than their earlier counterparts—if they are lucky enough to get it at all. Costs are so high, that 48 million working-age Americans simply went without coverage last year"

Similarly, from the back pages of Generation X:

"Percentage of income required for a down-payment on a first home ... in 1967: 22; in 1987, 32"

The western middle class has been being hollowed out for decades, but until Brexit and Trump nobody noticed. Or did they think neoliberalism would lift all boats?

All of which is my way of saying how damn relevant Generation X seems right now. In my dim memory it was about people dropping out of consumerist lifestyles and taking refuge in irony / authenticity, which it is, but it's also about people doing so because they have no real choice: they're forced to take up things like:

"Status substitution: Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cache to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: "Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother's BMW""

because they're all experiencing:

"Lessness: A philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself with diminishing expectations of material wealth: "I've given up wanting to make a killing or be a bigshot. I just want to find happiness and maybe open up a little roadside cafe in Idaho"."

Which maybe makes Generation X sound a little preachy or too arch, but actually the Gen X-isms are not exclusively economic or self-pitying: they're often funny, heartfelt, and still ring true.

What's more, Coupland also creates interesting, likeable characters, tells engaging stories, and uses language in a fresh and entertaining way.

Generation X is a great book.

I'm not entirely sure what its moral is, or even if there is a clean moral to be plucked from it. We're advised that "purchased experiences don't count", and indeed the characters provide stories about the perfect unpurchased moments that "prove you're really alive", but these are moments that happen seldom, and so the question remains: what do you do in between them?

Do you keep semi-deliberately sliding down the socioeconomic ladder until you find the cheap situation your menial-but-dignifiedly-earned income can support? The book strongly suggests that you do, but can we all? Can any of us? Would we be happy?

Where are those Gen Xers now?

I must have first read Generation X when I was 15 or 16 - half my life ago - and I'm again moved to wonder what books like it and Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero did to a mind ill-prepared to receive them. Did they Daria-ify me when I would otherwise have been basically fine? Or was I always destined to be misanthropic and confused?

As Kurt Cobain, who would have been 50 today, said: "Teenage angst has paid off well; now I'm bored and old."

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