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The X of Generation X

The X of Generation X
The last chapter of Paul Fussell's 1983 book Class, from which Douglas Coupland took his book title and named an entire generation.

Douglas Coupland's book Generation X ended up giving his demographic cohort a permanent name, but we shouldn't overlook the deeper cultural implications of his logic in choosing "X."

Someone the other day mused what we would call the generation after “Gen Z,” since we’ve already landed at the very end of the English alphabet. This is a good reminder not to begin your alphabetic division of demographic cohorts at letter 24 of 26. Of course, Gen Z and Gen Y were just plays on "Generation X," and it's worth remembering that the "X" wasn't an arbitrary designation. Demographers and media pundits took the term directly from the Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a book that contemplated and encapsulated the supposed post-materialist ethics of people born between 1965 and 1980.

The reason Coupland chose "X" is quite revealing. In Chuck Klosterman's The Nineties, Coupland reveals that he lifted it not from the name of Billy Idol's punk band (although “Dancing with Myself” is a great pop song that happened to open my brothers’ 1988 college mixtape “PARTY TAPE FROM HELL”), but instead, the "X" came from Paul Fussell’s 1983 book Class — an incredibly acerbic and often cruel book about American socioeconomic stratification. The final chapter of Class is called “The X Way Out” where Fussell identifies an emerging group in society he calls “Category X” — well-educated, Bohemian-like consumers who construct obscure lifestyles in order to transcend traditional status symbols.

X was not a class, but a “self-cultivated” meritocratic “category” in which anyone could join: “You are not born an X person, as you are born and reared a prole or a middle. You become an X person, or to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable.” Fussell saw Category X as a “parody aristocracy” who “pursue remote and uncommonplace knowledge” such as ”Serbo-Croatian prosody, geodes, or Northern French church vestments of the eleventh century.” Coupland liked Class so much he wrote Fussell a fan letter. And later when writing his own book, he gravitated towards Fussell's “Category X” as a way to describe his entire generation.

Fussell wasn't alone in giving this emerging group a name. In 1979’s Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu labels the French version of X a "new Petit bourgeois," due to their role in creating, interpreting, and diffusing new symbols in our growing information society. David Brooks noted that this group grew up to be “Bobos” (Bohemian bourgeoisie). Later, Richard Florida gave Category X a name that stuck: the “creative class.”

The intellectual baton relay from Fussell to Coupland makes fun trivia, but I think there is a deeper implication in the choice of “X.” Yes, "X" connotes mystery and emptiness, but once we know Coupland read Fussell so closely, he must have decided to define his generation by its aesthetic choices — specifically, fighting the class hierarchy through the focus on cultural and subcultural capital over economic capital. Bourdieu’s analysis explains how this is a likely outcome of the post-modern economy: The Information Age bred a new kind of petit bourgeois skilled in understanding, explaining, and crafting semiotic codes, and it's inevitable they would direct these talents towards their own hobbies and personas. Once someone becomes an expert in obscure musical trends and styles, they won't use pop conventions to represent their own tastes (unless ironically). And they'll take pride in these elevated tastes to claim superiority over wealthy elites.

In other words, Generation "X" wasn’t simply describing a birth cohort but a broader movement in American society to redefine cultural capital from high-society manners and high art to a more inclusive, ever-curious collection of intellectual and quasi-intellectual ideas. (A classic example of Generation X values is the guy in Slacker who believes The Smurfs was meant to prepare children for "when Krishna comes about.") This Gen X focus on cultural distinction is why Fussell calls it a “parody aristocracy,” because until that point, such emphasis on bold lifestyle differences had been the exclusive privilege of the upper classes. And this focus on cultural capital also explains why the ‘90s became such a fecund cultural decade: Individuals who believe in the superiority of crate-digging — i.e. the intense search for deep cultural knowledge — end up breaking established artistic conventions rather than replicating them.

Of course, Gen Y would end up rebelling against these “aristocratic” values. There was an immediate backlash in the early 2000s against the pretensions of indie culture. Big Pop was back. As such, Millennials aren’t a “parody aristocracy” as much as a “parody bourgeoisie”: at least in the stereotype, they're striving towards high social rank through performative hard work that will inevitably lead up to unbridled entrepreneurial successes.

This brings us to today, where the loudest complaints about “cultural stasis” tend to come from Gen X adults whose cultural interests have long been anchored in obscure and openly-artistic cultural forms. From their perspective, today's cultural capital does feel very tame. Being "with it" requires listening to top-charting albums, watching blockbuster movies, and being well-versed in internet memes. Compared to Gen X, Millennials who grew up on the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC would have fewer qualms about a pop culture centered around Harry Styles fandom, Harry Styles albums, and Harry Styles cinema gossip. Meanwhile Gen Z, in its rebellion against Millennials, appears to appreciate obscurity as a virtue again, but this is a new obscurity, not based in artistic complexity and historical knowledge but the discovery of amateur videos lurking at the edges of the internet.

So as we say goodbye to the alphabet-generation naming convention, it’s a good time to remember that Coupland meant the X to represent certain cultural values. Generation X (at least, its elitist wing) believed that culture could be something much better and deeper than class marking — and these particular values gave us the cultural explosion at the end of the 20th century.