Monday 22 May 2017

Gen X-spotting: they ascended the ladder just as the Celtic Tiger was being birthed

Caught between baby boomers and millennials, Generation X were anti-establishment - but they've become 'The Establishment'. How did that happen

Supersonic: Liam Gallagher.
Supersonic: Liam Gallagher.
Kate Moss
Scary Spice.
Bono.
Damon Albarn.
Nirvana.

Tanya Sweeney

Mark Renton and his Trainspotting cohorts are back in cinemas, Britpoppers like Sleeper and Lush are on the road again, and style mavens are wearing slip dresses with DMs. It's official; we're partying like it's 1995. Yet for author Tiffanie Darke, a former editor at Sunday Times Style, Generation X - those aged 35-55 - has been all but forgotten. Specifically, they've fallen in between two very dominant demographics: millennials (born between 1980 and 1995), and baby boomers (born 1946-1964).

"I was sitting at a meeting some time ago talking with brands and media agencies, and they were banging on about the millennials, who were interesting, and the boomers, who got all the money and were therefore more powerful than the millennials," she recalls.

For Gen Xers, the demographic who were known for their anti-establishment stance, it can also be jarring to realise that they, now, are part of the Establishment.

"The other thing that happened was that I was having something of a midlife crisis," she adds. "I felt very much part of that youth movement. I was young and cool, but when you turn 40 it's really hard to frame yourself as being beautiful. You don't feel it, your lifestyle has changed and you're working with millennials who have a really different point of view."

Darke was moved to write Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened To Generation X? as both an ode to her peers and a life manual for those coming behind her.

"I'd love the 40-somethings to read this book and recognise themselves and help them to remember that there's a lot more to come," she explains. "Hopefully we're not even at the halfway point. It's easy to be in your 40s and feel like your best days are behind you, but Generation X have got all the passion and energy that millennials have, and you also have the experience to supercharge yourself into something amazing.

"For millennials, it's almost like a manual on what not to do," she adds. "A lot of what Generation X did wasn't ideal; most of us women left it too late to have children, for instance. We Gen Xers understand hedonism and joy and millennials should throw their hands in the air and stop stressing so much. Anything that prepares you for the path ahead is really important, and I wasn't prepared for most of it."

With every passing generation, the handing over of the baton can be problematic, and the tension palpable. According to Darke, there has been an element of fluidity as millennials took over from Generation X as the dominant demographic. Rather, the truly uneasy tango is between millennials and boomers: "The boomers don't understand the millennials and think they're spoiled and entitled and don't know they've gotten it so good," she explains. "Millennials are furious at the boomers for taking all the money and houses. We (in Generation X) can see it from both angles.

"We see that millennials, raised in an over-praising, everyone-gets-a-prize culture, don't know how to deal with failure. They reached adolescence when 9/11 happened and their view of the world was that it wasn't a safe place. I really feel for them. Some say they have no staying power, but on the flipside, they're self-starters, and a digital world has enabled that.

"The boomers, meanwhile, believe that society progresses and gets better, and they've acted in their self-interests. They assume younger people have got it great.

Being stuck in the middle can have its upsides: "We come from an analogue world and live digitally and know both. It's up to us to heal the rift (between millennials and baby boomers)."

Billed as pioneers of the quarterlife crisis and as cynical slackers - a counterpoint to the hardworking, stoic boomers - Generation X were said to drift from one McJob to the next in search of a thrill. What they weren't credited for was the creation of the internet, the New York-London commute, the Vogue-endorsed counter-culture. Among Gen X's poster children: Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith, Blur and Kurt Cobain.

In Ireland, Generation X had a coming-of-age experience that is unique to them, and as such they've endured a singular set of vagaries. The first generation born out from under the stranglehold of the church, Gen X were ascending the career ladder just as the Celtic Tiger was being birthed.

Many of them are beneficiaries of free third-level education and bought houses before the explosion of property prices. Crucially, they were young and footloose at a particularly vital time in Irish culture, where U2 and Paddywood meant that the world's eye was trained on what our cultural giants might do next.

Technology ousted creativity in terms of social cachet. Here's where frictions between Generation X and millennials start to surface, according to Darke: "They're leading the charge and we're not as adept as our younger brothers and sisters. We went into creative careers and our ability to monetise them has been destroyed. The careers we have won't be around in five-10 years and we'll need the millennials, who are the masters of the portfolio career."

Yet in many ways, and often through little fault of their own, Generation X have bequeathed a dubious legacy to their younger counterparts.

Darke writes: "Girl power went only so far. Here we are, 20 years later, still fighting a battle for equal pay, equal representation on boards and the right not to have to wear high heels at work. Ladettes and girl power did not defeat misogyny, feminism was not done. Generation X women dropped the ball. That Wonderbra poster seems positively offensive now."

"In terms of the work-life balance and in terms of things like parenting, we were canon fodder in that social experiment," admits Darke. "I feel pushed to the limits of my capabilities in terms of work and family life, and we don't have a social life anymore. I remember working with a boomer in fashion who thought that maternity leave rights were extortionate and corrosive to business. Now that Generation X is in management, we pay it forward and give people on our teams who get pregnant the flexible working conditions they need."

Inevitably, thoughts turn to the next demographic: the centennials, or Generation Z (born after 1996). Raised with a smartphone in their faces, idolising Instagram stars and forging an identity amid Trump and Brexit, what will become of them?

Of their future fortunes and destiny, Darke says: "It's difficult to say at the moment, but it's likely they will totally surprise us. They won't have the same issues with anxiety (as millennials do). They'll have their issues around social media and FOMO (fear of missing out), but I think the 'snowflake' generation will crash and burn spectacularly. It's going to go 'dark social', meaning that social media will be happening but people will be posting privately."

And, just as youngsters have appropriated '90s fashion and culture, they too can learn a thing or too from their Gen X elders, particularly in a world of fake news and post-truths.

"If you look at a young person's social media feed, this person is so brilliant and that person is really incredible. We on the other hand were very cynical and obsessed with cool, and that involved a degree of irony," surmises Darke. "Cool and irony go hand in hand, and it's a very important quality. Especially when it comes to one's ability to question the veracity of something."

Now We Are 40 by Tiffanie Darke is published today (HarperCollins, €23.79)

Irish Independent

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