Tuesday, March 15, 2016

25th Anniversary of Douglas Coupland's Generation X

Generation X didn't even exist ... and then it did.

Twenty-five years ago today, St. Martin's Press released a small, quirky, unassuming, oddly-shaped novel by Douglas Coupland called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It launched a career and a marketing buzz, and it ultimately named (some might say stigmatized) an entire demographic of people. It wasn't even supposed to be a novel - Coupland had been contracted to write an updated "Yuppie Handbook for the 90s" - but in typical Xer fashion he went another route, moving to the desert of Palm Springs and crafting a novel about a trio of twenty-somethings who have fled the traditional career path of college/work/career/family to live on the fringes and work "McJobs" while telling each other stories as a way to find meaning in their lives.

Ironically, most members of what became known as Generation X have never even heard of, much less read, Coupland's seminal work of Xer identity - and that's a quality that makes the book and the generation all the more poetic. Coupland never intended to become the "spokesman for a generation," and he was so annoyed by the title that in 1995 he declared a moratorium on the use of the term, and he effectively declared the "death of Generation X." In fact, Coupland did not mean for the term to apply to an entire group of people born between 1961 - 1981 (which is what generational sociologists Strauss & Howe determine is Gen X). Coupland drew the title from a book by Paul Fussell called Class, in which Fussell referred to an "X-class" of people who live outside the traditional norms. Coupland was simply reflecting the collective feelings of ennui among his group of friends in the late 80s and early 90s.

Yet, the year of 1991 actually became a pivotal year of generational identity, much of which is framed as a general suspicion of and lack of faith in institutions and central authority. For a generation that came of age as latch-key kids amidst historic divorce rates, along with a failed "war," a resigning President, and an anemic economy, it's not surprising people approached the world with a jaded heart. Generation X is also defined by a quest for authenticity in a world which is increasingly defined by crass commercialism and superficiality. In 1991, these generational feelings were aptly reflected in three pivotal works of pop culture: the publication of Coupland's Generation X, the premier of Richard Linklater's art-house film Slacker, and the release of Nirvana's Nevermind anchored by the ironic teen anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

In terms of legacy, Coupland's novel may be much more significant for its title and terms it coined such as "McJob" than it is for literary value. It is probably more of a historical artifact and a reflection of a specific moment in time than a significant piece of literature. And, Coupland himself would most likely not disagree with either of those sentiments, for he has pretty much moved on from the novel to a career more defined by accomplishments in the visual arts. That said, few novels have entered the American lexicon the way Generation X has, and few novels have so effectively encapsulated the idea of zeitgeist, and, thus, it's worth noting for those qualities alone.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite books! I'm re-reading it now, and the political/societal parallels from 1991 to now is striking.

zerry ht said...

Indeed a nice article! Glad to know that you both have completed 25 years together. We will celebrate our 10th anniversary next month. Our kids want us to throw a huge party. Just booked one of Chicago wedding venues for our anniversary.

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