In 1991, the brilliant Canadian author Douglas Coupland published the novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, in which a group of navel-gazing Palm Springs proto-hipsters sit around telling one another semi-fantastical stories about their lives. It gradually became the book that captured a generation – a generation of young people who were born after the baby boom, in the 1970s or '80s, and found themselves aimlessly plodding through “McJobs” (low-paid, service industry work), targets of advertising and celebrity culture, and full of ennui.
26 years later, ex-Sunday Times Style editor Tiffanie Darke has written another book about Generation X, asking whatever happened to the demographic. Looking back on the 1990s – the decade Gen Xers like herself came of age – and how they were defined by rave culture, Britpop and lad culture, she recaps where British Gen Xers came from in order to figure out where they’re going. These are the people who grew up obsessed with cool and who had few economic worries about the future, she argues. But now that they’re 40, they’ve suddenly found themselves with purpose – lumped with children, big business and the task of political leadership, what are they to do with their newfound responsibility?
Now We Are 40: Whatever Happened To Generation X? is a big undertaking – to answer its own question it has to recap 25 years of history, take stock of today’s world (culturally and politically), and present some suggestions for the future. For that reason, it’s a bit too generalising at points. It’s not a book for historians but for anyone seeking a quick nostalgia hit or a bit of acerbic cultural commentary; a speedy read (testament to Darke’s punchy writing) that offers more than a handful of interesting talking points on a generation that isn’t much discussed.
We gave Tiffanie a call to ask what she thinks is the legacy of Gen X, as well as what millennials ought to learn from their elders.
Hi Tiffanie. So to begin with, why did you decide to write about Generation X?
The thing about demographics is, it’s a highly subjective science, but we all like to try to make sense of our lives and understand who we are and where we came from. Sometimes demographic classifications are helpful in that. I classified myself as Gen X because I read Douglas Coupland’s novel in 1991 and the way he described us back then was the way I felt about my life. I’ve felt like a Gen X person since, but it became more conscious a few years ago, when it felt like everyone was talking about boomers and millennials but no one was talking about my generation at all. I thought, ‘Everyone seems to have forgotten about Gen X. Are we interesting any more? Do we even self-define?’
That was really my impetus for writing the book, but it was coupled with the fact that – and it’s such a cliché – the minute I turned 40 I had an oh-my-god moment about being older and that did manifest in me wondering where we’re all going. You are, at this stage, halfway through your life, you’ve still got energy, you’re still working, still trying to make stuff happen, but doing it with experience and smarts behind you. If you pause to reflect, then maybe going forwards you can be more effective. The book was a way to recalibrate, it helped me move from crisis to a state of quiet optimism.
The book speaks to a bunch of prominent Gen Xers. How did you choose your cast of characters?
I knew the subjects I wanted to cover: music, food, fashion, parenting, digital. Alex [James, from Blur] is great on the music side of things, Martha [Lane Fox, founder of Lastminute.com] is great on digital, and Alice [Temperley, fashion designer] I thought would be good on fashion, but she was so good on parenting I ended up using her more for that. Primarily they were people I admired and knew were of the sensibility I was trying to capture, but with different areas of subject expertise.
You mentioned that we hear a lot more about millennials these days than Gen Xers. My feeling was that 'millennial' is used a lot because it’s a marketing term, so it was interesting to read in your book about how marketing affected your generation...
What happened with marketing for Gen X was a double-edged sword; we had all this cool cultural stuff that was going on, stuff that had only been covered by magazines like The Face and Arena and other underground style bibles – music, fashion, and art that had existed as counter-culture – and we exploded it into mainstream culture. I think the real tipping point in that was the Criminal Justice Bill [which barred free parties and “anti-social behaviour”]. It made partying and rave music go overground – it made it into a business. Cultural waves like rave, the Manchester scene, Britpop, techno, later jungle and drum and bass – brands thought, ‘Let’s pump some money into that, borrow some cool and sell more products’. So things we thought were cool before just became part of everyday life.
What were the main differences between Xers and millennials that you identified when you were writing the book?
It’s generally agreed through surveys and data that millennials have a different experience to Xers; they’re less hedonistic, more anxious, they drink less. And it’s for really good reasons. For me, there are three things that millennials lived through that define them:
Firstly, there was 9/11 – a completely discombobulating experience whereby everything taken for granted, like safety and security and prosperity, suddenly felt like they seemed to disappear.
The second is a prevailing ‘all must have prizes’ philosophy from when millennials were at school, whereby nobody was criticised for getting anything wrong, and everyone was really overpraised for everything. That makes the millennial mindset one that finds it hard to deal with criticism and failure.
And then the final thing is the 2008 crash – just as millennials were leaving school and looking for jobs there was this horrendous financial crisis.
Generation X had a much better hand, they had a prosperous time in the latter half of the '90s and the noughties, they had good free education and accessible housing. That’s why I think it behoves Gen X to be really understanding of millennials now and appreciative of what millennials have to offer us. Boomers have a go at millennials but this is a millennial world now. It’s crafted by you guys as much as it is by us, and we need you. We’ve got the experience but you’ve got the skills.
Let’s talk about feminism for a second – in the book you talk about how Gen X women “took their eye off the ball” – what does that mean, and what does it tell us about feminism today?
For boomer women, the expectation was that you might meet somebody nice and start a good family. Gen X women were educated with the expectation that we’d have careers and be independent. In the '90s, my experience was in the media – I got into the workplace and all the bosses were male at the newspapers and yet half their readers were female, so they had a clunking realisation that they needed to staff up with women, so people gave us jobs and promotions. At that point, we all thought the war was won, that we weren’t held back that we were women. You can’t underestimate the Spice Girls’ part in that, either, 'Girl Power' was a simple message: five girls doing what they wanted, travelling around the world and making bucketloads of money. Feminism wasn’t cool at all; Beyoncé was interviewed in Vogue and asked if she was a feminist and she declined to answer the question.
Our experience was, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ But then weird stuff started to happen where girls started to try to impersonate boys by drinking booze, smoking fags, going to football matches. There was nothing wrong with that, but then raunch culture evolved out of it, and that was like, ‘Yeah I can pole dance if I want to, it’s a fitness class’ and ‘Yeah here’s my thong hanging out the back of my trousers, I’m so empowered’. Girls like Katie Price and Gail Porter were taking their clothes off and posing on Page Three and saying ‘This is an empowering thing because, look, it’s made me rich and successful and famous’. Sex and the City happened. Ariel Levy wrote Feminist Chauvinist Pigs, the first book to really say, ‘Hey guys, this isn’t cool’.
Of course, it later turned out that misogyny had never really gone away, it had just gone underground. What social media and digital did was allow misogyny an anonymous environment to articulate itself. Meanwhile, all those Generation X women who thought it was an equal-opportunity workplace have got to the point in their careers where they are having babies, and getting passed over for promotions and pay rises. We realised men are all being paid more than us for doing the same job... that has only come to light in the past few years... and that we’re not equal in leadership, either because we don’t like the leadership that is there, because it doesn’t suit us or we’re not being given the opportunities. So what I meant was that it felt like women were doing fine and then it was completely not fine. That Girl Power was very reductive, in retrospect.
What do you wish millennials had that you had as a Gen Xer, then?
For me, it’s tribal trends. Pre-digital there were organic movements that could grow and define themselves through music, fashion, culture or art or being somewhere – Sheffield, Manchester, south London – you chose what you wanted to be and you could just go there and do it with people who shared the same values as you. It was a community because you had to show up. You couldn’t just click on it for five seconds. You had to absorb it. Now I worry that with digital a trend is a trend in an instant, or that you could put on 40 trends in a day. It’s hard to describe or define cultural movements now because they all move so quickly.
And finally, what do you hope people take away from the book?
If you’re part of Gen X, I hope it regenerates you, that you identify with the things I talk about and how that shapes you as a person and goes on to shape the next bit of your life. At 40 you can feel very tired but there’s so much to play for. And for millennials reading, it’s good to know what’s coming down the pipe and prepare yourself for the future, culturally, financially and politically. I wasn’t thinking about that 10 years ago. But I think I’ve got the message now.
Now We Are 40 is published by HarperCollins