Marketing Madness: A Postmortem for Generation X

Dineh Mohajer, if you choose to believe Time magazine, is just like you. Two years ago, the 24-year-old California woman launched her own cosmetics company, Hard Candy, as a lark. Now she’s expecting $25 million in sales for fiscal ‘97. Assuming the quotes are accurate, this CEO-come-lately coasts on mental autopilot: “I function like an average human being of my age. I go to clubs, movies and watch MTV. It’s so fun! I’m a TV junkie. I need to go to Melrose Anonymous! Eating Cap’n Crunch and watching TV – two things I live for. Twice a week we have all-girls’ night. My best friends come over. We watch TV and gossip and scream and yell and do our nails.”

Time says this insipid make-up baroness is a typical of the 44.6 million Americans born between 1965 and 1976 denoted as Generation Xers. But Douglas Coupland, the Canadian author who stole either the name of Billy Idol’s old punk band or saw it in an obscure sociology text for his 1991 book (it depends who you ask) wrote that Generations Xers were “born in the late 1950s and 1960s – a camera-shy, suspiciously hushed known up to now as twentysomethings.” Mohajer was born too late to get into Coupland’s Gen X and he’s too old to get into Time’s. What the hell is going on here?

Authors and pundits and politicians love to generalize about Those Who Came Later (citizens born after the Baby Boom), but no one can agree on who these mysterious souls are. Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss (Generations, 13th-Gen) say that they’re the 79 million people born between 1961 and 1981. William Dunn’s The Baby Bust agrees with Time, Geoffrey T. Holtz’s Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind “Generation X” sides with Howe and Strauss, and Business Week calls them the 46 million humans born from 1963 to 1974. Not to be outdone, a recent press release from the BMG record label says they’re “young adults aged 16 to 24.”

I was born in 1963. Time classifies me as a Baby Boomer. According to them, my defining cultural moments include the hippie musical Hair and my first kiss at a drive-in (never mind that I was 5 when Hair came out, or that drive-ins were extinct long before I hit puberty). The Atlantic Monthly, however, presumes that I’m into Ice-T and Nirvana. If you’re 18 to 21, no one can agree whether you’re a Gen Xer or a Gen Yer (the name imagination-deficient marketing execs currently apply to Those Who Came Even Later Than Those Who Came Later). Gen Xers are pessimistic, alienated and angst-ridden, the myth goes, and Gen Yers are footloose, relaxed and idealistic. Which one are you? These days you need a program to keep track of your own generational identity.

The media’s obsession with generational generalizing is obviously silly, but consequential questions remain: Do generations – the notion that people share commonalities simply because of when they were born – exist at all? And if they do, does any of this shit matter?

Generic Generations
In Generations, Mssrs. Howe and Strauss state: “Intuitively, everyone recognizes the importance of age location,” but this is untrue of today’s younger adults. “I think generations are bullshit,” a friend who edits a well-known Generation X-oriented humor magazine asserts. “People are people; that’s all.” Everyone knows of exceptions to strict generational categorizations: Old Baby Boom-era punk singers like the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop are honorary Gen Xers; the San Francisco Bay Area is full of twentysomethings who wear the garish clothing of the Summer of Love and prefer Jim Morrison to Eddie Vedder. I often find that I have more in common with sixtysomethings than thirtysomethings.

Time’s Xer piece elicited wildly disparate response letters. “I don’t believe that a generation can be described as having a set of traits and a personality,” wrote Rob Glaser. “[Your article] is the most correct and comprehensive description of Generation X yet offered,” counters Michael Cathey. Both reactions reflect typical Xer attitudes towards stereotyping by age.

Nonetheless, people do share common reference points – particularly regarding pop culture and politics – based on when they were born. Not everyone my age grew up as latchkey kids or watched The Brady Bunch – but many of them did. Not everyone in college today obsesses over affirmative action or political correctness – but many do. Belonging to a generation doesn’t mean that you vote a certain way or listen to a particular band, or even that you think anything like your peers, any more than being born into a certain race or gender can predict your personality – but you are more likely to share certain formative experiences and attitudes about life with your age cohorts. When it comes to generations, exceptions don’t necessarily disprove the rule.

In the early 1970s, mainstream Americans (i.e., older adults) terrified of the “generation gap” between them and the then-emerging Baby Boomers lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Despite the fact that college-age citizens have always voted in low numbers, Boomers have acted to represent their political interests ever since. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as the first Boomer president, Americans have watched the political and cultural agenda shift toward issues that matter to people born between 1946 and 1964 (or 1943 and 1960, depending on who you believe). Gay rights, the environment and tax breaks for college tuition are all Boomer-oriented initiatives. Gen Xers (whoever they are) have seen little action on things that might matter to them. Topics like the crushing burden of student loan debt, global warming, and increasing the quality of entry-level jobs are so far removed from the political agenda that they might as well be in Albania. If you’re under 35 years of age, you have every right not to believe in the notion of generational politics – but you should be aware of the fact that those who are older are already practicing it.

You Are What You Buy
Generation Gap 2 began in 1987 when cartoonists and journalists coined the term “twentysomething” as a parody of the then-new disjointed Boomer-oriented TV whine-a-thon thirtysomething. Twentysomethings were the group of young adults then coming of age after college. (Historically, then, today’s Gen Xers are all in their 30s.) The term “twentysomething” became interchangeable with “Generation X” when Coupland’s poorly-written tome appeared in 1991. (This would make Xers 26-to-36 now.) Pundits posited other contenders to name the New Ones – “baby busters,” “post-boomers,” “posties,” even Howe & Strauss’ clunky “13ers” (because they’re the 13th American generation) – but the joint twentysomething/Gen-X identifier has stuck. Journalists and marketers view the two terms as permanently equivalent, making Gen Xers the first people in history not to age! Thanks to this journalistic medical advance, Xers will remain twentysomething long after their great-grandchildren have died of old age.

Gen X cultural icons – who included director Richard Linklater for his 1992 film Slacker and the band Nirvana for its 1991 album Nevermind, as well as such underground cartoonists as Nina “Nina’s Adventures” Paley, Tom “This Modern World” Tomorrow, and Ruben “Tom the Dancing Bug” Bolling – focused attention on economic dislocation, growing up in an age of budget cuts and McJobs, as well as the feeling that the old rules no longer applied (I titled my own book of Gen X-oriented cartoons All The Rules Have Changed). Gen X, whether it existed or not, was about opting out of the flexible morality and opportunistic hypocrisy then seen as characteristic of their Boomer middle-manager bosses.

Madison Avenue discovered Gen X in late 1992. With the oldest Boomers pushing 50 – well past peak buying age – and the economy in Bush-era doldrums, corporate executives realized that an economy in which consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product constantly requires a new batch of suckers. Newsweek published its “The New Middle Age: Oh, God…I’m Really Turning 50!” cover story on December 7th. On December 14th Business Week responded with “Move Over, Boomers: The Busters Are Here—And They’re Angry,” a detailed guide to businesspeople lusting after Gen Xers’ “$125 billion in annual spending power.” Since then, almost every mention in the mainstream media about the people who are anywhere between 16 and 41 years old (!) has been about how to sell them stuff. U.S. News & World Report’s February 22, 1993 “The Twentysomething Rebellion” (for them, Xers are now 24 to 34) picks computer companies and airlines as beneficiaries of the emerging Xer market, whereas Time likes Sprite and business schools.

In 1995 Coupland complained in Details about the advent of Xer marketing: “Those Bud ads where people rehash ‘60s sitcoms. Flavapalooza. Irony, which most young people use in order to make ludicrous situations palatable, was for the first time used as a selling tool. Kurt Cobain’s in heaven, Slacker’s at Blockbuster, and the media refers to anyone aged 13 to 39 as Xers. Which is only further proof that marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world.”

There’s certainly nothing new about generational marketing. During the late ‘60s and ‘70s advertisers appealed to the new Boomers to buy the same old products that their parents had; in fact, the 1992 Newsweek piece on Boomers includes breathless advice to sellers of hair transplants and plastic surgery to get busy with their new victims. With the notable anomaly of Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, the Boomers capitulated. They simply became their parents.

Xers have proven a far more difficult nut to crack; the latest wave of commercialism is hilariously desperate. Car companies run generic grunge music as background music to try to convince 28-year-olds that sports utility vehicles aren’t really just the latest version of the stationwagon. Nike sells its slave-labor-made sneakers with the DIY slogan “Just Do It,” while Xers roll their collective eyes. “No icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective,” Marketing to Generation X author Karen Ritchie tells Time. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Fortune 500.

Until recently, the shenanigans of clueless advertisers only interested those who subscribed to AdWeek. The last few decades, however, have seen the wholesale collapse of virtually every mainstream public institution. A 50 percent divorce rate and an average marriage length of two years has all but destroyed the nuclear family. Involvement in religious organizations – and belief in God – is way down, thanks largely to sex scandals in both Catholic and Christian fundamentalist churches. The public education system has been gutted by two decades of Reagan-Bush-Clinton budget slashing. Corporate consolidation and the demise of investigative journalism has led to widespread distrust of the news media. The emergence of a two-party political system featuring no significant differences between the two “choices” has reduced voter participation and led to unprecedented cynicism about government. Many branches of popular culture – movies, architecture, modern art, rock music and theater – are widely viewed as moribund and irrelevant to people’s everyday lives.

God is dead, rock stars don’t matter, movies suck. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a New Yorker or an Alabaman, into tongue piercing or the local militia, married or single, straight or gay. Having destroyed all their ideological competitors, corporations are the last remaining institutions to offer strong identities. The choice between Democrats and Republicans is infinitely less important to your quotidian life than the one between Apple and Microsoft. Everyone knows that the real president isn’t Bill Clinton – it’s Bill Gates.

In a land where no one believes in anything, you are what you buy.

When marketers tell you what to buy, they tell you what to become. Are you a hip-hop fan or a preppie? Do you like clear dishwashing liquid or Volvos? There’s no way to avoid the onslaught of TV ads, billboards and product placement that permeate our everyday lives, but it is important to realize what’s at stake. The marketers think that they know who you are based on your birthdate, your ethnic background and the fact that you subscribe to a certain magazine, and they’re determined to use that information to sell you their products. When they succeed, they change your identity – but what if they don’t have the slightest clue who you are?

You’re Next!
There is perhaps no better indication of the amazing lack of logic of generational marketing than the fact that no one can agree who belongs to what generation. But that will never stop some wanker editor – inevitably someone who’s not even a member of the generation being discussed! – from putting out a dozen-page spread on who you are and what you believe in during a slow news week. These “them versus us” pieces invariably seek to create neo-Generation Gaps where there are none. Even worse, they trivialize or ignore important issues that truly should be addressed in the public arena. Even Strauss and Howe’s latest stab at generational generalizations, The Fourth Turning, acknowledges: “Compared to any other generation born in this century, [Gen X] is less cohesive, its experiences wider and its culture more splintery.”

The development of Gen X media coverage provides an instructive tale for college-age Americans. Whether or not you consider yourself a Gen Xer, the corporate marketers will soon turn their attentions to you and, more importantly, your wallets. Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbook, Illinois, says that American teenagers controlled $103 billion in consumer spending during 1996. “Unlike Generation X, who are paying off college debt, Generation Y – these teens – don’t have any payments to hold them down so they can blow their money on whatever they want,” he drools. For example, Mountain Dew has signed a deal with the rap mag The Source and Black Entertainment Television, as well as ten record companies, to push their products to urban teens. Specially-equipped vans will visit the ‘hood in 13 cities, “spreading the word on the latest in urban fashion and distributing the newest music, T-shirts and Mountain Dew.”

“We know that our consumers see through commercialization and over-commercialization,” says PepsiCo spokesman Jon Harris. “Teaming up with The Source provides a great vehicle to connect with consumers in a meaningful way.”

To paraphrase Robocop, these days, meaning is where you find it.

The Great Generational Marketing Debacle

“Grunge, anger, cultural dislocation, a secret yearning to belong: They add up to a daunting cultural anthropology that marketers have to confront if they want to reach twentysomethings. But it’s worth it. [Xers] do buy stuff: CDs, sweaters, jeans, boots, soda, beer, cosmetics, electronics, cars, fast food, personal computers, mountain bikes and Rollerblades,” U.S. News said enthusiastically in ‘93. Details editor James Truman ‘fessed up: “They’re tremendously cynical because they know the media is most often trying to sell them something.” There’s another thing missing: Xers had lousy jobs and huge debt burdens. It’s hard to buy when you’re broke.

Despite the warnings, marketers sunk to the occasion.

The notion of Gen X as a sociocultural movement reached its zenith on film. Young adults thrilled to the Cinderella stories of former clerks who ran up their charge cards to fund their postmodern social commentary movies. Unfortunately, earnest efforts like ex-video-store employee Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Kevin Smith’s Clerks soon gave way to cynical Boomer-conceived Hollywood dreck like the embarrassing Winona Ryder vehicle Reality Bites and Smith’s politically-correct monstrosity Chasing Amy. When the remarkable Pulp Fiction failed to win the Best Film Oscar for 1994, though, the era of experimentation came to an halt. These days Hollywood is content to cast hopelessly attractive twentysomething stars in movies like Beautiful Girls and TV shows like Baywatch and Friends. Apparently the Boomers who run the studios think younger Americans aren’t worthy of dialogue as sophisticated as in Three’s Company – thus the marketing of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and MTV’s The Real World to people supposedly hip enough to know better.

Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide became the “where were you when it happened” moment for the flannel-and-pierced-nipple set, but no pop artist has since successfully claimed the mandate of heaven to rule his throne. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney issued memorable “albums of a generation” and Pearl Jam was the great pretender. The record companies have deluged the marketplace with an endless stream of recycled standard-issue female singer-songwriters ever since, as if winsome vocals à la Beck and Jewel were in any way distinguishable from Graham Parker and Joan Baez. Record sales have fallen to even lower levels than the 1987-1994 recession, and many execs remain convinced that young adults have simply given up on music.

Beginning in 1992, an unsavory band of political opportunists seized on the latest libertarian tendencies among many Xers (centered on their distrust of big government and a disdain for taxes and deficit spending) in order to form political-action organizations. Hillary Clinton look-alike Wendy Kopp (now 28) formed Teach for America to get white college grads to teach in inner-city schools and see herself quoted in national newsweeklies while collecting a salary well into six figures.

Insufferable wealthy pretty boys Jon Cowan (now 31) and Rob Nelson (now 33) founded Lead or Leave, a lobbying group that viewed the budget deficit as the single most important problem facing American youth (never mind that attacking the deficit means increased unemployment and less financial aid) and depicted the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as the mortal enemies of all things young and beautiful. They proposed to take on the AARP by attacking selfish entitlement programs for senior citizens and by representing the issues important to the young as effectively as the AARP defended Social Security. They neglected to tell the gaggle of magazine and TV reporters who followed their every move that their organization was a shill for Ross Perot’s failed 1992 presidential bid. Their diminutive leader gone, Lead or Leave left, evaporating around ‘94.

The Second Wave of Inside-the-Beltway operatives includes such luminaries as Third Millennium’s Richard Thau, a man few Xers have heard of but who nonetheless claims to speak for them. “We grew up in a period with one instance of government malfeasance and ineptitude after another, from Watergate to Iran-contra to the explosion of the Challenger to Whitewater. We believe government can’t be trusted to do anything right,” Thau tells Time. One wonders if he knows that, at age 32, the same piece he’s quoted in doesn’t even consider him an Xer at all?

America’s other new Xer Poster Boy is The Sierra Club’s new wondergeek president, Adam Werbach. (Advisory: He’s 24. Doug Coupland would say he’s not Gen X.) “Gen X,” Time quotes Werbach, “responds to aggressively hip, visual and interactive messages. Want to fight oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge? Set up booths to sell black snow cones.” No wonder you need a 30 sunblock to walk to your car.

While a cadre of Xer posers brownnoses its way into assistant-to-the-assistant-whatever slots in the capital, real issues are utterly ignored. The vast majority of Americans believe, with good reason, that young adults only care about balancing the budget, saving the rain forests and stopping AIDS. The Big Issues – free trade, income redistribution, underemployment, crime, foreign policy – are matters for our elders to decide. The mainstream media and its Xer puppets have rendered tens of millions of people (let’s not get into how many tens of millions!) utterly voiceless. In the end young adults have become as mysterious and useless as voters as they are as consumers.

Generation X: The Next Generation
So what’s next for the generation that no one can figure out? First of all, it seems likely that for the next few years they’ll continue to be considered whoever happens to be in their twenties at the time. If you accept the idea that age groups are partially defined by the formative experiences of their childhoods, each batch of twentysomethings will be different. The American media is far too removed from ordinary people to track actual generations, much less artificial age segments in constant flux.

Second, the “real Xers” – as defined by a distinct range of birth years – will probably never be able to agree on what they stand for in any coherent manner. Unlike the Baby Boomers, who seem to agree that they enjoy getting divorced and not promoting their younger employees, Xer diversity is certainly not likely to emerge any time soon – so don’t look for any Xer political group to gain real support. It’s hard to lobby when you’re not sure you actually exist.

Xer refusal to argue for their common interests ensures that, even if they refuse to propose a solution, they won’t become a part of the problem. Today’s young adults can’t get it together – which is a damn good thing when you consider the fiscal and social fallout from older Americans’ refusal to sacrifice for their fellow citizens. When a 62-year-old woman recently gave birth to her own grandchild through in vitro fertilization, the first joke I heard about was: “Yeah, but will she vote for the school levy?” Remaining disorganized as an age group makes us better Americans. On the other hand, politics sinks to the lowest common denominator. Other age groups, as in the case of the AARP, do promote their narrow interests – usually at the expense of their younger counterparts. Now that Baby Boomers are having children in large numbers, they’re passing their demographic clout over the heads of today’s Gen Xers in a weird sort of generational leapfrog. We attended schools eviscerated by budget cuts in an era when kids weren’t a priority; now many schools have better computers than some offices. Still, I suspect that few Xers begrudge today’s children an education better than they received themselves. Xers may have been raised by selfish assholes who looked out for numero uno, but they turned out fairly decently.

In the meantime, the marketing madness goes on. The Harvey Entertainment Company recently announced its intention to begin licensing such “classic” characters as Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Witch. According to Harvey’s press release: “Our marketing strategy will simultaneously capitalize on inherent strengths of our classic characters in three key areas: entertainment-driven merchandising, the collectors’ market, and fashion. The synergistic market activity will have long-term value-added impact on Harvey and its licensees. Harvey Entertainment’s multi-level brand licensing strategy utilizes established assets, while building new assets through the creation of brand imagery and product design that are based on its world-famous characters. As Harvey’s classic characters are being successfully relaunched to a new generation of children as well as adults since Harvey is drawing on the ‘Generation X’ and ‘30-something’ young adults, who remember the characters fondly from their childhood.” And if cartoon characters aren’t quite what you’re looking for, consider actress-model Cindy Margolis, who is now being promoted as “something to believe in…the perfect spokesperson for this unique, new generation. These consumers are truly optimistic about their future and willing to take charge of their own destiny. She stands up for a generation that believes that by working hard, you can achieve what you’re going for. She delivers appealing, All-American looks and the straight facts, with a great attitude. Cindy is an advertiser’s ‘Dream Machine’.”

(C) 1994 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved