The author of Generation X will turn 40 on the second-last day of this year. But don't think it's keeping him up at night. "People keep saying, 'Oooooohhhh, 40,' and my inward response is, 'What is your point?' " Douglas Coupland says. "If they keep persisting, I say, '40 is the new 30,' and that's that. The reason for trauma is beyond me."
But the advancing age of this youth-culture icon comes as a surprise to others. Forty is a glaring signpost for one and all, the beginning of middle age. For Generation X -- a social cohort once defined by its seeming inability to move out of its parents' basements -- the transition seems all the more jarring. This year marks the beginning of the end of Gen X as we know it.
Most age groups share some touchstone experience, be it war, hunger or prosperity. For members of Generation X, it was an extended adolescence -- a wayward, perhaps stymied, searching period that continued well into their 20s and often 30s. While Coupland and his peers may not be running out to purchase their minivans just yet, the adolescence is officially over. Ten years after the publication of the Vancouver writer's zeitgeist-naming novel, the so-called slackers have finally come of age. Happy birthday, Gen X.
Canadian demographer David Foot's tome Boom, Bust and Echo described the way many Gen Xers were living in the early 1990s, back when 30 was the new 20: "Many of them were still living at home with their parents at their 30th birthday because, faced with horrendous obstacles in the labour market, they had a terrible time getting their careers on track."
Today, talking to dozens of Gen Xers hitting (or nearing) 40, you may hear that many have never owned real estate, either because they couldn't afford to enter the market or because they feel their life is too unsettled. Most remain unencumbered by spouses or children. Those who do have families, by and large, have chosen to settle down later than their parents did. They say they see their existences as more stress-filled than those of generations before and after them.
Not that they're complaining. Staring down 40, the Gen Xers do not live up to their neurotic, alienated reputation. Most claim to be happy, even if they say they feel unresolved about their lives. While the concept of "middle age" remains foreign, they are philosophical and open about the milestone.
"I like 40," says David Eddie, a stay-home Toronto writer and dad who recently hit that age. Eddie is currently working on a novel about a wayward Gen X artist titled Born to Rent. "I feel organized for the first time. It's just like Martin Amis says, you suddenly start to look backwards instead of forward all the time."
Sean Dixon, a 37-year-old Toronto playwright, says he is still enjoying his extended youth, writing, acting, playing the banjo and living in a house with a bunch of other unattached people. "I'm not particularly dreading 40," he says. "I still feel like I'm just coming into my own. And yet I know that 40 is kind of old, so it's kind of a shock -- mainly because I'm still living like a student."
The feeling of extended adolescence is not reserved for the bohemians. It's shared by many leading more conventional lives than Dixon's. "Adulthood is delayed for us now," says CBC's Vancouver anchor Ian Hanomansing, who turned 40 on Labour Day. Compared with Dixon, Hanomansing is a straight arrow. The New Brunswick native is married with two children and has been employed by the same company for well over a decade. Still, he says, the concept of adulthood was only a recent development in his life.
"You live a kid's life basically into your 30s. Now, like many people of my generation, I'm in the transition from being youthful, single and carefree to being the average, part of the bland demographic of middle-aged people with children. It's a bit disturbing. I read an article the other day in which someone was talking about the need to retrain a 40-year-old worker, and I thought, 'My God, that's me.' "
The Xer tag has often been more stigma than badge of pride, and many of the age group refuse to claim it. "I never identified with the whole Gen X thing," says Flare magazine editor Suzanne Boyd, 38. "I wasn't from Seattle, I didn't listen to grunge rock, I wasn't feckless and I didn't wear baggy corduroy."
Canadian-born New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, 38, expresses similarly mixed feelings. "I do identify as a Gen Xer, although I never really understood what it meant and I also never really bought the idea that there was a great divide between the way I thought at 30 and way other generations thought at 30.
"I did, however, always think the baby boomers were mildly distinguished by their high degree of self-obsession. There were just so many of them, and for a while it felt like all you read about were the private struggles of people born in that era. If I had a generational imperative, it was to keep my mouth shut about my own personal perils and anxieties."
Gladwell's notions reflect a general lack of consensus on what Gen X actually means. The spate of recession-era media stories in the early 1990s portrayed the bitter "slackers" of Gen X as anyone in their 20s, and the term stuck to successive waves of twentysomethings. Common usage identifies Gen X with the "bust" that followed the baby boom, and generally anyone born in the 1960s.
But demographer Foot argues that Gen X is actually the tail end of the baby boom, the 3.2 million Canadians born from 1961 to 1966. "Perhaps you had the misfortune to enter the world in 1961, one of the worst years in this century to be born," he writes in the first chapter of Boom, Bust and Echo. "You are one of a huge crowd of late boomers, also known as Generation X. The mass of older boomers who preceded you occupied most of the best jobs and pushed the price of real estate way up, possibly out of your reach until recently. Chances are that life has been a struggle for you. And your parents, the lucky people who were born in 1937 or thereabouts, probably don't understand how tough that struggle has been."
The irony of Foot's analysis is that it means the "invisible" Generation X actually includes the largest single-year age group in Canadian history -- those born in 1961. More people are turning 40 in the country this year than ever have before. As David Eddie jokes, "There are a whole lot of Canadians quietly turning 39 again this year."
But they are still feeling the effects of early economic misfortune. The first wave of Generation X appeared on the planet at a time of stunning economic prosperity for the Canadian middle class. In 1961, the year Generation X was born, Canadians were averaging four children per family. And the vast majority of those households were comfortably supported on a single income.
But as those children grew up, as Statistics Canada figures show, the falling income rate for men made it necessary for young couples to count on two incomes to support their material aspirations. "While the front-end boomers were earning 30 per cent more than their fathers by age 30," Foot writes, "back-enders were making 10 per cent less than their fathers at the same age." It will come as no surprise that Gen Xers, particularly women, are marrying far later than their parents did. The average Gen X woman will have two children or fewer.
Gen Xers were the first generation of North American women to fully reap the benefits of feminism from girlhood into adulthood. Many were brought up by mothers and fathers who encouraged them to live as independently as possible. Many female Gen Xers remain content with that as they head into middle age. "I'm not married, I don't have kids, I have very little baggage, I travel quite light," says Flare's Suzanne Boyd. "I have a job that has a lot of responsibility, but that's all. I have a very free life, sort of like a teenager. I didn't feel like I had to take on anything I didn't want to. I never felt like it was expected of me to have kids, get married or run a household. The only thing I felt I was expected to do was to have a career and I've done that."
Many early Gen Xers grew up in the shadow of the 1980s upwardly-mobile young urban professional phenomena, but did not actually share the experience because they graduated into a flagging economy. They endured all the shame of yuppiedom and ended up with no BMW to show for it. But not quite fitting the mould is the Gen-X way.
For all their time in economic limbo, the Xers are extraordinarily well travelled and educated. "My generation is more interesting and subtle than those before or after," Eddie says. "We have an Eastern European sensibility. The culture of a country in decline is always going to have a more ironic, self-mocking sensibility than the prosperous country with its gas-guzzling SUVs."
The Generation branded X was criticized from the moment it was named for consisting of a bunch of depressive, self-pitying, over-educated brats who felt they were too good to take a Joe job when times got tough. They were black sheep, the kvetching party-poopers sandwiched in between peace-and-security-loving boomers and their dot-com billionaire spawn.
But while most Gen Xers still rail at the cringe-worthy connotations of the term, many will now admit that there probably is something called Generation X. "When [Coupland's book] Generation X came out, I felt betrayed. I felt like it was something to appease the baby boomers," Dixon says. "Now, however, I understand that the book was a cogent observation on the times, and that my hostility toward it was because of the generation I was in."
Mike Allen, a financial planner with ScotiaMcLeod who moved his wife and three young sons from Toronto to Halifax partly in anticipation of his 40th birthday last month, has similarly conflicted feelings. "I didn't even know I was one," he says.
On reflection, though, he concedes that, despite being born in the midst of the longest boom time in modern history, his experience of the world has been characterized by economic decline. "Themes of my life have been: poorly designed andbuilt public facilities, increasing enrolment requirements, cutbacks, downsizing and re-engineering," he sighs. "Cripes, I hate to think what they're dreaming up for me next."
Others, such as 38-year-old Mark Kingwell, a University of Toronto philosophy professor, author and columnist, maintain that the term, and any birth-cohort-based demographics for that matter, have little to do with real life. "Mostly, the idea of 'Generation Anything' strikes me as about as meaningful as somebody's sign of the Zodiac," he says. "The same illusion of grand explanation, obscuring individual freedom of choice and action.
"However, I did enjoy Coupland's book when it was first published. He nicely captured a peculiar cultural moment and feeling, a bit like a good pop song."
Always a style-conscious generation, many Gen Xers are sick of the term mainly because it seems so overdone. "I only believed in Gen X in terms of the Billy Idol band," says 38-year-old poet Lynn Crosbie. "I identified with it in terms of the punk movement, but in terms of the bookwormy musings of Doug Coupland -- I never understood what the hell he was talking about."
Asked if she is surprised to hear that Coupland was turning 40, Crosbie snorts. "I'm absolutely shocked," she says. "I thought Doug Coupland was in his 50s."
Like many of her peers, Crosbie has had the curious experience of being branded "young" well into her late 30s. It's a label she accepts with indifference. "I've never traded on youth and I certainly don't think youth is a excuse for gaucheness. The term 'young writer' is metatemporal. It refers to a kind of freshness."
Eddie, however, admits to having played his youth card well past its expiry date now and again. "At first, we were too young for the good jobs and then we were too old. By the time we were 35, everyone wanted young and hip. I got a bloody job as a summer student at the CBC at age 35. The boomers became so bourgeois that anyone who wore skateboard sneakers was suddenly super-hip."
Forty-year-old Louisa McCormack is in a similar position as host of TalkTV's youth-oriented current-affairs program The Chatroom. She accepts the term only in arch, negative terms -- as if being a Gen Xer says more about what you haven't done than what you have. "I'm Gen X because I was a tiny kid during the peace, love and grooviness era and my adulthood's been punctuated by recessions," McCormack says. "I'm Gen X because my teenage anthems were punk and I'm too old to be tattooed and punctured. Not that any of this is a big deal to me. We Gen Xers are very ironically distanced."
Looking back at the Gen X media blitz of the early nineties, it's no wonder so many pushing-fortysomethings want to put as much distance between themselves and the worn-out label as they can. Coupland himself was skeptical from the beginning. "I speak for myself, not for a generation. I never have," he often insisted.
And a Toronto Star article in May, 1993, reported a sentiment many still agree with as they approach middle age: "They're tired of the labels. The glib headlines. Generation X, Twenty-something, Xers, Gen Xers, 13rs (as in the 13th generation since the Mayflower) post-boomers, the No-Name Generation, McJobbers (as in flipping burgers). They resent, in particular, the implication that they're going nowhere, adrift and buffeted in the great wash of the generation that came before them, the Baby Boom."
For some, the Gen X tag was always a misnomer -- though one that didn't entirely hurt their public profile. For author and BookTV host Daniel Richler, now 44, the persona was one he couldn't shake for many years, despite his relative demographic seniority. He made his name interviewing younger punk and new wave bands on television, and then published his novel Kicking Tomorrow,about the dawn of punk in Montreal, in 1991 -- the same year as Generation X.
"There was a shared feeling there," Richler acknowledges, "because my book described the middle-class complaint of a kid who felt he'd missed the Sixties and felt he had no other tag. The feeling was one of a great hangover of the Sixties party."
But Richler ended up feeling alienated by the generational hype. "I got very grumpy about the cynical marketing trends and the fact that Gen X was celebrated because they were the early adopters of new technology. . . . I thought, 'Dan, you're a geezer. You're no Gen Xer.' "
He admits he found the early-nineties Gen X mentality off-putting and still does today. "I've always found Gen Xers very resentful of older people, and quick to count the lines on my face," he says. "Ugh, it's no wonder. Think of [those]times: the political correctness on campus. The very spiky politics. It was very much the dawn of the No Logo mindset -- a politics expressed specifically in negatives. All that bombastic grunge rock. I felt so excluded."
And for many of those people, what makes the transition to 40 so liberating in that it frees them from the tiresome image of youthful disaffection. They express relief that the phase of resentment and bitterness is over. Novelist Catherine Bush turned 40 this summer on a holiday in Paris with her writer companion, Andre Alexis. Bush's first novel, Minus Time,came out in 1993, and like many first novels published at the time, was largely marketed as a "Generation X-type novel."
"Again and again in reviews, I had the experience of being compared to Coupland, even though our work has nothing in common," she recalls, with some annoyance.
Bush does see commonalities among Canadians born in the early sixties. "We were the Trudeaumania kids, born into the first flourishing of Canadian nationalism. Our first memories were of Expo 67."
However, she believes that "the whole 'Cynical Gen Xer' thing" was and is pointless. "People in their 20s are always cynical. The disaffection that Gen X felt is pretty much something that every generation goes through. It was just possible for us to indulge in it longer than other generations.
"There is always going to be a younger generation who are disdainful of those who are older. You just have to grow up and move on from that gracefully."
And, Foot says, most have. In economic terms, he says, the worst is over for 40-year-old Generation X. "They're no longer in basement apartments. They now have young families and mortgages to pay and their careers are finally on track. With the good economy in the last half of the nineties, they finally were able to settle down. Besides, the clock was clicking. If you're going to have kids, you're probably going to have them in your mid-to-late 30s, and many Gen Xers have.
"Mind you," he adds, "they still resent the generations 10 years on either side of them. The younger generation is getting signing bonuses, because they're in short supply, which is another example of the the gravy train going by and forgetting to stop at [the Xers']station. Some things haven't changed."
While they are one the most generalized-about generations since the Second World War, the Xers are also a demographic that actively resists all generalizations, and that holds true when it comes to confronting 40. Let's just say they're not all so philosophical about it.
Crosbie, for one, is having none of it. The acclaimed experimentalist and irrepressible contrarian is sticking her head in the sand as long as she is able. "Forty? I refuse to think about it. I'm like one of the characters in Logan's Run -- that movie where people get killed when they turn 30. They have these red crystals embedded in their palms, and when they turn 30, the crystal goes out they die, so naturally they're in total denial. I'll paraphrase Coupland and say that, for me, 40 is the new Logan's Run." Famous and 40 in 2001
Among the well-known Generation Xers turning 40 this year are: Boy George George Clooney Nadia Comaneci Enya Melissa Etheridge Fabio Laurence Fishburne Michael J. Fox James Gandolfini Wayne Gretzky Woody Harrelson A.M. Holmes Nastassja Kinski Heather Locklear Julia Louis-Dreyfus Camryn Manheim Wynton Marsalis Mark Messier Isaac Mizrahi Eddie Murphy Dennis Rodman Meg Ryan Aaron Sorkin George Stephanopoulos Isiah Thomas Forest Whitaker Mariel Hemingway Lea Thompson Ralph Macchio Tim Roth Rebecca De Mornay Sean Penn Dylan McDermott Ken (of Barbie fame) Billy Ray Cyrus and, if she had lived, Diana, the late Princess of Wales Douglas Coupland
The Vancouver author of 1991's definitive Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture turns 40 at the end of this year. He is defiant (typically, some might say, for his cohort) about being considered a spokesperson: 'I speak for myself, not for a generation. I never have.'
The Toronto novelist turned 40 this summer. She endured the 'Gen-X writer' label through much of her career, but is largely dismissive: 'People in their 20s are always cynical. The disaffection that Gen X felt is pretty much something that every generation goes through. It was just possible for us to indulge in it longer than other generations.'
CBC television's Vancouver news anchor turned 40 on Labour Day. 'Like many people of my generation, I'm in the transition from being youthful, single and carefree to being the average, part of the bland demographic of middle-aged people with children. It's a bit disturbing.'
The 38-year-old poet and experimental novelist is a generational contrarian. 'I only believed in Gen X in terms of the Billy Idol band,' she says. 'I identified with it in terms of the punk movement, but in terms of the bookwormy musings of Doug Coupland -- I never understood what the hell he was talking about.'
The Canadian-born New Yorker writer, 38, is pushing 40 without much trepidation. His Gen-X identity is a quieter thing: 'I never really bought the idea that there was a great divide . . . I did, however, always think the baby boomers were mildly distinguished by their high degree of self-obsession. If I had a generational imperative it was to keep my mouth shut about my own personal perils and anxieties.'
The 38-year-old editor of Flare magazine is typical of the first generation of women to grow up expecting total independence. 'I'm not married, I don't have kids, I have very little baggage, I travel quite light. I have a job that has a lot of responsibility, but that's all. I have a very free life, sort of like a teenager. . . . I never felt like it was expected of me to have kids, get married or run a household.'