A RECENT CONFERENCE at the University of Rochester brought together hundreds of young people, between 18 to 23, and graying or soon-to-be graying newspaper editors.
The topic? "Press Images of Generation X."
The problem? Young people don't feel like they're being fairly portrayed in print.
The solution? Adding more stories of young entrepreneurs on the business page, or creating a column for a precocious and opinionated twentysomething. But one solution that was barely discussed is simpler and more effective -- get rid of the label instead.
I have yet to meet one young person who enjoys being labeled a member of Generation X. The label is something like a sour lemon, a punch in the eye, or a pile of dirty dishes, an affiliation with the KKK. A few years ago, I fell in love with the label because it sounded as catchy as Bart Simpson's refrain, "Bite me."
I would comb through glossy magazines like Details, motion my friends over and say, "Wow, look, it's another Generation X magazine." Recently, reality hit when a young man standing next to me at the newsstand scowled and chastised me for labeling all twentysomethings members of Generation X.
"You must be a journalist," he said.
"How did you know?" I asked.
"All journalists use stupid cliches and inaccurate labels," he said, and with that he stormed away. I swore to never use the "X" word again.
The problem is I am still as addicted to the label as I am to playing Pearl Jam's "Vitology" twenty-four hours a day. It sits on the tip of my tongue like a bad word or awful taste, and every so often it slips out and I am berated by some young person who begs me not to label him but to look at him as an individual.
It is a turnoff when a young person sees Generation X in a publication these days. A few years ago, it was a catchy phrase. These days, it is something like a curse or, more realistically, annoying and insulting. What began as a title to Douglas Coupland's book has stereotyped this generation as a group of slackers, hackers and losers.
In some ways, I have been a traitor to my generation by labeling my friends and striving to define my classmates, dictionary-entry style. Several summers spent at newspapers and years of writing for glossy mainstream magazines have trained me one way. Now I am seeking to learn the other.
Not too long ago, I was asked to write an article for a magazine about what young people in their late teens and early 20s are interested in -- everything from Sega Genesis, to CyberGasm, to crossword puzzles, to opera and Nirvana.
The editor, a graying woman in her 50s, asked me to include Kurt Cobainworshipping, body-piercing, hair-dyeing, thrift-shop hopping, and zine writing.
"I heard Generation X-ers love these things," she said. She looked genuinely confused when I winced. "Was it something I said?" she asked. "It was nothing," I lied.
But it is everything to young people who are hyperconscious about how society sees them, how the world perceives them. Blame it on the self-consciousness of post-adolescence. Blame it on the media who base their business on the "unbias" law, but have broken the law continually when covering young people. …