Generation X: Is Its Meaning Understood?

By Poindexter, Paula M.; Lasorsa, Dominic L. | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Generation X: Is Its Meaning Understood?


Poindexter, Paula M., Lasorsa, Dominic L., Newspaper Research Journal


Since the label Generation X was first used in Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel(1) to depict the angst of the MTV generation, the label has been used by newspaper and magazine journalists, network and local TV news anchors, print and broadcast advertisers, and TV, cable, and film producers as shorthand to describe the post-baby boomer generation, those born between 1965 and 1977.

While the Generation X label may be convenient for those in the media to use, do those who read, see, or hear it understand that meaning? What are the consequences for the media if the meaning of Generation X, a label that has been used to describe 45 million young adults, is misunderstood by the audience?(2) Would misunderstanding the label Generation X have special consequences for the newspaper industry? This article addresses these issues.

Background and use of the label

A 1992 New York Times article on then-presidential candidate Governor Bill Clinton's efforts to court the MTV generation's vote used a variety of labels to refer to this age group: youth vote, youngest voters, young voters, the young, young people, 19 to 30-year olds.(3) But there was no mention of the label Generation X to describe the young adult age group. But over the past six years, the use of the label Generation X, or a variation of it, appears to have become commonplace in describing the generation born between 1965 and 1977. A headline from a 1994 Washington Post News Service article, for example, said, Marketers tailor pitches toward `Generation X'.(4) Another headline for a 1996 Austin American-Statesman article, said Groups Give Voice to Generation X.(5) This article listed four interest groups that had sprung up to offset the negative portrayals of Generation X in the media, including the National Association of Twentysomethings, Generation X Coalition, The 2030 Center and Third Millennium.

As early as 1993, academic research began to use the label in conference papers and thesis reports.(6) Books have also used the Generation X label: Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks, Managing Generation X by twentysomething author Bruce Tulgan, and Rob Owen's Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place.(7) In creating an advertising campaign for its soft drink, Pepsi Cola used a variation of the Generation X label, Generation Next to appeal to the youth market. Most recently, Time magazine prominently displayed the label in a cover story, Generation X Gets Real.(8)

From its 1991 debut in Coupland's fictional account of three twentysomethings, the label Generation X has conjured up negative images. Generation X has been portrayed as cynical, apathetic, disrespectful losers and slackers. But a recent Yankelovich study featured as a Time magazine cover story contradicts that negative image. The survey found today's young adult generation should be described as optimistic, savvy, confident, ambitious, determined, independent, and materialistic.(9) Author of Managing Generation X Bruce Tulgan adds that the profile of Generation X is "sort of the flipslide of slacker." He described Generation X as "flexible, adaptable, comfortable with technology, independent problem-solvers who constantly monitor the world around them for feedback."(10)

But regardless of whether the negative or positive attributes of the label have been emphasized by the media, the relevant question is: How has the label, which has become synonymous with the young adult population, been perceived? Do those who read, see, or hear the label understand its meaning and do they evaluate it positively or negatively?

Just semantics?

One might ask whether the use of the term Generation X to refer to young adults is something worth worrying about. As Shakespeare suggested, would not a rose smell just as sweetly, regardless of what name we give it? Is not this just a matter of semantics?

The answer is, yes, that's precisely what it is. …

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