The Consumer Republic

The X-File
What ever happened to slackers? You remember them. They were the generational clich that launched a thousand ad campaigns in the early ’90s, when it finally dawned on the media and marketplace that there was life after the baby boom. If you call that living.
Slackers were the lost boys and girls scratching out a future at the end of history, postpolitical, postfeminist, postmodern. They spent their after-school hours in empty homes from which dad had split and mom had gone to work. Ambivalent and terminally disillusioned, they meandered from the mall to the video arcade. Saddled with huge debt from college, they labored in dead-end McJobs, only to return home to take solace from MTV in their childhood bedrooms. Heirs to 20 years of their nearsighted elders’ “creative destruction,” slackers were left to sift through the wreckage, destined to live out their existences on the wrong side of Woodstock.
Oops. History has thrown the clich mongers a curveball. At the far end of this decade, it is now clear that the erstwhile losers in the generational sweepstakes are the golden adults of millennial America. If one were to conjure an iconic image of today’s adult “slacker,” it would be the T-shirt-and-jeans-clad self-starter who turned a computer business run out of a dorm room into an empire worth zillions in Silicon Valley.
The terminally disillusioned downtown hipster of Cond Nast’s first version of Details has been replaced by the empowered entrepreneur of Fast Company. It’s a pity this cohort is saddled with the stupid but indelible moniker, Generation X (thanks, for once, not to condescending boomers, but to one of their own cohort).
Generation Xtra is more like it.
Indeed, now we learn from the same media that once chronicled Xer ennui that go-getters in their late 20s-about the age their elders were cutting their hair and applying to law school-are suffering from a very unslacker condition: burnout. Having grown weary from sleeping at the office while chasing the IPO dream, or having built million-dollar nest eggs from Wall Street bonuses, they’re dropping out to enjoy hippie-esque adventures, such as cross-country bike trips and mind-expanding world travel. One could call it a premature midlife crisis, but it’s probably a delayed adolescence-in contrast to the boomers’ prolonged one.
Of course, conscientious consumer researchers have known all along that when it came to this group, X did not mark the spot.
Having learned self-reliance at an early age, the misnamed Xers emerged into young adulthood more certain of what they want, more focused on goals than boomers who had wandered their way to self-fulfillment and enlightenment.
Yet, notes Rosalind Chernoff, a planning director at J. Walter Thompson, because too many marketers are stuck on the slacker image, they write them off in their eagerness to get at Generation Y. “They’re not slackers. They’re currently the generation forming families, buying homes and building careers,” she says.
In fact, it’s high time we trashed the entire lucky boomer/screwed-Xer dichotomy. Certainly the first wave of baby boomers emerged into guns-and-butter young adulthood trailing clouds of glory from their stable, complacent postwar childhoods. But as successive boomers reached maturity, it was a different story. As they passed the dreaded age-30 barrier en masse, the real world was worse than they had ever expected: tight job markets, raging inflation and ecological pessimism.
By the early-’80s recession, things were scary for sure. The subsequent “greed decade” image has been flogged ad nauseum. But what’s often forgotten about the yuppie era is that it was motivated by fear as much as avarice, as psychologically ill-prepared boomers realized they were falling behind.
Conversely, the latch-key kids of Generation X have come of age under the bright star of a 10,000-and-counting Dow. The oil crisis haunted their childhoods, but today they bask in commodity gluts. Who can blame young adults for walking away from six-figure jobs in the current age of unlimited expectations? According to the Wall Street Journal, Xers graduating with an MBA this year can expect their first job to pay an average of $139,000-unless they’re the object of a bidding war among talent-starved employers, in which case throw in a company car, too. Oh, to be born in 1975!
It’s worth noting that in the early ’90s, slackers were not the only thing the zeitgeist gurus got wrong. Virtually every assumption about the ’90s was off base, from the “simple life” to the “we decade.” That’s worth remembering as the media begins obsessing about Generation Y-you know, the ones extolling their unprecedented confidence, competence and soaring expectations. History has a way of turning generational expectations, and the self-serving judgments of their elders, on their heads. ƒ