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The normalcy of Generation X

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Esther Cepeda
November 7, 2011
— Last January I went searching for answers to the question: “Whatever happened to Generation X?” It was a query that begged resolution in the midst of what, at the time, seemed like unrelenting media coverage about the Pew Research Center’s announcement that 2011 would see about 75 million baby boomers turn 65 at the stunning rate of 10,000 per day for the next 19 years.

As a member in good standing of Generation X—those born between 1961 and 1981—I was worried about my cohorts dying off in anonymity after lifetimes of toiling in the shadows of the endlessly-talked-about boomers and the much-researched “Millennials,” who were the first generation to start life in the electronic and information age.


I needn’t have worried—just-released data back up my well-researched conclusion that despite the memorable ’80s movie archetypes, Gen Xers are no slackers—our core personality traits of pragmatism, authenticity, focus on self-reliance, comfort in embracing change, and mistrust of institutions, rules and the status quo are serving us well.


The University of Michigan Longitudinal Study of American Youth released its first of a new series of quarterly reports on the 4,000 young adults who have participated in the study since 1987 and found we’re nothing like the loner, stoner, teen geeks from “The Breakfast Club” or the self-centered, angst-ridden young adults in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Generation X is solidly “active, balanced, and happy.”


According to this “Generation X Report,” 86 percent of adults between 30 and 50 years of age are working hard—70 percent spend 40 or more hours working and commuting each week while 40 percent spend 50 or more hours doing the same. Many are likely to be pursuing continuing education part time.


We’re domestic, with two-thirds currently married and 71 percent reporting minor children at home. This reflects Gen Xers’ placement of family as the highest life priority—83 percent said that “finding the right person to marry and having a happy family life” is very important. And like so many generations before us, 80 percent want to give our children better opportunities than we had.


Generation X parents walk the walk, too. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of these parents reported reading to their children three or more hours each week, and interacting through games, music or singing at least once a week. The same percentage frequently take the kiddies to zoos, museums, libraries and other educational spots, as well as help their older children with homework and discuss school issues.


Finally, community is especially important to Generation X—they’re definitely not anti-social independents. But though they’re less likely to belong to earlier hangouts like Elks or Moose lodges, they congregate at church, at their children’s schools and enrichment clubs, in community service groups and, of course, online.


It turns out that the overwhelming majority of Generation X has spent the last few decades quietly building lives described as “happy” or “very happy.” Our most pressing task will be to stay that way.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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