Generation X: The Historical Context

When examining the values, attitudes & behaviours of any given generation, it’s always worth interrogating the historical context in which those within said generation grew up in. With that in mind, it quickly becomes apparent how dichotomous the period Gen Xers came of age in actually was, typified on the one hand by unrelenting conflict, political uncertainty and instability whilst on the other, by rapid technological and economic progress.

On a global geo-political level, this was a period defined by the Cold War, the constant threat of all out nuclear war and the terrifying and at times very real prospect of the annihilation of the human race hanging over all of our heads. As if that wasn’t enough regional instability and conflict swamped countries in lengthy and costly wars.

The US emerged defeated from the draining and divisive Vietnam War via the Watergate Hotel, whilst the UK dealt with the guerrilla tactics of the IRA at home and the invasion of the sovereign soil of The Falklands overseas. Meanwhile, the Middle East was mired in two almost decade long conflicts in the form of the Iran-Iraq War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Revolution was also in the air, with significant cultural change experienced in China (The Cultural Revolution 1966-1976) and Iran (The Iranian Revolution 1978-1979), and the end of erstwhile dictator Franco in Spain. And all this before the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall that signalled the beginning of the end for The Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s.

The struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa and The Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 typified the state of flux that the world was in, a time when the status quo was coming under increasing pressure, at the mercy of a disaffected generation who were no longer willing to accept inequality and oppression.

With an almost constant backdrop of war and upheaval, it should come as no surprise that Gen Xers seek out the sanctuary and sanctity of family and meaningful relationships, anchors that can provide certainty in desperately uncertain times. The value they place in fun, freedom and experiences is also a result of not knowing what tomorrow might bring, or indeed in fact if tomorrow might come at all. It’s an optimism that belies an inherent acceptance of the fragility of the context of their real lives.

Gen Xers have sometimes been unfairly dismissed as nihilists and slackers, but these are slights that ignore the complexity of their characters. Blasé and fiercely cynical maybe, but that’s a direct result of adopting a fierce resilience to being confronted with constant challenges. It’s also worth remembering that these challenges manifested themselves in other forms such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. For a time, it must have seemed as if, one way or another, our time was up.

With all this in mind, era-defining events in human history, such as the moon landings and the invention of the internet almost seem like a footnote to the geo-political maelstrom of the time. To reconcile unbounded technological advancement with an overwhelming sense that we might throw it all away at any time must have been wildly infuriating. And just to compound matters, this is also a generation that had to contend with two severe global recessions in a decade, bookending Black Monday in 1987, crushing the dreams and draining the bank accounts of countless Yuppies around the world.

An expected reaction to an era of continued challenges on multiple fronts was the development of an identity that called out and rejected notions and symbols of authority or the establishment. This was a system that in Gen Xers eyes was fundamentally flawed and inherently broken and so the anarchic spirit of the punk movement, typified by the likes of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, provided the soundtrack to the generation, with songs such as White Riot and God Save the Queen fitting anthems for a seemingly doomed youth.

And yet, eventually, the instability of the 80’s paved the way for the 90’s, a period of relative calm and prosperity, all Cool Britannia and Y2K bugs, a world looking forwards to a new millennium and a new start. This was a time when Gen Xers could reflect on the chaos of where they had come from and plan ahead to where they might go; a clean slate, full of promise and opportunity. A generation breathing a collective sigh of relief, believing that the worst must be behind them, and ever the pragmatists, preparing for whatever might come next…

Alex Beattie
Senior Consultant