Generations, Part 5: Gen X Ghost Stories

Generation X: Get Real

(Born 1965-1980)

What does the video game Donkey Kong have to do with understanding Generation X? Well, the game’s hero is a middle-aged construction worker out to rescue his girlfriend from the gorilla Donkey Kong by facing ever-increasing challenges across a series of different gaming platforms as the game evolved over several years. Haydn Shaw explains, “Divorce, latchkey kids, multiple recessions, global competition, missing children on milk cartons – Gen Xers learned to roll with the bad news and land on their feet. Their lives matched their video games because Donkey Kong had to swing from vines and then land on his feet or fall to his death.” Gen Xers typically see themselves as realists, even though they are often characterized by others as cynical or whiny, but we need to hear their ghost stories to understand them as a generation.

  1. Squished between the Boomers and Millennials and 25% smaller, Gen Xers are the product of what many call a “Baby Bust.” Instead of increasing when the Boomers reached child-bearing age, birthrates plummeted as women pursued education and career opportunities.

  2. Divorce produced an unprecedented shift in family structure as the divorce rate nearly tripled from 1960 to 1982. Gen Xers looked to friends when their family relationships offered little support, and they rejected the “work first” and “easy divorce” attitudes of so many of the Boomers and pursued a balance between work and family life.

  3. Downward Mobility became part of the new reality for Gen Xers; the expectations of lifetime employment and job security were no longer realistic in an international economy. With fewer jobs, more expensive housing, and higher college expenses, Gen Xers entered adulthood with unprecedented debt, little certainty in the workplace, and few opportunities for advancement as their Boomer bosses continue to work with no plan to retire anytime soon.

  4. Parody became the means by which Gen Xers expressed their skepticism of organizations, companies, politicians, and experts – making a poor imitation of something serious in order to expose its flaws. Since they were the first generation to gain access to digital information, they realized that every news report is shaded by the perspective of its author, and you can’t believe everything you’re told. “Get real” is a powerful sentiment with this generation.

What do these ghost stories suggest about the way that Gen Xers see the world? Shaw offers some thoughts: “Despite remaining squished between two massive generations and juggling family and jobs in a downward economy, Gen Xers still retain their sense of humor. They still want organizations to quit spinning the facts and ‘get real.’ They still lampoon the world they rewired in the digital revolution. And they still look at life like a video game: you don’t have any control over the vines that come your way, but you can always try to land on your feet. Life is Donkey Kong.”

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