"Consumption is this generation's currency," shrugs Jane Rinzler Buckingham, whose market research firm, Youth Intelligence, helps big companies understand Generation X. "They don't have government or causes to believe in, so the Gucci bucket hat is their currency instead."
My Generation: Hope I Shop Before I Get Old
My generation was created by Time magazine. Calling us "the 20-something generation," the cover article of July 16, 1990, herded and then defined the 48 million Americans born from 1965 to 1977.
"They have trouble making decisions," the article said. "They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders."
The myth-making continued: raised as "latchkey kids" in homes where television was a surrogate parent, we 20-somethings felt abandoned, according to Time. We were resentful and afraid of commitment. Even more, we were paralyzed by the social problems surrounding us - described by the magazine as "racial strife, homelessness, AIDS, fractured families and federal deficits."
It was huge, the impact of that Time cover. Overnight, an entire industry of management and marketing experts began to collect data, spew facts and analyze those 48 million consumers. Desperate to sell their products to what was now named Generation X, after Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel about three aimless, disaffected 20-something slackers, companies got to know our psyches inside out. We were "the children of neglect" (according to U.S. News and World Report) and "the generation of diminished expectations" (BusinessWeek); we had "almost no one to look up to" (Time).
Someone we did look up to in the early 90's was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Anguished, alienated and wearing a ratty wool cardigan on stage, he moaned to no one in particular: "All alone is all we are." Xers were cynical, apathetic, disillusioned, withdrawn, anticommercial and angry, we were informed by specialists. "I don't buy things," a (supposedly) representative 24-year-old boasted to The Los Angeles Times in 1993, especially "if they're advertised."
It was a useful fiction, the idea of Generation Xers - a way to create a homogeneous group out of 48 million people who, in hindsight, may have had very little in common except their youth. At the time, though, my generation seemed relevant and interesting and cool. We stood for something. We were defiant! And independent! Marketers were struggling to understand the real us! We were worth something.
These days, no one cares about Generation X. What is there to care about? We started turning 40 this year - we're on the precipice of middle age - and no one's writing cover articles about us. We're conventional. At the same time, we finally do have something that unites us: shopping. It has become the defining occupation of my generation.
We don't just shop for anything, of course. Generation X is defined by a few recognizable artifacts: our flat-screen TV's, our $869 Bugaboo Frog strollers with matching parasol and diaper bag, our Treo phones, our Miele dishwashers, our shiny Dualit toasters, our spearmint-colored Marc Jacobs handbags, our Sigerson Morrison shoes and our Land Rovers.
Xers continue to sneer at baby boomers, the postwar generation born between 1946 and 1964. They're selfish and shallow and materialistic, we tell one another knowingly. Yet, according to the new American Express Platinum Luxury Survey, the average Gen Xer now spends 18 percent more on luxury goods than the average baby boomer. Our credit cards are weighing us down like millstones. We're juggling interest-only and adjustable-rate mortgages. To build the great big bathrooms and great big kitchens that define us, we're taking out home-equity loans.
"Consumption is this generation's currency," shrugs Jane Rinzler Buckingham, whose market research firm, Youth Intelligence, helps big companies understand Generation X. "They don't have government or causes to believe in, so the Gucci bucket hat is their currency instead." If shopping for Gucci hats is our version of the march on Selma, appliance showrooms are our Woodstock.
Reflecting the consuming passion of my generation, the hot new magazines are "magalogs," or shopping catalogs disguised, barely, as magazines. Baby boomers may be reading Architectural Digest (median age: 49) or The New Yorker (53). But Gen Xers prefer Lucky: The Magazine About Shopping (median age: 31) and Domino: The Shopping Magazine for Your Home (35). The Gen X male, who is also occupied by shopping - and by the unwanted hair on his back - has his very own magalog, Cargo.
James Truman, former editorial director at Condé Nast, helped conceive the magalogs Lucky and Domino. "I felt they were a truthful reflection of what was going on in the culture," he told The Independent a few months back, and he was right. "Everything is for sale. There is no point in pretending otherwise. So let's just put the address, the phone number and the Web site under the item and not try to make a hoopla about it signifying this or that. You don't have to get through articles on politics and serious issues. Here's the merchandise."
Specialists whose careers were built on deciphering and decoding the psyches of Generation X say that shopping is not what identifies us; shopping is merely a symptom. Deep down we are not materialistic or grasping; our compulsive shopping is an act of substitution. Filled with a sense of nostalgia for our lost childhood, we're filling a void. We're homesick.
Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, reminded me: "This generation got no support from family, religion or government. They grew up as latchkey kids. They had to check their trick-or-treat bags for razor blades. They were taught that sex can kill." And so? "So," Ms. Fishman answered, "they want someplace that yells 'Home!' It's really important to them to have a home."
IN other words, our Sub-Zero refrigerators and Dualit toasters are substitutes for the ideal home we never had, just as our too-big, too-heavy Bugaboo strollers are a substitute for the ideal parent we never had, and our flat-screen TV's are a substitute for all those years our parents left us at home alone. All alone is all we are.
"The world is a confusing place, period, end of story," added Ms. Rinzler Buckingham, the market researcher, wanting to be helpful. "But for us, we were a generation where everything was so messed up, from politics to the environment, holes in the ozone layer, high divorce rates, AIDS. We feel rudderless, and no one has helped give us a rudder.
"You know," she continued, "it's like, 'My life is hard enough already, so if splurging on a big entertainment unit makes me feel better, why not?'"
Nina Munk is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.