June 5, 2014

Generation X: America’s neglected ‘middle child’

Generation X has a gripe with pulse takers, zeitgeist keepers and population counters. We keep squeezing them out of the frame.

This overlooked generation currently ranges in age from 34 to 49, which may be one reason they’re so often missing from stories about demographic, social and political change. They’re smack in the middle innings of life, which tend to be short on drama and scant of theme.

But there are other explanations that have nothing to do with their stage of the life cycle.

Gen Xers are bookended by two much larger generations – the Baby Boomers ahead and the Millennials behind – that are strikingly different from one another. And in most of the ways we take stock of generations – their racial and ethnic makeup; their political, social and religious values; their economic and educational circumstances; their technology usage – Gen Xers are a low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy behemoths.

The charts below tell the tale. 

Generation X

Gen Xers' retirement fundsTo be fair, there are a few metrics that don’t fit this straightforward pattern of generational evolution. For example, over the course of their voting lives, older Gen Xers have tended to be more Republican than both older Boomers and younger Millennials. Also, Xers are more pessimistic than both of those larger generations that they’ll have enough money for their retirement – though some of that negativity is doubtless tied to the economic stresses of middle age.

Gen Xers also stand out in another way. In 2010 when Pew Research asked adults of all ages if they thought their own generation was unique, about six-in-ten Boomers and Millennials said yes. But only about half of Gen Xers said the same. And even among those who did, there was very little consensus about why they are distinctive.

One reason Xers have trouble defining their own generational persona could be that they’ve rarely been doted on by the media. By contrast, Baby Boomers have been a source of media fascination from the get-go (witness their name). And Millennials, the “everybody-gets-a-trophy” generation, have been the subject of endless stories about their racial diversity, their political and social liberalism, their voracious technology use, and their grim economic circumstances. What's unique about each US generation? Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers

Gen Xers have also gotten the short end of basic generational arithmetic. Due partly to their parents’ relatively low fertility rates, there are fewer of them (65 million) than Boomers (77 million) or Millennials (an estimated 83 million assuming a roughly 20-year age span and including those who have yet to reach adulthood).

But there’s another reason that Xers are a small generation: They’ve been deemed to span just 16 years, while most generations are credited with lasting for about 20 years. How come? No one really knows. Generational boundaries are fuzzy, arbitrary and culture-driven. Once fixed by the mysterious forces of the zeitgeist, they tend to firm up over time.

One final slight: Even their name is a retread. World War II photographer Robert Capa first coined the term Generation X in a photo essay about the young adults of the 1950s, but the label didn’t stick the first time around. It was revived thirty years later by Canadian author Douglas Coupland, whose coming of age novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, was set in Southern California.

For Xers, there’s one silver lining in all this. From everything we know about them, they’re savvy, skeptical and self-reliant; they’re not into preening or pampering, and they just might not give much of a hoot what others think of them. Or whether others think of them at all.

Paul Taylor, executive vice president for special projects at the Pew Research Center, is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown (Public Affairs, 2014). In other words, he’s part of the problem.

Topics: Demographics, Generations and Age, Political Attitudes and Values

  1. Photo of Paul Taylor

    is Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center.

  2. is a Digital Editorial Assistant at the Pew Research Center.

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46 Comments

  1. Peter Tharaldson2 days ago

    Actually your writing points to a much larger problem. You have contrived generational bucketing when in fact you are simply looking at slopes of behavioral change. Frankly, you have massive construct validity problems.

    Reply
  2. Walt Reap1 month ago

    interesting…

    Reply
  3. Mike1 month ago

    Pew’s tweets linking to this article characterize Gen X as fiscal conservatives and social liberals. To label an entire generation that way based on survey percentages so close to 50% (with what margin of error?) is ludicrous. But to do so to Generation X is entirely appropriate.

    Reply
  4. Sean1 month ago

    The numbers make sense when you consider that older people tend to be more conservative and younger people tend to be more liberal… boomers more conservative, millennials more liberal and gen x in the middle. As a member of gen x, I can relate from a marketing perspective. Today, the media is inundated with two things: ads for medications that aging boomers use and news stories about millennials.

    Reply
  5. Melinda Lee1 month ago

    I would love to have some figures on the career success of Gen-X. From my perspective, we are being passed over for the executive level jobs. Baby Boomers are retireing much later than the previous generation and it appears that the top positions are going to go to their kids (millieniels) rather than to the Generation Xer’s who have been plugging along for years hoping to get these top level jobs.

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    1. JES34 weeks ago

      You are correct Melinda…..but the Boomers are ALSO BOOM-eraning back into the workforce as “senior consultants”, commanding large salaries for part-time work and thusly causing promoted Gen-Xers (like ourselves) to recieve lower salary increases……OR, we are kept at our lower level positions, doing most of the work and being indirectly supervised by these boomer consultants.

      Reply
      1. Tom3 weeks ago

        Let the Boomers have their senior consulting positions. Let them have their motor homes towing a “knock around” Jeep. Let them think they’re better than us. Same with the Millennials…Let them have their smartphones, their social media, their sense of generational superiority. All I want as an Xer is my wife, daughter, dog, 1200 square feet, steady enough work to support this (no title or respect necessary), peace and quiet, and a lot of space from the entities that try to tell us what to think and how to live.

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        1. Billy Boy1 week ago

          Right on brother

          Reply
  6. Eden millecchia1 month ago

    You say Xers are lost in the middle. Try being neither. I’m 50. Definitely NOT a baby boomer. And when all the fuss about GenX began I was confused because I assumed–quite rightly– that they are all younger than me. I understand that a generation is typically a 20 year span. But when you are on the cusp you don’t fit in with either.

    Try polling the 45-55 demographic and ask them where they fit. I’d also be curious to see where the 35-45 group identifies. Are they as lost as the 50 year olds are?

    What am I?

    Reply
    1. ILuvSnoopy3 weeks ago

      Eden millecchia, I am also 50. There is a name for those of who were born in the last five years or so of the Baby Boom generation. We are called Generation Jones. We do not fit either the Baby Boom or GenX stereotypes. Unlike the cohort of which are supposedly a part, we were not involved in Vietnam, involved in protests, or out supporting the “Make Love not War mantra.” Unlike GenX, were more likely to be brought up in a two parent family and did not experience divorce the way GenX children did. We graduated from high school in the late 70s and early 80s, moved into the work force or went to college, started our careers and families, and got on with life. I understand your sentiments. If GenX feels ignored, I guess one could say Generation Jones is confused because we have been defined as belonging to a generation of which we are fully aware we do not belong nor identify.

      Reply
      1. Val6 days ago

        I am 53, have never heard of Generation Jones and fully identify as a Baby Boomer. I never for a moment felt that I was without a generational identity. There was so much more to being a Boomer than protests and The Beatles. It was riding Banana Bikes and watching the Brady Bunch, TV Dinners and Princess Telephones. Being a young teen and borrowing my sister’s head bands and peasant blouses, going on vacations as a kid in a car with no air conditioning while road construction to connect interstate highways tortured the whole family! Albums and ’45 speed singles and not knowing how awful it would seem to the next generation to have actually had to stand up and walk to the television to change the channel or shift the rabbit ears. I am a Boomer – tail end or not!

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        1. Val6 days ago

          And Earth Shoes! LOL!

          Reply
  7. GJetsonPDX1 month ago

    The generational labels are marketing tools. The media ignored GenX until the earliest of us were in our late 20s — they were too busy pandering to the BBs during the 1980s. By that time, the marketers were too late, and their crude attempt at labeling was rightly met with scorn.

    Ultimately, GenX wallets weren’t big enough for marketers to pursue the matter (grunge and the dotcom boom notwithstanding). So the media-marketing industrial complex moved to Generations Y & Z (now collectively known as Millennials) to mold them instead. Millennials seem to be good kids…I don’t envy them the media glare.

    Reply
  8. lmm, Solo GenX Warrior1 month ago

    The Gen-X label, as we know it today, is the primary definition for those born roughly between 1961 and 1983. As these odd creatures grew up in a swirling jumble of punk, pollution and porno, the world was becoming anything but child friendly. These kids were already cynical adults by age 7 and left on their own to figure things out for themselves, often taking longer to get a handle on life, family and career. – lmm

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    1. Alison Siewert1 month ago

      I was not a cynical adult by age 7. Were you?

      Reply
      1. Billy Boy1 week ago

        well yes

        Reply
    2. Michane T Greene2 weeks ago

      So true, so true.

      Reply
  9. Karly2 months ago

    Try being a member of the “Silent” generation! Talk about being sandwiched between others – in our case: Baby Boomers and the World War II folks. Our generation is small being born mostly in the depression (the real one) and the war. Soldiers came home and had their schooling paid for on the GI Bill. We had to compete with them. We went to war in Korea and couldn’t even get our war called a war – it was a “police action”. The Boomers swamped us with their size and bravado (supposed importance – brought on by salespeople lining up to sell whatever they could to such a huge population) and their “don’t trust anybody over 30.” Even today people in my generation can’t get things done for ourselves. Everyone waits on what the Boomers want. Sigh! We do exist as a generation, but I’m not sure anyone really knows us.

    Reply
  10. Alison Siewert2 months ago

    Strauss and Howe identify GenX as the Thirteenth Generation, those born between 1961 and 1981, which seems to me a far better generational boundary. The ’1946-1964 = Boomers’ thing is very Boomeresque (love those cleverly tidy, palindromic year demarcations!) but it doesn’t reflect the reality of our experience as Xers. In their data-soaked chart, “The Generational Cycle in America” (Generations, foldout at p. 96) Strauss and Howe list members of this generation as including Brett Easton Ellis, Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Michael Lewis — all of whom are currently 50 or older. Barack Obama is an Xer, too, though he is often claimed by Boomers as one of their own.

    Perhaps like the President, those of us on the front-end Xer range carry certain ‘border traits’. But I know a great number of us whose experience really does match up to descriptions of Xers far better than to Boomers. In fact, I find it annoying to be tossed into a generation I neither identify with nor had the benefit of experiencing. As Dennis Miller said,
    “It’s no wonder Xers are angst-ridden and rudderless. They feel America’s greatness has passed. They got to the cocktail party twenty minutes too late, and all that’s left are those little wieners and a half empty bottle of Zima.”

    That’s a pretty good description of how we’ve experienced the job market, opportunities for advancement, and the general sense of American Dreaminess. Not very dreamy, and not much of a treat for us. Still, we’ve developed our own identity that is far beyond the monikers first assigned us — “Lost” and “Doofus” really don’t describe us now, if they ever did.

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    1. transition1 month ago

      This is the truth: Bush II was the epitomy of a Boomer: bravado and arrogance without much to show for it. Obama is definitely a Gen-X. He had to clean up the mess his predecessor left behind and is doing with whatever resources he can muster in a badly decayed nation.

      This is the central truth of Gen-X: we are cleaning up the mess the Boomers left behind.

      And, frankly, the notion that I am jealous of the Boomers is ludicrous. I have accomplished more in my lifetime so far than many people age 60 (as rich as many of them too).

      Reply
    2. Christopher Rose1 month ago

      I recall reading 13th Gen by Howe back in the early 90′s after hearing about it on talk radio at my third shift job. At the time I was a high school dropout with a GED. Like the description of many Gen-Xers my parents where completely self obsessed boomers. Divorced, leaving a huge pile of family wreckage. I heard somebody talking about milinieals the other day calling them the entitlement generation. I mistakenly thought they where talking about boomers! I quietly went off to college, advanced at a career boomers could not seem to grasp. (IT) Everything turned out ok. I do have retirement inesecurity/paranoia. Because the boomers blew all the social security funds yet still insist on retiring at full SS benefits. Somebody will have to take one for the team so our kids get something… Socially liberal fiscaly conservative. Voted proudly for Ross Perot back in 1992 because of the debt lol. Watched my parents generation get in a position to pay off the national debt, then blow it by rewarding themselves with tax cuts and entitlements. (after they helped ship all the jobs to china) Boomers. the REAL entitlement generation…

      Reply
  11. Christine Cavalier2 months ago

    We GenXers love to read about ourselves but the rest of you aren’t allowed to read about us! Where’s all the hype about us being “secretive” and “protective of our culture?” This may be the first GenX article I’ve read that doesn’t refer to our super duper secret society.

    I’d have loved for Pew to ask us what we think about Boomers. Seemingly, Boomers conducted the research, so I’m not surprised that question wasn’t asked.

    Reply
  12. slk2 months ago

    who bought all those houses, they couldn’t afford??? and you say, they’re not being mentioned!!! thank you x!!!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Rose1 month ago

      Try boomers.

      Reply
  13. George Purcell2 months ago

    Gen-X is a 20 year generation if you (properly) assign the 1961-1964 cohorts to the group.

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  14. jen2 months ago

    This is so boring and says the same thing I’ve been reading about Generation X for a dozen years. I wish Pew would publish some real research about Generation X…

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  15. trevor2 months ago

    clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle.

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    1. Eden millecchia1 month ago

      Exactly.

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    2. Palopalito1 month ago

      Thank you, do you know how the Nintendo generation is called?

      Reply
    3. BC3 weeks ago

      Haha

      Reply
  16. Sinnathamby2 months ago

    The social gap between generX and Millenial is narrowing in the present contacts. While social gap between Boomer and the two other younger group is widening bigger than ever.

    Reply
    1. Bob2 months ago

      It’s never easy to share thoughts and experiences to a younger generation if they are not willing to use their minds instead of a cell phone. Communicating is always a
      challenge.

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    2. JES34 weeks ago

      I’d have to agree with you on this one, considering I married a Millenial and it’s a great marriage……and several of my prior relationships were with Boomers, whom I’m glad I never married.

      Reply
  17. Comment2 months ago

    Jon Miller at the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan wrote that “Generation X refers to adults born between 1961 and 1981″ and it “includes 84 million people” in the U.S

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    1. Comment2 months ago

      Here is the link for the Miller report lsay.org/GenX_Rept_Iss1.pdf

      Reply
  18. Comment2 months ago

    In a 2012 article for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, George Masnick wrote that the “Census counted 82.1 million” Gen Xers in the U.S. The Harvard Center uses 1965 to 1984 to define Gen X so that Boomers, Xers and Millennials “cover equal 20-year age spans”.[14] Masnick concluded that immigration has filled in any birth year deficits during low fertility years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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    1. Comment2 months ago

      Here is the link for the Masnick / Harvard Housing Center article:

      housingperspectives.blogspot.com…

      Reply
    2. George Purcell2 months ago

      Straus and Howe 1961-81 is still the best measurement. Not sure where the Harvard Center got their range…and being so late to the analysis see absolutely no reason to accept it.

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      1. Comment2 months ago

        The author of this article Paul Taylor quotes Neil Howe on the back of his book too!

        Reply
  19. sara-dc2 months ago

    Growing up in the 80s, I was a ‘latchkey kid’. As tough as it was I think we had it much easier than kids nowadays w/their endless need for instant gratification & social media hype attacking them every second of their lives. Call us what you will, we’re independent, a bit skeptical but hopeful and hoping to make our world a better place. Our generation faced lots of divorced parents, thus, many of my friends and I waited until much later to marry (or are still single!) as we don’t want to have make same mistakes too many times. And who doesn’t LOVE 80s music? Wouldn’t change that for the world : )

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  20. Yvonne C. Hunnicutt2 months ago

    I’ve been saying this to anyone who listens. Biologically, I am the oldest but surely knows how it feels to be the middle…#genx

    Reply
  21. Melanie Notkin2 months ago

    Thank you for this. In fact, it’s exactly for this reason that I authored my second book, “OTHERHOOD: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness” (March 2014 – Seal Press/Penguin Canada). OTHERHOOD is the story of the women of Generation X who expected the social, economic and political equality our Baby Boomer mothers were not born with, as well as eventually find the husband and children they did have. But as Pew Research knows well, Generation X is getting married and having children later than generations before. There are assumptions made that the women are all childfree by choice, but the data shows we are no less yearning for motherhood than our mothers were. Some define us as “career women,” choosing work over love, marriage and motherhood. And yet, we must work in order to pay the rent. Even the majority of married mothers work today. And there are no so-called “career men” after all. The list of myths goes on and on… and yet among this generation of the most well-educated and financially independent women America has ever seen, many remain single and childless as we collectively head toward the end of our fertility. I’ve dubbed this misunderstood and often unacknowledged generation of women: Otherhood.

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  22. Stealers Wheel2 months ago

    ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right – here I am, stuck in the middle with you…’
    And I wonder what the hell I should do…

    Reply
    1. Aaron1 month ago

      being part of early gen Y, Our group is much more open to previous generational popular culture and ideals than the ones of late gen Y and Z. Perhaps that’s due to my parents being late boomers or early Xer’s. At age 29, I feel much more a part of earlier generations identities. The Cell phone and social media in many ways actually drives gen Y apart because we interact with each other in an increasingly low face to face manner. I may be a special case being into retro culture, and not everybody in gen Y is tech savvy or a slave to technology of course. However, Gen Y’s embrace of technology may be its undoing in the social sense. The media perpetuates the in your face tech boom aimed at us as if we all think its grand when in reality a lot of us would rather have a more unplugged life closer to decades past. I feel like the 90′s was a healthy balance of tech and traditional culture and having lived through the decade and having been exited about the future of tech, I think presently, we are bombarded with too much crap. Perhaps it will all level off at some point and we’ll get sick of our plugged in life style but i doubt it.

      Reply
      1. Butterfly1 week ago

        I am truly in the middle being born 1971, Gen X’er I am! I have been amazed how our generation seems to be put down when in reality Gen X is the reason tech is so advanced; we built on/developed boomer’s computers, video games, tv’s (color), remote controls, microwave’s and other appliances. Most of All the hip hop culture….multicultural culture…I recall when this title came about; to us it was and is (to many I know) a badge of honor to be called X…due to the fact that being raised by boomers we built on their “Protest ideology”, Our protest through music (new genre’s created as well as dance), art (graffiti/ abstract etc.), clothing/hair styles, MTV, attitude (will not conform) all perceived as negative by the boomers and of course the Silent Gen. hence our label. Being brought up in the burb’s all of us were “Latchkey Kids” and it’s funny how that has molded most of us to have children later in life and we are so much more open with our children, we strive to have work/life balance if that means working third shift, part time, or flex schedules in order to be more involved and available to our pre-teens and teenagers. I found we did bare minimum in regards to education (many getting degrees in thirty’s and after) but have stressed importance of higher education with our children by explaining some of our mistakes. I have a 17, 13, and 4 year old and they are always on honor/merit roll, speak there minds, listen to 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s music mainly and dress similarly to how Gen X did (lol). My Mother (Boomer) lives with us and I have said several times “I never expected you to be such a grandmother grandmother” she has and that means to her I am doing everything wrong and I say “you boomers did such a great job at raising X’ers that now you guys want to micro-manage, it’s a bit too late”. With that being said GENERATION X is actually a strong, resourceful, creative, social, diverse, blessed crew

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        1. MJ5 days ago

          I was born in 1973 and I agree with you 100%

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