Generation X in Canada

Generation X describes the generation of people born roughly between 1965 and 1980. (See Population of Canada.) In Canada and many other Western countries, Generation X is a smaller age cohort. This is the case when compared to the much larger baby boom generation that precedes it and the millennial generation that follows it. Generation X is considered a bridge between the eras of those two larger generations. The experiences of Gen Xers are defined by rapid technological and social changes.

Generation X describes the generation of people born roughly between 1965 and 1980. (See Population of Canada.) In Canada and many other Western countries, Generation X is a smaller age cohort. This is the case when compared to the much larger baby boom generation that precedes it and the millennial generation that follows it. Generation X is considered a bridge between the eras of those two larger generations. The experiences of Gen Xers are defined by rapid technological and social changes.


Definition

Generation X, or Gen X, refers to the generation born after the baby boom generation and before the millennial generation. Sources vary on the dates. Some place the beginning of Gen X as early as 1960 and describe the end as 1978 or 1983. However, there is general agreement that most Gen Xers were born in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2020 there were about 7.5 million people living in Canada who were born between 1965 and 1980. This was roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population of 38 million at that time. (See Population of Canada.)

Generation X has also been described as the “baby bust” generation. The generation marks the end of the post-Second World War baby boom. Birth rates (see Childbirth in Canada) were declining in Canada and other Western nations because of access to better methods of birth control and an increasing number of women in the workforce. Typically, baby busters are defined as early Gen Xers, born between 1966 and 1971.

The term Generation X is attributed to Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland. Although he did not invent the term, it became the generation’s adopted name thanks to his popular 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. The novel tells the story of a group of young adults facing a pessimistic future of limited career options.

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Douglas Coupland (right) besides Michael Stipe in 2018

“Middle Child” Generation

Generation X is often less characterized by its own merits. Instead, it is defined as being sandwiched between the much larger generations of the baby boomers and the millennials. The cultural tastes and political priorities of these groups dominated the landscape. As a result, Generation X was squeezed or overlooked by governments, the media and consumer mass marketing. The New York Times described Gen X as a “gloomy, goofy club of forgotten middle children.”

Generation X can also be viewed as a bridge between the different eras that shaped the baby boomers and millennials: between the analog and digital ages; between the 20th and 21st centuries; and between the bipolar tensions of the Cold War and a new, fragmented geopolitics of rising Asian power and declining Western influence.

Most Gen Xers grew up in homes with landline (even rotary dial) telephones. They had newspapers delivered to their front doors. They could purchase cassette tapes at record stores on trips to the shopping mall. (See also Recorded Sound Technology.) They are the last analog generation. Yet, Gen X parents raised their own children in a society transformed by digital technology. They had access to the internet, smartphones (see also Blackberry Limited) and online shopping. An endless river of songs and movies is now available to them on streaming services.

Gen Xers remember the seismic moments of the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of apartheid in South Africa. (See also Residential Segregation.) Their attention has since shifted — pulled by the focus of millennials — away from foreign injustice toward perceived racial and sexual injustices at home. (See Racism; Women’s Movements in Canada: 1985–present.) After coming of age under the ever-present fear of nuclear holocaust in the 20th century, Gen Xers now live with the looming threat of climate catastrophe in the 21st.

Identity

Unlike earlier generations, members of Generation X grew up in a time of widespread dual-income households, with both parents in the workforce. As divorce became more common and accepted in the 1970s, some Gen Xers grew up in single-parent households. The result of both trends is that Gen X children acquired the nickname “latchkey kids.” Many returned from school at the end of the day to empty homes, left to fend for themselves while their parents were at work.

Coming of age, Gen Xers were shaped by profound changes in the economy. The global energy crisis of the 1970s brought high oil prices, inflation and high unemployment. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, jobs were no longer for life. Shaky economic times eventually gave way to the prosperity of the 1980s. Young Gen Xers watched as the baby boomers traded their anti-establishment, hippy ethos for free-market economics. The latter were espoused by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (See also Brian Mulroney.) This was accompanied by rising stock market wealth and “conspicuous consumption” — the habit of affluent baby boomers to acquire more material things than they needed. However, by the early 1990s, such affluence had faded as the economy was once again in recession. As many Gen Xers left school or graduated from college (see Universities in Canada), good jobs once again became scarce.

Gen Xers, or at least the culture that shaped them, responded to these changes with cynicism and detachment. Members of Generation X were characterized as contrarian “slackers” — a label explored in the 1994 Hollywood movie Reality Bites. The film portrays a generation of educated but politically jaded and unenthusiastic young adults. Wary of money and elites, they preferred life on the periphery and in low-wage “McJobs.” Gen Xers of this type considered it “selling out” to join the baby boomer-led economic bandwagon and participate in the mainstream.

Culture and Values

The grunge music and fashion culture that emerged in the 1980s reflected Generation X’s political and social detachment. The superstar grunge band Nirvana declared “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care” in its song Breed. Nirvana and its lead singer, Kurt Cobain, became cultural icons for many Gen Xers. The generation also embraced a range of new music styles, including hip-hop. They listened to music on mixtapes on their Sony Walkman portable cassette players. Some watched music videos on television via MuchMusic and MTV. Teenage Gen Xers surfed the cable channels with the magic of their remotes.

Gen Xers also played the first video game consoles on their TVs. They rented VHS tapes from video stores. They cheered as movie blockbusters such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off celebrated their generation on-screen. Another reason to celebrate was the arrival of answering machines. This meant Gen X teens could now call home from a payphone, wait for the “beep” and collect any voice messages they’d missed from their friends.

Generation X marked a departure from the baby boomers’ sexual promiscuity and casual drug culture. (See Hippies in Canada.) Gen Xers were made fearful by the HIV-AIDS epidemic. They were schooled to say no to premarital sex and drugs. Gen Xers were more inclined toward core family values, even without fully embracing them. They are also the last generation to grow up understanding what it is like to be out of contact with those they love. They remember the feeling of temporary distance and silence unknown to later generations immersed in online social updates and constant communications.