In 1991, Douglas Coupland wrote the best-selling novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, popularizing the term, well, Generation X. Gen Xers are roughly defined as those born between 1965 and 1980. At the time of Mr. Coupland’s breakthrough, they were in their early 20’s, fresh out of college, hanging onto the bottom rung of the company ladder. Now, 15 years later, they are in their late 30’s or early 40’s, more likely to be buying up market share than using dad’s gas card at the mini-mart.
Mr. Coupland, meanwhile, is adapting his work for television and, when the pressure gets to him, he takes a boat to his “hideaway” in the Queen Charlotte Islands. At least, that’s his day according to the new BlackBerry Pearl campaign: Mr. Coupland is its “generational” spokesman, the kind that makes it O.K. for sensitive types to adopt the accoutrements of investment bankers and Web designers.
This evolution from critic of “accelerated culture” to its face is perhaps the latest movement in the repackaging of the generation that Mr. Coupland helped to define. Those who were once sores on the body of the system are now selling its Band-Aids.
“Generation X” has come to mean more than just a specific group of post-boomers, more even than a marketing demographic—people who will go see Last Days one evening and drop $5 on a pumpkin-spice latte the next morning. It has also come to serve as a marketing model, in this post–Reality Bites world, for how all young Americans should live out their 20’s. Now we are all Generation X.
According to OnPoint Marketing and Promotions (whose clients include Ford, Microsoft and Pepsi), Gen Xers are 50 million strong, make up 17 percent of the population and spend $125 billion on consumer goods each year. Whereas Mr. Coupland’s characters removed themselves from families, schools and potential career paths to tend bar and dwell in bungalows in Palm Springs, grown-up Gen Xers retreat into gated communities, planned developments and luxury loft condominiums. They used to be obsessed with other people’s money; now, they obsess over their own.
The 90’s came, but they never really went. CSI: Miami has acquired the right to use Nirvana songs on a future episode about “evil military recruiters,” and with Courtney Love’s blessing, the company that controls its catalog is looking to license its music for commercials. (Kurt Cobain is now the top-earning dead celebrity, having surpassed Elvis, Warhol and Dr. Seuss.)
Recent movies like Thumbsucker and Junebug owe a debt to The Ice Storm (1997), which captured the darkness of the 1970’s suburbia that reared and nurtured Gen X. The Lindsay Lohan flick Mean Girls was a poor man’s Heathers; Heathers’ tale of a backstabbing clique and murderous revenge not only paved the way for 90210 and Melrose Place, but catapulted Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice notice to Gen X screen-queen stardom. (The name Lelaina Pierce ought to ring a few bells.) And now Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters is returning with Sex and Death 101, which not only bears a title reminiscent of some key Heathers themes, but also stars Ms. Ryder.
Maybe the grittiest, or at least most original, Gen X activity, skateboarding, was put under glass in Dogtown and Z-Boys and Lords of Dogtown. Tony Hawk hawks himself, and this month The New York Times reported on the largest skate ramp in the world.
Having experienced their own youth, Gen Xers keep selling us—and themselves—a secondhand version of it. They’ve successfully packaged what it means to be young, and we keep buying—even when what we’re buying is a ticket to the awful, treacly, terrifically annoying X-trickle-down Garden State.
Without a doubt, Gen X moved from the margins to the mainstream. Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes gave way to emo tyranny and slouching shaggy-haired dudes (I’m looking at you, Justin Long) shilling Macs and Coca-Cola’s downloadable podcasts of the “freshest talent” in “North American grooves,” while the Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground boxed CD sets push nostalgia on those too young for Time-Life collections. Cool hunters (thank you, William Gibson) and youth marketers (soon to be joined by Atoosa Rubenstein?) skulk about, while high-school students eagerly enlist in “buzz marketing” campaigns—because the separation of youth and corporation, once the prized plank in the X platform, is no longer an issue.
And Mr. Coupland—Douglas Coupland, the outsider himself—uses his BlackBerry Pearl smartphone to get directions to a hot restaurant in Toronto.
THE CANADIAN COUPLAND SCORED a coup with his depiction of American youth. His novel is the story of three friends who make their lives “on the fringe out in California.” Dag, Andy and Claire are all obsessed with nuclear war (a fear that seemed cutely anachronistic; not so much now since a little dictator in Pyongyang scared the bejesus out of the whole world last month). They tell each other stories to pass the time, an earnest hobby that smacks more of fantasy than of the behavior of any real-life twentysomething, Californian or not.
And in the margins of the oversized book, which measures nine inches by eight, are clever comics and dictionary definitions of Mr. Coupland’s neologisms. One of the words, “McJob,” caught on. The others—“successophobia,” “emotional ketchup burst,” “tele-parabalizing”—never really made it. Vocabulary becomes rhetoric and generations come to stand in for “what are only persons after all,” loopy Renata Adler rather reasonably, and critically, wrote. And so this tale of three dropouts came to stand in for—or rather, take over—the whole society that they tried so hard to escape.
Some people saw it all coming, right out of the gate. Back in 1994, Frank Rich, having just seen Reality Bites and found its coming-of-age crises a bit similar to those his peers had witnessed in The Graduate, asked, “Has nothing changed? Did my generation make a major bore of itself for all these years only to be supplanted by a bunch of kids who are boring in almost the same way?”
Incidentally, the “original” Generation X, according to the British, was the rock ’n’ roll mod generation of the Swinging 60’s, who were interviewed by Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson in 1964 in their book called, yes, Generation X. It was so popular that, according to The Guardian, “John Lennon wanted to turn it into a musical.”
The idea of a generation, of course, is always that of said generation’s youth: The spending habits of today’s $400 Stones-ticket-buying baby boomers (another generation that betrayed its promise) is understood as a product of their recovered Flower Children–itis. Xers devour magalogs and gossip rags to fill the hole left by their secular, soulless, single-parent teenage lives. But since Generation X was packaged and sold to Generation Y—the kids who were teenagers when Mr. Coupland was making it big, who got into Nirvana in middle school, who couldn’t wait to get out of school and start slacking—it became a template for how to live your 20’s in any era.
Kids: We keep getting older; they stay the same age.
And then we turn into our parents. Can we even help it? In a New York Times article last August, Nina Munk wrote that “shopping … has become the defining occupation of [Gen X].” She reported that the average Gen Xer spent 18 percent more on luxury goods than the average baby boomer. So much for anti-proliferation. “Our parents’ generation,” Andy thinks in Generation X, “seems neither able nor interested in how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value.”
Turning into your parents is easier when your parents are busy turning into their parents. The boomers’ iron hold on the culture tyrannized their Xer kids, forcing them to go slacker. Then X took over and grabbed a page from Mom and Dad’s playbook. Lesson No. 1? No classic rock song is so sacred that it cannot be used to sell health insurance; no Nick Drake number is so dreamy that it cannot work wonders for Volkswagen.
READING GENERATION X IN 2006 ISN’T AS TERRIBLE as you might think it would be. It hasn’t aged well, but it could have aged a lot worse. Yet, it’s hard to jive the idealism of Generation X, which is a book about, more than anything, honesty and an unironic questing for some kind of authentic meaning in your life, albeit done through irony and appropriation. Only a cynic would think that the comics and dictionary terms might make the book more useful as a marketing manual than a work of fiction.
Still, BlackBerry? Isn’t that kind of … yuppie? Kind of … Malcolm Gladwell? Kind of … Jay McInerney?
When we first knew him, Mr. Coupland was the anti-McInerney. He was the one who rebelled against the culture of consumption, who wrote about “real” things, authentic things, like girls in vintage dresses and finding yourself in the desert. He didn’t know about Bolivian marching nights in Manhattan or … whatever else it was that Mr. McInerney wrote about. Mr. Coupland is Canadian, after all: He liked nature and worried about the nuclear threat.
Around 1994, following the publication of his Life After God, the author/screenwriter/art-school grad/lexicographer made six station ID’s for MTV. In 1998, Mr. Coupland did an ad for Absolut, but contrary to Internet scuttlebutt, the $10,000 in profits were donated to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. In the 2006 BlackBerry Pearl ads (“small, smart, and stylish”), he’s in very tasteful company, joined by modernist auction-house owner Richard Wright and Martin Eberhard, who created the electric sports car. (Mr. Eberhard uses his BlackBerry Pearl to e-mail investors and watch videos of “Roadster prototypes.”)
Mr. Coupland occupies a position not so distinct from Mr. McInerney’s, at the point where the vector of the monthly House & Garden wine column intersects with the axis of personal digital assistants. (All of this conference-calling, text-messaging and private-islanding also prevents Mr. Coupland from returning e-mails, apparently; or it could be, as his agent indicated, that he is “deep underground.” The surface-level marketing team at BlackBerry Pearl was also disinclined to comment.) And Mr. Coupland knows how to appreciate a good ad when he sees one: On his own Web site, there is streaming video of the “best commercial ever made,” the “Khaki-a-go-go” Gap spot that features a team of khaki-clad preppies dancing like mods to an Austin Powers–esque tune.
The original Xers have retired the whole earnest, alienated slacker thing. They’ve grown up, like everyone does, and accepted—no, embraced—what they once despised: the corporate world and its blessings. On a Canadian TV special about Mr. Coupland, Judith Regan described him as “one of the great voices of his generation.” He sure is.
Follow Christine Smallwood via RSS.