Generalizations X

COULDN'T THE BABY BOOM PICK ON A GENERATION ITS OWN size? Boomers are bashing twentysomethings with startling relish these days. Generation X is just a bunch of whiners, right? They're all slackers. They're all sleeping in their clothes, moaning about the national debt they've inherited, and pining for Greg or Marcia Brady. Come on. There are 38 million Americans in their 20s, but there are only two generalizations we can make about them with any degree of certainty: they are Americans, and they are in their 20s.

It's been said that Generation X -- named after an arch, pop-arty Douglas Coupland novel that also gave us ""McJobs'' -- is in need of a press agent, and that's truer than ever right now. Not long ago, Advertising Age referred to the generation as ""that cynical, purple-haired blob watching TV.'' A Washington Post headline read, the boring twenties: grow up, crybabies. you're america's luckiest generation. And New Republic columnist Michael Kinsley kvetched, ""These kids today. They're soft. They don't know how good they have it. Not only did they never have to fight in a war . . . they never even had to dodge one.'' Most of the bad PR comes from boomers, who seemed engaged in what Coupland defined as ""clique maintenance.'' To wit: ""The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego.''

Generations are meant to rub each other the wrong way -- they're meant to cast sidelong glances as they march through the changing of the guard -- and some Xers have taken to calling baby boomers ""baboos.'' But twentysomethings still aren't happy with the labels that have been pinned on their own backs. A recent MTV poll found that only one in 10 young people would ever let the phrase ""Generation X'' cross their lips. And who can blame them? It's a tinny, self-consciously hip phrase that doesn't resonate much beyond the white middle class. Generation X? ""I haven't heard anyone in my 'hood talking about it,'' says rapper Dr. Dre, 29. ""The only X I know is Malcolm X.'' Even twentysomething is a little time bomb of a word -- it makes it sound like everybody'll get kicked out of the club when they get too old. Is this a generation, or is it Menudo? Whoever wrote the jacket copy on the forthcoming book parody ""Generation Ecch!'' fairly pegged all the press hype and stereotypes: ""Blah blah blah blah blah. aaarrgghh! no more stinking labels!'' Agreed. Let's see if we can peel a few of them off.

Only in the movies. Namely: Richard Linklater's 1991 film ""Slacker,'' which celebrated the sideways lives of castoffs in Austin, Texas; ""True Romance,'' in which Brad Pitt played a stoned couch potato, and ""Reality Bites,'' in which Winona Ryder played an out-of-work filmmaker who runs up a hefty bill on the psychic hot line and gives a soliloquy on the cultural significance of 7-Eleven's monster beverage, the Big Gulp.

Slackers do exist in nature -- some Xers are swerving off the career path. In fact, a 23-year-old careerist recently had an epipha-ny on the Internet: ""I have reached for the gold ring, grabbed it, and realized that it is made out of tin foil and gold paint. I am lost.'' But slackers constitute only a sliver of Generation X. ""There's always a group that chooses not to join the dominant middle-class culture,'' says David Lipsky, coauthor of the forthcoming Gen X treatise ""Late Bloomers.'' ""In the '50s, it was the Beats. In the '60s, it was the hippies. The media just rediscovers the chameleon every 10 years.''

What most Xers think of the workplace may surprise you. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research recently found that 87 percent of them were ""somewhat or completely'' satisfied with the demands of their jobs, that 87 percent had a ""strong sense'' of company loyalty and that 69 percent believed that ""people get ahead by their own hard work.'' (Baboos trailed in all three categories.) Says Katie Roiphe, 25, author of ""The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus,'' ""Most people I know are trying to do things. They're not watching TV and talking to psychics on the phone.''

One of the things that twentysomethings are trying to do is Good -- excepting, say, Heidi Fleiss, Jeff Gillooly and the Menendez brothers. There's the Xer-driven Lead or Leave, which gooses Washington about the deficit; the social-services journal Who Cares; the new community-service network Do Something. The list goes on. According to Gallup surveys, 48 percent of those between 18 and 24 are doing volunteer work (presumably not because they were caught throwing beer bottles at stop signs). Even many who opt out of the mainstream are far from shiftless. Moe Bowstern, 26, lives in Chicago, in the alternative-culture haven that is Wicker Park. She lives on $6,000 a year (""Why buy furniture when you can find perfectly good furniture in the garbage?''). She writes for a few of the alternative publications known as 'zines, plays violin in a quartet and belongs to the Autonomous Zone, a ""nonhierarchical, anti-authoritarian collective that will not buy into the crap that we can't change our lives.'' Who are you calling a slacker?

Not really -- but some of them like to worry, and they've got problems worth worrying about. Last summer a Gen X political group called the Third Millennium wrote, ""Like Wile E. Coyote waiting for a 20 ton Acme anvil to fall on his head, our generation labors in the expanding shadow of a monstrous debt." That's too self-pitying -couldn't they have at least compared themselves to the Road Runner? Still, even leaving aside the $4 trillion debt, Xers have had a lot to contend with. The twentysomethings leaving college during the 1990-91 recession carried an average of $7,000 in debt-almost double the burden, adjusted for inflation, carried by 1977 graduates. And they entered what was, for newly minted college grads, arguably the worst job market since World War II. Today the average full-time salary for a male between 25 and 34 is $26,197; the average for a female is $21,510. Which helps explain why 46 percent of single twentysomethings are still crashing Chez Mom & Dad.

Are Xers whining about all this? Some are, sure. But let's be serious: if 38 million people were whining, it wouldn't sound like the mopey drone you get from an Xer here and there, it'd sound like a swarm of killer bees. The Roper Center tackled the issue of ennui. The italics are theirs: "Our extensive research shows there are no significant national or personal mood differences separating young and old." Twenty-five percent of the twentysomethings polled said that they were unhappy with their lot in life; 26 percent of the baby boomers agreed. Sixty-three percent of the twentysomethings said that they were "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States"; 71 percent of boomers said the very same thing. The whiner stereotype has outstayed its welcome. A young folkie named Beck recently had a Gen X anthem in the top 10. "I'm a loser, baby," he sang. "so why don't you kill me?" Gladly.

IT MOST CERTAINLY IS NOT. THE stereotypical Xer, as he's trotted out in movies and the media, is white and privileged and living in a suburb near you. But twentysomethings are actually the most racially diverse of any generation to date: they're 70 percent white, 13 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and I percent Native American. (Baby Boomers are 77 percent white.) Xers may also be the least racist. "We are the first generation to be born into an integrated society," writes 25-year-old Eric Liu, a foreign-policy speechwriter for President Clinton and the editor of the fine new anthology "Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation," "and we are accustomed to more race mixing than any generation before us. We started open-minded, and it's not too late for us to stay that way."

Still, the phrase "Generation X" doesn't mean much to many twentysomethings of color. "it means some white people's 'Reality Bites' sh-t," says 22-year-old Allen Hughes, codirector of the inner-city coming-of-age story "Menace 11 Society." "I mean, the media isn't aiming that at us. Our film had the same demographics as 'Reality Bites,' but they didn't call it a Generation X film, they called it a damn gangsta film. Call it racist, or whatever, but we don't count when it comes to Generation X."

David Watkins, a 26-year-old vice president with the organ marketing company Dastreetz, says, "If anything I think we should be called the hip-hop generation." There's some truth to that: rap reaches an enormously wide audience (rap and hip-hop artists sold about $800 million worth of records last year, roughly half of which were bought by whites) and the hip-hop fashion industry makes all that hype about grunge and flannel look awfully silly. But many twentysomethings of color are Stuck with a label that runs counter to their ethnic identities. "I'd like to be a slacker, but my family would kick my ass," Lalo Lopez writes in Liu's "Next" anthology. "A poor Mexican worrying about esoteric emotions like angst? Get a job.

YES A LOT OF THEM ARE. Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the forthcoming "Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America," was 2 when her parents broke up. "When I was 10 or 11, I really cracked up," she has written. "I started hiding in the locker room at school, crying for hours, or walking around the corridors, saying, Everything is plastic, we're all gonna die anyway, so why does anything matter?" Hey, have you got a hall pass, young lady?

It's easy to write off broken-home angst as whining, but Generation X's childhood coincided with divorce's big bang: in the '70s and '80s, divorce touched I million children a year. ("The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and "Nanny and the Professor" all concerned widows and widowers, not divorces. Talk about denial.) When their parents divorced, many children felt the bottom fall out from under them financially: in the '70s, mothers didn't have much job experience and there was an even bigger gap in male and female wages. Of course, kids felt the bottom fall out emotionally, too. To quote Nirvana, "I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad." To quote Pearl Jam, "Unf--kingbelievable to think I came from you."

Preliminary data suggest that children of divorce, particularly women, are more likely to get divorced themselves. And that's a scary thought for some twentysomethings-the notion that, despite their best intentions, their love life could be foiled by some mutant gene. Some Xers believe we need to rethink the institution of marriage. Others believe that the institution demands more, not less, respect. A Chicago actress named Andrea Gall, 25, puts it this way: "People need to talk and say, 'If you're going to divorce me, I'm going to come after you with a meat cleaver'." The most palpable legacy of the '70s divorce boom is that, even in the era of AIDS, twentysomethings are cautious about commitment. In 1992, only 40 percent of twentysomethings were married, whereas 67 percent of that age group had made it to the altar in 1970. When fewer people get married, of course, fewer get divorced. Only 4 percent of today's twentysomethings are divorced. whereas 21 percent had split up in 1970. Generation X, put your meat cleavers away.

WELL, HERE'S how the twentysomething authors of "Generation Ecch!" compare the singer's death with that of another Xer the media have positioned as an icon, River Phoenix: "Blowing your head off sure beats accidentally OD-ing and doing the chicken in front of the Viper Room." The message? Twentysomethings hate being told who their heroes are.

Some Xers shrugged off Cobain's death because Nirvana's music never spoke to their lives. ("I listened to Cobain's stuff," says director Hughes, "and I didn't know what the f--k he was talking about.") Some fans even played down its significance because they resented watching the boomer-driven media turn Cobain into an Xer Janis Joplin. Still, the simple truth is that Generation X is too diverse to agree on a hero. Eric Liu says his role models include his parents, Robert Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Lily Burana, 26, editor of the graphic, high-tech quarterly Future Sex, says her idol is the lesbian S&M writer Pat Califia. You get the picture.

Cobain spoke to a great many twentysomethings, but to believe that he truly represented Generation X you must believe that Generation X is a heroin addict with a death wish. For the record: heroin is popular primarily with those 31 and older, and the suicide rate for twentysomethings hasn't changed in 20 years. A whole generation of Cobains? As talent associate Jason Bagdade, 28, puts it, "I'm disaffected, but I'm not that disaffected."

IN HER ONE-WOMAN PLAY "Generation Why," Sarah Stanley, 25, plays Amy, an ad copywriter whose agency is trying to shove the Nissan "Lester" down Generation X's throat. Twentysomethings are a tough sell and Amy's baby boomer bosses have turned to the Xer for advice: "OK, how can we target these zombies, these slackers, without letting them know that we're getting in touch with their apathy?"

An excellent question. Twentysomethings have $125 billion a year to spend on goods and services-that's the nice thing about not getting married, not buying a home and sleeping in the bunk bed you grew up in. But Xers are more pragmatic than boomers, and they have what 26-year-old writer Ian Williams has called "a 'bullsh-t alarm' more sensitive than any seismograph." Karen Ritchie, author of the forthcoming 'After the Boom: Marketing to Generation X," attributes this to the fact that during the years that twentysomethings were watching Saturday-morning cartoons they were assaulted by a barrage of advertising so intense that it had to be addressed by federal legislation. "The first time you realize the super toy you wanted is really only four inches tall you learn a hard lesson," says Ritchie. "We created a whole generation that believes advertising is lies and hype."

Evidence that it is precisely that keeps pouring in. Last year a commercial for the Subaru Impreza featured some moronic grungeboy who compared the car to "punk rock." Subaru soon wised up and fired the ad company. As Stuart Elliott, advertising columnist of The New York Times, says, "It was the Pearl Harbor Day of Generation X marketing." Since then Burger King's "BKTeevee" spots with MTV's Dan Cortese have crashed and burned, and a Bud commercial paying homage to "Gilligan's Island" has induced twentysomething groans.

Xers have not just resisted advertisers, they've also backed briskly away from any movie that smelled even faintly of Generation X. "Singles," "True Romance," "Bodies, Rest and Motion," "P.C.U." and "Reality Bites" were all disappointments at the box office. As Caravan Pictures chief Joe Roth said recently, "We are going to be in big trouble if we can't find a way to reach this audience." Even deserving movies have fared poorly. "Reality Bites" was sweet and funny, but it suggested that twentysomethings were comforted only by the knowledge that some Domino's Pizzas take checks. If such a generation exists, it wasn't in line on opening weekend.

IT DOES, BUT AGAINST ITS WILL. Sometimes it seems as if the only thing America's twentysomethings have in common is their fondness for the phrase "media creation." It's hard to find an Xer who doesn't believe that Generation X was prematurely yanked into being by Hollywood and the media, that the baby boomers see them not as human beings but as disposable incomes in sneakers, that all this Xerbashing is just another boomer power trip, that they have been set up just to be knocked down. Which sounds about right. Baby boomers could have been content with the fact that they have what writer Williams refers to as "a chokehold [on] American culture." They could have been happy in the knowledge that they grew up with all the great controversies and all the cool icons. But no. They had to stick it to the kids. And what was Generation X's sin? In his New Republic column, Kinsley let it slip: "No one was ever supposed to be younger than we are."

In fairness, when it comes to generational sniping, Gen X is starting to give as good as it gets. In "The Gen X Reader," Mark Saltveit writes, 'All my life I've listened to baboos bragging to the media that they're going to make peace and love, then revolution, go back to the land, create a disco inferno, and--in the 1980s-dress for success and wealth. You know what, boomers? You blew it every time, and you looked like idiots trying. Ha!" In the end, twentysomethings will have the last laugh-not because they can resist pandering TV commercials, but because time is on their side. As Douglas Rushkoff warns boomers in the "Reader," "Whether you like it or not, we are the thing that will replace you." ..MR.-

Generation X-ers hate being defined by others. Here, some young Americans describe themselves.

29, Waitress, Minneapolis.

"The Catcher in the Rye."

"East of Eden."

Bob Dylan.

My friend Pat-he doesn't try to be anyone else, and he does it with a smile.

Providing for my 3-year-old son.

scared.

26, Managing director of the Asian American Writers Workshop, New York City.

"Confessions of a Mask," by Yukio Mishima.

"Raise the Red Lantern," by Zhang Yimou.

My family. When I need guidance, I go to the Buddhist temple.

bombarded with an overload of ideas, opinions, opportunities. Sometimes it's hard to make sense of it all.

25, jazz saxophonist, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Anything by Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut.

"Do the Right Thing," by Spike Lee.

Stevie Wonder-"Songs in the Key of Life," Jimi Hendrix -"Are You Experienced?," Earth Wind and Fire, Prince, John Coltrane.

John Coltrane, spiritually and musically. He believed in all religions and integration.

Part of the excitement of life is not knowing what will happen. I hope to evolve as a musician, to always be changing and to remain open to everything.

I don't know. I don't see myself as being part of an specific social group. I hope I' not a slacker.

25, Mayor of Baldwin Park. Calif.

"Democracy in America," by Alexis de Tocqueville, biography of Saul Alinsky, social activist.

Cesar Chavez, Jerry Buss-the owner of the LA Lakers. My mother, Margarita Vargas, who raised 8 kids, went back to school, and is now a community organizer.

To help my community. I also want to be a role model for young kids and to be a good father and husband.

a label. I see myself in the next generation of young people who will be responsible for the direction the country will go in. There are a lot of young people who want to make a difference.

24, Producer of business news, CNN.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

"Saturday Night Fever."

Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On."

Jack Kennedy, Anna Quindlen, Bill Moyers.

A fulfilling career, children.

afraid. A lot of friends aye getting married as a way to eliminate uncertainty.

26, Student and newsletter editor, San Francisco.

"No One Here Gets Out Alive," about Jim Morrison. He would have been a good philosopher and poet had he been less concerned about himself and not as screwed up on drugs.

Sue Miller. She wrote the novel "The Good Mother" and broke through as a writer in her 40s.

I should probably get a career.

a media fabrication.

30, Sex columnist for Details magazine.

My first literary influence was Mad magazine. Then the Beat poets and writers.

"Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Animal House."

Gloria Steinem. Neofeminists like Camille Paglia cut her down, but I like her.

To not be a Yuppie. To get paid for expressing myself in a way that most people are not allowed to do. To get paid for being goofy.

a marketing term. Labels are not important to me.

26, Singer for the Spin Doctors.

Homer's "The Iliad"

"Star Wars."

"The Basement Tapes," Bob Dylan; the Band; "The Best of Muddy Waters."

To be involved in beauty, bringing it about in as many ways as possible.

a convenient term.

25, Author of "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus."

"Lolita," "Anna Karenina," "The Age of Innocence."

Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy.

one long collective whine. I hate it. I feel completely outside of this vision of young people. I watched "Reality Bites" and didn't know which guy Winona Ryder should end up with.

27, Hairstylist, New York City.

"The Stand," by Stephen King.

"The Breakfast Club," "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Violent Femmes.

Don't really have any. Maybe Sam Elliot, the actor.

It doesn't really mean anything to me. I think of myself as a young woman trying to make it in a very confused society.

27, Staff writer for Vibe Magazine.

"Invisible Man," by Ralph Ellison.

"The Graduate." "Do The Right Thing," "Saturday Night Fever."

Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin.

brought up on Vietnam, Watergate. broken families, and every other f ---- d thing I can think of. It means being out of the loop of this racist, oppressive society.

29, Actress ("Reality Bites") and standup comic.

"To Kill a Mockingbird," "A People's History of the United States," by Howard Zinn.

Woody Allen's movies, "Broadcast News."

REM.

To help other women, especially normal-looking women like myself, to work more.

not more lost than any other generation.

27, Ladies' shoe salesman, San Diego.

Wall Street." Money is very important to me, but there are things I wouldn't do for it, like betray a close friend.

The Cult. Very dark, yet realistic-like me. And they rock.

Richard Nixon, because I admire his tenacity.

filled with sniveling whiners. Reality doesn't bite. Reality has no teeth. ..MR0-