Saluting Generation X Without Irony

When baby boomer number one blew out birthday candle number 60 a couple years back, the passage of that generation into undeniable geezerdom triggered the same response that accompanies all boomer milestones: a nostalgic tsunami of self-congratulatory commemoration in print, on TV and over the Web.

Meanwhile Generation X-those supposed perpetually adolescent slackers-turned 40. And measured by the attention they did not get upon reaching this first milestone of middle age, you'd have thought that all 46 million people born during the 1960s and '70s had followed Kurt Cobain into self-inflicted oblivion some years earlier. But as Jeff Gordinier insists in "X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking," nearly a decade after it mostly disappeared from the media radar, Gen X is more than just alive and well; it's a potent force for good whose best days are still ahead of it.

Gordinier, an editor at Details magazine, makes a convincing case that despite finding themselves ground between the two huge demographic boulders of the boomers and the boomers' kids, as well as being on the wrong side of nearly every economic trend, the wary, self-effacing members of Gen X have at least as much to be proud of as those bumptious generations for whom boastfulness comes more easily. Gordinier recognizes reluctance to self-identify as one of his generation's most defining characteristics. But he maintains that a set of core X virtues-skepticism, a distaste for boomer-style manifestoes, a do-it-yourself creativity born of marginalization-have gained far more cultural potency than many people realize. Unlike boomers, who have been gassing on for years about changing the world without actually doing it, he observes, Xers have been quietly giving birth to game-changing, disruptive creations as disparate as "The Daily Show," Google and YouTube, all of which have turned the old order of their respective universes upside down.

A good chunk of these 189 pages are spent seeking the Xers' ethos by tracing their winding path from college graduation into the "jobless recovery" of the early '90s, through the explosion and extinguishment of Nirvana, summers of (yes) slacking in Prague, and on to the Aeron chairs and worthless stock options of the fool's gold-rush of late-'90s dot-com San Francisco. From the vantage point of a decade later this landscape of thrift-shop cardigans, dorky glasses and Pavement CDs seems a sweet place, a sui generis alternative to a mass culture industry equipped only to either perpetually mine an inexhaustible vein of fossilized nostalgia or pander to the millennial generation's taste for off-the-rack entertainment product like "American Idol" and "High School Musical."

But while his evocation of lost youth is both bittersweet and funny, Gordinier waits until the end to reveal his book's true purpose. After approvingly quoting almost-Xer Barack Obama on the importance of moving politics beyond "the psychodrama of the baby boom generation-a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago," he renounces detachment and irony in favor of a ringing generational call to arms, an injunction to "find a way to keep things from sucking." A shocking betrayal of the X rule against manifestoes and calls to change the world, right? Or maybe it's really just a knowing, ironic nod to X godfather Douglas Coupland, who pulled the exact same trick at the end of his novel "Girlfriend in a Coma."

Nevermind.