Why you should care
Because this is the generation ordering a lot of people around.
It’s tough to generate much enthusiasm for Generation X. They’re less hard-working than Boomers and less tech-savvy than Millennials. About the only thing worth noting here, really, is that one day they’re going to be wealthy — that is, when they inherit their Boomer parents’ dough. Poor Gen X isn’t known for much, except for not being known for much. They’re kind of a mediocrity cold cut sandwiched between two slices of really exciting bread.
But Gen X has at least one champion. Officially, Christine Henseler, the energetic yet cynical career educator with a pixie haircut and ready smile, teaches Hispanic studies and chairs two humanities departments at Union College in New York. But she has made a veritable career of interpreting Gen X. The 46-year-old is setting the record straight with books like Generation X Goes Global: Mapping a Youth Culture in Motion, where she explores the way her peer group — according to her, a misunderstood one — influences not just her own but other generations. “Everybody just wanted to stereotype us in nondescript terms and not actually look at what was going on,” she says.
But she’s not just preaching to stuffy academics. The London-born lesbian mom is broadcasting to the greater world, launching — with funding from outfits like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — a liberal arts think tank that aims to lure young scholars to cultural studies. “She gets that you have to understand youth culture if you’re going to try to empower it,” says Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a New York-based publishing service. But she’s become best known for capturing the “lost” generation and its influence on today’s changing world.
“We were this moment of reflection. The breaking of molds and thinking about things differently started with us.”
They are a group defined by disillusionment and independence. Instead of Facebook, their coming of age was marked by massive upheaval around the world. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall and Russian Communism; in China, traditional ideologies gave way to state-monitored capitalism and the corruption that followed; for South Africans, it was the dismantling of apartheid. And in the U.S., young Americans witnessed the deterioration of the nuclear family.
No wonder that having to clean up the messes made by their predecessors made Gen Xers question authority and opt for doing things themselves. Which means the entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself mentality championed by today’s hipsters is, in fact, a signature X trait. “We were this moment of reflection,” Henseler says. “The breaking of molds and thinking about things differently started with us.”
Henseler’s ability to tap into a global sentiment has as much to do with her upbringing as with her age. As a little girl, her family moved first to Germany, then Brazil, Wisconsin and Spain. At 19, she settled in Kansas to attend college. And like Xers the world over, she always “felt like a bit of an outsider,” she says. She studied advertising and journalism, which likely explains her knack for translating academic jargon into prose that the rest of us can actually understand.
In her writing, Henseler makes clear that her generation was presented with far fewer options than the postwar boomers were. Global recessions, collapsing governments and energy crises created a veil of uncertainty. Education wasn’t subsidized or as accessible as it currently is in many countries. In Henseler’s own case, going to college was hardly a given: She worked the entire time, and while she initially wanted to study graphic design at an urban campus, she became an advertising major in Kansas, believing she had to if she was to make a living.
The mission of Henseler’s think tank, New York 6, is persuading colleges to preserve liberal arts programs — which are under attack but which, she says, are important. That’s where cultural issues that opened her own eyes are taught. So far, she has been met with plenty of skeptics — and not a lot of change. Only 10 percent or so of students earn degrees in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent around the time Henseler was born.
But her own life, she says, is ample proof that Generation X is Generation Change. With her partner, Henseler has a young daughter and a golden retriever. What she considers a “traditional” family, Henseler says, just couldn’t have happened when she was a kid. A generation so known for invisibility led the way toward changing social attitudes about gay lifestyles. Now, if only Mom can get her daughter to choose literature over Legos. “She hates to read fiction.”