Generation Xhausted

A still of Winona Ryder in "Reality Bites", the 1994 US film about Gen X lifestyles and careers.

Sunny Grace explores the particulars of being a Gen X-er, as Gen Z begins to make an impact on the world.

As I slide into my fifties and my kids enter adulthood, I can’t help but compare our generations. I am Gen X, and they are Gen Z. Well, my oldest is born on the cusp of the Millennial–Gen Z crossover: December 1999. A last century baby. 

While the baby boomers and Millennials clash over who is leaving what to whom, Gen X is often overlooked. Meanwhile, Gen Z is just starting to have an impact on the world. 

The term ‘Gen X’ was coined by Douglas Coupland when he wrote his quintessential book, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, but since then we have faded into the background along with our fading memories, receding hairlines and ability to recover from weekend benders. Many of us are giving up alcohol and taking anti-depressants to make up for the loss to serotonin from all those pingers. 

Looking back, though, it is no wonder we are feeling depleted and depressed. We left high school and uni during ‘the recession we had to have’ and the end of Whitlam’s free education for all, finding ourselves in a world of high unemployment and uni debt. While in Australia ‘it was the recession we had to have’, in America it was the crash of Wall Street. All our yuppie dreams came crashing down into a Nirvana-fuelled fireball. 

‘It’s no wonder Winona Ryder was caught for shoplifting; we grew up with a sense of lack.’

– Sunny Grace

We all felt like Winona Ryder in the quintessential Gen X film, Reality Bites – highly educated and underemployed. Reaching for the dreams we were promised but so out of reach. 

Just ahead of us, we could still see those Ben Stiller types still living yuppie dream or using what was left of their Wall Street investments to invest in the dot com economy, our version of bitcoin. 

Being just behind the tail end of the boomers, we invested in Calvin Kleins, slip dresses and nights out to forget the pain of unfulfilled dreams. It’s no wonder Winona Ryder was caught for shoplifting; we grew up with a sense of lack. Our idols were Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Kate Moss, Johnny Depp. We longed to do to Manchester or Seattle, the capitals of the movements of our age, house and grunge. 

I remember where I was the day Kurt Cobain died. I’d worked all night at a famous nightclub in Melbourne, then continued partying at a famous musician’s house.  After a quick shower back home and no sleep, I was waiting to catch the tram to my day job at a fashion retailer when I heard the news. 

And it hurt.

It felt symptomatic of the bleakness of our futures. 

Not long after that I moved to Sydney. Something about the glittering harbour and lush greenery gave me hope for my own future. I continued to work in fashion and the party scene for the next two years before eventually putting my BA to use and getting a job in a film company. Not long after that I met my husband and we had two kids.  

Suddenly, I was a responsible person, the party seemingly over. 

Watching my children venture into adulthood, I see similarities between us. Funnily enough, Gen Z copy our ’90s fashion and music trends. My eighteen-year-old listens to Nirvana. They are also entering an uncertain adult world under the spectre of Covid, while ours was the recession. Their future was already uncertain due to climate change but now their immediate future is also unpredictable. 

My oldest is due to leave in September for work in the UK but is unable to go until he gets vaccinated – and with young people last on the list, it is looking unlikely before September. 

There are differences between us, as they grew up with technology in their hands from when they were babies. They laugh at us as we struggle with the new apps and games, even though ours are making a comeback with a TV version of Frogger currently in production.  

They are tech savvy but in a seemingly less corporate way than Millennials. Gen Z care about the future despite the dire outlook. They are fighting for it, from climate strikes to rejecting fast fashion.  

Sadly, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they can’t have as much fun as we did. But maybe that is a blessing in disguise; they will save their brain cells and serotonin, keep their wits about them to adapt to this ever changing world. 

And we will be proud of them. We will fight alongside them if we have the energy. We are Gen Xhausted, tired of fighting for the right to party, the right to own a home. Tired of looking after aging boomers and our Gen Z children while working in jobs we don’t like while still paying off HECS debts. 

Having said all this, there are always some anomalies across all generations. I am always astounded when I remember Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg are also Gen X.

Despite presenting as a baby boomer, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a member of Generation X. Photo: Scott Morrison /Facebook.

Perhaps their white male privilege transcends generational traits. When you go from private school to corporate world to politics there isn’t much room for new experiences and growth.  

So, I think it’s time to let Gen Z have a go at running the world. 

They can’t fuck it up any more than we have.  

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.