So there have been a bunch of articles written recently about a certain age group that has been struggling to pin down its own identity. Caught inbetween the cynicism of Generation X and the hopeful optimism of the Millennials, this group hasn’t been able to embrace the ideals and concepts of either side. These are the people born between about 1978 and 1983 or so (or everyone who was college-age when 9/11 happened, basically). I like to define it in my personal life as everyone between my sister Annelise (who was born in 1976 and is most definitely a Gen Xer) and my good friend Sheldyn (who was born in 1985 and is quite Millennial). I have aspects of both of them, culturally speaking, but I can’t really say either of them are of “my generation”, even though fewer than ten years separate the two. And though you may not know either of the people I’m talking about, if you belong to this group you can probably think of people you know that were born in those years and probably feel the same way about.
As a member of this group, I identify pretty well with most of the points listed in those articles linked to above. As a kid we had computers but not the Internet (unless Prodigy or AOL counts). As a teenager the Internet existed, but was still in its primitive stage (the whole thing looked like this, basically). And as a college student everything was a giant mishmash of technology as the world struggled to adapt to the innovative revolutionary advances that had just become available but hadn’t settled down in a streamlined format yet. Everyone in my freshman dorm had a computer, but almost nobody had a laptop, and those that did have one had ones where the battery life was 2 hours, tops, and there was still no wifi, so they had to cluster around the ethernet ports scattered about campus with their network cable like hobos huddling together for warmth. Culturally we weren’t as white-bread peppy as those after us, what with their “High School Musical”‘s and their “Katy Perry”‘s and so on, but we weren’t quite as angsty as the Nirvanas and Nine Inch Nails of the early-to-mid-90’s, either. These articles go pretty in-depth about where we “fit”, culturally and technologically speaking, so I won’t rehash it all here.
What I find most intriguing, though, is an unspoken thread woven throughout these articles. Every single one of them has been written by someone in that generation! Most people on either side of us lump us together with either the Gen Xers or the Millennials, even though some of those articles are a few years old. There has not been a cultural zeitgeist to unify us other than through negative space that nobody else can identify. All the other generations have been named fairly early on and by those outside it: the name Generation X was popularized by a writer of the baby boomer generation, and, oddly enough, both Millennial and Generation Y (the previous name for the Millennials that never quite stuck) were also coined by baby boomer writers. And good luck getting anyone not inside this group to care about it: I have talked to baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, and none of them really care about or can even identify with our lack of definition. Gen Xers just see how tech-savvy we can be sometimes and lump us in with the Millennials, whereas Millennials see how familiar we are with a pay phone (or some other similar obsolete technology) and push us upstairs to a previous generation.
We have to define ourselves because nobody else will define us.
Even within the group, however, we’ve had a hard time pinning down what we are. Every one of those articles give completely different names to our group (Xennials, Generation Catalino, the Oregon Trail generation, “The Lucky Ones”, and so on), and almost all of them list entirely different cultural touchstones that define us, though they agree much more on what the previous era ended with and what the next era began with. There also seems to be a bit of a divide on whether or not we are a lucky/good/happy generation or an unlucky/terrible/cynical one. This, I think, relates to everyone else’s lack of concern about defining us. People are notoriously myopic about their own composition and identity. What’s important in one person’s upbringing may be a complete unknown in somebody else’s, and without someone on the outside saying, “This is an important cultural touchstone to this group,” it’s hard to come up with a consensus on what defines us. We’ve got “This is what we aren’t” down pretty well, but the “This is what we are” has yet to be pinned down, assuming that it can be.
But really, in the end, isn’t that our true defining characteristic? That we can’t be defined? We keep saying, “We’re a bit of this and a bit of that, but we’re not all this or that.” We’re tech-savvy, but not beholden to technology. We appreciate cynicism without embracing it. We’re optimistic, yet wary. We define ourselves by both our nostalgic past like Gen Xers, and our bright future plans, like the Millennials (as a side note: my personal belief as to why Millennials aren’t defined by their nostalgia is because the kid shows of the late 90’s and the pop culture of the early 00’s wasn’t worth being nostalgic about, as most of it was pretty terrible). So far, our search for a cultural identity is our cultural identity. All we know is that there’s something that separates us from those above and below, even if we don’t know what it is.
Our era was characterized by old meeting new. Everything was a giant hodgepodge. You could ride your bike wherever you wanted to around your neighborhood, but you still had to buckle your safety belt. Fax machines and pay phones coexisted with instant messaging and email. You could get on the Internet anywhere, as long as you had charged your laptop and could find an ethernet port to plug into. You couldn’t instantly share photos with all your friends, but you could share your terrible Geocities site filled with animated GIFs, blaring MIDI files, and goofy quotes. Heck, for the first few years of this very blog it was hosted on Angelfire, of all places. Angelfire!
That’s why I propose the name “Generation Geocities,” not just because Geocities was a thing when we were coming of age, but because Geocities represents what we really are: the prototype generation for the new social and cultural revolution. In Geocities you could see the beginnings of what the Web would become: people trying to share their lives and interests with their friends (and potentially complete strangers), yet it didn’t have nearly the power and panache of Facebook, or Instagram, or Pinterest, or whatever social media platform you prefer. It was untried and raw. Everybody’s website looked terrible, but at the same time everything seemed much more personal and sincere, since market research, SEO, and other business practices had yet to be invented or adapt to the new web-based way of thinking. That’s why that Space Jam website I linked to earlier looks like it was designed by a 12-year-old: the playing field was level. Nobody knew what was going on.
So in comes our generation, not steeped in the non-computer traditions of our forefathers, yet old enough to be innovators ourselves. And so we grabbed onto Geocities as ours. We latched onto AOL Instant Messenger as ours. Napster, dial-up, ska music (remember 1997, the summer of ska? That was ours.) — all things that we thought were great, yet lasted for only a brief instant. Somebody had to be the ones who defined themselves with this new technology that no longer exists. Everything that could have defined us was so quickly superseded by more streamlined and professional versions of itself that almost nobody outside of our demographic even remembers them anymore. Compare this to today, where Facebook has been virtually unchanged since at least 2007. Sure, the layout has changed several times, but at its core it’s still the same basic deal. Smartphones have been the same on a fundamental level since the first iPhone came out. I’d say that the last fundamental game-changing technology that has come out has been the smartphone, and most of the gadgets that have come out since then have been tied to it in some way. As a result, technology has been somewhat stagnant. Culture has been the same way: nostalgia is such a big thing for Gen Xers that the Millennials and the rising post-Millennial generation are basically just living through the exact same TV shows and movies as their parents. Movies are now multi-part epics that span several years. Things have staying power now. Everything has been polished and streamlined.
Geocities represented something new and untried; rough and full of promise, yet so quickly obsoleted by something better that it barely registers as a blip on the radar, and nobody that wasn’t involved with it even cares that it existed, except to note the newer thing that it led to.
And maybe the reason that nobody else cares about our identity is that we have none that nobody cared about but us. All we know is that we’re different.
We’re not quite breakfast. We’re not quite lunch. But we come with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get everything you get with breakfast or lunch, but you get a good meal.