A Bubble Generation: The Millennials, Generation X, and Historical Amnesia

Are generations born in bubbles? Do they mature outside political, social and family histories? Are they cocoons placed into society, all ready and packaged to present a particular image in time and space? According to most articles published on the Millennials, it seems the answer to these questions is a big, resounding "Yes."

It is time to stop constructing a generation disconnected from the past and from the rest of world. It is time we recognize the impact that Generation Xers across the globe have had on the Millennials' outlook on life, work, politics, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, activism or culture. Let's not sell our Millennials short. Let's add nuance and perspective to the conversation. Let's burst that bubble, shall we?

Let me start by painting you a broader picture. Let me give you a slice of GenX growing pains from various parts of the world. Contingent on an individual's date and place of birth, we are looking at world events and their impact between 1980 and 2010. And depending on which nations we are considering, the "Generation X"ers are called the "Golf Generation" in Germany, the "Metapolitefsis Generation" in Greece, the "Coca-Cola Generation" in Brazil, "Generation Mitterand" in France, the "Lost Generation" in Japan, or the "War Generation" in Serbia.

In countries like Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, East Germany, and Russia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the communist regimes in the late eighties and nineties led youth to take crash courses in capitalism and to straddle two political systems. This period of radical change meant that many Xers were abandoned to their own devices given that previously grounding institutions like pro-communist youth organizations and professional schools were disbanded. These, among other radical changes, forced Russian GenX'ers, according to sociologist Elena Omelchenko in Generation X Goes Global, to confront cataclysmic conditions including pay for education, a growth in youth unemployment, crime and drug use, and the problem of child homelessness and neglect. In other words, their experiences radically differed from those of their GenX colleagues in most Western countries, while, nonetheless, sharing in a sense of loss, marginalization, questioning and reevaluation.

In China, not regimes but traditional ways of life, old cityscapes and ideologies were destroyed for state-monitored growth in capitalism and the development of new market economies, leaving "the Sixth Generation" to grow up with few certainties, ideals, heroes, few government-sponsored jobs and a general distaste and subsequent distancing from government corruption. But it was politics, namely the terror of the Tian'anmen Square demonstration and massacre, as Asian Studies scholar Harry Kuoshu underscores, that became Chinese X'ers' most defining life event.

South and East Africa also underwent a series of massive social and political transformations with deep-seated personal and political effects. The "Uhuru Generation," a Swahili term for "independence" from British colonial occupation of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, experienced the effects of global neoliberal policies and failed local promises that left many disillusioned and calling for change to increase employment opportunities, health care and education for all. These conditions, explains anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi, linked the North American and East African "X" generations through hip-hop as a powerful site of hybrid political expression.

South Africans, contrary to their North American counterparts, lived in the hyper-political environment of the final years of Apartheit. Therefore, as South African sociologists Jan Schenk and Jeremy Seekings underscore, the GenX'ers we have come to know as Douglas Coupland's aimless, whiny, slacking and fictional (anti-)heroes, "stand in stark contrast not only to the US black and white protesters of the 1960s, but also to the ambitions, anger, harshness, and the very reality of the most young South Africans during the late 1980s and 1990s." What their work also accentuates is that most studies on Generation X and the Millennials do not engage enough with race and class, even as the Millennials are crowned the most diverse and technological of all cohorts.

In Indonesia, the expansion and subsequent collapse of the Thai currency in 1997, left a new middle class responding to this crisis by pooling resources, sharing access to media, and, in some instances, turning themselves into creative young entrepreneurs. Anthropologist Brent Luvaas reveals that those young people whose tastes ran more toward punk, hardcore and metal, "started making their own stuff, launching their own skate and punk-influenced clothing lines, founding their own magazines and record labels [and] forging an archipelago-wide network of bands and brands modeled [on] the imported alienation of America's Generation X." In other words, this group literally marketed alternative designs and expressions that were often as critical as they were consumerist, rebellious in their ability to innovate, reach out, and take self-initiative to such a degree that Luvaas crowned the Indonesian "Xers" "Generation DIY."

In Latin America and the Middle East, the clash of authoritarian regimes and revolutionary shifts toward freedom and equality still determine the landscape of today, with young people since before the 1990s feeling or remembering the impact of the terror and barbarity of multiple dictatorships and needing to redefine themselves as modern individuals. This "Global Generation," as Professor of Middle Eastern History, Mark LeVine, calls X'ers, is clearly connected to the Occupy movements that began with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, then spread to a host of Latin American countries, appearing in Seattle, Washington and Wall Street, Europe and the Middle East years later.

The conclusions we can draw from this fascinating, albeit narrow slice of history is that there are rich connections to be made between the life and times of Generation X'ers around the world and the Millennials of today. A more broad and deep engagement might allow us to discover that the alienated and disillusioned youth of yesterday strongly impacted the activists and revolutionaries of today. We may discover that the entrepreneurial mindset we think is Millennial-born has strong roots in the marginalizing effects of political disenchantment, lack of access to technology and education, and the need to reevaluate and question conventional values and practices. We also may begin to understand that the deep hybridity and remix culture enhanced by today's technological opportunities clearly connected to the GenX experience of living and breathing "in between" regimes, cultures, languages and identities. And we may discover that technological transformation was at the heart of every "X" life as television satellites then the Internet augmented and altered their world experiences and modes of expression, as they retired the tape deck for the CD and the iPod, the typewriter for the personal computer and beyond.

Change, transformation, uncertainty, paradox and the need to reject, question and develop a new, altered, or remixed set of values, morals, freedoms, and structures are qualities that mark Generation X deeply and distinctly. The Millennials deserve more. Their identities deserve not to be isolated from the world at large and disconnected from the life experiences of their elders. Let's stop engaging with the Millennials as a Bubble Generation.