They are rapidly replacing Boomers in the C-suite. They make up the majority of Silicon
Valley start-up founders. They are the art world’s most valued (and overvalued) artists.
They are still, amazingly, the most popular and top grossing DJs. They have more disposable
income than anyone else, and gradually, they are beginning to take political power.
So why don’t people ever seem to talk about Gen-X?
It might be because they are perceived to be a small cohort. Or maybe it’s because brands
didn’t notice them at ﬁrst, then were perplexed by them, and found it easier just move on to
a more receptive Millennial audience.
And to be fair, they are sandwiched in between two bigger generations. Because of this,
they required more work to understand, so they were easy to dismiss.
But right now, Gen-X is peaking. Big time. Which means their attention and interest has
never been more valuable to brands.
Yet they remain as they always have been: an afterthought and a bit of an enigma.
Enigma 54%FEEL IG NORED BY BRANDS
31%OF A L L SP EN DI N G DOL L A R S I N T H E U. S.
#1IN DISPOSABLE INCOME IN U.K. & CANADA
The prevailing commentary that surrounds generations and generational differences is often, to put it lightly,
ﬂawed. To put it bluntly: it’s mostly shit.
When it comes to generations, the media frequently trades in baseless stereotypes. Hyping up a particular
generation as either humanity’s saviour or demise is an easy and time-proven method to get clicks.
Unfortunately, marketers are also guilty of the same crimes.
Generations are not monoliths. They contain multitudes. Be it class differences, geographical location, ethnicity,
or political afﬁliation – each generation always contains an inﬁnitely diverse range of people.
But within a generation, you also ﬁnd shared experiences, values, historical and cultural touch points and
expressions of identity that are wholly unique to that cohort.
Good marketing should never assume, but instead always seek to discover. It should search out those rare
qualities that truly distinguish a group of people, and identify the ﬂash points that come together to form a
Bad marketing churns. It recycles. It focuses on the broad strokes and the big numbers. It forgoes details and fails
to understand the individual experience.
And never has a generation been so consistently misunderstood than Generation-X.
The snubbed generation
Even before Gen-X had a name, they were being branded by the media
with a vague notion of impending failure.
In the mid ‘80s, there began to be murmurs about an entirely new group of
people that formed an undiscovered cohort. Birth trends indicated a baby
bust after the baby boom, but there wasn’t a word for this generation that
had stuck yet. There wasn’t anything that “captured their zeitgeist” or
described how they felt or who they were.
In 1988, Douglas Coupland had just gotten out of art school and was paying
the bills as a freelance writer. One day he wrote an article titled Generation-
X. It was about the experiences of overeducated young people in his native
Vancouver who felt they were being ignored by society.
It caused a bit of a stir, and he followed it up with some more articles and a
short-lived comic strip about a Gen-Xer stuck in a dead-end corporate job.
And that was that. That is, until Coupland’s industrious agent packaged up
the material and scored him a lucrative book deal on the premise that he
would write a “ﬁeld guide to a post-boomer sensibility”. It was supposed to
be like an updated version of The Yuppie Handbook, but for the ‘90s.
Coupland moved to Palo Alto to research and write the book. But it wasn’t
the ﬁeld guide as promised. Instead, it was a collection of short stories about
a group of twentysomethings living on the fringes of consumer society,
working McJobs and marinating in ennui.
It was an instant, colossal hit.
A brief history of Gen-X
Overnight, Coupland became the reluctant voice of his generation. He was
offered lucrative deals from brands and marketers to help them
understand this new and therefore exciting generation. Automakers
wanted him to teach them how to sell cars to Gen-Xers. The Gap wanted
him to appear in an ad as the deﬁnitive Gen-Xer. But in proper Gen-X
fashion, he refused to sell out.
The book was a hit because Coupland was able to speak to universal
experiences that resonated amongst his generation: feelings of social
fragmentation, a certain television-inspired world weariness, and a general
disappointment with the beginning of their adult lives.
For brands, it looked to be marketing gold. Only … it wasn’t.
The brands that approached Gen-X head on, often failed. Brands that tried
to capitalize on Gen-X disillusionment were met with yawns. And brands
that attempted to wink at their distrust of advertising were largely
ignored. The Gap, mind you, ended up doing quite well.
In 1995, Coupland declared that Generation-X was dead. But as we know,
the idea of Generation-X didn’t die. It grew exponentially, transforming
from a niche descriptor to include everyone born roughly between 1964 -
1979. And in the interim, they became a truly distinctive generation.
But somehow, the clichés persisted. To this day, when most people are
pressed to describe Gen-Xers, they quickly gravitate towards the familiar
description of an underachieving and cynical slacker.
The Generation-X comic was, ironically, a
satire about a Gen-Xer who worked in
The classic Gen-X dilemma.
Everyone is shaped by their formative years, and
Gen-X was shaped by the ‘80s.
We’re not just talking about big hair, Dynasty, or
Jane Fonda workout videos, but the macro
trends that had real impact on their developing
The ‘80s were a rupture point between old and
new. Between stability and fragility. Economies
exploded and contracted. Analog mutated into
digital and institutions that were once seen as
dependable … all of a sudden weren’t.
Gen-X was the ﬁrst generation in modern history
to have less prospects than their parents. So they
grew up having their illusions shattered.
Their experience was a mix of stagnation,
fragmentation and acceleration, which pushed
them towards embracing autonomy, self-
reliance and authenticity.
Economic bust, mass
Economic boom, greed and consumer excess
consoles and gaming
The End of the Cold War
and the rise of terrorism
The AIDS Crisis
The Fall of the
divorce rates and
of the family unit
Marketers still don’t get Gen-X.
We’ve worked with Gen-X a lot. We’ve travelled with them.
Shared beers with them. Cooked with them. Partied with them.
We’ve spent time in their homes, watching how they live, how
they shop, how they eat. We know how they get their news and
how they take their coffee and tea.
Spoiler alert: many of us are them.
One critical point we’ve come to understand is this: Just like in
the ‘90s, brands are still missing what’s truly unique about Gen-
Right now, they are doing something utterly revolutionary that
is going unnoticed: They aren’t getting “old” and they’ve ﬂipped
the entire aging paradigm on its head.
In order to understand how Gen-X has changed the concept of
age, we need to understand their unique place in the history of
Understanding the unique
cultural DNA of Gen-X
“I still go to [club]
nights where DJs who
were around in the
1980s and 1990s play –
so many people who
were part of the scene
haven’t lost the love.
They just don’t stay out
all night anymore and
they make sure they’re
not too exhausted when
their children wake up
in the morning. But
they still live for the
music and the spirit of
JO, 44, CORNWALL , UK
of the teenager
The concept of the
teenager is a new one.
The mindset began to
emerge in the 1920s,
but it wasn’t until the
40s that it became a
broadly recognized life
of youth culture
A few years before the
ﬁrst Gen-Xer is born,
the teenager begins to
rapidly evolve, setting
the stage for the
emergence of another
phenomenon that was
set to change the world
forever more: youth
a mid-life crisis
In the ’70s, Boomers
grew up and adult rules
kicked in. So they got a
job, worked hard, got
married, had kids,
bought homes and
replaced the Jimi
with the Huey Lewis
they gave up on being
Exercise and health
mainstream and brands
and media become
obsessed with their
Everyone is being told to
never stop growing or
learning – to Just Do It.
of all culture
Beginning with the dawn
of MTV, the notion of
youth expands further,
moving beyond an age
category and into a
marketable way of life.
In NYC, London,
Seattle, Toronto and
else, young people start
coming together in
unique ways, making
new music, throwing
new parties and doing
new drugs. Out of this
halcyon wave comes an
entirely new approach
The Boomers may have invented youth culture. But Gen-X
Between the release of the ﬁrst Beatles record and the
premier of The Empire Strikes Back, Gen-X was born. Which
means they were the ﬁrst generation to grow up in a fully
Throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Gen-X created a
massive wave of subcultures that shared a common ethos and
followed a common trajectory. They valued doing it yourself,
how you wanted, the way you wanted. It was raw creativity
mixed with fresh entrepreneurialism
They realized that while they may not get the jobs or
politics they wanted, they could absolutely get the culture
they wanted – and that culture could be transformative.
For the ﬁrst time ever, young people seized the means of
cultural production. And after that, there was no looking
back. Gen-X had gotten screwed in a lot of ways, but they
also quietly kept the world from sucking.
The Gen-X youth
Grunge redeﬁnes rock and takes
indie style and the DIY aesthetic
to the masses
The New Romantics bring
androgyny to the mainstream
Punk fractures into hundreds
of scenes and sub genres, going pop in the process
Acid House takes rave
Young nerds ﬂock to the young Internet,
learn to code, invent blogging and turn
hacking into a sport
Skateboarding and action
sports become a billion
Hip Hop revolutionizes
music, fashion, and advertising
The concept of youth grew from a brief life stage into a
constantly attainable mood – a feeling that could be
tapped into at any age, and something of a philosophy of
Unlike the Boomers, Gen-X never transitioned into a
traditional adulthood. They had kids, gained weight, lost
weight, gained it again and got mortgages but society no
longer places the same pressures on them to live a
It’s now OK to still be interested in contemporary
culture past the age of 25. In fact, it’s totally cool to still
be experimenting and having adventures in your 40s,
50s and beyond.
They are the ﬁrst generation that didn’t have to let go
of what they loved, give up on having fun, or abandon
the things that made them who they are.
But the generation
that redefined youth…
Yet most brands treat Gen-Xers the same as they treated the fortysomethings and ﬁftysomethings of yesteryear. And they continue to feel that they
are targeted by a predetermined and false understanding of life stage rather than their mindset or values.
So is it any wonder this is a generation that feels underserved despite having the most disposable income of any cohort?
You should be asking yourselves, what are Gen-X values and how do I target a generation that doesn’t feel the need to grow up?
…is still being ignored
Take a look at any brand that is highly coveted by Millennials and
odds are you’ll ﬁnd a Gen-Xer in charge: Vice. Tesla. Google.
Supreme. Uniqlo. GoPro. Adidas … the list goes on.
The Gen-X afﬁnity for independence and authenticity has led them
to become stealth agents of change. Even when it comes to social
media, while Millennials and Gen Edgers may get the press, it’s Gen-
Xers who are the most active on platforms like Facebook, Twitter
Understand that when you speak to Gen-X, you’re speaking to
everyone they inﬂuence, which is, well, everyone.
Just as they have an unappreciated level of
inﬂuence, Gen-Xers also have an outsized
responsibility. Ever the middle child, Gen-
Xers are now simultaneously raising
children and taking care of their aging
The role of multi-generational caretaker is
a major stress point for Gen-Xers. So while
they are more hedonistic than Boomers,
their decisions still come with a sense of
than ever, but
They still view themselves as outsiders; more savvy than Millennials, less optimistic than their parents.
This trait has manifested in their approach to how they are bringing up their kids: Generation Edge.
Where Boomers taught Millennials to be conscious of their self-esteem, Gen-Xers are teaching their
kids to be resilient. They have a strong sense of nostalgia for the autonomy of their own upbringing,
and want to re-wild their children so that they can grow up with the ability to invent their own
activities and build their own communities, just like they did.
Because many of them were latchkey kids or had parents who were divorced, independence was thrust
on Gen-X from an early age. But what was once seen as a challenge growing up is now embraced as a
Gen-Xers are perceptive parents
Being the generation that bridges our
species between an analog past and
digital future, Gen-X occupies a
remarkably speciﬁc space in terms of
their consumer preferences.
Unlike Millennials, they grew up in
relative media scarcity. If you wanted
cool things – you couldn’t rely on
algorithms and had to discover them
These days, they might not be as driven
to be as unique as they used to, but they
still want to feel like the things they buy
are crafted just for them.
They still love the underground. They
still love what makes them feel special.
They love the
Gen-X doesn’t have the tension associated
with a loss of youthfulness that Boomers
had. Rather, they see tensions with how
brands and media treat them as a group,
targeting their allegedly mature life stage
rather than their youthful values.
They feel young but also have the wisdom
and conﬁdence that comes with age. This
means they are adventurous, but discerning.
the mid-life crisis
• Gen-Xers were the ﬁrst generation to mature in a world where
youth is a constant. No one laughs at old DJs or mocks aspiring
artists who are in their 50s anymore. Everyone is welcome in the
broad progressive church of youth.
• They feel that brands only speak to their life stage and ignore
their youthful state of mind. So stop treating them like square
dads or mums or bored fortysomethings.
• Gen-X has the largest disposable income of any generation. They
are ready to spend, but are consistently overlooked.
• Stop thinking in age brackets and develop an approach to Gen-X
that is as dynamic as they are. An approach that acknowledges
that they are the most experienced and discerning “young people”
alive and they do not want to slow down.
Justin Trudeau, pictured here wearing a
“Canadian tuxedo”, is the world’s ﬁrst
observably Gen-X leader.
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