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Generation X not so special: Malaise, cynicism on the rise for all age groups
The rise of a new generation of cynical, bleak and disaffected youth has long been discussed by hip novelists, TV commentators and news magazine editors, but now, after a careful and exhaustive search for evidence of Generation X, two Stanford sociologists are weighing in. Are the young adults born after the hippie and yuppie generations really more cynical, bleak and disaffected, as popular media claim? If so, why?
Eric Rice, 25, and his mentor, David Grusky, 40, decided it was time to take these claims seriously and put them to the test. Sociology, after all, has a long history of studying such phenomena as anomie or alienation, both of which refer to forms of malaise and disaffection that are similar, but not identical to those more recently described by Generation X commentators. If Rice's generation was indeed more down-in-the-mouth than Grusky's, they as sociologists ought to be able to find persuasive evidence.
"It's both surprising and unfortunate that sociology as a discipline has been largely silent on one of the major sociological developments of our time," said Grusky, a professor of sociology. Studies of anomie and alienation were common when public opinion polling was expanding in the '60s and '70s, he said, but had since "fallen out of academic fashion."
If sociologists have until now remained silent, a large popular literature nonetheless sprang up in the '90s, based mostly on anecdotal evidence that young adults today are more cynical and disaffected than past generations of young folk. This literature arose independently of sociological research on matters of anomie, said Rice, a graduate student who was exposed to Generation X movies, books and music as a college undergraduate. The creators of such works, often young adults themselves, typically assume that the generation's pessimism arises from concerns about the social problems they inherited from preceding generations, such as AIDS, high divorce rates, racial strife, homelessness and a shortage of good jobs, Rice said.
In evaluating these claims, Grusky and Rice turned to the national General Social Survey, the only high-quality source of data available that would allow them to directly compare the attitudes of current young adults to those of past generations at a time when they, too, were between 18 and 29 years old. They compared the answers to identical survey questions asked of 18- to 29-year-olds in three time periods since the survey began in 1972. They also compared how older adults in those time periods answered questions addressing cynicism, bleakness about the future and personal unhappiness.
Did the popular commentators get it right? "The popular commentary is indeed on the mark on many counts," Grusky said, based on the results of the comparisons. Just as media accounts of Generation X have suggested, he said, "a great many contemporary young adults are cynical about institutions, bleak about the future, and generally dissatisfied with their own lives." This "X-class" of disaffected youth is also far larger now than it was in prior periods.
Moreover, popular commentators have not merely rediscovered classical forms of anomie that sociologists have long discussed, because the Generation X variant of disaffection does not emerge from social isolation and the absence of meaningful, binding social ties, the researchers said. It stems instead from the view that major familial, work and political institutions are rife with corruption and winding down, with no obvious regenerative forces or possibilities in sight.
How, then, did the contemporary depicters of Generation X lead us astray? "The rising disaffection of contemporary youth proves to be part of a larger trend toward disaffection that appears in all age groups rather than merely the youngest ones," Grusky said. "The age groups are all moving in tandem, so we have evidence of what sociologists term a period effect rather than a cohort effect." Overall, about 35 percent of young American adults were members of the disaffected "X-class" in the 1990s, compared with 20 percent in the 1970s and 25 percent in the 1980s, the researchers said.
Because the increase in disaffection is equally substantial among older age groups, the age-specific causes that have been cited by Generation X commentators no longer seem plausible, Rice said. "Whatever the causes of disaffection, they are not ones that we Generation Xers experience uniquely, although we may very well feel our experience is unique."
What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? This question cannot be answered definitively yet, but media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of "historical underdosing," the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. In arguing this point, the Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. "If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present," Grusky said.
The classic X-class, while quite large in all age groups, does not characterize everyone. Rice said that "there is a second, smaller group of individuals who, like the classic X-class, think the future may be bleak but who react not with malaise or despair but by living for the day." This group corresponds to Generation X accounts of "slackers who sedate themselves with various forms of instant gratification, such as extreme sports, exotic travel and the rave subculture."
There also is an "idealistic variant" of the classic X-class. Among this group, "bleakness again prevails on the surface, but at the same time there is a deeper belief that, in the end, the major institutions of the system are not yet fully corrupt and may be salvageable," Rice said.
Although the particular content of the response may therefore vary, these many variants of the classic X-class may all be seen as stemming from the spread of an "end of history" zeitgeist, he said.