2016 is 25 years on from the publication of Douglas Coupland’s iconic novel Generation X. So that generation, the generation of young people, just entering the workplace in 1991 and characterised by Coupland as doomed with lousy jobs and a general attitude of bitter cynicism, is all grown up now and in fact running business and the media.
Coupland coined the term Gen X because he felt that there was a seismic difference between that cohort and the Baby Boomers. Since Gen X we’ve had Gen Y, the Millennials (18-34s) and now the Centennials (born around 2000).
Next to come, in Britain at least, will be Gen Brexit. Can we speculate how the events of the last few months will change the nature of young people who will grow up in the early years of the UK negotiating its exit from the EU?
Gen Brexit are those who were too young to vote in the referendum, but whose lives will be materially affected by the decisions of those who could and did vote on June 23rd.
The differences between generations can be categorised into two buckets: economic and emotional.
Economic data is empirical. We can measure how the post war generations suffered or benefitted from their local circumstances. Emotional mood is harder to characterise. Unless you listen out for it.
Baby Boomers – the children of the post war years (that’s World War 2) – experienced seismic change growing up – with a sound track in popular music that has arguably never been matched for impact: The Beatles, Woodstock, Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder.
Gen X-ers, on the other hand, had grunge as their soundtrack: Smashing Pumpkins, Pearljam and Nirvana . “Here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious”, the lyrics to Nirvana hit Smells like Teen Spirit, pretty much sums up the tone of Generation X and was released the same year as Coupland’s book.
Economic predictions are polarised in Britain at the moment. The nation is divided. Yet there is a choice now for British youth emotionally between pragmatic optimism and negative despair which will set the tone of voice for the soundtrack for this generation – Gen Brexit.
My prediction is that we will witness a step-change in creativity in music in the next generation.
Difficult turbulent times make for good creative initiatives.
Heavy metal was born from the crash of the industrial revolution. The biggest bands of this genre were cradled in the despair of the industrial midlands. Black Sabbath’s legendary guitarist Tony Iommi was in a dead end job in a dead end industry when he lost the tips of two fingers in an industrial accident at work in a sheet metal factory, and reinvented himself as a guitar player. Some people say that you can hear the sounds of that factory resonate throughout Sabbath’s music.
Punk was a response to the biggest crisis in faith in authority and politics that the UK had seen up to that point. Singer John Lydon describes the environment the Sex Pistols were born out of: “Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down with trash on the streets, and total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all.”
There’s one thing for sure about the next decade in Britain. There’s more change to come. Turn and face the strange. Turn and face the strain. Times might be hard for Gen Brexit, but their soundtrack will be wonderful.