29 August 1998

Oldsters Get The Gen X Feeling

Are the young adults born after the hippie and yuppie generations really more cynical, bleak and disaffected, as popular media claim? Yes, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Stanford sociologists Eric Rice and David Grusky. More surprisingly, their findings show that Gen X attitudes are not the exclusive domain of twentysomethings - slacker attitudes are on the rise across older age groups as well.

To conduct their research, Grusky and Rice analysed data from the General Social Survey, directly comparing 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.

"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 per cent of young American adults were members of the disaffected "X-class" in the 1990s, compared with 20 per cent in the 1970s and 25 per cent 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 Generation Xers experience uniquely, although we may very well feel our experience is unique."

What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? "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. "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.