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Gen-X Outlook: From Tough Love to Success


So-called "slackers" embraced technology and triumphed.

Much of what's been said over the years about Generation X tends toward clever little bites about "slackerdom" and "creative loafing."

However, Gen Xers -- the first generation to be saddled with crippling student loans, bleak job prospects after college, and, according to Forbes, the "highest percentage of assets invested in the stock market" when the tech bubble burst in 2000 -- may be luckier than many would imagine.

In 1942, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter published the seminal book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. It introduced the idea of what he termed "creative destruction," which maintains that "capitalism renews itself through seemingly sudden economic convulsions."

This was explored in detail by Lisa Chamberlain in her book Slackonomics, in which she posits that "not since the Industrial Revolution has a generation been so whipsawed by the economy, from McJobs to outsourcing, mind-boggling income inequality to two unprecedented back-to-back bubbles."

But, interestingly, these hardships seem to have resulted in a sort of "tough love" success story for Xers.

Remember the 8-track tape? Destroyed by cassettes, in turn, creating a new industry. Cassettes? Destroyed by the CD. CDs? Getting destroyed by the MP3. And so it goes on down the line -- every third person on the street seems to be listening to an Apple (AAPL) iPod, but when's the last time you caught someone toting around a Sony (SNE) Walkman?

As Chamberlain pointed out, "new, creative ideas and industries (like Google (GOOG)) flourish as older, stagnant ones are destroyed (like General Motors). This happened during the Industrial Revolution, and it's happening again with the information/technology revolution. Creative Destruction 2.0."

It's quite a Darwinian idea, only "survival of the fittest" gets tweaked slightly and thus becomes "birth of the fitter."

Most members of Generation X have no expectations they'll be able to retire, well, ever. We're paying for our parents' social security, and Generation Y will be paying for ours. This has resulted in people finding their own, alternate versions of "wealth":

More balanced work/family lives than "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" might ever have imagined.

A less-structured approach to the generally-accepted definition of career, fostering increased innovation and a sense of accomplishment derived from making do -- and often better than that -- on a path chosen by themselves.

A (loose, admittedly, but still there) sense of fraternity; a sense that "we're all in this together."

The Greatest Generation saved the world from Hitler and ushered in a post-war boom that lasted for years.

Baby Boomers lived fulfilling, if traditional, work lives, enhanced by Woodstock and interrupted by Vietnam.

Generation X is now entering middle age, having watched the world around them change in myriad ways. I personally haven't bought a stamp since I got a computer and was able to pay bills online. I haven't been to a library to comb through spools of microfilm since college because the information I need is now at my fingertips. And my old cassettes? Probably in a landfill somewhere within the Tri-State area.

We won't know how Generation X will be remembered until Generation X is just a memory. Anything could happen -- who'd have ever imagined that the president of the United States would end up as the CEO of GM?
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