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Gen-X Outlook: Get Knocked Down, Get Up Again


Angry but hopeful.

According to the marketing people, I'm a Gen-Xer. I grew up watching MTV videos and John Hughes movies. I laughed at Beavis and Butthead and listened to Nirvana. I was one of the millions of people born between 1965 and 1977 who were seen by advertisers as self-absorbed, lazy, confused young people that didn't care about their products.

But we grew up, and we proved them wrong. By 1997, it was clear we were a generation of achievers, entrepreneurs, and competitors. Google (GOOG), Yahoo (YHOO), Amazon (AMZN), eBay (EBAY), and countless other companies were started by fellow Xers. We created the tech bubble. Sure, it eventually burst, but it was our first real bubble, after all.

I entered the job market during a recession in San Francisco. Blissfully ignorant of the high unemployment rate in the City by the Bay in 1993, I landed a job within a week of arriving. After a few years in finance, I found my way to journalism, where I covered the very dot-com companies other Xers were creating.

Our parents grew up knowing what their careers would look like: stable job, long stints in one or two companies, early retirement. My generation never had a plan, and that has helped us appreciate our successes and cope with our professional missteps and setbacks.

And boy, what setbacks we've had. I've been laid off four times so far and my resume looks like a toxic waste dump of high-flying publications that fell hard and fast into the great abyss of a media graveyard. It turns out I made a particularly poor choice in careers, but I'm a survivor.

I've always had a job and yet I've never had job security. It's the only reality I know.

Although media has been beset by problems for many years, it was the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 that made me worry in ways I never had before. I had loads of fun covering it, but when I was handed that pink slip again earlier this year, I realized I was facing a new reality.

Like many Americans, I've been through the five stages of grief during this crisis: denial, anger, angst, anger, and more anger. I find out the "aughts" will be the worst decade in history for stocks, and I'm angry that so many financial advisers encouraged us to max out our 401(k) accounts during those years.

I'm angry that bankers (true, many of them are Gen Xers as well) played with risk in order to pad their own income and I'm angry they feel no remorse for taking our economy to the brink of collapse. I'm angry I'll probably never receive a social security check in my life, and I'm angry I'll have to work until I die.

In his famous 1989 essay on Generation X, Doug Coupland said we had "a belief that all fantasies will come true, that things will somehow work out for the best and that the world is generously supplied with safety nets ... Type X is always looking for the perfect career and believes there will always be someone to bail him or her out of trouble."

Twenty years later, those words sting. Members of Gen X, perhaps more so than any other generation, know they can't rely on anyone else but themselves for their well-being. The recent economic crisis has only underscored that.

I never had the fantasies Coupland described, and those safety nets were recalled by their Chinese manufacturers many years ago. But that Gen X description wasn't entirely off. I continue to hope that things will work out -- maybe not "for the best," but certainly not for the worst.

Without hope, what's the point?
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