Of the many ‘tales’ told by Generation X in its effort to pin down the ‘accelerated culture’ it’s depicting, an important one is about work and changing attitudes towards it. Once upon a time, one of the protagonists of the novel, Dag, used to work in advertising, spending days on end trapped in his cubicle, which he affectionately names ‘veal-fattening pen’ ‘after the small preslaughter cubicles used by the cattle industry’.1 One day, Dag starts questioning his life choices. His job consists of ‘tasks that indirectly enslave the Third World’ and, more broadly, Dag wonders, ‘Why work? Simply to buy more stuff?’ (an aspiration that, in any case, is drastically curtailed by the fact that the previous generation, baby boomers, are ‘always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wired fence around the rest’).2 Thus, Dag quits his job and moves to the California desert, looking for a clean slate and a more meaningful life. Here, he joins Andy and Claire, who, like Dag, prefer the path of ‘McJobs’ – ‘low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job[s] in the service sector’ – to the deceptive promises of status and money represented by veal-fattening pens. 3
There are gen-xers who, unlike the novel’s protagonists, choose the veal-fattening pens’ simulacrum of success, such as Tobias, who claims to love ‘the hours and the mind games and the battling for money and status tokens’.4 But even these people know deep down that the best they can aspire to is the status of ‘Yuppie Wannabe’, a subgroup of generation X that, due to their devotion to the untenable yuppie life-style, ‘Tend to be highly in debt, involved in some form of substance abuse, and show a willingness to talk about Armageddon after three drinks’.5 Ultimately, all gen-xers are haunted by this sense of ‘futurelessness’, which manifests itself in the frequent imaginings of apocalypse punctuating Generation X.6
Gen-xers suffer from what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi identifies as the ‘slow cancellation of the future’, namely that, since the late 20th century, we no longer expect the future to ‘fulfil the promises of the present’.7 Dag’s decision to quit his advertising job is itself framed as the result of a crisis of futurity vis-à-vis the abundance of futurity enjoyed by the boomers. Even the fantasy world invented by Andy, Dag, and Claire offers little respite. Texlahoma is literally a world with no future, as it’s stuck in 1974, ‘the year after the oil shock and the year starting from which real wages in the U.S. never grew again’.8 Environmental crisis is also on the gen-xers’ horizon, as indicated by the environment-related neologisms that populate the margins of Generation X. In the face of this existential precarity, Dag’s, Andy’s, and Claire’s choice of the ‘no-future’ McJobs feels like a logical response, somewhat heroic in its rejection of mainstream delusions. One can almost hear Dag’s, Andy’s, and Claire’s line of thinking: if the game is rigged and there is no future, why play at all?
And yet, play in the end they do. In a typically Coupland-esque tongue-in-cheek move, Generation X’ ending sees Dag, Claire, and Andy emigrating to Mexico and opening a hotel there. Contemplating the trajectory from veal-fattening pens to McJobs to hotel-ownership, it’s hard not to wonder where the money for this final venture is coming from – perhaps Claire’s rich family? It’s also hard not to wonder what’s become of our favorite gen-xers 30 years on. Perhaps, as John Crace imagines, they’re now the owners of a chain of ‘organic hotels’ and, like the boomers before them, from this privileged position they complain about how useless younger generations are.9 After all, ‘Clique Maintenance’, ‘the need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego’ is a constant of human existence.10
Ultimately, what this ending signals to me is how much of a choice the McJobs were in the first place to Dag, Andy, and Claire – an unflinching choice in the face of the slow cancellation of the future, sure, but a choice nonetheless that, as such, could be reversed. For many gen-xers, of course, McJobs weren’t a choice but a necessity. 30 years on, when, to use the words of another author writing about a generation – this time, millennials – ‘we’ve been conditioned to [a] precarity’ that runs rampant way beyond the McJobs’ service sector, the very existence of this choice may feel utopian to many.11
This is one of six pieces in “Thirty Years of Generation X,” the latest installment in the Thinking With series. Explore the other pieces here:
Thirty Years of Generation X / GenXRountable / Andrew Tate
Thirty Years of Generation X / Generation X Rewind / Makoto Fujimura
Thirty Years of Generation X / Isolated Little Cool Moments: the Life/Death of Irony in Generation X / Mary McCampbell
Thirty Years of Generation X / Generation Extreme / Shumon Basar
Thirty Years of Generation X / Generation X: Deceleration and the Necessity of Narrative / Andrew Tate
- Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus, 1996), 24.
- Coupland, Generation X, 22, 28, 26; emphasis in original.
- Coupland, Generation X, 6.
- Coupland, Generation X, 185.
- Coupland, Generation X, 104.
- Coupland, Generation X, 98.
- Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, After the Future, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 13, 17.
- Coupland, Generation X, 46.
- John Crace, ‘Generation X by Douglas Coupland’, The Guardian, April 11, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/apr/11/digested-classics-generation-x-coupland.
- Coupland, Generation X, 26.
- Anne Helen Petersen, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), viii.