Last week in New York magazine, 27-year-old Noreen Malone (a former Slate staffer) wrote that her generation, the Millennials—battered by the economy and yet still somehow convinced that they’ll “do better” than their parents—were “hoping for the chance to put on a tie and report to their cubes.” In response, Gizmodo writer Mat Honan, who turns 39 this week, posted a screed on his blog that read in part: “Generation X is tired of your sense of entitlement. Generation X also graduated during a recession. It had even shittier jobs … Generation X is used to being fucked over.”
I’m older than Noreen but younger than Mat, and neither characterization rang exactly true to me (most demographers place me and my peers at the tail end of Generation X). I was born during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a one-term administration remembered mostly for the Iran hostage crisis, the New York City blackout, and stagflation. The Carter babies—anyone born between his inauguration in January 1977 and Reagan’s in January 1981—are now 30 to 34, and, like Carter himself, the weirdly brilliant yet deeply weird born-again Christian peanut farmer, this micro-generation is hard to pin down. We identify with some of Gen X’s cynicism and suspicion of authority—watching Pee-Wee Herman proclaim, “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel,” will do that to a kid—but we were too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks). And, while the proud alienation of the Gen X worldview doesn’t totally sit right, we certainly don’t yearn for the Organization Man-like conformity that the Millennials seem to crave.
So, half in jest, I posted on Twitter: “I’m not Gen X and I’m not a Millennial either; I’m some low-birthrate in-between thing. WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ME.” To my surprise, replies flooded in: “I was thinking the same thing today. I vote Generation Jem.” “Generation I Watched Saved By The Bell during its first run.” “I’m born 77, I claim the Xers, just because it’s better than the alternative.”
But what seemed to be the best moniker for our micro-generation was a Teen Vogue editor’s suggestion: “Generation Catalano.” Jared Leto’s Jordan Catalano was a main character in the 1994-95 ABC series My So-Called Life, a show that starred Claire Danes as Angela Chase, a high school sophomore struggling with the thing that teenagers will struggle with as long as there are high schools: who she is. “People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even,’” she says in a voice-over in a midseason episode. So even though the themes of the show are in many ways timeless, today, My So-Called Life also seems like a time capsule, and not just because of the Scrunchies. There’s no texting; Jordan leaves a note for Angela in her locker. There’s also no Facebook or instant-messaging or cyberbullying (just regular old bullying). It was a show that most accurately portrayed my high school experience, minus the dating of Jared Leto, in part because it aired while I was actually in high school.
Claire Danes’ Angela—and Heathers’ Veronica Sawyer and Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir—also fall into a trope of television and film that’s an especially apt representation of Generation Catalano (or at least those of us who were white and from the suburbs): the girl who doesn’t know where exactly she fits in, because she’s smart (full disclosure: the struggle Lindsay has over whether to stay on the Mathletes hit a little too close to home), wants to be popular, and has to leave her old, dorky friends behind. The show or movie’s dramatic tension is then largely about her identity crisis as she ping-pongs among different cliques and wrestles with the seemingly monumental decision of whether to stay in on a Friday night and do her calculus homework or go to a keg party in the woods. Yet My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks each only made it through one season before being canceled; they failed to resonate with a broader audience.
In contrast, the relatively bland main characters on much more successful, Millennial-targeted shows of the late 1990s and early 2000s, like Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, and The O.C., presaged the current crop of high school-centric series like Glee, Pretty Little Liars, and Gossip Girl, whose lead characters—much like Millennials themselves—are convinced that it’s not just possible, but expected to be pretty, popular, and go to Brown. (My Millennial sister—who was born in 1984, and is now a lawyer—watched Legally Blonde and found much to admire in Elle Woods’ equal devotion to her wardrobe and her legal career.) Meanwhile, the post-Millennials seem solely obsessed with fame; hugely popular shows like Hannah Montana and iCarly reinforce the idea that you can be a “regular” kid who’s also world-famous.
This urge to define generations is also about a yearning for a collective memory in an increasingly atomized world, at least where my generation is concerned. Indeed, where the Millennials tend to define themselves in terms of the way they live now, people in my cohort find fellowship more in what happened in the past, clinging to cultural totems as though our shared experiences will somehow lead us to better figure out who we are. The Internet is littered with quick-hit nostalgia websites like I’m Remembering, which posts pictures of toys and TV characters and old photos from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Certainly, discovering that someone else also had a Cabbage Patch Kid does immediately create a sense of shared history, no matter how superficial. This aligns us more with Gen X, which has also always bonded through nostalgia. Millennials, on the other hand, seem to be always looking forward, imbued with a sense of optimism and hope that to us reads as naive.
In her story, Malone writes that “every generation finds, eventually, a mode of expression that suits it,” but perhaps every generation is also granted, eventually, a name that it deserves. Though Douglas Coupland didn’t invent the term “Generation X” (that credit goes to the photographer Robert Capa, who used it to describe the generation of kids growing up after World War II), his 1991 book of the same name was what made it apply to this age group. Millennials, on the other hand, have Ad Age to thank for helping define their generation; the advertising trade publication first used the term “Generation Y” in 1993 to characterize the post-Gen X cohort. Later, William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 2000 book Millennials Rising would become instrumental in defining this group; in his review of the book for the New York Times, David Brooks noted that “kids have a much more positive attitude toward parents and adult authority figures than earlier cohorts did.”
In Generation X, one of the protagonists, Andy, reflects that “we live small lives on the periphery; we are marginalized and there’s a great deal in which we choose not to participate.” It’s no coincidence that Gen X’s greatest artistic legacy is probably grunge, which is all about glorifying marginalization and alienation. Millennials, though, have been forced to live lives on the periphery, when they had always expected that they would be at the center. As Malone points out, the Fleet Foxes, led by 25-year-old Robin Pecknold, sing about thinking that they were “special snowflakes” but finding that they are in fact “cogs in some great machinery.” In contrast, the most famous musician from Generation Catalano is probably 34-year-old Kanye West, who actually is something of a special snowflake—and at the same time that he has released some of the best music of the last few years (and gotten very rich off of it), he’s also been engaged a very public battle with himself. Like West, Generation Catalano is never fully comfortable with its place in the world; we wander away from the periphery and back again.
It’s also somehow apt that I would be writing this essay in the first place: In Hebrew, my name means “my generation.” As I was working on the essay, I called my mom and asked if she and my dad had deliberately chosen my name because of its meaning. (I was also named after my great-grandmother Dora.) “I didn’t want to name you Dora, so we chose Doree. It was just a coincidence that it means ‘my generation,’ ” she told me. The arbitrary nature of this choice, too, seemed fitting. But maybe we’re not the only ones who feel unmoored. After explaining the gist of the piece to a 29-year-old friend over email, she responded: “I feel like I’m especially without generation because I’m not quite a Carter baby but not really a Millennial either. … I feel like Noreen, who is only two years younger than me, is of a slightly different generation, which seems crazy! But it feels true.” Her email was a classic Generation Catalano move: dancing near the spotlight, and then dancing with herself.