Members of Generation X—those born between 1961 and 1981—have seen the world around them change in myriad of ways during their lifetimes, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the advent of the personal computer. Some of these developments directly affected their daily lives, while others helped shape Xers’ attitudes and worldview. To coincide with the premiere of the new six-part miniseries, Generation X, take a look at ten milestones that guided the path of a generation.
After a team of operatives from President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, it eventually led to a political scandal so huge that Nixon was forced to become the first-ever President to resign from office. The oldest Xers were still children at the time, and some weren’t born yet. But even so, Watergate contributed context to the cynicism and distrust of institutions for which the generation became known.
In 1973, Arab oil-producing nations retaliated against the U.S. for supporting Israel by cutting off the flow of imported oil, resulting in shortages and long lines at filling stations. Six years later, in 1979, similar shortages erupted due to a decline in Iranian oil production caused by political unrest there, and oil shock helped drive the U.S. into a brutal recession. For young Xers, the panic at the pumps provided powerful evidence of how their everyday lives could be disrupted by events in a distant part of the globe.
The Age of Ronald Reagan
The 40th President took office in 1981, around the time that the youngest Xershov were born and the oldest were in elementary school, and they grew up during his two terms in office. Reagan’s stridently conservative views, from tax cuts and trickle-down economics to his “peace through strength philosophy” that led to a military buildup, no doubt were a powerful influence on the generation’s thinking.
Rise of the PC
In the 1970s and 1980s, PCs evolved from being a novelty for hobbyists to a commonplace gadget that people increasingly utilized both for work and pleasure. Xers, who came of age at pretty much the same time as the PC, enthusiastically embraced the innovation, along with other electronic gadgets such as game consoles and cell phones, which all became part of the fabric of daily life. In a 2011 Pew survey, a greater percentage of Xers owned desktop PCs—the type that first became popular in their youth–than any other age group.
End of the Berlin Wall
East Germany’s communist regime disintegrated in 1989, as did the wall that divided Berlin. It was a sign that the Cold War that pitted the U.S. and other western democracies against the Soviet bloc was ending as well. On the radio, Xers could hear that moment celebrated by the rock group Jesus Jones, who sang of “watching the world wake up from history.” But what sense of optimism that gave Xers probably didn’t last long, thanks to a war in the Middle East and the rise of ethnic violence in the Balkans.
The HIV epidemic
While Boomers had a change to enjoy the increased freedom brought by loosening of moral attitudes about sex in the 1960s, Generation X came of age with the specter of HIV/AIDS looming over it like a nuclear warhead. “We are the victims of the sexual revolution,” one of the characters complained in the 1992 independent film “The Living End.” It was another factor that added to the generation’s cynical, downbeat worldview, but the crisis also turned many into activists, and raised the profile of the gay community. Xers became the first generation in which a majority favored marriage equality.
Watch: Gen X Reacts to Aids
In 1985, Rock Hudson is diagnosed with AIDS. A time of fear and misunderstanding in the US begins.
The O.J. Simpson Trial
The 1994 court case, in which the pro football legend was tried and acquitted of two murders, became such a televised sensation that altered Xers sense of perspective. As Xer Maximillian Wachtel, a forensic psychologist, explained in a 2014 article: “In retrospect, it was a good prelude to reality television where real people are turned into characters for entertainment purposes.”
The Dotcom Bubble
In the late 1990s, as Internet use boomed and became a bigger and bigger part of daily life, tech stocks surged, and online retailing sites such as Pets.com attracted scores of investors. But many of those startups ultimately failed to generate enough revenue to stay afloat, and in the spring of 2000, the resulting stock crash wiped out a trillion dollars in stock value. It was a financial disaster that hit many Gen Xers just as many were getting established in their careers, and played a role in keeping the generation from matching its parents’ prosperity. Not surprisingly, surveys show that many Xers feel anxiety about their futures.
Watch: Birth of the Slacker
In 1987, as the stock market crashes, the slacker stereotype is born.
The Sept. 11 Attacks
9-11 is often portrayed as formative event in the lives of Millennials, but when it came to casualties, the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists took a heavy toll on Xers. A New York City government study found that the median age of victims was 39 for men and 38 for women, which would put them in the early part of Generation X.
Election of Barack Obama
In 2008, the Illinois Senator became not only the first African-American to be elected President, but the first Xer as well, which made his ascension to the nation’s highest office a particularly momentous event for members of his generation. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama explained that he saw the need for post-partisan compromise after watching the conflict in Washington between two members of the previous generation, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage,” he wrote. Unfortunately, he soon would find himself mired in similar squabbles.
Generation X is a six-part series that explores the historical events, the people, and the social and political forces that shaped the generation born between 1961 and 1981. Don’t miss the premiere this Sunday at 10/9c on the National Geographic Channel.