Calling in the Gen X Search Party: How Can 65 Million Adults Be Invisible?
Hey Gen X, who wants to take a road trip to Springfield, Illinois next month? I’ll explain more in a minute, but we may find something of ourselves there.
When Gen Xers write and talk about ourselves as a group, we commonly refer to ourselves as “forgotten” or “invisible”. This is a puzzle I’m fascinated by. I think it is a problem when the 40-and 50-somethings in society don’t feel like they have a place in it. We’re in the prime of our lives, after all.
Last week, I took a poll on social media of other Gen Xers to try to better understand how others feel about our “ghost status”. When asked if our invisibility is a problem for a healthy society, only 13% responded it “is not a problem.” It was a small sample, but I found the results heartening. My guess when I launched the poll was that most people would disagree with me.
So, if we all feel invisible and many of us think it’s a problem, what’s behind all of this? Is our invisibility real or is it just in our heads? There is a lot to unpack on the topic of why we are invisible, today I’ll start by reviewing some of the evidence about how we show up in the US population and in the media. I think this is the foundation of making sense of our invisibility. That will end with the road trip invitation. I’ll save my thoughts on why and more from the poll for another day.
Is invisibility our demographic destiny?
It is true that the demographics of Gen X work against us, but not as much as people seem to believe. We are sandwiched between the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations which are both larger in terms of size. However, our size difference is not enough to explain our invisibility. At over 65 million people, we comprise almost 20% of the US population and about a quarter of the adult population. We are 26% of voters. Our population is larger than the smallest 25 states combined and almost as large as the populations of California and Texas combined. When was the last time you heard people say, “We can forget about California, they’re kind of irrelevant in the national conversation.” Never. Exactly.
Is our invisibility all in our heads?
If you’re a Gen Xer, you already know the answer to this one. It is not in our DNA to make things up for sympathy or attention.
The absence of Gen X is a ubiquitous pop culture trope. The internet loves memes poking fun at us as the middle child of American life. Mainstream media plays a role too. Once you start to look, you can’t un-see how our invisibility shows up everywhere.
Not long ago, the CBS Evening News did a segment on age and posted a graphic with the labels for each living generation and the birth years it encompassed. It listed the Silent Generation (1928–45), The Baby Boomer generation (1946–64), the Millennial Generation (1981–96) and the post-Millennial Generation Z (1997–2012). The graphic skipped Gen X and the dates 1965 to 1980 altogether.
This summer, esteemed CNN political commentator, David Gergen took to Twitter to urge a passing of the generational baton, “Baby Boomers have been running the country for nearly three decades….It’s time to pass the baton to younger generations — Millennials & Gen Z.” You read that correctly. A leader in his 80’s, who happily held enormous power through his 40’s and 50’s as an adviser to four Presidents, is now using his considerable platform to call for a society led by those 40 and under.
The New York Times ran a story last month describing us as both “forgotten” and “invisible”.
Perhaps the most embarrassing evidence of our collective absence from the culture is a museum exhibit launching next month. The exhibit is titled: The Forgotten Generation. I’m no historian, but when I first saw that title, I guessed that they were talking about the generation before the Civil War. I am personally pretty hazy on that period in time and would benefit from a museum exhibit that took me back to the mid-1800’s for a refresher.
You can guess the punchline. The museum hadn’t chosen “the forgotten generation” to refer to some bygone era that history left behind. They chose it for an exhibit on Gen X. Honestly, how can that be? We’re right here! How can we be forgotten when we make up 20% of the US population and are alive and roaming the country? Isn’t there some museum code of conduct that says the living can’t get relegated to dinosaur status?
The worst part of all? The exhibit wasn’t a high-profile showcase event at a world-class museum like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. or the Field Museum in Chicago, drawing huge crowds with a slightly ironic title. No. The exhibit took place at the Illinois State Museum. It is in Springfield, Illinois, surrounded by farm country with too small a population to garner much foot traffic. The city’s claim to fame is that Abraham Lincoln lived there from 1837–61 (my version of the forgotten times). We are Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. Only the Duckie of museums sees us and is interested enough to court us.
I don’t like it. We are not dinosaurs or ghosts. If we were Millennials or Boomers, each with a “finely tuned sense of how important they are”, we’d probably descend on Springfield en masse with picket signs to protest the offensive label.
But I also do like it. No generation had a better youth than we did, so the chance to celebrate it is kind of cool. Maybe we can all just show up at the same time, toast to our free range upbringing, and remind the world we are here.
 I’ll say more about other dimensions of the poll soon.