“You are a true xennial,” The Guardian tells me after I take their online quiz. “Well done. You understand modern technology but are not so emotionally needy as to need constant validation from strangers you will never meet.”
Great! Yes. Maybe. Only one problem: What the hell is a Xennial?
The Guardian gauged my Xennialness by asking me to answer true or false to questions like, “You remember calling friends on the family landline and having to say hi to their mum or dad first” (true), “You remember Boy George the first time he became famous” (false), and “You can remember when you first heard about a website called ‘Google’ and before that had to ‘Ask Jeeves’. And before that was the World Book Encyclopedia” (honestly can’t really remember, but I just selected “true” because I can remember using actual encyclopedias to do school projects in elementary school).
In recent weeks, the internet has been abuzz with talk of a generational schism: those born between 1977 and 1983, sandwiched between Generation X and Millennials, have apparently long felt that neither group was particularly representative of their experience. After a viral social media post from early last month (that I wasn’t able to locate), the term Xennial is blowing up as the chosen label for this offshoot.
Where did Xennials come from?
The Xennials were actually conceived of years before that post went viral, though they weren’t always referred to by this incredibly odd moniker. In 2011, Doree Shafrir wrote for Slate about Generation Catalano, named after Jared Leto’s character Jordan Catalano in the iconic 1994-95 ABC series My So-Called Life.
(Entertainment Weekly editor Danielle Nussbaum came up with the idea for this name, in response to Shafrir’s “half in jest” tweet: “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.”)
In 2015, Anna Garvey wrote for Social Media Week about the Oregon Trail Generation, describing this same cohort. “If you can distinctly recall the excitement of walking into your weekly computer lab session and seeing a room full of Apple 2Es displaying the start screen of Oregon Trail,” she writes, “you’re a member of this nameless generation, my friend.”
And Susan Singer, writing on Medium in 2014, simply calls this in-between group The Lucky Ones. “All the research, studies and talks on these two generations clarified my thinking to be true. I continue to consume these studies to figure out my own identity and where I fall in,” she writes. “We are actually not caught in the middle, but […] benefit from being touched by these two amazing generations. This reality provides us with the special gift of diversity and endless possibilities to grow.”
Singer goes on to list links to generational research and info about fellow innovative Lucky Ones who have influenced her.
As for the moniker Xennials, some have mistakenly attributed University of Melbourne sociology professor Dan Woodman with its creation.
Woodman, himself a Xennial, did offer his insights on the micro-generation in an interview last month with the Australian women’s lifestyle website Mamamia, but he rejects credit for coining the name. He tweeted clarification on June 27:
He’s mentioning Sarah Stankorb and Jed Oelbaum, writers with bylines in GOOD Magazine. In 2014, GOOD ran two pieces of writing together by these authors, from “a micro-generation that serves as a bridge between the disaffection of Gen X and the blithe optimism of Millennials.” As the intro asks:
“[W]hy aren’t they as pissed off as Gen X or as confident as Millennials? Are they luckier than both the preceding and following generations? Or did they get screwed that much harder, thanks to a unique combination of developmental milestones and world events?”
The writers, “born on either end of the four-year-window” between the more clearly defined generations, disagreed on whether being a part of this subgeneration was a pro or a con.
They did, however, both embrace the nickname Xennials.
What do self-identifying Xennials say about Xennials?
“The idea is there’s this micro or in-between generation between the Gen X group – who we think of as the depressed flannelette-shirt-wearing, grunge-listening children that came after the Baby Boomers and the Millennials – who get described as optimistic, tech savvy and maybe a little bit too sure of themselves and too confident,” Woodman, born in 1980, says in his recent interview with Mamamia.
“…I’d argue that those of us in between X and Millennial got some of the best of both worlds; we lucked out on history’s unwind,” Stankorb (who was also born in 1980), weighed in on the pro side of being a Xennial. She wrote in GOOD.
“We adapted easily to technological advances but weren’t as beholden to them as our juniors. We were by no means immune to the Recession, but many of us were able to duck its heftiest blows.”
Oelbaum, born 1983, took a different stance. He wrote:
“We’re a weird brood of ugly ducks, us Xennials—too young for Caleco, too old for Uniqlo—we can’t live without our smartphones, but our clumsy hands still type better on a qwerty keyboard than a touchscreen. We’re not the future; we no longer demographically matter, and yet we haven’t become the establishment; we have no savings, and never made it to middle class. We were never very cool. Us Xennials are a sad, cynical, sorry lot. Or maybe it’s just me.”
Why are generations a thing anyway?
Xennials, those middle-child misfits, originated from the same impulse that created Gen Xers, Millennials like me (sorry, The Guardian, you were wrong—I was born in 1988), and Generation Z: humanity’s desire to label and be labeled, and our need to create meaning by way of uncovering patterns.
Massive firms sponsoring global studies about generational workplace habits, generational trend articles, and public shaming over one age group’s supposed overspending on toast smeared with a very healthy but expensive fat source have not always been the norm.
As Sarah Laskow writes in The Atlantic, “generations are a relatively modern idea, hit upon by 19th century European intellectuals and refined in the beginning of the 20th century.”
They were compelled, she says, to “explain why their own era-defining creative and philosophical pursuits were important and special—they, the rising generation, were pushing society forward!”
Even the word “generation” used to mean something different. Laskow points to the research of historian Robert Wohl, who traced the term in dictionaries for his 1979 book The Generation of 1914. “During the early 19th century the term ‘generation’ was used primarily to signify either the relationship between fathers and their sons or contemporaneity,” he writes.
Generational identities are fictions informed by reality—or maybe the other way around.
Once you reach a certain threshold of generation-themed think pieces, they start to read like your horoscope: it sounds right, but it could honestly all just be in your imagination. And that’s precisely the stance some disillusioned with generational stereotyping have begun to take about such categories—they don’t actually exist.
Most Millennials who have read anything about a Millennial can agree that our listed attributes are reductive. There’s also a lack of consensus concerning when certain generations end and begin, and the degree to which individuals can vary within a demographic.
But, just because generations are an invention does not mean that they are not real. Love is not real in the same way that an apple is real, but most still acknowledge its existence.
Or take, for example, the term “teenager.” It hasn’t always been around, but that doesn’t make the teenage experience as we think of it today imaginary.
People have long been shaped by narrative inventions. This is what makes us unique in the animal kingdom—our ability to create and interact with symbolism. We are inextricable from the stories we tell about ourselves, and in this respect, when it comes to identity, “true” and “false” exist only on a spectrum.
When trying to find similarities among such large groups of people, the margin for error must be larger. Wrong conclusions are inevitable. But certainly people living at the same time and place, exposed to the same social events and technologies, will be connected in some significant ways. The questions that remain are “Which ways?” and “What do they mean?”
Maybe we won’t find hard answers. If I know humans at all, though, we’ll search for them anyway.