The Real Generation X: The Flower Children
Generation X was so named because of its refusal to be defined — but it was preceded by a hidden generation that was never named at all. To fill this gap, I’ve come up with a name for those of us born between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s: the Flower Children.
Who are the Flower Children? We’ve been told for years that we’re Boomers, but that never felt right, no more than did the Gen X designation. While we do share some traits with both of those generations, we’re something else altogether. Like an overlooked middle child, we’ve felt invisible for years.
If you’re in this hidden generation, you know what I’m talking about. When people refer to you as a Boomer, you look over your shoulder to see if they’re addressing someone else. Yes, you’re not getting any younger — but you’re not quite that old.
Part of the problem is defining generations in segments of 20 years. The period 1946–1964, still considered by many authorities to be Baby Boomer years, spans a wide range of experiences.
And experiences are what characterize a generation. Of course, we humans are multifaceted, multidimensional beings, and none of us can be defined by generational markers alone. But those of us growing up in the same time and place do share a number of common experiences that contribute to shaping us.
The Vietnam War, a defining experience for Boomers, felt removed for those of us who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s. We heard Walter Cronkite’s daily tally of wounded and fatalities at a time when some of us had only a murky idea of what those words meant. Unless we had much older siblings, we were unlikely to know anyone who actually went to Vietnam, and we didn’t live in fear of being drafted; anyone born after 1954 would not have been part of the draft lottery. We had opinions about the war, influenced by those around us, but it was still an abstraction that didn’t affect our daily lives.
Many other Boomer experiences were beyond our reach. We were too young to go to Woodstock, take part in the Summer of Love, or even attend a Beatles concert. We were too young to march for civil rights, burn our bras, or demonstrate against the war. We were too young to turn on, tune in, or drop out.
Absorbing the counterculture zeitgeist
Still, we lived and breathed the 1960s. Our formative years took place during a powerful time of social change when enlightenment and hope were in the air. We didn’t come of age during those years, but we absorbed many of the ’60s values at a time of our lives when we were highly absorbent beings. That’s why I believe we’re the real Flower Children.
A young woman Baby Boomer might have realized in high school or college that she had more options than her mother. She might have experienced an awakening and a feeling of liberation. We Flower Children never had that realization or liberation, because the newfound freedoms for women were a given for us, the only reality we were ever aware of.
Admittedly, my experience growing up in a university town was not typical. The messages I got both at home and at school were that war, pollution, and discrimination were wrong. Women didn’t have to get married or have children. I was expected to go to college and get a job.
In the 1970–1971 school year, my fourth-grade class held an Afro-American festival, for which some of us made a paper “filmstrip” about Frederick Douglass. My best friend and I wrote a poem called “Black Is Beautiful.” Our teacher conducted the famous “blue eyes brown eyes” exercise with us, a powerful experience that stayed with me.
While not every American growing up during the ’60s and ’70s had quite the same experiences that I did, counterculture was in the air. We may not have been Flower Children at the time, but many of us absorbed their ideals of love, beauty, and peace when we were children. As we grew up with these ideals, we became our own kind of Flower Children in a much more enduring way.
We were subject to many of the same influences as the Boomers — but at a younger, more formative age.
Boomers or Xers: Straddling two generations
If we aren’t Boomers, are we Gen Xers?
I’ve been called an Xer on more than one occasion, but that doesn’t feel right to me either. By the ’80s, when Xers came of age, I was in college and then starting my career. I didn’t see “The Breakfast Club” till much later, didn’t grow up with MTV, and have barely heard any Nirvana to this day.
That’s not to say we have nothing in common. I was a latchkey kid for a while. I’m comfortable with technology. I was still young when Watergate happened. And like Xers, I feel lost between two generations.
A quick search for the characteristics of Boomers and Xers turned up these:
- Boomers: Confident, independent, self-reliant, competitive, goal-centric, resourceful, team-oriented, idealistic, disciplined, hard-working.
- Xers: Self-sufficient, resourceful, individualistic, casual, tech-savvy, cynical, direct, interested in work-life balance.
Setting aside that some of these overlap, most of us can probably relate to some of the traits in each group — and not at all to others.
In case you’re still wondering which generation you belong to, this Washington Post article provides a brief quiz:
- “Do you own, or have you ever owned/played with/had nightmares about, a Howdy Doody doll? (If yes: Boomer.)” My answer: A resounding No. That was a TV show, right?
- “Did you tune in to watch MTV play the first music video? (If yes: Gen Xer, obv.)” That vaguely rings a bell; I do recall MTV being a new thing during my college years but only tuned in now and then.
- “Do you remember living through Beatlemania? (Boomer)” No, but I wouldn’t listen to much else as a kid and was devastated when I heard, at age eight, that they were breaking up.
- “Without looking it up, can you name at least three members of the Brat Pack? (Gen Xer).” No idea; does it involve Molly Ringwald?
- “Can you remember a time when TV channels signed off for the night? (Boomer)” Yes.
- “If someone says ‘Psych!’ Do you know what that means? (Gen Xer)” Yes.
Clearly, some of us straddle the two generations, yet we remain largely overlooked. This particular quiz was designed to determine whether Kamala Harris was a Boomer or an Xer, but because it asked the wrong questions, it arrived at the wrong answer. An updated quiz might include questions like these:
- Did you grow up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Doors — and also David Bowie, The Police, and Gang of Four?
- Do you remember your family switching to a color TV?
- Did you watch both the moon landing and the Watergate hearings on TV?
- Did you have a Rubik’s cube, a mood ring, or a pet rock?
- Were you a “free range kid” before anyone even dreamed of using that term?
- Do you feel like you missed out on the excitement of the ‘60s?
- Is SNL not SNL for you without Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, and Bill Murray?
- When you went to college, was it commonplace for people to smoke pot — but not to do ecstasy?
- Did you learn to type on a typewriter — yet you also felt comfortable switching to word processors, laptops, and smartphones?
If you answered yes to most of these, you may also be part of the overlooked generation. We deserve our own generational designation.
What’s in a name?
Not surprisingly, this generational naming conundrum has occurred to others. Imagine my chagrin when, after coming up with my Flower Children idea, I discovered that someone else had already named our overlooked generation — twenty years before I did.
However, the fact that I hadn’t heard about it is indicative of the Generation Jones moniker’s failure to stick. Perhaps the Boomers and Xers are still overshadowing our forgotten generation, even though we can boast such luminaries as Barack Obama (born the same year that I was). Perhaps it’s a marketing failure. Perhaps it’s typical for this generation; as one commentator notes, “The fact that most people have never even heard of Generation Jones is the most Generation Jones thing about Generation Jones.”
Marketing consultant Jonathan Pontell came up with Generation Jones, a name meant to describe an anonymous generation characterized by jonesing, “a core personality trait of this generation of huge expectations left unfulfilled.” Jonesers, he claims, are more balanced and practical than the idealistic Boomers and cynical Xers — and to my surprise, more conservative (though apparently, the generation is now becoming less conservative than it was).
But maybe if our generation is to stand out and be acknowledged, we need a more distinctive name than Jones — like the Flower Children.
What’s in a generation?
In the end, the confusion about generations highlights the issues with categorizing people by the year in which we were born. I’ve never been remotely conservative, though I do relate somewhat to the “pragmatic idealist” characterization of Generation Jones. Obviously, we are all individuals with a unique mix of traits.
Given the confusion, why do we feel compelled to classify people by generation? Is it all about marketing? Making it easier to complain about those younger or older than us? Simply indulging our nostalgia?
It’s easy to dismiss generational categorizing. But we keep doing it, so maybe there’s something to it. As social creatures, we all want to belong to something bigger than us. As humans, we want to understand ourselves better. Defining the generations can be a helpful part of this endeavor.
But if we’re going to talk in terms of generations, let’s at least get it right. Rather than adhering strictly to specific years handed down to us by authorities, let’s focus on the shared experiences that help define a generation. And let’s acknowledge that those experiences can be very different for people born within a 20-year range.
Some defining experiences for Boomers were Vietnam and the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King. We tend to connect generations with calamities, but the Boomers also experienced the civil rights and feminist movements, a time of apparent progress and promise for the future, and unprecedented prosperity.
For those of us in the Flower Children generation, Watergate and the ’70s energy crises loomed larger than Vietnam. Though many of us also experienced prosperity as children, belts had tightened by the time we entered the workforce. For many, the idealism of the Boomer years gave way to cynicism and an awareness of the fragility of the world.
But many of us also carried within us an idealist seed planted early in life, with roots deeper than those for the Boomers.
If you feel this too, you know you’re neither Boomer nor Xer. The time has come for us Flower Children to claim our rightful place in the march of generations.