Toward a Labor Theory of Generation X

December 9, 2020   •   By Alissa G. Karl

Peter: What if we’re still doing this when we’re 50?

Samir: It would be nice to have that kind of job security.

Office Space (dir. Mike Judge)

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IF MIKE JUDGE’S 1999 cubicle farm revenge fantasy Office Space has turned 21, the film’s principal characters would, in fact, be pushing 50 now — a milestone that protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), who labors in the alienated vacuum of the Initech Corporation, deemed existentially impossible. Yet here we are: a middle-aged Generation X that has carried on through the irony, the apathy, and the TPS reports. In the exchange above, Peter and Samir (Ajay Naidu) capture the disillusionment and necessity that characterizes Gen X’s orientation toward its own labor, from the time of its entry into the wage labor markets in the 1990s to now. If anyone even cares about Gen X, that is … With a feud between boomers and millennials apparently underway, one could be forgiven for wondering if Gen X had faded into apathetic obscurity. But my aim here is to call forth Gen X — maybe not to the barricades, but certainly to our particular place in the labor markets and the history of US capitalism since the mid-20th century. Or maybe to the barricades. Whatever.

Some commentators want to put the entire concept of Gen X out to pasture. Kim Phillips-Fein’s account of Gen X’s political outlook does begin to gesture toward affective responses to economic conditions — namely, what she calls “a pose of uncertainty, discomfort, and alienation” coming out of the recession of the early 1990s. Given the state of our economy now — ravished by a combination of late late capitalism, a pandemic, and political nihilism — and the precarity that all of us and especially younger workers are facing, it makes sense not just to retain, but to delve into Gen X as a category formed within the labor markets. I’d venture that millennials and younger might gain perspective from this too, but for we Gen X, pedantry is so uncool.

Writing in the The Guardian, Jason Wilson recognizes something similar: “[W]hile the economic plight of millennials has been considered at length, the difficulties of Generation X, which in some ways paralleled or even prefigured them, have received less attention.” [1] We’re on to something when we acknowledge that Gen X is most productively considered in our native economic habitat — largely, the late ’80s and 1990s. It’s not just about the generalized economic pressures of that decade, but specifically that we were a generation that entered the paid workforce at that point. It’s here that an appropriate definition of our affective relation to the economy — that is, a Labor Theory of Generation X — resides. Gen X may be squeezed between cultures of boomer-dom and its discontents (that is, 1960s countercultures) on the one hand and millennials and their avowed dissatisfactions on the other. But we are most accurately understood as emerging from the transitional space between postwar Fordism and successive phases of neoliberalism from the ’80s onward.

Gen X didn’t just get gloomy in the ’90s. We also got jobs; in some cases we’ve kept them and even made a living. Though Gen X did not hold as great a collective share of the wealth. Like our screen counterparts Peter and Samir, we’ve entered middle age by participating in mainstream labor markets out of necessity (just like everybody else), such that we are ultimately complicit in the very conditions about which we seem always to have been cynical: corporate sell-out culture, market-based everything, working to consume, a dearth of authenticity. So where, to paraphrase one commentator, Gen X has had to make our way in a world that we know is not our own, [2] we have done so knowing the compromises we have made. Gen X is aware, today and since our debut onto the job markets in the late ’80s and ’90s, of the conditions by which our labor is bounded: the countercultures that preceded us in the ’60s and ’70s and their critiques of alienated labor; the influence and reach of corporate culture that has been largely available to us since the ’80s and ’90s; the conjoined trends of burgeoning employer fiat and the so-called demise of organized labor.

While commentators like Phillips-Fein and Wilson have specified qualities beyond the vague cultural markers — like consumption and media — through which generational status is cast in many mainstream narratives, they still peg generational identity to a basic political outlook. But Gen X is best understood not as a series of attitudes, aversions, or political postures. Or, if we are a series of attitudes, aversions, and political postures, we are most fully apprehended in our location within and between phases of capitalist accumulation — in the pinch between a postwar Fordist economy and its labor regimes, and our present conditions where finance reigns supreme and everyone else labors under radical precarity. Our famous “attitude” (my attitude, and probably yours!) is a form of compensation that is appropriate to this positioning. If disaffection has come to define Gen X, we have mistaken the effect for the cause. Our compensatory disaffection is an affective form of a relation to labor that starts in the 1990s.

No two films represent generational attitudes like 1994’s Reality Bites (dir. Ben Stiller) and 1999’s Office Space, revealing the confluence of these historical forces. The former dramatizes the entry of white, middle-class college graduates into waged labor; the latter is perhaps our generation’s most memorable take on what happens once we get there. Reality Bites starts to examine the encounter between the necessity of corporate work and Gen X’s disillusionment toward it. Ethan Hawke’s depiction of Troy is perhaps the most identifiable aspect of the film’s approach to work (he’s been fired from no fewer than 12 jobs! and he doesn’t care!). As a Gen X colleague of mine puts it, Hawke’s career trajectory writ large is a key avatar for Gen X (if his starring role in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy doesn’t convince, see his appearance in The Juliana Hatfield Three’s “Spin the Bottle” video!). [3] But Hawke’s slacker boy paradigm is matched — or superseded even — by Winona Ryder as quintessential mixed-up ’90s girl. The real action in Reality Bites tracks the entry of the women characters, Ryder’s Lelaina and Janeane Garofalo’s Vickie, into the labor markets. Vickie’s personal aesthetic and her sharp cynicism are honed against precisely the disingenuous service ethos of The GAP, where she works. When she gets promoted to management, she must acquiesce to the consumerist machine. In short, Vickie exemplifies disaffection with mainstream, corporate labor as a distinct strategy for working within it.

The classic love triangle that organizes the narrative elaborates the development of disaffection, but a compensatory disaffection, as the key trait of Gen X labor. Torn between Michael (Ben Stiller), the head of an MTV-styled media company, and super-slacker Troy, aspiring documentary filmmaker Lelaina’s romantic dilemma stages a confrontation among a set of specific stances toward work. She dramatizes a transition in regimes of labor that was underway in the Clinton ’90s. On the one hand, Michael’s energetic corporate hustling (and compromising) is not unlike Lelaina’s own entrepreneurial tendencies. Case in point: The montage scene in which unemployed Lelaina hustles cash by pumping gas and charging it to her father’s credit card. When Lelaina warns that similarly unemployed Troy is “on the inside track to Loserville, USA,” she displays her belief in work as the route to creative and personal satisfaction.

Yet Lelaina also shares in Troy’s rejection of the kinds of lives that are supposedly built through such hustle. In the film’s opening scene, Lelaina delivers a speech at her college graduation ceremony that might as well be the Gen X platform:

… and they wonder why those of us in our 20s refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs. Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains: What are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is … the answer is … I don’t know.

Lelaina’s aforementioned work ethic is in part attributed to a creative drive to make a documentary about her own uncertainty and disillusionment in the labor markets. In her pursuit of this objective, Lelaina exhibits both Michael’s meritocratic beliefs and Troy’s deep suspicion of mainstream labor markets.

Lelaina’s choice between her two suitors is, however, about more than attitude. It reveals a convergence of distinct economic conditions in the ’90s. Troy’s attitude toward mainstream labor is actually a critique of alienated industrial labor, Fordist-style: “You want me to get a job on the line for the next 20 years? Until I’m granted leave with my gold-plated watch and my balls full of tumors?” Troy sees mainstream labor through a Fordist prism as repetitive, authoritarian, and performed by men. In his resistance, the film shows its age: Troy is a ’90s variant of blue-collar melancholy, still reading work under capitalism through the lens of a 1960s critique — fast-forward two and half decades, and a twinned nostalgia for and sense of entitlement to those forms of work dominates mainstream US rhetoric about labor. But in locating the source of Troy’s distaste for formalized labor, we specify Gen X’s relationship to our work. As Reality Bites makes clear, the friction is between the personal and social toll of the work you must do, and the realization that you must do it — which is distinct from the critique of precarious and insecure labor markets that is most prominent today.

On the other hand, with his baggy suits, convertible Saab, and apparently sincere belief that he can make big media come around to Lelaina’s creative vision, Michael is a yuppie from central casting who sustains the entrepreneurial spirit of the ’80s that carried on into the Clinton ’90s. Policies of the two Clinton administrations that favored deficit reduction, interest rate maintenance, and a continuation of ’80s financial deregulation bolstered the financial markets at the expense of direct productive investment — and ultimately transitioned the policies of the Reagan ’80s into the feel-good neoliberalism of the ’90s (a variety that can be distinguished in terms of both market fundamentals and affective quality from other phases of neoliberalism, both earlier and later). [4] Remember that Fleetwood Mac performed the theme song of Clinton’s first campaign, “Don’t Stop,” at his inaugural in 1993 — a tonal reset if ever there was one, from the late-’70s economic malaise of the song’s origin to ’90s meritocratic optimism, all in one televised comeback moment! Later that year, NAFTA passed, signaling that “tomorrow” for US economic policy would skew away from big manufacturing and organized labor (who opposed the trade pact) and toward global markets. To survive and thrive, one could no longer work the same line for decades, as Troy imagines. Under globalization, one had to play the game of attracting promiscuous capital (seen in Michael’s plan to woo big media execs into producing Lelaina’s content). Despite her romantic choice of Troy by film’s end, Lelaina — like much of Gen X — knows this.

Lelaina’s two possibilities for attachment mark her ambivalent entry into the labor markets. They instantiate the tension between two structural accounts of the economy: an entrepreneurial approach facilitated by the lifting of restrictions on finance in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, which have cut loose speculative capital, and one based in large firms and their attendant organized (if, sadly for Troy, alienated) labor. [5] Lelaina’s eventual preference for Troy might be read as a compensation for the entrepreneurial bend of her own creative impulses, or as a partial Gen X rejoinder to a post-Fordist economy: it’s a dual acknowledgment (via ’60s counterculture) that the Fordist past was alienating and often stultifying, and that the “solution” to that earlier labor regime seems to be one in which we’re all self-dealers in the markets — a change with which we are not at all comfortable, but to which we can find no ready alternative. For even though Lelaina chooses Troy, the film concludes with a clip from a Real World–style television show that Michael has created based upon their drama. Michael has the last word, by showing us where all that angst ultimately winds up: commodified in the mainstream market.

Reality Bites treats the labor markets with a blend of cynicism, necessity, and inevitability that are a function of the Gen X squeeze between Fordist labor, its countercultural critique, and the turn toward individual meritocracy and entrepreneurship that was baked into the economic and labor policies of the ’80s and ’90s. A few years later, Office Space condenses the sprawling anguish of labor market participation in Reality Bites into a tight revenge tale, with alienation as its founding premise rather than a looming threat. As a film about Gen X fully at work, Office Space begins from the presumption that we’re all fundamentally — even existentially! — checked out of work. Nonetheless, that alienated labor remains our sole means of survival. If the angst of Reality Bites is generated by the dance of possibility and improbability around doing what you love — or at least not doing what you hate — Office Space evacuates even those long odds. When asked what he’d do if he had a million dollars, Peter replies: “I would do nothing.” There is no work, it seems, that would not suck.

Office Space explores what happens when disaffection becomes a mode of operation in the workplace, or where the slacker (Peter transformed by hypnosis) gets promoted. This is part of the film’s broader fantasy, in which Gen X ennui becomes a depth charge into the corporate world — the equivalent of the cathartic destruction of the printer/fax machine — and ultimately of the workplace entirely. The financial scam concocted by Peter, Samir, and Michael Bolton (David Herman) reads as a similar act of revenge against a faceless corporate employer, but it is also a decidedly entrepreneurial project. Stealing fractions of pennies from company transactions is not necessarily the anti-work behavior that it seems; in the slacker-led workplace of Office Space, insubordination and even destruction are acts of ingenuity that, in the larger picture, allow tech firms like Initech to thrive, and that begin the long process of validating “creative destruction” in sites of production like Silicon Valley.

Office Space still rehashes boomer outlooks on labor: co-worker Tom, who is fired from the company after 30 years but gets rich from a car crash settlement, tells Peter: “If you hang in there long enough, good things can happen in this world.” And ultimately, the end of the film finds Peter working on a construction crew in a kind of Fordist nostalgia-fantasy about the virtues of manual labor. There is of course plenty to be said about the dream of blue-collar work as a response to stultifying professional labor, both in this film and more broadly; perhaps most pointedly, the blue-collar fantasy reveals that Gen X is largely a middle-class designation. But while Peter ends up happily digging ditches, the film also repeats the Gen X position of compensatory disaffection when fired co-workers Samir and Michael wind up at another, identical tech firm at the end — their cynicism and salaried lifestyles intact.

Gen X disaffection is a consolation for doing the work we have little choice but to do. Our checked-out stance is in fact a strategy for managing our labor, in between the relative security of the postwar Keynesian consensus and contemporary all-out precarity.

Gen X instantiates a series of economic shifts and convulsions of the ’90s, and our stance toward them, compensatory though it may be, acknowledges that there can be no absolutes, no perfect response to living under capital. To retire the term or the demographic category is to refuse to acknowledge the binds that we all — Gen X or Gen Y or boomer or whatever — are actually in, the compromises that we all have to make. In the case of Gen X, we are to some extent aware, like Peter and Samir, of our exploitation, and yet that knowledge is in confrontation with our compulsion to survive. The real “failure” would be to willfully overlook our historical configuration simply because we don’t like where it has taken us, or because it doesn’t accord with our dream of the kinds of political and economic actors we would like to be.

And remember: Acknowledging — or even relishing! — dissatisfaction with oneself is a stance perfected by Gen X. The gesture to eliminate Gen X as a category is ultimately a very Gen X move: our compensatory disaffection tells us that we even ought to stop being Gen X! For Jason Wilson, “the achievement in all of [Gen X’s] cultural expression was to take seriously the idea that there may be no golden future […] [or] that there may be no future at all.” Gen X’s posture toward the world may amount to a bleak prediction for its future, but not because of that posture, and our compensatory disaffection recognizes and enacts our ambivalent stance. A labor theory of Gen X reveals not that we have tuned out and dropped out. It reveals that we are striving — sometimes for justice, sometimes for survival, sometimes just for being a tiny bit less of a sell-out — within conditions that we know are unbearable.

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Alissa G. Karl is an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York, Brockport.

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[1] Jason Wilson, “Gen X has survived its gloomy formative years. Now we will have to deal with climate change.” The Guardian, February 20, 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/commentisfree/2019/feb/21/gen-x-has-survived-its-gloomy-formative-years-now-we-will-have-to-deal-with-climate-change>.

[2] Peter Hanson, The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2002), 7.

[3] Thank you, Carter Soles.

[4] On the Clinton administration’s doubling-down on free-market, finance-over-labor policies, see Nelson Lichtenstein, “A Fabulous Failure: Clinton’s 1990s and the Origins of Our Times.” American Prospect, January 29, 2018 < https://prospect.org/health/fabulous-failure-clinton-s-1990s-origins-times>. For a broader sweep of Gen X in the ’90s economy, see Alex Williams, “Actually, Gen X Did Sell Out, Invent All Things Millennial, and Cause Everything Else That’s Great and Awful.” The New York Times, May 14, 2019 < https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/style/gen-x-millenials.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share>.

[5] See Lily Geismer, “A Party of Entrepreneurs,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, August 27, 2016  <https://democracyjournal.org/arguments/a-party-of-entrepreneurs/>.