Generation X’s rebellious nature helped it redefine adulthood, according to a new study from Viacom

All grown up.
All grown up.
Image: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
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Generation X was never one for labels. The so-called “slacker” generation of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s was known in its youth for being cynical, rebellious, and not wanting to be put in a box. The “X” in its nickname—popularized by author Douglas Coupland—stood for a variable, meaning the generation had yet to be defined. Now the cohort is upending what it means to be an adult in much the same way, as its members hit middle age.

A new study by Viacom International Media Networks, which sought to uncover what happened to the “slacker” generation after it grew up, found that Generation Xers have profoundly different views on family, friendship, and work-life balance than the millennial generation that followed it—not that you would have heard much about them.

“With so much focus on millennials, post-millennials, and even [Baby] Boomers, Generation X has largely been left behind when it comes to research, only understood through antiquated views of adulthood,” says Christian Kurz, senior vice president of global consumer insights at Viacom. “While nobody was looking, they really re-invented what adulthood means,” he adds.

A new study from media conglomerate Viacom suggests that for Generation X, adulthood isn’t characterized by milestones like getting married, buying a house, or having children, but by a particular mindset: It’s about being able to decide what’s important for oneself, and pursuing that regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Researchers at Viacom surveyed 12,000 adults in 21 countries to get a global view of a generation that lived through globalization. About 9,000 of the respondents were Gen Xers—ages 30 to 49, for the purposes of this study—and the remaining were millennials—ages 18 to 29—for comparison. The researchers complemented the poll findings with detailed, in-person interviews with 36 Gen Xers across eight countries, and photo journals they submitted.

Gen Xers had fewer, stronger friendships than millennials, the study found. Those polled had an average of 36 friends—10 less than their millennial counterparts.

And they were more comfortable with themselves. The Gen Xers surveyed by Viacom were 20% less likely to feel lonely when compared to millennials. About 85% of Gen Xers also said they were comfortable with who they were.

Some of the differences between millennials and Gen Xers, Kurz notes, were likely the result of Gen X simply being older and more mature. But the generation matured in its own way.

“That rebellion that we had in our youth,” said Kurz, “it really matured into this fierce independence.”

Men in the generation, for example, are more comfortable raising children than the generations before them were known to be. More than 80% of respondents agreed that men can raise kids just as well as women. And more than 90% of dads said having kids around made them laugh every day, while another 50% said they wished they could spend more time with their children.

Nearly 60% of the women surveyed were top or equal wage earners in their households.

And the bulk of Gen Xers—nearly 85%—favored work-life balance over career success. While Boomers, too, talk about work-life balance, Gen Xers approach it somewhat differently, says Kurz.

“It’s not even like work-life balance for them,” he says. “It’s about a life balance and work just happens to be part of that.”

What explains Viacom’s interest in the thoughts and feelings of this generation sandwiched between much larger ones? In the US, Viacom’s audiences skews younger, but Generation X is its core viewership abroad, Kurz said. (Viacom International Media Networks, the international arm of US-based media conglomerate Viacom, runs Viacom brands around the world such as MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, and Channel 5 in the UK.) The generation makes up, on average, 180 million viewers across Viacom brands, or about one-third of its overall audience.