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  • How have Gen Xers shaped British ‘coolness’?
  • How have Gen Xers shaped British ‘coolness’?
    TED Conference, Creative Commons (2016) ©
REPORT

Why Generation X are just the coolest

Gen X may be overlooked by marketers, but they've impacted everything from music to fashion to politics. Now that they’re in their 40s, they’ve replaced drug-fuelled raves with dinner and diapers – but that doesn't mean they're any less cool, as Tiffanie Darke, author of Now We Are 40, tells Canvas8.

Location United Kingdom

Scope
“I got the idea to write about Generation X when I moved from the editorial world into advertising and marketing,” says Tiffanie Darke, former editor of the Sunday Times Style Magazine and author of Now We Are 40. “I used to go to these meetings and everybody would bang on about Millennials, how cool they were, how different they were, how they loved artisan coffee and lumberjack shirts. Or they would go on about Boomers, and how they’re a really interesting demographic because they've got all the money and they all go trekking and swipe right on silver Tinder.” [1]

Yet Darke explains that they never spoke about 40-something Gen Xers like her, who she argues were, and still are, the coolest generation going. And considering that those aged 35-55 make up nearly 28% of the UK’s total population and have the highest weekly expenditure (£894, compared to an overall average of £683) even in sectors as youth-fixated as fashion, the ‘middle-youth’ really does deserve more attention. [2]

“There's nothing like kids and turning 40 to make you feel uncool,” says Darke. [1] As a pioneering generation that’s shaped the world as we know it today – from music and fashion to media and politics – have Gen X kept hold of their anti-establishment views, or have they really swapped drug-fuelled raves for dinner parties and diapers?

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Cool beginnings
“1991 was the year that Douglas Coupland published Generation X, and he characterises a bunch of feckless youth who are drifting from one ‘McJob’ to another in search of a thrill,” says Darke. “In 1991, things were pretty dark; there was a recession, it was the end of Thatcherism, and there were stories in the paper about people who had lost their jobs and committed suicide. It was the end of that 1950s Boomer culture dream.” But in the second half of the ‘90s, things were different, with the emergence of ‘Cool Britannia’. “It was an amazing explosion of pop culture in art, music, fashion,” says Darke. “The roll call of stuff that came out of the ‘90s – Alexander McQueen, Kate Moss, Blur – were one trend after another. We had grunge at the beginning, we had rave, and we had Britpop – each one was a reaction to the last.” [1]

Darke suggests that these subcultures were so clearly defined because Gen Xers grew up in a pre-digital world. “In order to involve yourself in these trends you had to go along to them, turn up there physically and be in the field, nightclub or gig. You had to get the haircut and wear the clothes, and you became part of this tribe and identified yourself with it.” [1]

Although today's Gen Yers may flip-flop from one subculture to the next, this generation is driven in its quest for equal rights. Half feel that interracial marriage is positive for society, 68% support same-sex marriage, 56% believe abortion should be legalised, and 91% believe everyone should be treated equally. [3] But Darke argues that the mainstreaming of liberal values is thanks to Gen X trailblazers. “Generation X have really strong liberal values. In the ‘80s, we grew up with the anti-apartheid movement; segregation and racism didn't make any sense and we also saw that in terms of homosexuality and sexuality. For us, it was all about people being judged on their merit. The class divide, which had defined British culture for so long, suddenly started to cave in.” [1]

A breadth of cool subcultures emerged from the ‘90s A breadth of cool subcultures emerged from the ‘90s
Gary Knight, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Still got it
“Cool is Generation X's calling card,” says Darke. “We absolutely loved cool.” So, what was ‘cool’ when Gen X were young? Tarantino, Madchester and the Stone Roses were certainly up there, alongside acid house and rave, and super clubs like Ministry and Cream. But with clubs shutting and bands splitting up, Darke says “it does leave us in mid-life with the question, ‘what is cool now and are we still cool?’” [1]

“We don't want to admit to the fact that we're not young anymore, so we've renamed it ‘middle youth,’” says Darke. [1] This group still feel they need to impress; research from culture marketing agency Inkling found that half feel the pressure to look good and dress well, and 61% feel pressured to be slim and fit. [2] “Gen X dress in a cool way,” says Darke. “We're not going to hang up our fashion credibility yet. We can all still shop in Topshop. There's a democracy to fashion now. Anyone of any shape or size or age has the right to be fashionable. And if you're not, you stand out a little bit.” [1]

It’s not just clothes that Xers use as social signifiers. “Music defines your sense of who you are. It very much did in the ‘90s,” explains Darke. [1] This hasn’t changed over the decades, with 52% saying that music is one of their key interests and research from Spotify showing that Gen Xers also keep abreast with current music trends; chart-topping artists such as Taylor Swift are now creeping into the playlists of 40-somethings. [2]

Gen Xers’ tastes are being transferred to their kids Gen Xers’ tastes are being transferred to their kids
Anna Pruzhevskaya, Creative Commons (2016) ©

One of the things that's now really important to Gen X is food. “Food has become fetishised as a lifestyle choice and an indicator of how cool you are,” says Darke. “If you look at Soho in the ‘90s, it was all venues for gigs and bars, and now it’s all cool tapas bars.” [1] Whether it’s the awareness of health that comes with having to cook for your kids, or simply feeling the gradual effects of age, members of this cohort are now more aware than ever, that their health is tangibly affected by their diet. [4] Indeed, Inkling’s survey found that 37% of UK Gen Xers say they follow a healthy diet. [2]

“Gen X transfer a lot of their desire to be cool on to their kids,” says Darke. [1] This isn’t surprising considering that the pressure to a better parent is felt by 39% of Gen X mums and dads. [2] “If you look at the way Gen Xers treat their children, you always see kids running around in Ramones and Run DMC t-shirts. It doesn’t make sense to spend a couple of hundred quid on a coat for yourself when you're trying to bring up your children, but you can totally justify buying your daughter a £50 dress. You transfer your cool on to them.” [1] This behaviour has seen the childrenswear market in the UK boom; it’s estimated to be worth around £5.9 billion, up from £5.6 billion in 2015. [5]

Another place Gen X express a desire to be cool is within the home; 51% feel the pressure to have a beautiful home. [2] “Gen X don’t want to compromise on the design aesthetic on any part of their lives,” says Darke. “We've worked hard to get out homes right, so we fetishise them and spend a lot of our money dressing our homes. Interiors have become democratised in the way that fashion has. IKEA will allow you to redo your room at any point, and so we surround ourselves with environments that are consciously cool. I don’t see Gen X turning to the elasticated waistband yet.” [1]

It’s a mistake to ignore mid-life consumers It’s a mistake to ignore mid-life consumers
Garen Meguerian, Creative Commons (2017) ©

A bridge between generations
“Gen X are a generation that have one foot in digital and one foot in analogue,” says Darke. “We remember a time before smartphones, when we weren’t addicted and checking them 400 times a minute.” [1] While they may not have been raised with social media, they’re very much hooked nowadays. Facebook is Gen X’s favourite platform, with 71% signed up, and they account for 27% of Instagram users. Additionally, digital video is more popular among Gen Xers than social media, with 78.7% downloading or streaming content at least once a month. [6]

All this streaming, Snapchatting and Instagramming means that Gen X understand the importance of virtual worlds to Gen Yers – something Boomers just don’t get. “One of the responsibilities for Generation X is to make that link between Boomers and Millennials, as they don't really like or understand each other. Millennials are cross with Boomers for having all the houses and for drawing these big fat pensions and not paying it forward for them,” says Darke. [1] Britons in the 20s now earn around £8,000 less than their predecessors, leaving them at a significant financial disadvantage to Boomers. [7]

“One thing I see afflicting Millennials really badly is anxiety. They are anxious about their future and their future is really uncertain,” says Darke. [1] Gen Yers in the UK are reported to have the second worst mental wellbeing in world, and Deloitte’s sixth annual Millennial Survey found that the uncertainty created by events in 2016 (terror attacks, the Brexit vote, and the US presidential election) has further shaken their confidence. [8][9] So what can Gen X do to help? “Boomers never paid it forward. Gen X should pay it forward,” explains Darke. “In everything we do – from decisions about the environment, to the way we manage people, to the way we set our families up for the future – it should all be for our Millennial friends and our kids and our kids’ kids.” [1]

Can Gen X restore generational harmony? Can Gen X restore generational harmony?
Krists Luhaers, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Insights and opportunities
Four in five Britons think ‘middle age’ is harder to define now than it used to be. [10] And this is no surprise when “50 is Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt and Elle Macpherson – that’s what 50 looks like now,” says Darke. “Boomers were very consciously trying to get older and get on in society and put distance between everything that had gone before. But Gen X are the reverse. We really loved our youth and we don't want to let go of it.” [1]

Darke says that brands often miss the mark in this regard. “I used to edit the Sunday Times Style Magazine, and people used to say you want to do fashion for all ages. But as soon as you talk to a woman like she's in her 40s and say ‘this is what a 40-something dress looks like’, you're like ‘fuck off, don't pigeonhole me.’” Who fronts a campaign is just as crucial as the product being sold, she continues; “It's important to have the right iconography. Beauty brands get it wrong because you've either got really young Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner types, or you've got Helen Mirren. Who's in the middle? Is it Sharon Horgan – someone who looks like they’re in their 40s but is doing it incredibly well?” [1]

For Gen X men, the ageing process really shows itself in fitness, says Darke; “The men who were really into football and music culture are now really into triathlons. biking and that performance culture around fitness.” [1] The pressure felt by many Xers to be slim and fit is why some middle-aged men are taking steroids, and why 57% say they need to stay active and play more sports. [2] “People want to prove their bodies are vital, that they’re able to compete,” says cultural analyst Annie Auerbach. [11] What says ‘I look after myself’ better than being able to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run a marathon in just a few hours at the age of 40?

Boomers were very consciously trying to get older and get on in society and put distance between everything that had gone before. But Gen X are the reverse. We really loved our youth and we don't want to let go of it

Tiffanie Darke, author of Now We Are 40

Which brands get Gen X women? “The Finery understands that women of this age want to be 'just fashion enough'. I want clothes that are going to be forgiving on my changing body shape, but I want to just show a bit of edge to show I'm still in that game,” says Darke. “Whistles did that very successfully too. During the ‘90s, there were brands that really understood us. Brands like Absolut Vodka and Innocent – that was the beginning of hippy capitalism. There is a lot of nostalgia for ‘90s brands, but now we have Waitrose and Farrow and Ball – brands that hit on the lifestyle touchpoints that we festishise.” [1]

“Millennials famously flip from one brand to another,” says Darke. [1] Indeed, a 2017 study found that 35% of Gen Xers say they usually buy the same brand, while 26% of Yers will ‘buy whatever brand they feel like at the time’. [12] But what was once a cool brand stays a cool brand in the eyes of Generation X. “Gen X are fiercely loyal to the brands that they love and that define them,” explains Darke. “We have real affection for brands that understood us when we were growing up, and that really understand our lives now.” [1]

Tiffanie Darke is a hugely successful editor, who has worked for the Daily Telegraph, the Express and Sunday Times Style. She has previously written two novels, and her first novel, Marrow, was shortlisted for the WHSmith Fresh Talent award. Alongside her fictional writing, Tiffanie was formerly the Food and Drink Editor for the Daily Telegraph and a former editor at Sunday Times Style magazine.

Jo Allison is Canvas8’s editor. Previously, she worked for retail trends consultancy GDR, where shopping was part of the job description. When she’s not getting her head around the quirks of human behaviour, she’s busy ‘researching’ the latest food or fitness fad.

Sources
1. Interview with Tiffanie Darke conducted by author
2. 'Gen X: marketing for the jilted generation', Inkling (August 2016)
3. 'Generational Snapshot: Generation Y', Canvas8 (June 2016)
4. 'Gen X on Eating and Drinking', Canvas8 (October 2015)
5. 'Children’s fashion: small people, big business', The Guardian (February 2015)
6. 'The Midult: a digital destination for Gen X women', Canvas8 (June 2016)
7. 'Millennials may be first to earn less than previous generation - study', The Guardian (July 2016)
8. 'British millennials 'have second worst mental wellbeing in world'', The Independent (February 2017)
9. 'The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017', Deloitte (2017)
10. 'Study reveals changing attitudes to middle age', Benenden (August 2013)
11. 'The new midlife crisis', The Telegraph (April 2015)
12. 'Study: Brand loyalty not such a biggie for millennials', Retail Customer Experience (June 2016)

Author
Jo Allison

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