XENNIALS: the ’90s Golden, Genre-Blending, Hinge Generation

5 Fév 2024 | Podcast | 0 commentaires

Podcast about Xennials

What do Mark Zuckerberg, Volodymyr Zelensky, Emmanuel Macron, Jacinda Ardern, Rishi Sunak and I all have in common? We are Xennials, the Last Analogue Generation, a small demographic cohort born between 1977 and ’84. And yes, we’re special.

Sandwiched between the stereotypically disaffected #GenX and the idealistic #Millennials, #Xennials are the in-betweeners who witnessed first-hand the transition to the online world. Our experience – a unique blend of analogue childhood and digital teenage – can offer valuable insights to better navigate today’s complex world amid a new wave of digital disruption with #GenAI and so-called generational ‘Culture Wars.’

A Unique Perspective on the Switch to the Digital World

As I started to unravel the legacy of the decade when we came of age, the 90s, in my ‘Xennials’ podcast – with global experts from academia, tech & telecoms, economics, psychology, etc. – another, crucial, understanding became apparent: Xennials were, somewhat, a golden generation. We benefited enormously, possibly more than past and future cohorts, from the perks of globalisation and increased connectivity.

Xennials travelled, studied, raved, loved, worked freely – and most of all, cheaply. We slipped between the cracks of macroeconomic hardships and escaped mostly unscathed from some of the biggest economic crises of the 90s and 2000s, namely the dot.com bust and 2007-2008 credit crunch. Without a mortgage or children at the time, we were able to bounce back quickly from market downturns and learn new skills.

Growing up, we did not experience the shock of black swan events like the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the climate anxiety suffered by today’s youth, other than concerns over the Ozone Layer, since resolved (a story with a happy ending but beware of the parallels with the current #climatechange challenges, other than the power of close international cooperation and strong political will). With the democratisation of cheap travel thanks to low oil prices and so many cultural exchange programmes (Hola Erasmus!) the world was our oyster (oh the lure of Goa psytrance, Europe’s exhilarating ‘free parties’ or ‘gap yahs’ in Thailand for the most fortunate – literally).

90s: A Clash of Civilisation and A New World Order

The 90s were also a golden age for Culture. The end of the Cold War marked a profound era of rupture, between the Old and the New, East and West, Freedom and Oppression. #globalisation was unleashed and shifted into full throttle (a nod to the Prodigy’s electro-punk opus from the iconic ‘Music for a Jilted Generation’ album). Add to this clash of civilisation an acceleration of digitalisation with the birth of the #internet and you get the tension that leads to an explosion in creativity and exploration.

New musical genres kept emerging in the 90s – #grunge, jungle, techno, trip-hop, drum’n’bass, big beat, break beats, Californian alt-rock, etc. Iconoclastic and popular artists like Bjork mixed them all – the Icelandic singer the perfect embodiment of the 90s spirit, being both mainstream & commercial AND avant-garde & experimental. Black culture and hip-hop took off. Gay rights were fast progressing, rejection of institutionalised racism too (c.f. ‘92 L.A. Riots). The contemporary art world was thriving.

And the beauty was: all this culture was easily accessible – and affordable. The underground rave scene was free, television offered a rising number of channels and programmes; cutting-edge magazines such as Wired, Kerrang! or Technikart in France kept us au fait – their vulgar relatives, the ‘Lad Mags’ now seeming very passé (few mourn the disappearance of Nuts and Zoo from the shelves).

The literary scene was also in good shape and very much part of youth culture. With the world becoming increasingly multimedia, many 90s best-sellers became blockbusters (Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Alex Garland’s The Beach, chick lit queen Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary etc.).

An era of ‘levelling up’?

I am absolutely convinced that during the 90s, the combination of globalisation, the democratisation of Culture, the rise of the digital economy converged into a rare moment of enhanced social mobility, a unique window of international opportunities.

Like so many of my provincial (state) school friends who ended up working, post-university, as language teachers in Japan, exotic dancers in Ibiza, oyster farmers in New Zealand – or for my part, as a stock market reporter in the City, London – youngsters from any background were able to kick-start a career anywhere on the globe, after studying abroad without incurring student debt as large as the UK government deficit.

In class-obsessed Britain, Britpop and Young British Artists (YBAs) like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst made it cool to be working class. New Labour (over)promised change after years of divisive conservative policies by men in grey suits – though the latter are the ones who may, ironically, have planted the seeds of improving economic prospects during the 2nd half of the decade that the dashing, young British Prime Minister reaped.

“When Tony Blair won the elections in 97, I’m not going to say it was easy, but yes, it was kind of easy because a lot of the dirty job had already been done. He inherited a very low level of public debt, low levels of deficits, low levels of taxation, and he was able to make the UK converge to what had become the sort of normal social democratic welfare state that you had in the rest of Europe,” argued Gilles Moec, my guest on an upcoming episode of Xennials on ‘Monetary and Fiscal policy in the 90s’ (fascinating despite the title!).

90s: Utopianism and fin de siècle Doomism

The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia should not make us forget that the 90s were nevertheless a period of angst for the youth, expressed in popular musical sub-genres such as grunge, the hedonistic, drug-fuelled, anti-establishment underground rave scene or the sarcastic Simpsons and South Park sitcoms.

Rising concerns about neoliberal economic policies and consumerism fuelled the anti-globalisation movement which culminated in the 1999 anti-WTO ‘Battle of Seattle’; and an end-of century feeling of impending apocalypse (#Y2K bug and the tragic Waco siege). Today’s unhelpful #doomism is not new.

Despite the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of a bipolar world, the reduced barriers for international trade (NAFTA, an expanding EU), the 90s were not going to be ‘The End of History’ as optimistically argued by Francis Fukuyama – liberal democracy would not mark the grand finale of a never-ending historical cycle of violence followed by peace, of human growth only to relapse into darker ages. 9/11 brought a very abrupt end to that ideology.

There was, nevertheless, a lot of excitement about technological developments (despite a nagging concern about the machines taking over as expressed in cult Xennial movies Terminator 2 & the Matrix). As the first guest on my podcast, Prof. James Brooke-Smith of the University of Ottawa, author of ‘Accelerate! A History of the 90s’ stressed:

“The 1990s was the last era of digital optimism. Everyone knew it was going to be big (…) And I think we read it wrong in many respects. Digital technology is amazing – it’s empowered us and enriched our knowledge in so many ways. But much of the discourse back then was about democratisation, about individual empowerment, and the idea that cyberspace was this separate domain, which would free us from old prejudices, our geographical locations, the bad parts of our traditions. And I think that was overly optimistic. Certainly, the way we see digital culture today is much more to do with polarisation, to do with siloisation, fragmentation.”

Xennials today: agile and digitally fluent

Many Xennials grew up with home computers or gaming consoles – or as many French Xennials will have experienced, the now defunct ‘Minitel’, a fine and rarely equalled example of gallic innovation offering the Internet before it even existed. However, these devices were mostly unconnected to the World Wide Web until the mid-90s.

Without the constant distraction of mobile phones (an addiction I discuss in Ep.02 with telecom-fluencer Ben Wood), tablets and computers of the Digital Natives, Xennials experienced the type of boredom that forces youngsters to read books, to get on their bike to hang out with friends, listen to hours of music on mixed cassettes or pluck enough courage to approach a romantic interest with an awkward chat-up line – in person, with nowhere to escape, contemplating the real and painful possibility of a face-to-face and very public rejection.

As a result, Xennials tend to display an original blend of tradition and modernity. Our analogue childhood has given us the rigour, taste for effort, respect for the intellectual process of the ‘old’ world. However due to the rapid changes we have witnessed in our lifetime, from the evolution of social media to the shift in global politics and economics, we are adaptable and tech-savvy. Professionally, Xennials are likely to be equally versatile. Many started careers in a traditional, hierarchical corporate structure and evolved along with the changing job market, embracing remote work and the #gigeconomy.

’Id like to conclude with the somewhat paradoxical description of ‘Xennial’ offered by one of my guests on the podcast, New-York psychologist and fellow Xennial Michael Alcee: we are ‘fluid’ yet ‘solid’ – a shapeshifters’ mentality that has served us well to weather crises and upheavals, as well as a nuanced approach to change and life that is somehow lacking today.

Inquisitively yours,

This post was NOT written by a robot – that would have deprived me of the joy and pain of the creative and research process.

PS: A caveat – ‘Xennials’ is, undoubtedly, Western-Centric. Growing up in Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, the ex-Soviet Union block and many parts of emerging economies in the 90s would have been a very different experience to that of the Northern American and Western European, relatively affluent youth. In future episodes I will endeavour to bring in different perspectives, geographically and demographically.

To watch or listen to my podcast: search @InquisitiveXennial on Google or Youtube and ‘Xennials, the Last Analogue Generation’ on Spotify