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The recent Global Leadership Forecast 2018 found that Gen X now accounts for 51% of leadership roles globally, which is notably higher than the leadership ratio currently held by Millennials or Baby Boomers.  My suspicion is that in the world of Consumer PR, where creativity, cultural awareness and commercial nous fuse, this statistic is much higher.  Now way more than the band or the book, Generation X has shed its “slacker generation” label and not only shaped creative culture, but also cracked how to commercialise that creativity without compromising artistic integrity.  Why is this?  Just look at where Generation X came from.

X is the label for the “Lost Generation” born between 1965 and 1981, into a bleak Summer of Love hangover amid a suffocating feeling of impending doom. Vietnam War. Nuclear terror. Urban decay. Mass unemployment. Inner-city violence. Severe economic recession on both sides of the Atlantic. I remember discontent seeping into the school run as songs on the radio became more overtly political: from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” to The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, music was no longer parent-friendly saccharine pop – it began to overtly challenge the status quo, and it sounded amazing to young impressionable ears.

I am text-book Generation X, born 1971, and I remember 70’s and 80’s suburban England clearly.  It formed my life.   This is the same desolate world so accurately painted in shades of tan in the BBC’s Life on Mars. With never-ending blistering summers, bin strikes and only three TV stations that played the National Anthem at the end of the night before going blank until the next day, if I sat back and waited to be entertained, it simply wasn’t going to happen. Even Kids TV told the young audience, “Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?”. 

Why X?  X marks The Void.  X is Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation”.  X is The Smashing Pumpkin’s “Zero”.  X is the Sex Pistol’s rallying battle cry of “No Future”. Talking to fellow Gen X-ers about the source of our collective motivation has triggered much nostalgia for long days of boredom and rainy days spent listening to LPs.  Rosie Holden, Managing Partner of Karmarama, remembers, “I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s in the North, when there wasn’t really anything. Literally nothing. There was no money, very few shops.  Certainly no Whistles. Just Etam, and that was massively aspirational. I was surrounded by real poverty I guess. Pocket money of £2 a week, to be spent at Andy’s Records on a 12” vinyl. Everything was second hand and grey...”.  Reminiscing with my own best friend with whom I spent hours at Venus Records resulted in her lamenting, “I miss the boredom now”..

So, what do you do when faced with no future?  When faced with an emptiness and a boredom that won’t resolve itself?  In artistic terms, you create or you die. Fuelled and energised by a Nietzschean fury, we willed ourselves to make something happen. It was, for those that harnessed it well, an incredibly empowering force, as is evident from the prolific creativity and work ethic from those who grew up in this era.

Cue the DIY Generation. Out of “nothing” rose the determination of punk, the ecstatic synth of New Wave and the flamboyance of the New Romantics. Rock stars looked like they had arrived from another planet.  Adam Ant, David Bowie, Boy George – exotic creatures who had created their alter egos in their suburban bedrooms just like mine. Artists who had, through circumstance rather than selection, found the creative process within themselves – and in doing so, metamorphosised into fantastical beings, sending cultural ripples that influenced teenage lives, inspired future leaders, leaving a legacy for generations to come.

The power of music as influence in such an environment cannot be underestimated.  If I had a pound note it would certainly be spent on 7” vinyl, and if I got my hands on a bluey (that’s a fiver, they were very big and very blue), I’d be off to Kensington Market or Hyper Hyper to join the melting pot. Holden recalls, “Music meant everything. It brought joy to the dull places we lived in. And that felt radical. But what did it give me? Drive, so I didn’t have to live in poverty. What did going to Spike Island give me? Drive, but with a sense of fun. Life is for living. I hope as a manager I can always convey that. Enjoy every last drop.”

Irrespective of personal taste, the catalyst of great music renders the void, this sense of nothing, as the optimum environment for ideas and originality to grow.  The optimum environment to harness energy, ambition and drive.  The optimum environment for creativity.  Something out of nothing.  Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme Des Garcons and Dover Street Market, and one of the globe’s most celebrated creators, is quoted as saying, “The void is important.  I like to work with space and emptiness”.

Fast forward into adulthood and to the workplace, we see Gen X as a generation of hyper-socialised problem solvers (“I always love being around crazy, lovely, difficult people” confided one Gen X MD) who thrive on collaborative relationships, adapting an innate ability to influence and harness the energy of those around them.  Additionally, as a notable characteristic, Gen X is driven by the shock of the new, sometimes almost to the point of Frank’n’Furter obsession – new things excite us, new energies, new talent, new original ideas.  This is why so many of us are drawn to the world of Consumer PR, where originality is king.  Yes, we are averaging 20 years in the workplace, so there would be a natural progression into senior roles, but in terms of motivation, this is why so many are drawn to leadership positions where there is more license to influence, mentor and nurture fresh talent.  This is why we are comfortable with rewriting the rules, not only because we so naturally question authority, but also because peeling things back to the core doesn’t scare us.  It comes so naturally to us.  To reinvent.  To be industrious.  To create.

Adam Mack, CEO of W Communications recalls how the combination of a free-range childhood with the hunger for learning and betterment formed the foundation of his career. “Firstly, I had a fairly dichotomous upbringing. I was part of a farming family but went to university. I went to both posh school and state school. I had a liberal Dad and a strict stepdad. I think this probably taught me empathy - which is critical to a successful planning and creative career - as I was brought up interacting with such a wide, colourful variety of people. I also put a lot of my successes in work & life down to the fact I studied languages - travelling alone in France as a 17yo was quite formative, as was the analytical mind that studying languages gives you. I always look for languages and travel on a CV and you can immediately spot the mindset at interview”.

If you are looking up at your leadership team, seeing Gen X and wondering what they are all about, then embrace the flipside of nihilistic destruction, because within that lies an enormous reserve of energy, passion and determination.

15 instantly accessible Generation X cultural moments to inspire, excite and delight:

  1. The Breakfast Club (1985)

The ultimate 1980’s Brat Pack movie that explored, and broke down, teenage stereotypes against an all-day detention in a suburban Illinois High School.  A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse, all bored and all struggling to be understood by adults and by themselves.  Whilst some scenes are now rightly questionable in hindsight, what this movie did well is give teenage searching and identity a platform in mainstream culture.

  1. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

“Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. Very dark undertones lurk under Roald Dahl’s technicolour world of candy and temptation.  See also Dahl’s more adult and more sinister “Tales of the Unexpected” (1979-1988), which we would all stay up late for if we weren’t too freaked out by Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel.

  1. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

The movie that made Madonna a superstar as the eponymous Susan – with a killer DIY wardrobe, an eclectic soundtrack that spun “Get Into The Groove” out into the zeitgeist and a New York attitude so authentic that those close to her at the time said that she wasn’t even acting. Shot on location across ‘80s New York, the movie has beautifully preserved long-gone iconic hangouts like Danceteria and Love Saves The Day on celluloid forever. 

  1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Ferris Bueller and his friends stood for Generation X – disrespect for all authority, the desire to shirk responsibility and to escape the mundane.  The kids in this movie couldn’t binge-watch The Walking Dead all day, text or order pizzas from a phone app.  They would never just “stay in” – they needed to bust out, break free and make adventures happen. The technology in this film beautifully represents how it was as an 80’s teen – turntables, video recorders and telephone answering machines.    Little known Gen X nugget – the parking garage attendant who goes for a joyride in the car that Ferris stole is Richard Edson, Sonic Youth’s original drummer.

  1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It always amazes me when people say they don’t understand The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  What isn’t there to understand?  It isn’t sex.  Its creation and adventure, attitude and dancing, crumbling mansions and reinvention, sprinkled with a rock’n’roll soundtrack glittering with references to B movies, Sci Fi and nostalgia.

  1. Star Wars (1977)

As anyone who was a kid in the ‘70s will verify, Star Wars was life.  The characters are our heroes, their perceived memories inseparable from our own and the fact that the cast were unknown only helped cement them as “real” in our collective consciousness, awakening adventure and possibility in every child’s mind.

  1. Monkey The TV Show (1978-1980)

“Born from an egg on a mountain top, the punkiest monkey that ever popped”.  Do not underestimate the awesomeness of Monkey. 

  1. Back To The Future (1985)

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”. 

  1. St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

Rob Lowe’s Billy says to Demi Moore’s Jules in full meltdown mode, … “this isn’t real.  You know what it is?  It’s St. Elmo’s Fire.  Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere.  Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them … there was no fire.  There wasn’t even a St. Elmo.  They made it up, just like you’re making up all of this.  We’re all going through this.  It’s our time at the edge”. 

  1. Stand By Me (1986)

A nostalgia piece for Gen X, who as kids were told that being bored was a rite of passage and to go and play on the old railway track with sticks (yes, most of us actually did that).  The movie is as much about adolescence and innocence, but also the adventure and friendship that came out of “real life”, regardless of the darkness of the Stephen King plot.

  1. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Beautifully accurate depiction of 1970’s teenage stoner ennui (also see Linklater’s Slacker, 1990) and subsequent lust for life: “you know, if we are all gonna die anyway shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now?”.  Always worth a re-watch for the timeless end of term “School’s Out For Summer” scene.

  1. American Psycho (the book, 1991)

Brett Easton Ellis is as text-book Gen X as Douglas Coupland. Patrick Bateman is no reliable narrator, he is so deep in the abyss that he hasn’t got a hope in hell, but that’s the point.  It’s how lacking in depth his cultural ramblings are (finding Invisible Touch by Genesis, “an epic meditation on intangibility”), and how seriously he takes them, that darkly humours the Gen X reader.   This devil is in the detail.

  1. Less Than Zero (1987)

Another Brett Easton Ellis, whose real-life hedonistic pursuits of sex, violence and drugs earned him as much real-world notoriety as his characters Bateman and Robert Downey Jr’s Julian.  This was the feel-bad movie of the era, the logical conclusion of ‘80s excess and the end of the road by getting sucked into the void: “Disappear here”.

  1. The Outsiders (1983)

Based on the book by 15 year old S.E. Hinton (on every Gen X bookshelf and as era-defining in terms of teenage alienation as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye), it was filmed with a stellar cast that included Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon & Rob Lowe.  As with Stand By Me, these gritty kids had no wealth, they were from the wrong side of the tracks and how they experienced the world was through the events that they had to effect themselves.  Stay Gold, Ponyboy.

  1. The Lost Boys (1987)

The deliberate allusions to Peter Pan, the terminal adolescence for those turned before they reached adulthood, and the first time that vampires were sexy, rebellious and young all helped make this a huge hit.  Personally however, I enjoy it on a purely shallow level – great hair, great outfits, vampires on motorbikes, smoke machines and the amazing soundtrack.

This list is by no means exhaustive (I haven’t even started on albums yet and I’d need a whole new blog for Blade Runner), but for the purposes of producing a piece that underpins and celebrates the motivations of our current leadership generation, this is a start and these are exciting times.  We know there is no St. Elmo.  There is no one to bail us out.  We are self-motivated survivalists, who when faced with nothing chose to make something and who don’t hesitate to rip up the rule book and fearlessly start again.   And the world of consumer PR, where we package up our work and influence an audience to imbue that creation with meaning and relevancy, is where this generation has thrived.

In conclusion, Frankie Oliver, Managing Partner at Kindred, observes, “Gen X are as hard working as they are entrepreneurial.  Starting out with so little, they rarely take success for granted and I believe had to wrestle with very high levels of boredom as teenagers.  Not only did this fuel incredible dreams and ideas but true grit and determination to get out there and make things happen”.  

Very well put, as anyone who blanked out whilst staring at the girl and the clown on the BBC test card whilst willing something to happen will attest.   

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