The Birthday Edition: A GenX–er at Midlife

On July 8, 2017, I turn 44 years old. No big deal.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought I’d freak out about turning 40. I did but in a good way. I loved it. My 30s were hard—I spent that decade raising a young child, building my own career, supporting a husband through a job loss, grad school and a career change. As the chaos calmed, turning 40 felt like I could finally look to the future. Who knew that four years later, in my work with this blog, I’d be examining the past?

I was born in 1973, pretty much the mid-point of Generation X. I remember how our generation was described—slackers, cynical, angry even—and thinking, yes, that is exactly how I feel. I didn’t think we were getting a bad rap at the time. To me, it was pretty dead on.

In the time that I have been really diving deep into generational issues, I have learned it takes more than a date range to bring a generation together. It takes shared experiences or what many call “defining moments”. My own analysis is that these moments—positive or negative—fundamentally challenge a belief or change a worldview. For many Baby Boomers, the assassination of JFK is their defining moment. For most Millennials, it’s September 11, 2001.

Like most generations, GenX has many defining moments. Here are the top three that most resonate with me: 

Challenger Disaster

challengerBy 1986, space travel was pretty well established. What made the space shuttle Challenger’s 10th mission particularly interesting at the time was the fact that Christa McAullife, a New Hampshire Social Studies teacher, would be joining the crew. It was to be the first time an ordinary citizen would join professional astronauts on a mission to space, opening our imaginations to the possibility of space travel for “regular people”. Seventy-three seconds after blastoff, the shuttle exploded, killing everyone aboard.

For the many GenX-ers who watched it live, it was difficult for us to wrap our minds around what we had just witnessed. I remember shocked teachers struggling to understand and explain, trying to process their own emotions while protecting those of their students as a piece of innocence was lost.


mtvNot every defining moment is a tragedy. In 1981 MTV played The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and everything changed. Created as an idea to reach teenagers as the largest group of consumers of music and to re-engage them with television as a medium (there was very little dedicated programming for that demographic). MTV fused music with visual storytelling and gave us access to the artists that we loved and exposed us to new ones, 24/7.

My family didn’t have cable in 1981, but when we got it a few years later, I was hooked. As a young person obsessed with music, if I was watching television, I was watching MTV.

And I wasn’t the only one. Pop culture, news and even political programming began showing up on MTV, aimed at reaching teens and young adults. In my teens and early 20s, my most trusted news sources were Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren. (MTV actually had a Peabody award-winning news department).

Never do I feel as old as I do when I turn on MTV today. Yes, I’ll watch Teen Mom OG with my daughter because she got me totally hooked, but I forget it’s the same network. For straight up music videos you have to seek out their sister stations, such as MTV2 or MTV (gulp) Classic.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

berlinwall_0On November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany, meaning that the wall that had been separating West Berlin from communist East Berlin was no longer necessary. That weekend, citizens from both sides of the wall came together to celebrate and to start tearing down the Berlin Wall.

I remember the date because I had a poster of the wall coming down hanging in my teenage bedroom. (So much for the Brat Pack for me I guess.) I also remember it because tense U.S./Soviet relations were a big part of my childhood. True, by the 80s we weren’t doing under-the-desk drills in school anymore, but I did understand that mutually assured destruction was just about the only thing keeping us from nuclear war. That’s pretty scary for a kid. So in 1989, at age 16, I thought maybe that’s something I didn’t have to worry about any more. Today, it feels downright nostalgic.

And so as I mark another successful trip around the sun, I wonder what the defining moments will be for subsequent generations. YouTube? An Obama presidency? A Trump presidency? Time will tell.

GenX-ers: What do you consider to be our defining moments? Boomers and Millennials, what about you? Reply in the comments.



  1. Happy birthday, GenX Manager! Love your posts. Yours is one of my favorite blogs.

    A defining moment for me – one that shocked me into adulthood, oddly enough – was the death of Princess Diana. I know it came a little late in what we consider GenX’s time, but it was the first time I felt mortality. It was the first time I thought, “Holy crap! This could all end RIGHT NOW.” It was the first time in my life a fairy tale didn’t end in a happily-ever-after.

    JFK’s assassination was before our time, so up until that point, I hadn’t considered that truly good, iconic people could simply (suddenly) just die.

    1. Totally see that, generationxishere. I think a lot of us had very similar reactions. I remember how my mom woke me in the middle of the night to watch the Royal Wedding, and then she was gone.

  2. For this Boomer it was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Nothing sent chills down my spine like that orator. When he spoke, everyone listened to his message whether they agreed with him or not. When he spoke just hours before his death and said, “I have been to the mountain…” a sick feeling came over me as if he knew he was about to die. Of course the deaths of JFK and RFK were just as devastating. But as a Boomer, I learned that life truly does go on, whether you like the direction it goes in or not. My mission was to turn it in the direction I thought was right. Happy Birthday, Heidi!

  3. Thanks @genxmanager – these events definitely resonate as formative. In fact, our high school had scored a massive, triple-screen, panoramic display from Pepsi and called everyone into the gym for a rally-style live viewing of the Challenger launch. I remember all of us – teachers, administrators, and students alike – jaws dropped, searching the screens as the lines of rocket smoke veered off in opposite directions. Stunned and horrified, we did the same; we wandered off in random directions, eyes glazed and speechless, overcome with an embodied feeling of disintegration.

    Also, for those of us without childhood cable, who remembers Friday Night Videos?!?

    1. I forgot all about Friday Night Videos! That was the one night of the week I could stay up as late as I wanted. It’s funny to think of music videos as ‘revolutionary,’ but they certainly were in those days.

  4. As a GenXer, a defining moment for me was also The Challenger tragedy. As third graders, we were hearded into another teacher’s classroom to watch the launch. Of course, we had studied all about space and Christa McAllife. After the explosion, it was if time stopped. No one knew what to do or say. For me, it was the first time I had witnessed a disaster. Horrific. Tragic. I learned the hard lesson that sometimes terrible things happen and no one or nothing can stop them.

    Even 35 years later, I got chills when a coworker told me she had had Christa as a teacher. She spoke of her as wonderful I had imagined she would be. My heart broke a bit again.

    Diana’s death was also had a significant impact on me. Not long after she died I was studying abroad in London. I was able to see her country mourn her loss. Also, I got chills when I traveled through the same bridge in France where Princess Diana was struck and killed. Again, teaching me that bad things can just happen in the blink of an eye.

    Although it’s not one moment, the Big Hair, Big Show music of the 80s and the fashion that went with it was amazing. MTV gave a all of the ostentatious performers a way to enter our living rooms. We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, so I remember seeking out the friends who did to go hang out with. I needed my MTV!!!😀
    Thanks for the great Blog post GenXManager! Happy Birthday!!!🎁

  5. I completely agree with Challenger being #1… I remember the day clearly. I was in sixth grade, and I had just lost the school spelling bee. When we returned to the classroom my homeroom teacher began to wheel in the metal cart with the TV on it. She didn’t say a word. She just flipped on the channel (it didn’t matter which one, every channel was watching the same thing). And then I saw the haunting image of the smoke trail that diverged where the side rocket boosters had disconnected.

    Another big moment for me was years earlier when my dad came outside and informed me that Ronald Reagan, our president, had just been shot.

    Other generationally shared moments that come to mind are when cultural icons that were always there growing up suddenly disappear. Recently we Gen X-ers lost a lot of those… David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Carrie Fisher, etc.

    1. I remember Reagan being shot as well. I was home sick from school that day and it was all over daytime tv. We weren’t bombarded with 24/7 news like we are now, and as a young kid, I found it pretty scary.

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