Leading up to her high school graduation, Heather Garrett-Baity of St. Louis Park felt like her generation was on the verge of something great.
She was a member of the storied Class of 2000, who were proclaimed the bearers of a bright new technologically savvy future. They were the golden children, buoyed by the optimism and economic stability of the 1990s. Without the jadedness of the older kids in Generation X, who had grown up in a state of rebellion and angst; without the limited attention spans of their helicopter-parented younger millennial siblings.
But the world changed in 2001, with the Sept. 11 attacks, and the high hopes for these young dreamers dissipated.
“It felt like we were singled out and special in some way, but then we were just forgotten,” said Garrett-Baity, now 35 and a doctoral student.
Many of the people who came of age around the turn of the millennium feel similarly set apart: Their unique experiences make them distinct from those who come before and after them, but leave them unmoored. Are they Generation X? Millennials? A little of both, or neither?
“We are definitely the square peg sandwiched between two very round holes,” said Athena Pelton, a 36-year-old artist in northeast Minneapolis.
Generations, which typically span two decades, are marked by world events and massive societal changes. People on the end of a generation, however, often grow up vastly differently from those at the beginning. And there have long been splinter groups within a single generation.
The youngest baby boomers, for example, with little recollection of the assassination of JFK and late ’60s protests, tried to break off into a separate Generation Jones (as in keeping up with the Joneses). It didn’t stick.
But as technology brings ever more rapid shifts in experience and behavior, demographers see a potential for generations that span shorter periods. Xennials could be the first of these mini-generations to take root.
“Because ‘Xennials’ has resonated with people, I think it will continue to get used,” said Dan Woodman, an Australian sociologist who launched the Xennial conversation this summer. “There’s probably a grain of truth that’s worth exploring more.”
The idea of a micro-generation wedged between Gen X and millennials went viral after Woodman, who studies the transition to adulthood, talked about it in a news story in Australia. Xennials, he said, were a distinct group, shaped by circumstances vastly different from those that shaped Gen Xers and millennials. Articles and quizzes about Xennials popped up worldwide.
Born between 1977 and 1983, this emerging cohort spans the end of Generation X and the start of Gen Y, now known as the millennials. And it seems they’ll take any name they can get to distinguish themselves from either of those generations.
They’ve been called the Oregon Trail Generation, after a computer video game; the “Star Wars” Generation, for being born during the years the original trilogy was released; and the Catalano Generation, after a character on the one-season cult television show “My So-Called Life.”
“I used to refer to myself as an ‘elderly millennial,’ ” said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Now there’s a better name for that. The word Xennial (pronounced ZEN-ee-al) was in fact first coined by a journalist in 2014, but the label didn’t seem to land — till now.
“We’ve waited a long time for our generation to have a name and an identity,” Garrett-Baity said. “Sometimes it’s comforting to be in a box.”
Though generational labels are somewhat artificial distinctions, we’ve relied on them since the early 20th century.
“We have seen in our society a move away from small-town community fabric,” said Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University, a consulting group that helps businesses work with, and market to, younger generations. “That’s why we see this interest in generations. People want a ‘club’ to belong to. It’s about how you fit into a bigger group.”
Meet the Xennials
So, who are the Xennials?
• They grew up in an analog world but were young enough to adapt easily to the digital revolution.
• They were in the workforce when the 2008 market crash hit.
• They were in their formative young adulthood at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Folks who are now in their mid- to late 30s say they are distinct enough from Gen Xers and millennials to deserve their own category. Demographic data show that they do, in some ways, stand out. But is that enough to make them a new generation?
“Historically, we often see fringe or cusp cohorts at the crossover years of generations embodying parts of both generations due to their environment,” said Brent Magid, president and CEO of Magid, a business strategy firm that does generational research.
But the Xennials label has unusually strong resonance, especially in a nostalgia-fueled world driven by social media, under hashtags such as #TBT (Throwback Thursday) or #FBF (Flashback Friday). Pagers and landlines, pogs and Rollerblades, dial-up internet access and giant mobile phones, the Sony Discman and the TGIF Friday night lineup of ABC-TV shows are some of the cultural touchstones that easily prompt this group to wax nostalgic.
“I still remember the phone numbers for my friends growing up,” said Jeff Christenson, a self-identified Xennial in St. Paul, who used a landline rather than a cellphone as a kid.
One distinctly Minnesotan memory of the people who came of age together in the 1990s: Jacob Wetterling.
Xennials were old enough at the time of his abduction to remember a so-called free-range childhood, in which parents allowed unsupervised play and encouraged independence.
“We grew up riding around on our bikes with friends and not worrying much about strangers,” Christenson recalled. “When he was abducted, those things changed.”
In the years following, parents grew more watchful over their children. Millennials, who were younger at the time of the abduction in 1989, grew up with more protective moms and dads.
Another shared experienced of Xennials is their entry into the workforce not long before the market crash of 2008. When younger millennials began to graduate after the recession took hold, they found a blighted jobscape. Gen Xers, who were established in their careers, lost livelihoods from layoffs, stock dives and mortgage foreclosures. But Xennials were still new in the workforce, and were secure in low-paying jobs that survived cuts and turned into careers. They hadn’t had time to invest, and had little to lose.
“I entered adulthood in such a different time than the kids in their 20s now,” said Patrick Byrne, a 36-year-old Web developer in Roseville. It was “a stretch of unprecedented peacetime and economic expansion. It wasn’t perfect, but there were enough jobs for me and my friends to get by.”
Digitally adept, connected
Millennials are often criticized for what outsiders consider a delayed adulthood. Data do show that they stay in school longer and get married later than previous generations. And while Xennials largely fit that profile, they delayed their adulthood in better economic conditions. Xennials were more likely than millennials to have moved out of their parents’ house and gotten married by the age of 30. They also appear to have had higher incomes during those formative years, along the lines of Gen X and boomers before them.
But the greatest unifier of Xennials is their relationship to technology, which has affected everything from how they relate to older generations to how they fare in the workforce.
Ryan Lindberg, a 36-year-old business systems consultant for Wells Fargo in Minneapolis, credits growing up without the ubiquity of computers and having to learn to use them along the way as “the single most marketable skill I had.”
He remembers having screaming matches with his baby boomer father in the basement, as he and his brother — who became easily fluent in digital technology — tried to teach him how to use a computer. “My mom wanted to throw the thing out the window,” Lindberg said.
Yet, by the time he entered the workforce, he not only picked up new technologies, but had the patience to teach older colleagues. “Having lived through the transition from offline to always online prepared me to help others make similar journeys,” he said.
Having grown up with some relics of an analog era gave Xennials a unique worldview, said Leif Knutson, a 33-year-old marketer in Minneapolis. “I feel our generation was the last to truly understand human connections without too much of a reliance on technology, and used it to enhance our relationships and lives,” he said. “Now it is relied upon too much.”
If nothing else, the term Xennial gives this small slice of adults an opportunity to reclaim some of the optimism they felt as youngsters.
Baby boomers are stereotyped as hippies and tree-hugging idealists. Gen Xers are considered jaded slackers. Millennials are disparaged as coddled narcissists. But for the newly coined Xennials, there’s no bad rap: Their story hasn’t been written.
“The Xennial generation feels like we were on the cusp of something really great,” said 36-year-old Nicholas Leeman, a business relationship manager at the University of Minnesota. “We were going to be the first ones to use the internet, to explore space, to get rid of racism and classism, and finally make the world a better place.
“Instead, we got caught in the turnstile and are left looking around at the world around us, wondering how we missed our exit.”
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.