Baby boomers by Blake Morrison
It took till the end of the decade for the 60s to arrive in our provincial backwater, but the impact was all the stronger for being delayed. Unlike my parents, who’d survived the war and settled down to build a comfortable life, I yearned for risk, adventure, escape. I had a vision of it already from Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows – “the open road, the dusty highways … Travel, change, interest, excitement. The whole world before you and a horizon that’s always changing” – but Mr Toad was a comical figure, whereas Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was cool.
On the Road
by Jack Kerouac
What the novel celebrated wasn’t just restless movement but the kind of people you meet on your travels, “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles”. I hoped to meet them, too, and though hitching from Skipton to Pwllheli in 1970 hadn’t the glamour or expansiveness of travelling west across America in the 1940s, I pretended it did.
by Joseph Heller
What books would I have been carrying? Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 maybe, a novel about the illogic of war set during the second world war but relevant to what was happening in Vietnam. I especially liked the scene in which a 107-year-old Italian punctures the patriotic fervour of the young American, Nately: “I’m afraid you have [the saying] backward,” he tells him, “It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees.”
The Female Eunuch
by Germaine Greer
Or I might have had Germaine Greer’s newly published The Female Eunuch with me, a chastening read for someone who’d gone to a single-sex grammar school and had taken misogyny for granted; reading Greer, and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, I was forced to rethink some of the writers I most admired – DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer, even Jack Kerouac – tainted as they now were by accusations of phallocentrism.
by RD Laing
More likely, because it was pocket-size and aspired to be poetry, I’d have taken RD Laing’s Knots, a book about the traps and double binds involved in all relationships, especially those we have with our parents. Laing was a cult hero at the time, campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis and arguing that people whom the medical profession defined as “mad” were often visionaries. He was high on the hippy reading list, along with Carlos Castaneda, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey, and encouraged the idea that there was nothing more deadly than a conventional middle-class family like mine. At 20 I fully bought into it.
Your Baby & Child
by Penelope Leach
Ten years later, married and starting my own family, I bought Penelope Leach’s Your Baby & Child as a guide for bringing up kids in a manner that wasn’t disciplinarian: no smacking, no leaving babies to cry, etc. The book became a bible for boomers with babies. And though my parents’ child-rearing had been stricter, it made me see them in a kindlier light. It wasn’t their fault I’d wanted to leave home and lead a life elsewhere. It was what books said you had to do.
Blake Morrison’s novel The Executor is published by Vintage.
Gen X by Chris Power
In Generation X, Douglas Coupland portrayed the post-boomer age as one defined by divorced parents, reduced job expectations, suffocating levels of irony and Ikea furniture. We knew capitalism wanted our souls but, confusingly, although we were wise to the rules of the game, we were still hopelessly attracted to playing it. No one embodied this dichotomy better than Kurt Cobain, Gen X’s secular saint, who simultaneously wanted a major label record deal and hated himself for signing one. This tension between earnestness, self-consciousness and cynicism characterised many of Gen X’s cultural touchstones.
by Alex Garland
For boomers, south-east Asia was a warzone. By the time Gen X shambled through, it had become a gap year playground, a contrast that Garland’s book weaponises. Its narrator, Richard, is bored: bored with himself, bored with his experiences – which derive mostly from TV shows and video games – and finally bored with the paradise of the hidden beach itself. He wants the war. With Gen X-appropriate irony, for a few years Garland’s novel was seen sticking out of every backpacker’s backpack, fully embraced by the community it disparaged.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
by Helen Fielding
The turn-of-the-millennium ubiquity of Helen Fielding’s novel was such that, despite never having read it or seen the film, I nevertheless know all of the characters and much of the plot. Bridget’s enormous chardonnay and Silk Cut consumption was very Gen X, as was the acceptance of now deeply disturbing levels of sexism: 25 years on, Fielding has noted her own shock at what she then considered part of daily life.
by Naomi Klein
The book that proved Generation X’s response to injustice and exploitation wasn’t always and only a shrug. No Logo is the definitive text of the anti-globalisation movement, which fought pitched battles with police at the WTO protests in Seattle and the G8 summit in Genoa, before being sidelined by 9/11. A salient example of how the differences between generations are matters of modulation, not schism, Naomi Klein’s book exposed the grim, destructive truth of neoliberalism, foretold the gig economy and called out the folly of thinking the “hi-tech” firms of Silicon Valley (we didn’t say big tech back then) were going to solve everyone’s problems.
by Zadie Smith
Smith’s debut, published in the first month of the new millennium, chronicles the intertwined lives of three British families: part-Jamaican, Bangladeshi and part-Jewish. Twenty years on, the comment of one reviewer that Smith’s book offered a portrait of a Britain that was “not only post-imperial but post-racial” sounds naive. For all the unlikely neatness of the book’s plotting, it offers an engaging and vital take on late-1990s multiculturalism.
by David Foster Wallace
One of those bestsellers that has been started much more than finished, and now routinely maligned as the obnoxious lit-bro novel par excellence, Wallace’s 1,000-page masterpiece probably captures more about Gen X’s anxieties and enthusiasms than any other book: technology, terrorism, connectivity, isolation, addiction, depression and consumerism, the dual richness and banality of the pop cultural junkyard, and the splintered line between irony and sincerity – all these fall within its vast area of inquiry. Sure, some morons like it, but it takes all sorts to make up a generation.
Chris Power’s novel A Lonely Man is published by Faber.
Millennials/Gen Y by Megan Nolan
When I think of literature that can communicate something real about millennials, I don’t think about portraits of social-media narcissism or gauche brunches or any of the other easy summations of my generation. What I think of are books that convey a sense of cautious, questioning dread. I think of the feeling I remember from the 2000s – of going fairly abruptly from believing my own life and the world at large might be flawed, but would ultimately and inevitably ascend to meaningful improvement, to the realisation that progress was not predestined, that things could and would be worse than they had appeared through the prism of my childhood.
What most of the books I have chosen have in common is a perspective on work as something without inherent meaning. Hard work does not always pay off, cannot be counted on to render us happier or even wealthier. Another characteristic of my generation is a tendency towards self-revelation. This isn’t quite recklessness or nihilism, but it does, I think, have to do with the not particularly attractive prospect of what awaits us in our later years. It is not a life without pleasure, or wonder – but the chaos we can see around us and down the road a little does lend itself to the immediate, the haphazard, the intemperate hell-of-it.
by Halle Butler
An exhilaratingly depressing, funny, clear-eyed look at office culture. This slim novel charts 30-year-old temp Millie’s efforts to swaddle herself in the accoutrements of professional life – the right jacket, appropriate packed lunch, smooth small talk – in a doomed attempt to secure permanent employment and by proxy some sort of satisfying resolution to her perennial aloneness.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
Jamison’s acclaimed 2014 essay collection is in part a remembrance of past pain and how it comes to be externalised or metabolised. I find this book to be a good rejoinder to the criticism of millennial “oversharing” – as with all things, when candour is employed by a great writer it can be great, and when employed by a bad writer it will be bad.
by Ling Ma
As a fictional pandemic sweeps the globe and the habits of everyday life slip away, Candace Chen remains in her New York office. Without any particular place to flee toward, or family to shelter with, she continues to dwell within the rituals of professional life even as they are rendered meaningless by the apocalyptic onslaught.
How Are You Going to Save Yourself
by JM Holmes
This collection of linked short stories follows four young black men in Rhode Island, US, as they grow into adults, struggling to interpret their masculinity and power, and the lack thereof. Invigorating, enraging and exciting, it makes an interesting counterweight to The New Me; where Millie has some margin of error to recover from her mistakes, the men in these stories are rarely afforded any.
Kids These Days
by Malcolm Harris
This analysis of the creation of millennials is largely focused on the US, but most of its lessons are applicable in Britain, too. Harris does a fine, lucid job of breaking down the stereotype of us as a bunch of over-awarded, underachieving narcissists. He studies the divergence between productivity and real wages, and most importantly poses the question: what are we going to do about it?
Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation is published by Jonathan Cape.
Gen Z by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Growing up with the internet, my generation has always had an unlimited amount of information at our fingertips. Generation Z are known to be quick-witted, innovative, lovers of memes and chaos, but with a collective desire to create meaningful change in the world. Like millennials, Gen Zers are often labelled as “snowflakes”, criticised for our reactions to bigotry and our habit of calling out unacceptable content or ideas that were once left unchallenged. While we are not a monolith, and many people are still complicit in the ways they participate in harmful systems, my generation is filled with young people campaigning to make the world (and by extension, the internet) a safe place for minoritised people. These attributes are reflected in the books that can summarise Gen Z the best – stories that give archaic tales a modern twist, where the use of computers is as paramount to the story as characters and plot, fighting for an improved world for marginalised peoples.
These Violent Delights
by Chloe Gong
A retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai, this YA bestseller showcases the innovative nature of Gen Z, as Gong turns the Shakespearean classic on its head.
by Alice Oseman
A graphic novel series that began as a webcomic with millions of reads, Heartstopper follows the progression of two boys’ relationship from friends to boyfriends, exuding the progressive and carefree energy of Gen Z in a beautifully illustrated and written queer story.
(Don’t) Call Me Crazy
edited by Kelly Jensen
This anthology of essays on the topic of mental health from 33 authors discusses the stigmatisation of mental illnesses. Gen Z are candid about mental health in ways previous generations weren’t allowed to be.
by Aiden Thomas
A YA adventure in which a trans boy from a traditional Latinx family accidentally raises the dead, Thomas’s novel takes classic paranormal tropes and evolves them through witty dialogue and the centring of minoritised people as the main characters.
They Both Die at the End
by Adam Silvera
This TikTok sensation follows two queer teenage boys in a near-future world where, on the day of their deaths, both receive a phone call informing them of their fate. Social media brings the two boys together, and this story has resonated with Gen Z so strongly because it confronts big questions head on: about our societies, and our planet’s future.
Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s novel Ace of Spades is published by Usborne.
From Boomer to Zoomer: a whistle-stop tour of the terms for our times
As defined by Steven Poole
According to the US Census Bureau, the postwar baby boom lasted from 1946 to 1964. Boomers grew up in a now near-mythical world of cheap houses and dependable jobs. The word is most enjoyably employed now in the dismissive retort “OK boomer”, which can be used by anyone at all to someone just a little bit older than them.
Obviously the coolest generation, named after the most mysterious letter. First named by the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland in his 1991 Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, it is the generation born between the mid 1960s and early 80s, which grew up ironic and disaffected in a world of “McJobs” and information overload. Gen Xers were sometimes also known as “slackers”, after the 1990 Richard Linklater film, but for Coupland they aren’t merely apathetic: the X stands for a principled refusal to engage in traditional social status competition – even if declaring oneself superior to conformists is of course its own kind of status signalling.
Spare a thought for millennials: they are so named because they are the cohort who came of age around the year 2000, but the term inescapably evokes a sort of silly cultishness: in the 17th century, a “millennial” had apocalyptic religious beliefs about the coming day of judgment. For so long the butt of ridicule by their elders, they have now been around long enough that the most mature of them are called “geriatric millennials”. The generation was first named before the coining of “Gen X”, in Neil Howe and William Strauss’s Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (1991); it won out over the will-this-do alternative “Generation Y”.
In modern usage “snowflake” means “anyone younger than me who is complaining about something”, whether that be avocado toast or the impossibility of ever getting on the property ladder. Its origin as a derisory term is usually traced to Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, in which Tyler Durden says: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Palahniuk later explained that this barb was aimed only at himself and he never intended any sense of extreme “fragility or sensitivity”. Tell that to today’s rather older snowflakes, who get tearful if someone proposes taking down a picture of the Queen.
Some people have been trying to make “Zoomer” happen as a colloquial term for Generation Z, the cohort who succeeded millennials, were born after 1996, and are “digital natives”, ie have grown up without ever knowing a world that lacked portable auto-surveillance devices and social media. To be fair, though, the alternative name, “iGen”, already sounds (like “iPod”) foolishly dated. But “Gen Z” also implies, since we have run out of alphabet, that they are the last human generation who will ever live. How worried should we be?
Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.