LOS ANGELES -- It was the early 1990s, and recent college grad Stephanie Brail was doing precisely what someone of her generation was supposed to be doing. Nothing.
Like many so-called Gen-Xers -- the 80 million Americans born between 1961 and 1981 -- she was rudderless. The English and music major drifted for several years, working at a nonprofit here, writing a free-lance piece there. In between, there was a lot of time in coffeehouses.
Then she started to teach courses about computers, something she had used in one form or another since childhood. Soon, people -- especially baby boomers less comfortable with the emerging technology -- hired her to create Web pages. By 1996, she had established a business, now known as Herspace Media Inc., a profitable and respected Web design company in Venice, Calif.
"I took the slacker route [to success]," said Brail, 29. "I know there is this cultural stereotype that we're lazy, but you know all these Internet companies are built on Gen-X kids working 80-hour weeks. We're a bunch of maniacs."
This wasn't supposed to happen. In the early '90s, Gen-Xers were supposed to be headed straight for Palookaville. They were supposed to enter a dismal economy with low-wage, low-benefit jobs or find none at all. If there were jobs, the Gen-Xers were supposed to be too busy playing computer games, watching TV or being alienated to earn a paycheck.
But, something happened on the way to the millennium.
Slacker successes seem as plentiful as Web sites these days. Business journals have dubbed them the Entrepreneurial Generation and often feature rags-to-riches tales such as those of 30-year-old Jerry Yang, the billionaire co-founder of Yahoo, and 28-year-old Sky Dayton, the multimillionaire behind Pasadena-based Earthlink, to name a couple.
Instead of inheriting McJobs, they've created a jobs.com world. For the past couple of years, they've started their own businesses at more than twice the rate of other Americans.
They lag boomers in relative earning power at comparable ages. And some are trapped in temporary positions. But the point is this: Beavis and Butt-head have clicked off MTV, are off the couch and are working. Very hard.
Gen-Xers might have put on a cool or diffident exterior, but they had plenty of worries. Topping the list were a rotten economy, a mountain of college debt and possibly a parental divorce. (About 40 percent of Gen-Xers have parents who split up.)
Cultural historians are almost totally in agreement that the generation's birth years fall between 1961 and 1981. They say joint experiences, not birth rates, determine a generation.
"A generation is a group of people who share a common location in history and, as a consequence, have a collective persona that not all members share, but that they all can relate to," said Bill Strauss, historian and co-author of "The Fourth Turning," a 1997 book that studied generational change. "That [1961-1981] generation fits that definition."
Midway through the '90s, one person who wasn't buying any definition of Gen-X was the term's creator. In a 1995 magazine article, Douglas Coupland, author of the book "Generation X," urged Gen-Xers to reject attempts to pigeonhole them.
"The problems started when trendmeisters everywhere began isolating small elements of my characters' lives -- their offhand way of handling problems or their questioning of the status quo -- and blew them up to represent an entire generation," the Canadian wrote in Details magazine, "I'm here to say that 'X' is over. ... "
Marketers back in 1995, most of them baby boomers, disagreed. To them, Gen-X did describe most of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old block they were salivating to sell to, those mysterious strangers who had a purchasing power estimated at anywhere from $150 billion to $600 billion.
But initial marketing, which attempted to exploit Gen-X stereotypes, failed miserably. A memorable example was OK Cola, a soft drink from the Coca-Cola Co., heavy with attitude and extra caffeine. The product came in gray cans covered with cynical epigrams such as "What's the point of OK Cola? Well, what's the point of anything?" Sales went nowhere, and the product was shelved.
"Boomers put [Gen-Xers] in a box. They thought all you had to do to understand them was to watch the movies 'Clerks' and 'Slackers,'" said J. Walker Smith, a baby boomer and co-author of "Rocking the Ages," a 1997 report on generational marketing. "They were wrong."
Gen-Xers want to marry, though they'll do it later than previous generations. They want to buy houses, though they will be substantially more expensive than their parents' homes. And they want careers, though they are more likely to go into business for themselves and change jobs more often than previous generations.
Gen-X's American dream strives to be more inclusive than those of past generations. At 70 percent white, compared with 77 percent for boomers, Gen-X has grown more accustomed to racial, ethnic and religious differences, according to Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Policy Research on Aging. "This is the age group that is experiencing the full diversity of America," he said. "They are comfortable with it, and to their great credit they tend to take it as a norm."
For many of today's young feminists, diversity issues dominate the agenda, said Catherine Hazelton, 24. "Our generation doesn't really care about an Equal Rights Amendment," she said. "But we do care about women of color and women of all classes. We're trying to focus on pragmatic solutions to women in poverty rather than worrying too much about the glass ceiling."
Gen-Xers balance their paltry showing at the voting booth with voluntarism. According to Independent Sector, a Washington-based research group, nearly half of all 18- to 34-year-olds regularly donate time to their communities, churches or civic organizations.
Gen-X's image is on the upswing. But will the turnaround in perception be enough to salvage their legacy?
Researchers aren't sure.
"I think history may well look upon Gen-X as a wasted generation," said historian Strauss. "[It's] unfair, but that's what happened to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald's generation -- the Lost Generation. That label stuck with them."
Martin Miller wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.