Welcome to the Jungle: The Why behind "Generation X"
Geoffrey T. Holtz
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995
289 pages, $14.95
A Book Review by Amiko Ine Matsumoto
From the "Tuned-Out Generation" (Zoglin, 1990) to the "generation without a soul" (Blotnik, 1986), those born between 1960 and 1980 have been unjustly cast as apathetic, irresponsible, and hopeless. In his book, Welcome to the Jungle: The Why behind "Generation X", Geoffrey T. Holtz puts an end to the disillusioning attempts to define this generation. Most refreshingly, he does so without pointing fingers or making excuses. His work sheds light on how "Generation X" developed and provides insight into where it is headed.
Holtz begins his work by suggesting a new name for this generation, that of the "Free." His term is carefully chosen to reflect the broad characteristics of this group; the Free grew up in a world with more choices than any before it, and it grew up free of any defining moment or experience. Yet the Free also resemble other aspects of the term, as in "free spirit" or "free floating." Holtz, himself a member of the Free, explains that this name "speaks to the individualistic, multifaceted, difficult-to-define nature of this group" (p. 3). He acknowledges there is irony in this name as well because "we also find our opportunities to exercise these newfound freedoms drying up" (p. 4) through decreasing access to things such as higher education and the job market.
The premise for understanding the Free, according to Holtz, is that "we are, perhaps more than any previous generation, a product of the societal trends of our times and of the times that immediately preceded us" (p. 1). In accord with these societal trends, Holtz's book is divided into four sections: The Generation that Raised Itself, The Blackboard Jungle, The Impoverished Generation, and The Free Generation Today and Tomorrow. Each section is thoroughly researched and examines events that shaped the Free.
The first section, The Generation that Raised Itself, analyzes events in nine topical areas. With chapters such as "It's 3:00 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Parents Are?," "Peers over Parents," and "Family Deconstruction," Holtz poignantly explains the process of decay that eroded the family unit and increased child poverty during the childhood of the Free. It was also during this time that a shift occurred in parental philosophy. Rather than trying to shield children from reality, parents intentionally exposed their children to the harsh realities of the times; "like the benefits of a woman taking a self-defense course or a banker being taught how to deal with a robbery, the assumption was that a 'streetwise' kid was a safe kid" (p. 25). Holtz explains that though well-intentioned, the exposure was not balanced and left the Free with a lack of innocence which was replaced with cynicism that caused "children [to] have a hard time seeing any hope or promise in adulthood" (p. 26).
The Blackboard Jungle examines the education system and its failure to produce the same quality of students as in previous generations. With reports such as 1983's A Nation at Risk, plummeting SAT scores, and a 1988 Gallup Survey in which only 32% of 18 to 24 year olds in the United States were able to correctly identify Britain on an unlabeled world map (Taylor et al., 1988), the Free have been labeled as "a generation of self-centered know-nothings" (Pohut cited in Derber, 1992). Holtz acknowledges the need for concern and analyzes how standards were lowered in the name of educational reform. He discusses landmark changes in educational philosophy such as the influence of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society (1970), the decrease of federal funding of education (as military spending increased), and grade inflation. Holtz also examines the rising cost of college tuition, the shift of in loco parentis, and the free speech versus hate speech debate, all of which faced institutions attended by the Free, none of which occurred in a vacuum.
In The Impoverished Generation, Holtz analyzes the growth of "McJobs" as "within a few years of the Free's entry in the workforce, the United States went from being the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation" (p. 148). The change in economy meant a change in the availability of jobs, which was to be felt most drastically by the Free. As estimated by the Department of Education, and a Boston College economist respectively, only 22% of the jobs created in the eighties required a college degree, and 44% of the new jobs of the eighties paid less than $7,400 a year (p. 151). With statistics like these, it is understandable why boomerang kids (those who left for college then returned to live with their parents) became commonplace. Rising property tax rates, two-tiered wages, and decreasing health care benefits all added to the effect. Holtz explains, "The long-term consequences of so many people getting a late career start and the difficulties in saving any portion of their shrinking paychecks remain to be seen" (p. 176).
The last section, The Free Generation Today and Tomorrow, is perhaps the most intriguing for student affairs educators. It addresses the implications of the events that have shaped the Free. As family units, changing demographics, and political involvement all reflect a shift, Holtz urges his reader to anticipate a mixed response on behalf of the Free. For example, unlike the youth-reminiscence television programming of the past, the author expects sitcoms to "accentuate [a] weirdness and quirky disillusionment" because "suicidal classmates and drive-by shootings are not the stuff of which nostalgia is made" (p. 179). Another change is the increased support for legislation against discrimination: "the lack of group identity seems to have engendered the belief that individuals should be given the opportunity to prove themselves without the prejudices of society or the government holding them back" (p. 195).
At times, Holtz makes rather sweeping generalizations on behalf of the Free and is guilty of doing that of which he disapproves, categorizing and assuming that the majority, or even vocal minority, speak for the generation as a whole. While this detracts from his research to some extent, it is not so egregious that he loses his focus or his audience.
This generation is an enigma to many. While films like Reality Bites and books like Douglas Coupland's Generation X may provide some insight, they do little to address the reason the Free generation appears disillusioned; rather than getting to the cause, they treat the symptoms. If student affairs educators are to truly meet the needs of the Free, they must understand the context from which they come.
While no work can fully and justly describe an entire generation, Welcome to the Jungle is one of the most comprehensive works available. The notes section at the end of the book is reason alone for it to be purchased. Holtz's citations refer the reader to various forms of media and other resources, and he includes several perspectives of political ideology which provides a balanced approach to the issues. His work examines everything from the implications of a skyrocketing divorce rate and curricular change, to the use of Ritalin and elevator surfing in residence halls and inner-cities. For those of the Free looking for responsible research that gives credit to their strength, ability, and potential, and for those of other generations who want a better understanding of why this generation responds the way it does, this book systematically and thoroughly provides an answer.
Blotnik, S. (1986, February 24). Why hippies beget yuppies. Forbes, 262, pp. 146-147.
Coupland, D. (1991). Generation X. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Derber, C. (1992). Money, Murder and the American dream: Wilding from Wall Street to Main Street. Boston: Faber and Faber.
Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.
Taylor, R. et al. (1988, August 8). Which way is the Pacific Ocean? U.S. News and World Report, 105, p. 11.
Zoglin, R. (1990, July 9). The tuned-out generation. Time Magazine, 136, p. 64.
Amiko Ine Matsumoto graduated from Westmont College in 1992 and is a 1995 of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at The University of Vermont. Currently she is the Coordinator of Community Service Learning at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.