Great X-pectations

Goodbye, slacker stereotypes; hello, Generation Entrepreneur.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the January 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

Isn't it ironic? For a generation once dismissed as slackers, grunged-out ne'er-do-wells and attention-challenged underachievers, today's young adults are turning out to be decidedly none of the above. Far from it, actually. Whether by necessity, personal initiative--or, most likely, a combination thereof--the twenty- and early-thirtysomethings who make up the bulk of so-called Generation X are proving themselves to be more entrepreneurial than anyone had ever anticipated.

Truth be told, Gen Xers are proving themselves to be more entrepreneurial than anyone, period.

But we don't need to tell you that. You know it because you're living it. Even if you haven't yet started a business of your own, you're thinking about it--otherwise, you wouldn't have picked up a copy of this magazine. This is where your dreams and realities intersect. In this new incarnation of Business Start-Ups, we intend to guide you through a journey every bit as exciting as one penned by the likes of, say, "Scream" screenwriter--and fellow Xer--Kevin Williamson (without all the blood and gore and guts and stuff). Do we aim high? Sure. But then, so do you.

"I would like my workout clothing to become a household name," says Laura Waitze, 29, founder of LK Bodywear, a Bensalem, Pennsylvania, manufacturer of fashionable fitnesswear. Echoes David Getson, 26, founder, editorial director and publisher of the men's magazine ICON, "My goal is to transform this into a larger media company."

See what we mean? Not a slacker, grunged-out ne'er-do-well, or attention-challenged underachiever in sight. Youth has never been so completely un-wasted on the young.

Independence Days

"Many of us were latchkey kids and responsible for not only taking care of ourselves but making purchases for our family as well," observes Meredith Bagby, author of Rational Exuberance: The Influence of Generation X on the New American Economy (Dutton). "We really had to depend on ourselves in large part--and I think, as an outgrowth of that, you see the entrepreneurialism that is so strong in this generation."

How strong, exactly? According to recent estimates, 30 percent of new entrepreneurs are age 30 or younger. Narrow the field to high-tech companies, and it's calculated one-third of such enterprises are launched by those who've yet to hit their 30th birthdays. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that some 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds profess entrepreneurial aspirations of their own.

"We've watched big corporations mistreat [downsized employees] who trusted in a pension and lost," says Getson, whose ICON debuted on newsstands in April 1997. "This made us more entrepreneurial because we said `Screw the corporation. I'll do it myself--and I'll do it right.' That's ultimately what happened."

For his part, 32-year-old Darrell Phillips started his Costa Mesa, California, high-tech firm, Digital Networks Integrated Solutions (DNIS), with the similar desire to provide the kind of top-quality service he knew he was capable of--and to steer clear of any unpleasant bossing around. "Some of the people I worked for were the biggest [jerks] in the world," Phillips recalls. "I didn't want to work for somebody who was always treating me badly."

Taking The Lead

Which begs the question of just how well today's young entrepreneurs are themselves faring as leaders. "Our management style is a little bit more humanitarian," says Bagby. "[Generation X entrepreneurs] encourage people to keep flex hours and make the workplace more homey in terms of allowing pets or plants in the office."

Why such emphasis on blurring the lines between office and home? As Bagby sees it, Xers recognize the enormous expenditure of time and energy that work requires--and they've no wish to end up as burned out as some of their older counterparts. "Work becomes almost a pseudo family," explains Bagby, "so there's a tendency to try to make it more pleasant to be there."

More pleasant, less restrictive. Reflecting on his own management style, media-empire-builder Getson claims to allow his staff plenty of freedom in handling their respective job duties. The caveat? Simple: The work's got to get done--and get done well.

"I'm constantly amazed by the fact that the slacker image is still maintained because if you look at all the statistics, we're working a lot more hours than our parents did at our age," Bagby points out. "We work constantly!"

And yet--how's this for dichotomy in action?--Xers do seem determined to achieve more than just a healthy bottom line. "I make sure I'm home by 4:30 every afternoon so I can spend time with my son," says Phillips. "If that means leaving from a customer site to go home and spend an hour and a half with him--and then burning some midnight oil later--I'll do that. I make time for my personal life."

The `X' Files

Speaking of matters personal, allow us to take a moment and issue an apology of sorts: We know you hate the term "Generation X." Virtually every time we bring it up in conversation with young entrepreneurs, we can practically see the shudder of revulsion upon hearing Douglas Coupland's famous moniker for post-boomer Americans. The thing is, this is the term most commonly linked with the youth of today.

"I don't think anybody likes that term," concurs Bagby. "But unfortunately, I think it's the one we're stuck with."

"I never use the term," says LK Bodywear's Waitze. "I try not to go by stereotypes or to use labels. No one wants to be labeled because then, in a way, you can't get outside your label. I try not to look at people that way because I don't want anyone to look at me that way."

Which actually leads us to what is arguably the single most fascinating aspect of--sorry!--Generation X: Perhaps no other group in our nation's history has been so dead-set against any attempts to unify it into one monolithic cultural identity. Baby boomers rejoice in mass oneness; Xers run screaming in the opposite direction.

"We don't want to be seen as being part of a generation," explains Bagby. "In part, I think it's because we've been so negatively portrayed. Also, we're reluctant to join organizations of any kind. We're very individualistic."

"One of the big marketing buzzwords thrown at my generation is `alternative,' " muses Getson at New York City-based ICON. "Everything is alternative--colas, fashion, movies, music. Everyone wants to be unique. Everyone wants to be an individual."

It's so, well, un-boomeresque--which, Getson says, is precisely the point. "There's so much generational pride in baby boomers," he observes. "The difference between the way they feel connected to their generation versus [the way we feel towards ours] is tremendous."

Life As You Know It

Tremendous. As a description of Xer entrepreneurs' impact on the country (and indeed, throughout the world), you probably couldn't come up with a more fitting word. A reluctant generation, yet a generation nonetheless, Xers look to shape and reshape entrepreneurship as we know it. Propelled by technology that changes faster than the cuts of the MTV videos they grew up on, these enterprising business owners are channeling their talents into companies of every conceivable type and size.

There's Laura Waitze, whose stylish line of exercisewear is expected to bring in between $100,000 and $150,000 in sales this year. There's David Getson, whose hipster magazine is expected to garner $3 million in sales this year by following rules of its own making. And there's Darrell Phillips, whose computer/network support, design and implementation business plugs into annual sales of $350,000. Cohesiveness? There isn't any. Ambition? There isn't any doubt.

But again, we don't need to tell you that. As we introduce this new version of Business Start-Ups to the most entrepreneurial generation in history, we do so with the expectation that we'll share in a journey that's nothing if not worthwhile. It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right--we hope you have the time of your life.

Contact Sources

Digital Networks Integrated Solutions, (949) 548-2443,

ICON, 595 Broadway, 4th Fl., New York, NY 10012, (212) 219-2654

LK Bodywear, (215) 244-4576,

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