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FALL 2004

The New Pragmatists: GenXers And Their Quest For Authentic Urbanism

If you have a teenager at home, or if one of your children is attending college, disproving Douglas Coupland's stereotyped definition of "Generation X" may not be a difficult task. But if you don't, you need to be aware of the falsehood and myopic campaign disseminated by the Baby Boomers in relationship to teenagers and 20-somethings. The GenXers are not part of a group of slackers, MTV addicts, whiners, Nintendo™ experts, or jobless cyber-professionals; to the contrary, this generation is silently defining the future of American urbanism in unprecedented and exceptional ways. But who are they? What are their aesthetic preferences? And which are the characteristics of their favorite environments?

The GenXers are a substantial group of people representing about 27 percent of the total American population-while the entire population of Baby Boomers account for only 30 percent. For the Xers, social, political, racial, sexual, family and religious beliefs are all relative. With a larger concentration of females, they epitomize an unprecedented culture of diversity in which all choices are equally valid. It is a culture of serendipity; a culture where nothing is sacred, where uncertainty characterizes their daily living, and where someone new and interesting is preferred over someone they know and trust.

Their paradoxical aesthetic ideals play a prominent part. First, as a reaction to their predecessors, the GenXers are oblivious to nostalgia or tradition; in their minds, the old and the new are equally valid. Therefore, the GenXers are the most eclectic generation America has ever seen. Like in a multimedia CD, their design method includes mixing, patching, quilting, rearranging, superimposing, editing, reproducing and collaging the old with the new. They have no allegiance to tradition, and their most emblematic cultural characteristic is what J. Walker Smith calls "the retro-eclectic chic." Whilst they rework the old into new fashion and styles, with new values and meanings, they are also easily seduced by unconventional forms and advanced architecture. Theirs is a skin deep aesthetic in which the concepts of image, meaning and iconography are all that matters.

Second, the GenXers cannot escape the feeling that it's all been done before. Their constant quest for newness and innovation is a response to the feeling that there is nothing new left to be experienced or discovered. They look forward to a brand new aesthetic, but they do not discard the traditions inherited from the Boomers. The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing states that, "almost 80 percent of Xers feel the need to find more excitement and sensation in life." For them the word "new" means nothing but finding the extreme edge of what's there already. As no surprise, they prefer to be residents of metropolitan environments or historic downtowns. Their urban quest includes contrast, excitement and multiple perceptions. They prefer New York, Chicago or Boston over Atlanta, Houston or Ft. Lauderdale.

Third, the GenXers enjoy closed friendship networks. The Xers are becoming a generation of resourceful initiators. They create pools of money to buy a building, restore it, and rent it out for additional income; they start investment clubs with family and friends. They are willing to put in the effort to get what they want out of life. But they don't do it alone. They do it with their own closed knit network of friends. Their idea of a good network is highly influenced by "Friends" or "Sex and the City"-not coincidentally, TV shows happening in some of the most retro-eclectic sidewalks and apartments of Soho and Chelsea.

Fourth, the GenXers are just beginning to contemplate buying a house. They never developed the emotional attachment to larger homes that Baby Boomers did. GenXers seek something different anyway. In fact, they are aware that urban living requires more expensive properties on smaller lots. In their paradoxical world, they are conscious that urban living is both authentic and inventive. In their continuous search for newness, and as pointed out by Ann Clurman, "Xers will build something new rather than re-create something old. They will find something to remember rather than try to recall something that they remember."

Fifth, the GenXers are cautious, calculating, and pragmatic. As a product of their preceding generation, they never lived in the same house for more than seven years. Consequently, they would easily exchange their residential instability for a permanent house-no matter how small. The new place, however, must embrace new technologies. Technology defines their language; technology ties together their entertainment, their finances, their communications, and their busy calendars. The notions of flexibility and adaptability permeate everything they do. Therefore, the new home must be modular to possess a particular attraction. That is why they are paying attention to lofts, buildings with moveable louvers, urban enclaves, or neighborhoods where they can find a connection with others.

For the new urbanism to continue its market responsive adaptation to real estate development, it must consider the location goals, technological objectives, and aesthetic values of these new pragmatists. The Congress for the New Urbanism has realized that Baby Boomers want a home like it used to be, but it continues to deny that Generation X, a generation as powerful as the Boomers, is looking for the kind of spaces that reflect its mixed aesthetic values. We are back to basics-it might be possible that, in our near future, retro-eclectic modernism in our inner cities may be chic again.

Jaime Correa is a Knight Professor in Community Building at the University of Miami. Jaime Correa is a Knight Professor in Community Building at the University of Miami.