© 2024 KRCU Public Radio
90.9 Cape Girardeau | 88.9-HD Ste. Genevieve | 88.7 Poplar Bluff
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Telling History: Gen X

1980s kids and their bikes

Raised largely on garden hose water and limited parental supervision, there is a generation of Americans tucked rather indifferently between baby boomers and millennials. Demographers call this cohort of 60 million born between 1965-1980, Generation X. Educators referred to millions of Gen X as latchkey kids, students returning to an empty house with a key to let themselves in. Working parents indeed mostly left us alone – afterschool, weekends, and summers – so we fended for ourselves, self-reliant, and let's be honest, kind of feral.

So, don’t come back home until the streetlights are on. I’m Joel Rhodes “Telling History.”

A lot had changed for Gen X since the single-income, child-centered families idealized in the 1950s. The number of working mothers had tripled. By the seventies only one-third of elementary school students had a stay-at-home mom. The divorce rate also doubled between 1960 and 1980, approaching fifty percent. Four-out-of-every-ten children spent at least part of their childhood in a family headed by a divorced, single-parent; almost by definition, a single working mother. And remember, this was, after all, the 1970s – the Me Decade – when parents were, to be honest, more adult focused, than child-centered.

In contrast to baby boomers, Gen X were truly “home aloners.” And when compared to the overly protected and overly structured nature of contemporary parenting, there is some historical validity to Gen X claims to having effectively raised themselves.

Considering the uneven proliferation of domestic air conditioning and limited broadcast television options, free range Gen X childhood took place disproportionately outdoors.

Besides parks and school playgrounds, we claimed a small universe of undeveloped vacant lots, ditches, streams, ponds, marshes, trestles, and forests just beyond suburbia’s edge. Here was our refuge, an unhurried and decidedly unsafe separate sphere where independence shaped the nature of play and social relationships; a place that seems, by today’s safety standards, to have been damn dangerous. Even our adult sanctioned playground equipment and swing-sets would probably violate no fewer than a dozen OSHA regulations.

Typically, days unfolded naturally, first with a parental briefing laying out a rudimentary agenda and then a reconnaissance mission around the neighborhood looking for a collection of parked bikes which meant like-minded friends were already gathering. These days ended, and it was time to go home, only when those streetlights came on, or when pre-empted by mom’s urgent shouting. During the school week, this routine was simply compressed to begin after homework or chores until dinner time. Unwritten, but widely understood, rules dictated that children check-in periodically at home to get a drink of water (again from that garden hose), use the bathroom, or eat lunch, but otherwise the nearest parents were often blocks, if not miles, away. When problems arose – differences of opinions or rule disputes – aggrieved parties sorted things out without grownup mediation.

Do-it-yourself ingenuity and homemade sensibilities triumphed over store-bought toys or adult provisioning. Who amongst us by the age of nine couldn’t fashion a tree branch machine gun, catch lightening bugs in a mason jar, or make a ketchup and bread pizza. The same resourcefulness went into the construction of forts and tree houses which admittedly came together pretty haphazardly. Ultimately, Gen X was only really limited by our imagination and whatever spare and loose materials dad left lying around the garage or mom kept unguarded in the refrigerator.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.