Generation X factor

Though often dismissed as slackers, the cohort that produced Elliott Smith, Pavement and Sonic Youth

A decade ago, the Atlantic magazine called them "the most politically disengaged" young adults in US history. Their accelerated culture -- to borrow the novelist Douglas Coupland's phrase -- had taken shape among the over-educated "slackers" who crowded the skate parks and arcade centres of middle America; the alienated offspring of Nixon-era suburbanites who had traded flower power for Wall Street.

Where the postwar baby boomers had Holden Caulfield, their children had Beavis and Butthead. Writing in 1991, Coupland called them "Generation X", in reference to the ambiguity that defined their world view. The label stuck.

Coming of age in a time of recession, rising crime, the Chernobyl disaster and war, and denied even the license for sexual adventurousness that the boomers had enjoyed (largely due to the emergence of Aids), the X-ers had much to complain about. Falling wages and commensurate increases in urban poverty contributed to an atmosphere of economic insecurity, while political scandals (from the US treasurer Catalina Vásquez Villalpando's incarceration for tax evasion in 1992 to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair) only widened the chasm between the generations.

Declarations of mistrust were hurled from both sides of the generational divide. "We are the sons of no one," sang the Replacements in their 1986 college-radio hit "Bastards of Young". A Washington Post headline, meanwhile, exhorted the young "crybabies" to "grow up".

Social liberalism was on the up and huge improvements in the educational system -- hard won by the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s -- had led to a more functional democratisation of knowledge than the US had experienced ever before. By the 1990s, the average student at many undergraduate institutions was a working woman over the age of 22. It was this, perhaps, that engendered the informed cynicism of Generation X, depicted in pop culture as equal parts langour and intellectual rigour.

If young people weren't interested in the adult world of business and politics, they directed their energies toward more private ends. Self-consciously non-commercial music, much of it recorded at home (Palace Brothers, the Beat Happening), as well as photocopied fanzines and comics about intense, personal experiences (Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve) flourished in the era.

Today, fans will be marking the seventh anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith, one of the generation's icons. Born in August 1969, Smith began his musical career at the height of the grunge boom as a co-founder of the Portland indie rockers Heatmiser. Smith, a philosophy graduate who named his album Either/Or after a Kierkegaard treatise on aesthetics, was a bedroom musician par excellence; over a span of half a dozen albums, he chronicled his failed relationships and spiralling drug abuse with rare clarity.

After the demise of Heatmiser, Smith became a fixture in the New York singer-songwriter circuit, where his whispered vocals and Big Star/Beatles melodies caught the attention of the film-maker Gus Van Sant. Van Sant commissioned Smith to write a song for his 1998 film, Good Will Hunting, which unexpectedly resulted in an Oscar nomination (Smith would lose out to Celine Dion). A short period of minor success followed and his music grew ever more ambitious. At the core of his writing, however, remained the hesitant romanticism that had distinguished him in the first place.

Smith's suicide in 2003 has seen him crudely cast as a rock'n'roll martyr. Yet what he will be remembered for is his music. On 1 November, Domino Recordings will release An Introduction to Elliott Smith, a compilation of his hits that never were.

It's a strange feeling to see the bands and musicians of our youth repackaged as "classic" artists and reforming for nostalgia tours. But the X-ers are all in (or approaching) their middle age. Between 1-3 October, the indie label Matador celebrated its 21st anniversary in Las Vegas, with a mighty roster of alternative music's prime movers, including Pavement and Sonic Youth. That the 1980s no-wave veterans Sonic Youth have been around five years longer than the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner has even been alive is a stark reminder of the new irony of that band's name: sonic they still are but youth they most certainly are not.

The buzz surrounding the festival and the compilation, however, attests to the enduring legacy of the X-ers. Many of today's rock luminaries (including the Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst) cite Smith and the Matador set as major influences. Generation X may have seemed like a lost generation but perhaps this was deliberate -- after all, who likes a try-hard?

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.