According to different sources, the term slacker dates back to about 1790 or 1898. "Slacker" gained some recognition during the British Gezira Scheme in the early to mid 20th century, when Sudanese labourers protested their relative powerlessness by working lethargically, a form of protest known as "slacking".
In the United States during World War I, the word "slacker" was commonly used to describe someone who was not participating in the war effort, specifically someone who avoided military service, equivalent to the later term draft dodger. Attempts to track down such evaders were called slacker raids. During World War I, U.S. Senator Miles Poindexter discussed whether inquiries "to separate the cowards and the slackers from those who had not violated the draft" had been managed properly. A San Francisco Chronicle headline on 7 September 1918, read, "Slacker is Doused in Barrel of Paint". The term was also used during the World War II period in the United States. In 1940, Time quoted the U.S. Army on managing the military draft efficiently: "War is not going to wait while every slacker resorts to endless appeals."
The shift in the use of "slacker" from its draft-related meaning to a more general sense of the avoidance of work is unclear. In April 1948, The New Republic referred to "resentment against taxes levied to aid slackers". An article tracking the evolution of the meaning of the term "Slacker" in defamation lawsuits between World War I and 2010, entitled When Slacker Was a Dirty Word: Defamation and Draft Dodging During World War I, was written by Attorney David Kluft for the Trademark and Copyright Law Blog.
The term achieved renewed popularity following its use in the 1985 film Back to the Future in which James Tolkan's character Mr. Strickland chronically refers to Marty McFly, his father George McFly, Biff Tannen, and a group of teenage delinquents in Part II as "slackers". It gained subsequent exposure from the 1989 Superchunk single "Slack Motherfucker", and the 1990 film Slacker. The television series Rox has been noted for its "depiction of the slacker lifestyle ... of the early '90s".
Slacker became widely used in the 1990s to refer to a type of apathetic youth who were cynical and uninterested in political or social causes and as a stereotype for members of Generation X.Richard Linklater, director of the aforementioned 1990 film, commented on the term's meaning in a 1995 interview, stating that "I think the cheapest definition [of a slacker] would be someone who's just lazy, hangin' out, doing nothing. I'd like to change that to somebody who's not doing what's expected of them. Somebody who's trying to live an interesting life, doing what they want to do, and if that takes time to find, so be it."
The term has connotations of "apathy and aimlessness". It is also used to refer to an educated person who avoids work, possibly as an anti-materialist stance, who may be viewed as an underachiever.
Slackers have been the subject of many films and television shows, particularly comedies. Later examples include the films Slackers and Clerks, The 2007 film Slacker Uprising describes an attempt to rouse those under 30 to participate in the 2004 U.S. election.