Last Tuesday, on April 25, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show (igniting an explosion of cheers from the audience). Both Obama and Fallon then proceeded to “slow jam the news.” The video (below) is funny and well worth watching. Any number of Millennial buttons were pushed:
- the super-niceness of Jimmy Fallon;
- the no-anger mellow news delivery;
- the comedic delivery of serious news, an art pioneered of course by Stewart and Colbert;
- the substantive focus on student loans (natch, Millennials are special and deserve to be the center of the policy agenda);
- the recasting of big government as committed to the young, rather than to the old;
- the additional plus that supporting colleges means making Millennials super smart (that is, even smarter than they already know they are); and finally
- the hip and amusing ethnic-role reversal, with Obama playing the white authority figure and Fallon playing the African-American voice over.
I could make a detour here and discuss the pros and cons of our federal student loan policy. So let me opine briefly. I believe Obama is correct in spending federal money to keep student-loan interest rates low. The federal government spent vast sums subsidizing the college expenses of the G.I., Silent, Boom, and (perhaps not so much) X Generation. So why not Millennials?
I spent practically nothing getting a BA from the University of California; and I wouldn’t have had to pay much to go to a private school. The reason? Older generations back in the 1960s and ‘70s paid my way, collectively—the Silent and G.I.s by paying taxes to build and fund colleges, and the Lost, by not asking for much in senior benefits and thereby opening fiscal room. Why must families now mortgage their homes—or students mortgage their futures—to go to a good college? Very simply, because Xers and Boomers don’t want to pay more taxes and the Silent and G.I. retirees have become very used to senior benefits and services that consume much of the tax revenue we have. (At the federal level, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone now consume roughly two-thirds of all federal revenue.)
Do Mitt Romney and the GOP deserve to be cut any slack here? Maybe a bit. First, the GOP currently agrees with “the Barackness Monster” on the need to keep student loan interest rates from rising. Second, the GOP is correct in pointing out that all federal spending at the margin today is financed by federal debt—so that one way or another Millennials are eventually going to have to pay it all back anyway, if not as student borrowers than later on as taxpayers.
Finally, one big reason why tuitions are rising so fast is that regionally accredited colleges been so slow to add capacity in the face a huge new Millennial demand for quality higher ed. And who keeps putting obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs who would like to conduct a radical hi-tech overhaul of higher-ed so that vastly more students could be eligible for a quality, low-cost education? I won’t cast aspersions here. Just give hints. Hint one: It’s not the GOP. Hint two: Most pricy higher-ed institutions who fleece their incoming lambs at the sticker price of $30-$60K per year do not want more competition from the likes of the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, or even the youtube Kahn Academy. Hint three: Most of the trustees and faculty at these institutions donate money to the Democratic Party.
But here I am, veering into the huge digression that I promised I would avoid.
What I really wanted to do was to use the classy Jimmy Fallon show to comment on a new pop-culture trend that really is at today’s cutting edge. We call it “the new niceness.” It’s hardly bleeding edge, and it’s being largely pushed by Millennials. I’d like to share here a Social Intelligence essay by the same name that we ran back in October 19 of 2011.
Brash, pushy, former Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel has just hired a “niceness coach.” The reason, report the tabloids, is that her latest pilot is not going over well with audiences. “She came off as too aggressive,” a source told the New York Post, which went on to reveal that “producers have brought in a Henry Higgins-style mentor” to turn this icon of in-your-face, circa-2008 reality TV “into a lady.”
Pardon our snarkiness, but she should have seen this niceness thing coming. The top-rated show among young adults? The ever so tolerant and good-natured Modern Family. The hottest late-night show host? The ever-smiling, relentlessly upbeat Jimmy Fallon. Then there’s Parks and Recreation, whose characters started out “all ironic and hip and sour,” in the words of its co-creator, Michael Schur, but who are now doing super nice things like giving away all their money to each other.
It’s the same thing with the commercials. “Extreme Advertising” is now so old it’s long since passed into Internet parody. Meanwhile, a new parade of corporate messages, epitomized by Liberty Mutual’s “helping hands” campaign, earnestly extolls random acts of kindness without a shred of irony.
Then there’s sports. “Is Women’s Tennis Too Nice?” The Wall Street Journal asked recently, citing top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, whose nickname is “Sunshine.” And whatever happened to Internet flaming? “Wide swaths of the Web have become bastions of support and earnest civility,” notes The New York Observer. Last week’s big buzz in social media: a viral campaign to help Indian leukemia patient Amit Gupta find money and a donor for a bone marrow transplant. (There, we did our part.)
Sure, nastiness still rules on cable news networks, but notice the age of those talking heads and of their small audiences (overwhelmingly over 50). There are many possible explanations for the rise of niceness, but one surely is generational. From its earliest years, the Millennial generation has had a reputation for consensus and cooperation, and now that its oldest members are stepping into the adult world, the niceness meme keeps spreading.
As Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais have observed: “Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group—since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else.”
When the first Millennials reached junior high school, youth-oriented programming dealing with gritty, “real-life” situations, like bullying, peer pressure, and meanness (e.g. Growing Pains, Doug, Hey Arnold!), began giving way to idealized fantasy situations (e.g. Suite Life, Pair of Kings). As young adults, large majorities of Millennials turned away from wedge-issue meanness in politics. Instead, they resonated with Obama’s post-partisan pledge to “create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Since then, of course, the generation has experienced tremendous economic adversity—enough, surely, to inspire some not-so-nice thoughts. Yet the historical track record suggests a paradox: As the times become nastier, the youth mood often becomes friendlier. As during the Great Depression and World War II, the trend in youth culture remains away from irony, cynicism, and divisiveness and toward no-longer-corny communitarian values.
Even the recent demonstrations on Wall Street and elsewhere have so far been marked by a very Millennial insistence on group decision making and broad consensus building. It’s a worldview that sees 99 percent of Americans as having a monolithic common interest in opposing a tiny, antisocial minority. For Boomers in their youth, the enemy was “anybody over 30.” For Millennials, it’s the selfish 1 percent who won’t share their toys.