The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jul 052012
 

I’ve run a few posts recently on older generations running down Millennials, so I thought—before moving on—that I ought to add this clip.  It’s from the new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin (first-wave Xer, born 1961, creator of “West Wing”) and starring Jeff Daniels (Boomer, born 1955) as the cynical yet philosophical news anchor.  In this clip, Millennials are portrayed as callow, shallow, and out of their depth.  The starring Boomer, on the other hand, comes across as deep, passionate, heartfelt—and the flagrant insults he flings at his Millennial audience (e.g., “if you ever wandered into a voting booth”) would be rude only if he weren’t speaking truth to power, which in the Boomer mind justifies any manner of offensive behavior.

I’d be curious about what you all think:

 

 

One complaint about Sorkin as a screen writer is that he loves to create set-piece dialogue situations which sets up his favorite character to rhetorically vanquish an opponent, sometimes lending his shows a preachy tone.  That certainly happens here.  I’ve never in my life heard a Millennial ask a Boomer a question like, “Could you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”  That’s like pitching underhand to Ty Cobb.  As one might expect, it triggers this Boomer to unload a truckload of venom.  (His initial reluctance, I guess, makes his explosion seem more authentic.)  Did you feel you were on the side of the preacher?  Or did you feel preached at in this scene?

And what about the substance of his remarks?  Are they on target?  Here’s a Boomer who no doubt recollects America’s First Turning greatness in the 1950s with the rising G.I. Generation at the helm–when we were “number one” in everything because the rest of the world was staggering among the rubble of WWII.  But, as I recall, it was the explicit intention of the leaders of that era to raise the rest of the world up to our level of productivity, affluence, and education precisely because we thought this would make the world a safer and better place.  Among other things, we thought it would foster liberal and democratic values worldwide.  That’s why we funded the Marshall Plan and created the UN, IMF, World Bank, Bretton Woods, etc.  In terms of geopolitical power, we remain the global hegemon.  But in other respects, we are merely one of many.  Would this result have really disappointed the leaders of the American High?  Does it bother Millennials today?

One last point.  Jeff Daniels (as anchorman Will McAvoy) does not talk so much about what his own generation has done that embodies a “greater” America (though he does talk about how we once did things for “moral reasons”).  Rather, he talks mostly about what he recalls of greatness from the elders of his youth.  Here, he epitomizes the Prophet Archetype, which seldom moralizes by invoking its own deeds—but rather by invoking memories of the Heroes it recalls from childhood.  There’s a wonderful book by George Forgie (Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and his Age) about how Lincoln’s Transcendental Generation–an extreme example of the Prophet Archetype–was forever talking guiltily about their parents’ nation-founding greatness.  They kept wringing their hands about it even as they led American into the Civil War.

Or, if you want to go back to the Ur-Model of all Prophet Archetypes, look at passages by the wise old Nestor in Homer’s Illiad.  He complains that all the Achaean warriors arrayed against Troy are mere “boys” compared to the right stuff he recalls from his own youth—the age of Jason and the Argonauts.  When I first read this passage from Nestor, it made me think of all those fake re-enactments—like Mike Tyson versus Joe Louis in his prime.  I’m suddenly thinking, did some ancient young Dorian wonder, after hearing the Nestor stanzas, about who would have won—Jason or Achilles–if they had been put in the same ring?

Jun 132012
 

This cartoon (thanks to citizensforsafetechnology.org), which has been knocking around the Internet for a few months, is good enough to show again here.

Entering an office today full of Millennial knowledge workers (say, a law firm or investment firm) is a curiously subdued experience.  Not a lot of talking, folding, walking, singing, stapling, photocopying… or even moving.  Everyone is intensely focused, busily attending to many tasks, and (usually) communicating with others, often with many others at the same time.  But it’s all done with a screen, keyboard, and headphones.  To the outside observor, there seems to be almost nothing going on.

I am reminded of the climactic scene in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), when Jan (the last real “human”) returns to earth and finds all of the earth’s children, in the hundreds of millions, lying motionless on one continent, not even opening their eyes.  But they are communicating through telepathy, and soon they begin to move and reconfigure the planets through telekenesis.  As I recall, Jan stays to witness the transformation of the rising generation into pure mind (this is where it gets real Boomer!), which finally happens in a Stanley Kubrick-style flash of pure energy that destroys the entire solar system.

Thankfully, most Millennials are as yet engaged in more prosaic activities: emailing their boss, IMing their friend, checking out a YouTube video, airbrushing something out of their Facebook wall…

May 282012
 

OK, by now nearly all of you have seen Marvel’s The Avengers, the megahit movie that has already broken a whole slew of box office records.  Any thoughts?

People have been asking me if there’s any connection between this movie’s popularity and the Millennial Generation’s “hero” archetype.  My answer: Of course there is.  The connection is overwhelming.  This is now the sixth installment of the Marvel line (along with Thor, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, etc.), which have been appearing alongside so many other superhero movies of recent vintage–Spiderman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have all become practically their own franchises–that I think it’s fair to say that over this last decade we have been living through a “golden age” of cinematic hero infatuation.  With the movies’ target audience around 15 to 25, it’s also fair to say that Millennial viewers have been at the epicenter of this fascination.  Go back to the previous decade, the 1990s, and you’ll notice something else: That was the “golden age” of Disney cartoons, which typically targeted heroic, carefully plotted, good-versus-evil adventure stories to 5- to 15-year-olds. (For those of you unfamiliar with my method, I call this “following the generational diagonal”: Going simultaneously back in time and down the age ladder to track the same cohorts.)

By pointing out that Millennials have been uniquely targeted by these heroic genres, I don’t mean to imply that other generations don’t watch and enjoy them.  Of course they do.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a Boomer parent who didn’t love Lion King, or an Xer parent who didn’t love Monsters, Inc.  But that’s how golden ages in the pop culture work: The genre is so enjoyable, and the social moment is so right, that people of all ages want to join in.

Which brings me to another observation.  Although The Avengers targets Millennial viewers, it is not really about Millennials–or about any other single generation.  It is rather a movie about all generations, all of America, as we move into a Fourth Turning.  In a Third Turning, society is riven with divisions, people are distrustful, everyone is arguing and protecting their own interests.  An enemy (like Loki) hardly needs to conquer such a society—he can often just goad it into devouring itself.  Only when teamwork and civic trust is reborn in the dire heat of a Fourth Turning can a society again become capable of saving itself.  In that moment, the self becomes fused to the community and everybody becomes a hero.  This is the basic plotline of The Avengers.  It also a good shorthand description of the choices facing America today.

 

 

And if the movie is mainly about any one generation, that would be Generation X—because, in fact, the biggest challenge these survivalist and free-agent superheroes face is their own egos.  Speaking most eloquently for all Gen-Xers is Tony Stark (wonderfully played as ever by Robert Downey, Jr.)—who boasts about never following leaders, breaking all the rules, taking nothing very seriously, and always evading sacrifice.  And playing the foil for all these rogues is Captain America, clearly no Xer, who represents the untainted “hero archetype” transplanted either forward or backward through time.  Captain America is plain spoken, does his duty, keeps his mind on the task at hand, and craves cooperation.  The best exchanges are between Captain and Stark.  “Is everything a joke to you?” Captain asks him at one point.  Or when Captain says, “We have orders, we should follow them,” Stark answers, “Following’s not really my style.”  Or, after Stark brags about being a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Captain says tersely, “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.”  Pow!  Zap!

The storyline surrounding Captain America sounds almost like it was written with turnings explicitly in mind.  Captain America, of course, has been asleep in the ice “for seventy years” since his heroism in World War II, the last 4T.  And now he’s reawakened for the new 4T.  Everything he takes for granted about how people will have to sacrifice for each other—while sounding odd to the “Xers” around him—is all vindicated by the end of the movie, as though he had the prescience to know what the times would require.  In one fascinating exchange, Captain asks Agent Coulson (who, unlike the others, idolizes Captain) about his own uniform: “The uniform?  Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?”  And Coulson answers: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

You may think I’m a bit far-fetched in suggesting that the personality clash between Stark and Captain is a clash between Xers and G.I.s, and therefore by extension, between Xers and Millennials.  Maybe.  I wish we could do a survey.  Stark is not an unattractive character.  No one in the movie has more wit and swag and flair.  But I asked my own informal circle of Millennial males which character they thought their generation identifies with more.  Without hesitation, they all said Captain America—almost as though there would be something vaguely indecent about casting their lot for the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

May 202012
 

Wonderful generational clip from the NBC show, “Community.”  Every role is nicely done: The Millennials kids, who know how to suck up to Boomers by flattering their mythic role in American cultural history; the Boomer (Chevy Chase), who enjoys being sucked up to; and the Xer (Joel McHale) who is disgusted by the whole thing.  The medley itself is pretty good, going from Be-Bop in the late ‘40s to New Wave in the ‘80s.

My thanks to Matt Duran, astute Millennial culture maven, for contributing this one:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3Ue_Dj2GXk

 

“That Baby Boomer Santa” raises an interesting question: How much does the popular post-war music of Christmas actually revolve around Boomers?  You may have seen this funny chart, from the xkcd webcomic site, which was passed around last December.  Provocative tag line: “Every year, American Culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ Childhoods.”

 

 

This chart is accurate, so far as it goes.  The vast majority of the pop Christmas “songs” we hear on the radio did indeed become hits during the years when Boomers were being born and growing up as little children.  And nearly all of them were written and first recorded and sung (in their “classic” versions) by G.I. composers, band leaders, and vocalists (e.g., Bing Crosby, Bop Hope, Nat King Cole, Gene Autrey, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, writer Robert May, et al.).  We sometimes forget that one or two them (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”) exude the haunting melancholy of a nation that had sent 12 million men abroad to fight a brutal war.  OK, a few late-wave Lost were involved (like Irving Berlin); and a few Silent and even Boomers, especially on the “rock” songs (“Jingle Bell Rock” by Silent Bobby Helms in 1957 and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by 14-year-old Boomer Brenda Lee in 1958).

But my main point is that–though Boomers participated in this “White Christmas” explosion as child listeners—the inspiration for these songs was totally G.I.  They were celebrations of hearth and home.  They expressed the poignant longing for domestic tranquility by a history-tossed generation that just wanted (in the words of a returning soldier in Best Years of Our Lives) “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”  Yes, other generations participated in this mood while it lasted.  So maybe it’s fair to say that these songs were really more an expression of the (First Turning) era more than any one generation.

Boomers, truth to say, participated less in the spirit of this mood than any of the older generations they recall in their childhood—Lost, G.I., or Silent.  And by the time they came of age in the Second Turning, they began to move the culture in a direction that frontally attacked the treacly domesticity and bourgeois conventionality of those sweet violins and those basso profundo (G.I.) male voices.  And that took us straight to Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young—and all the other artists who are gently lampooned by the “Glee” Millennials in the “Community” clip.  The only genuine “turning” outlier in the above list of twenty most popular Christmas songs is Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”  Not only was this song written and sung by a Boomer, it was surely a Second Turning song—intended to celebrate America’s emerging multicultural reality rather than our passing “melting-pot” aspirations.  This, at last, was the voice of that new generation, not the old.

One last note.  Throughout history, First Turnings have almost always been the eras in which society’s celebration of the conventional and the domestic reaches its paradigmatic apogee.  When did Christmas first become a widely celebrated family holiday in the United States, with all of its Victorian and Dickensian trappings—the fat Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, the huge family gatherings, the commercialization of gift giving, etc.?  During roughly the two decades from the late 1850s to the late 1870s.  That is to say, during a (short) Fourth Turning, the Civil War, and then during the subsequent First-Turning era of Reconstruction and Victorian nation building.  This is when Dickens’ Christmas Carol became hugely popular, Prince Albert’s Christmas trees (a favorite with the queen) started appearing throughout America, piano sheet music of carols sold briskly, states at last made Christmas a public holiday (even in New England, where Puritans had earlier always denounced Christmas celebrations), and the whole commercial angle (cards, gifts, photos, meals) got underway.

The young children of that era: The Missionary Generation, like Boomers a moralizing generation that would later became famous both for destroying an older cultural paradigm (the Victorian) and for giving birth to new one (the Modern).

May 012012
 

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 PainsDougHey Arnold!), began giving way to idealized fantasy situations (e.g. Suite LifePair 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.

Apr 222012
 

So why has Hunger Games broken so many box-office records in its first few weeks in theaters?  Sure, the trilogy was a huge YA reader hit before it became a movie.  But the books weren’t exactly Tolkien, nor did they have the same celebrity status as the Harry Potter series.  And even if the books did generate a lot of buzz behind the movie, that just begs another question: Why was the trilogy so popular to begin with?

I have no idea.  But I do think there are several themes in the film that strike an obvious resonance with 4T America.

Theme One is the overwhelming imagery of the 1930s.  In the film, we see images either of America’s dire want and deprivation—think of dirt-eating Appalachia before the TVA arrived—or we see images of National Socialism triumphant.  On the one hand, scenes of semi-starved District 12 are deliberately filmed as a black-and-white evocation of rural America in the middle of the Great Depression.  Think of the Time Magazine’s cover picture for October 13, 2008: A stark photo of breadlines in the early 1930s.

On the other hand, the computer-assisted scenes of the Capitol of Panem look like Berlin as it might have been redesigned by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  Fortunately, history did not allow him time to complete this task.  He did a brilliant job, however, with the Nuremberg rallies, which look like Panem’s Capitol on a smaller scale.  And what isn’t directly Nazi-inspired comes from Art Deco or Art Nouveau.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out: See this article in the Atlantic for example or this very nice blog post.  I’ve even seen a youtube video pointing to the striking similarity between the Hunger Games Mockingjay pin and Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe badge.  I’ll show a couple of examples here, the most striking of which is the CGI movie image of “Avenue of the Tributes.”  The insignia for each district look disturbingly similar to badges handed out by the U.S. National Recovery Administration (NRA).  Note btw the task assigned to District One: “Luxury.”  Hey, it’s a job and someone’s got to do it.

 

 

Why is this important?  Because the specter of National Socialism loomed large over America at the depths of the Great Depression.  As government aggregated greater authority under FDR, many suggested (both on the populist left and the authoritarian right) that perhaps government should go further.  In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist take-over of the United States, which was popular enough to be turned into a stage play in 1936.  In Lewis’ novel, it was not so much that large numbers of people really wanted a dictator.  It was just that no one any longer cared much for the liberal and democratic alternative.

Theme Two is the imagery of a vast gap or distance between the privileged and the subjected.  By most calculations, inequality by income in the United States (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) has recently reached the highest levels since the late-1920s and 1930s.

In Hunger Games, the rich are hi-tech and garish.  The poor are resilient and plain.  In the OWS era, the relevance is clear.

 

 

Theme Three is the imagery of a staged yet savage competition among the young for survival.  I think Hunger Games can be read as a metaphor for team-working and risk-averse Millennials entering a young-adult economy defined by survivalist Gen-Xers, who are accustomed to competing against each other in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all economy without safety nets.  Gen-Xers know all about Survival Games.  They think nothing of working for businesses governed by the Jack Welch managerial philosophy–which is to fire X percent of your workers every year “pour encourager les autres.”  Life is a gigantic Las Vegas casino.  ”May the odds be ever in your favor.”  How X can you get?  If Millennials fear anything, it is this future.

How things have changed.  When Boomers were young, William Golding wrote a much-discussed novel about kids killing each other that was quickly turned in a movie.  It was called Lord of the Flies.  And why were the kids killing each other?  Because they wanted to.  Because they were accidentally separated from the adults who would otherwise have enforced order and restrained them.  Hunger Games turns the story entirely around.  In this world, it’s the adults who deliberately stage the teen-on-teen gladiatorial contests.  Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre.  During the Gen-X youth era, we’ve seen novels and movies like The Long Walk (Stephen King) and Battle Royale (a ‘90s Japanese classic).  And how many Xer “reality shows” have followed this same basic model—with Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or some other middle-aging Boomer yelling “you’re fired” at a young person?  The number is beyond counting.

If you’ve seen the film, then you recall the scene where the competition-trained blond jocks chase down and kill an unseen screaming victim.  An image came to my mind: Karate Kid I (1984), where the Aryan Cobra Kai kids (dressed in skeleton uniforms) chase down and catch Daniel-san and would have beaten him to a pulp had not Mr. Miyagi intervened.  This enormously popular movie persuaded countless millions of young Gen-Xers to practice martial arts, buy a gun, or do just about anything to defend themselves in a friendless world.

But here’s what’s changing.  In today’s new 4T era, what felt OK or normal for young Gen-Xers seems outrageous and unacceptable for young Millennials.  For a generation of kids so fussed-over and protected—now to be sent out with bowie knives and machetes to eviscerate each other from throat to gut?  No, the line has to be drawn somewhere.  And this is what adds a whole new edge (so to speak) to the movie.

I originally had a Theme Four in mind, which is the horrifying Oprah-style interviews of young victims about to be sent to their death.  Here is a glimpse of modern American decadence that deserves fuller treatment.  In the heyday of imperial Rome, gladiators once shouted “morituri te salutamus!” to the clamoring coliseum crowds (we who are about to die salute you).  In Hunger Games, the contestants confess personal secrets like they were on Jimmy Fallon’s ever-nice late-night show.  The effect is truly chilling.

But the hour is growing late.  I’ll come back to this in another post.

Apr 212012
 

Anyone catch the new HBO series “Girls”?  I would be interested in your take.  “Girls” is a hip/dark comedy about four 20something women living in downtown New York City (TriBeCa) and especially about their sex lives, family lives, and career lives (or, when it comes to careers, their lack thereof).  Does the basic four-girl formula remind you of any other HBO series?  Yes, the similarity with “Sex in the City” is deliberate.  And the first episode even includes a planted reference.  One of the girls describes herself as “basically a Carrie with a touch of Samantha.”

“Girls” has been heavily reviewed by the “media” media, with strong opinions leaning both ways.  The pro reviewers say it’s smart, realistic, and wryly funny.  The con reviewers say it’s cold, emotionally flat, even depressing.  Certain figures on both the cultural left and right say that its depiction of sex debases women (see this from Frank Bruni in the NYT and this from William Bennett).  Maybe both sides are correct.

Another big knock on this show is the utter lack of diversity: All four of these girls are white and from affluent families.  Interestingly, this is true not just of the characters but also the actresses themselves, who are all daughters of privilege, starting with Lena Dunham (born 1986: the lead actress, writer, and director).  So it’s not like “Glee,” and it doesn’t have a strictly representative, push-every-PC-button cast.  Is this a problem?  I don’t think so, but some may disagree.

Still others are saying that the show represents a “fresh” and “zeitgeisty” voice for the Millennial Generation.  And that’s the question I want to address.  Let’s get past the fact that these are all white, educated, urban, secular, blue-zone daughters of privilege.  My question is: Given who these girls are, do they project an accurate representation of today’s coming-of-age generation?

I’ll give you my own verdict: Mixed.

On the one hand, these “Girls” are recognizably Millennial in a great many ways.  They are special, whiny, entitled, protected, conventional, and risk-averse.  They are, for the most part, very close to their parents and take their parents’ support—emotional and financial—for granted.  They are basically sensible, and there is very little desire to “push the edge” in any deadly or dangerous way or even to shock their parents.

“Girls” has nothing in common with that Gen-X classic “Rent” (the girls even joke about this).  Nor does it really have much in common with “Sex in the City,” a show starring one late-wave Boomer (Samantha) and three first-wave Gen-Xers (Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda) who revel in pushing the edge and scandalizing middle-class norms.  The sex in “City” is attractive, bordering on soft porn.  The sex in “Girls” is none of the above.  True, the protagonists of “Girls” are younger.  But they don’t even have the meanness (or affluence) of “Gossip Girl.”  One suspects that “Girls” would rather not bother with sex, if only they were not expected to indulge.  (According to the CDC, fewer are bothering.)  And they would like nothing better than to join the secure middle class, if they only knew how to apply.

Another nice post-Great Recession note is the constant reference to the relative poverty of these girls compared to their Boomer parents.  They know there’s no way in hell they will ever enjoy the professional success of their parents—or ever afford the housing and living standards of their parents.  Survey data confirm this impression: 20something children of affluent parents are especially likely to live with their parents and especially likely to doubt their ability ever to match their parents’ material success.  Generational poverty was also the subtext of Lena Dunham’s earlier movie, Tiny Furniture, the acclaimed indie experiment that brought her to the attention of HBO.

So what are the off notes?  Why do I render a mixed verdict?  To my ear, what’s missing is any note of confidence, ambition, achievement, or optimism.  These too are basic elements of the Millennial peer personality.  The vast majority of Millennials whom I meet and talk to all have plans and ambitions.  Many have family or career mileposts they hope to attain by some date.  True, many of these plans and ambitions are unrealistic.  But they have them just the same.  Even four and one-half years after the onset of the Great Recession, according to surveys (see Pew: “Young, Underemployed, and Optimistic”), Millennials are still going for the gold.

Yet I see nothing of the kind in these “Girls,” none of whom appear to have any long-term plans or hopes or great expectations or dreams.  They are mostly situational in their orientation, moving from day to day, problem to problem, with no aspiration driving them.  This, I think, is why some critics find the show simply unwatchable.  It’s one thing to show alienated risk-takers defying norms.  And it’s another to show young optimists who take on the world and who then must cope with setbacks and disappointment.  Both are good plot lines.  But what about fundamentally decent and well-adjusted young people who just don’t have any ambitions?  No sense of future, but also no desire to transgress?  I would call this a perfect formula for boredom.

I don’t know why the show comes across like this.  Maybe this is what “hipster” has come to mean for Millennials: witty and sardonic, yet also comfortable and passionless.  Or maybe we can see here the influence of uber-Xer Judd Apatow, who is the producer of “Girls.”  This guy has made so many very funny movies.  But maybe here he’s the one who forces every scene in “Girls” to feel fraught and jaundiced, as in such Xer classics as Soderburgh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  You can sometimes laugh (or just smile) at the characters, but you can never laugh with them.  “2 Broke Girls” may be down-market network TV, but at least you are invited to join the fun.  After a couple of hours of watching “Girls,” the viewer yearns for just one wise crack from Max (Kat Dennings), a girl who is actually striving (verb, intransitive) to go somewhere.

Your opinion?

Apr 012012
 

I often reflect on the various ways Millennials are inexorably transforming the pop culture.

One clear trend is the new youth enthusiasm about “team” creativity.  As in the whole digital mashup scene, where tracks from several artists are merged, altered, and then remerged by successive people.  Or as in collaborative R&B or rap medleys in which several artists take different voices.  Or as in using social media to facilitate direct-to-fan communication, especially among ultra-connected Millennials.  (Fans of Brit Millennial folk singer Ellie Lawson chipped in to finance her new album in exchange for an exclusive look at new material and their name in the liner notes.)  In fact,  the crowdsourcing option has artists at all stages of their careers, from Björk to Kaiser Chiefs (Gen-Xers) to The Vaccines (Brit Millennials), taking it a step further by actually turning to fans for artistic input on their albums and music videos.

Along with trend toward team play, there is the parallel trend toward “depersonalizing” the performance.  For Boomers (and most Gen-Xers) creative individualism and the cult of personality went hand in hand.  You loved a performer not just for how he (or she) sang… but for who he was (ideals, character, passion, ideology).  Now we are into the era of techno and dance hall music–much of it auto-tuned–where personality is suppressed.  People in the music industry tell me that “one-hit wonders” are now commonplace: Millennials all fall in love with a song, but have little desire to listen to the next song by the same artist, unless it stands on its own.  (Admit it, Boomers, how many utterly incomprehensible songs by King Crimson or CSNY did you suffer through just because it was THEM!)

OK, all this is a long wind up to a funny video illustrating all of the above.  Everyone knows that, back in the day, the solo guitar act was the ultimate Boomer expression of creative individuality and the cult of personality.  Think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or CCR’s “Suzy Q.”

Now try this one for size.  It’s by “Walk Off the Earth,” a group of Canadian Millennials.  It’s perfect, especially the expressions of the performers themselves.  I just about fell off my chair when I saw it.

 

I thank my friend Dave Sohigian for giving me the heads up.

 

 

Dec 282010
 

Google’s recent release of their database of books makes for some interesting generational research. The Ngram tool gives insights into the comparative occurrence of various words over the last two hundred years (from a large sample of books). Some interesting examples:

Try “sex”. Or try “erotic,” takes off in the Third Turning (Unraveling) 90s just as “sex” tires.  Or try “love” (and “death”), which are both less used nowadays than ever before.  I had a history prof once who used to say that there was a law of compensation or trade-off, in any era, between thinking about sex and death.  Eras obsessed with one regard the other as taboo.  In Victorian times, no one could talk about “sex” but everyone talked about “death” all the time.  (Just think how much care went into gravestones and funerals!)  Today, of course, it’s the reverse.

Try “Man”, used in the 19th c. was used all the time as an all-purpose reference to person, individual, society, etc.  (It was used 5 or 6x as much as “woman.”)  That ubiquitous usage began declining after 1900—and dropping much faster after the late 1960s.

“Woman” usage has naturally been much flatter, though with a fascinating upward surge in the 3rd Great Awakening (peaking in 1900), a deep downward slide in the 4th and 1st Turning of the 1930s through the 1950s, and a resurgence again starting exactly at the beginning of the Consciousness Revolution.

And these from my friend Pete Markiewicz:

First Turning (the High) devaluation of ‘woman’
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=woman&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Nice spike on wars
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=gun&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word appearing in the Third Turning (Unraveling)
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=multicultural&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word jumping in the 2T
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=revolutionary&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word jumping in the (old) 2T
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=missionary&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Some interesting peaks and valleys
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=magical&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Same, different
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=different%2C+same&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Hippie and its echo
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=hippie&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Commune
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=commune&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Unity
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=unity&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Dec 272010
 

This article on Teen Culture from a while back completely misses the point about Boomer (born 1943-1960) moms and dads.  They didn’t “keep up with new trends” in the sense of trying to be fans of every new pop group.  Rather, they perceived (correctly, IMO) that music from all the new pop groups was a pale wannabe reflection of the pure glory of the vintage rock of their own day.  And so they condescendingly accepted it and even hummed along with it when their own kids played it.  Boomers enjoy most of their kids’ music precisely because they sense it to be derivative of their own.  Rap of course is an exception.  It is not derivative (but it is also a Generation X (born 1961-1981) phenomenon).  But this is the exception that proves the rule, since this is a genre than many Boomers have not and never will embrace.

As for Mexico, one thing I learned in my recent trip there is that “emo” is a code word for a subculture that we would call “goth,” that is, culturally to the left, whereas the punkers I am sure were standing up for traditional machismo, that is, the cultural right.  In other words, the fist fights were political.