My students, usually aged 20-23, are, as a group – smart, motivated and kind of terrific. So I’m sick of the media, as well as others, picking on them. The selfish millennials. The Me, Me, Me Generation. The narcissists who live off their parents as long as they can, don’t want to do hard work, strive for fame rather than creative or intellectual achievement, and are far more concerned with how many friends or followers they have on social media than the people who like or even love them in real life.
As Bill Clinton said about Barack Obama during Mr. Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton: “GIVE. ME. A BREAK. This whole thing is the greatest fairy tale I’ve ever seen…”
Though I don’t have Bubba creds, as a screenwriter, journalist, teacher and human being I can tell you that cleverly made up stories, like both clichés and really good lies, ALWAYS have a grain or two of truth. As does all great fiction. So it’s not wholly untrue that the insults cast about against young people today have zero reality to them. But it also doesn’t mean that, on the whole, they are correct.
Or to put it another way: just because the new mocha and carrot cake cupcakes from that great bakery in your neighborhood taste lousy doesn’t take away from the fact that their classic vanilla and chocolate ones, which far outnumber the former anyway, aren’t still fantastic and wouldn’t win you first place on Cupcake Wars. Given the choice, most people go in for basic flavors (which, for my money, are always better), yet they are never featured upfront as the specials of the day.
And no, I don’t think I’m pushing the metaphor.
I just finished reading 26 screenplays in 12 days, notes and all, from these young people and I can tell you what’s on their minds -–forbidden love, dysfunctional parents and families, escape from their troubled or mundane worlds to a mythical or alternate one in the past or future, society’s vacant value system and lack of responsibility to future generations, and the general existential tragedy of life as seen through a broadly comedic or intensely overdramatic lens or mindset.
Yes – all the things that bothered the Generation Xers, the Baby Boomers and I suspect each new coming-of-age group back through the decades and centuries of time remain intact. Sure, the packaging might be different because we’ve gone from carrier pigeon, to Pony Express, to snail mail, to email, to texting, and to Twitter. But the actual themes, passages and journeys in existence remain constant.
I know how difficult it is to write even a bad script since I have done it many more times than I care to remember. So I can also tell you that while some (or even many) of these young people write their screenplays in between periods of YouTube gazing, web surfing or gchatting, their sentiments are equally sincere, if sometimes over or understated – just as all of my peer group’s are were. Perhaps that’s why they are being over-categorized and subtlety dissed, just like we were – but with an even nastier streak.
Time Magazine hurling insults at The Me Me Me Generation in its recent cover story harkens back to 1967 when the magazine, during in its heyday, voted its annual Man of the Year award to the 25 and Under. The difference is, 45+ years ago Time went out of its way to profile and categorize all types of people in this new generation in various POVs and color shades of the rainbow. Last week, however, the only famous millennial it quoted in its entire cover story was Kim Kardashian.
“They (millennials) like that I share a lot of myself and that I’ve always been honest about the way I live my life.” (“Ha!” – The Chair) “They want relationships with businesses and celebrities. Gen X was kept at arm’s length from businesses and celebrity.”
When I asked 25 of my students several years ago about Kim and their peer group’s fascination for her they simultaneously laughed in my face and groaned. It wasn’t at all what Kim did or didn’t do that made her interesting, they agreed, but “how ridiculous she is” and “how much some people make a fuss about her.” In other words, it was the postmodern version of a Kim Kardashian existence that intrigued them, not the now about-to-be new Mom herself or the vast Kardashian empire ($80 million and climbing) that she, her sisters and her own mother created by not being particularly good at anything but being famous.
There have been individuals of every generation well known for well, not very much. Consider the classic line towards the end of the movie musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of renowned performer stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, when her press agent tries to get her to lighten up in front of the lens of photographer, who is about to shoot her naked in a bubble bath for a huge spread in Life Magazine: “Smile Gyps, show us your talent!” To which Gypsy throws back her shoulders and shoves out her breasts.*
The difference is, of course, Gypsy Rose Lee was never held up as representative of her entire generation.
This all reminds me of what it was like when I was a reporter for Variety (1977-1983, I was 5 years-old at the time, obviously) and every year they’d put out an anniversary issue where they would ask us to do trend stories. I hated those stories. Because they always involved generalizations about a group of people or professionals or ideas that were conveniently being grouped together so we could reduce them to a catchy sociological phenomenon or cultural stereotype. I think it was the year of the woman at least 3 times during that period and perhaps oh, I don’t know, 15 times since. There has also been the emergence of the gays and gay power or – as it used to be called back in the day – the PINK mafia. In the 60s it was Black power. Before that it was the rise of the immigrants. Now, it’s the rise of illegal immigrants (the least offensive term), or, to put it more kindly – the emergence of The Dreamers.
It’s all sort of the same thing when you get down to it because it’s the story of our country, if not the world. A group emerges onto the scene that somehow seems to threaten the status quo, who in turn fears it will (and perhaps is) beginning to lose its power.
But writing from the other side of the generation gap it’s easy to see this simple fact:
Everything, after a time, makes way for the new, whether that thing likes it or not.
I’m around the new a lot and generally like what they’re about. I talk to them. I even hang with them occasionally. It could be that I like them because I’ve taken the time to know them and not categorize them. I also understand the unvarnished truth – that they’re not here so much to take over but continue with us on the journey – and then steer the ship when, inevitably, we no longer can.
(* The line (and all the lines) from “Gypsy” were written by the very brilliant playwright/screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Lest anyone think movie characters think up what they say themselves)