By Dr. Laura Bourland
Assistant Professor of Political Science
That one generation finds the following generation to be ignorant, uninformed, and contemptible is so common a sentiment as to be hardly worth mentioning. The Greatest Generation were puzzled and dismayed by their children’s rebellion, Baby Boomers have little use for the angst of Generation X, and we Gen Xers naturally find Millennials to be the worst of all, just as you will find your younger siblings and/or children when you reach a certain age.
Gen Xers groan about your awful taste in music just as Baby Boomers moaned about ours, and the cycle will continue. But I’m here to stand up for you guys! Millennials are often blamed for all manner of cultural insults (Katy Perry, man-buns, Tinder, emojis substituting emotions), but here’s the good news: you guys are not to blame.
At least not entirely. Millennials have come of age in a time of a diminishing mass culture, and you are the victims. If anything, the current generation gulf is an unintended consequence of technological progress. Not long ago a colleague shared with me an unsettling discovery about one of his classes: not a single student had seen Die Hard. Or Trainspotting, I replied, having conducted similar polls in my own classes.
My colleague and I laughed about the Die Hard thing, but the laughter was tinged with another emotion. Anxiety, perhaps? Disappointment? It is hard to say. We know the movies aren’t exactly new; Die Hard premiered before most of our students were born, and Trainspotting very nearly so (1988 and 1994, respectively). It wasn’t the age of the films that gave us pause, but rather the scope of their impact and how it could miss an entire generation. An entire generation? A couple of classes are hardly a representative sample, you say. Just stick with me, I’ll explain.
Educators today face a problem that is both perennial and unique: communicating with the upcoming generation. The challenge is perennial because it has been faced by every educator throughout the decades; it is unique because every generation comes of age in a new climate of social, economic, political, and technological circumstances. Consequently, faculty are routinely presented with a multitude of tactics to aid in our communication with you young’uns.
A whole industry exists to study, promote, and, of course, sell ways to motivate millennials, inspire your curiosity, facilitate your civic and cultural engagement, and, perhaps most of all, encourage you to put down the damn phone and pay attention. So what does Die Hard have to do with success in the classroom? More than you might think.
The following theory is based on a few assumptions: 1) that generational differences can be profound, 2) that the differences between millennials and Gen Xers are greater in number and significance than those between Gen Xers and their parents, the Baby Boomers, and 3) that the most visible (and difficult to cross) distance is in mass media culture—primarily film, television, and music. The practice and consumption of sports seems to be more stable over time.
Before you accuse me of simple nostalgia, let’s look at the numbers. The top rated TV show from the 2014-2015 season (The Big Bang Theory) had an 11.6 ratings share (this excludes Sunday Night Football). The number may sound impressive, but consider that only 15 years ago, a 11.6 rating landed a show at #11 on the chart (CSI). The further back you look, the less impressive current numbers are. In 1995, an 11.4 rating only brought a show up to #24 (Law & Order), compared to that season’s winner, ER, with an whopping 22 million viewers watching in an average week. Clearly, then, less of us are watching the same thing.
Why? Not because TV then was better, but because now TV has much more competition for our attention—and not just from the internet and our mobile devices. There’s also
more TV choices available. In a recent interview with NPR, John Landgraf, CEO of the FX network described the situation: “If you accept the premise that television is a mass medium, ultimately you have to be able to aggregate a mass audience, and so too many shows, too many entrants creates a bubble. And ultimately what happens to bubbles is they deflate eventually and you come back to some kind of more sustainable business model with a sustainable number of series.
But…there’s no question that I and everyone else who’s marketing television is having more and more difficulty getting your attention because there’s so many shows clamoring for your attention.” In 1995 or even 2000, broadcast/cable television was still the dominant format. Now we can choose from broadcast, On Demand, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vine, YouTube, and all the new original content from streaming services. Content and platforms have proliferated so extensively that the traditional ways of even counting viewership no longer apply. The same scenario applies to film, as content has expanded across the same platforms while movie theater audiences continue to shrink.
As for music, of the top ten bestselling albums of all time, only 2 are from the 1990s: Whitney Houston’s soundtrack from The Bodyguard (1992) and Shania Twain’s Come On Over (1997). The first album to chart on this list from the 2000s is, ironically, 1 by The Beatles (2000). If we discount the Fab Four, only one album charts in the top 20 of all time, Adele’s 21 (2011). Again, I believe that while these numbers do represent some shifts in taste, they are better explained by changes in technology.
We GenXers are particularly sensitive to the changes in the music industry because we watched it unfold, from the death of MTV, the advent of Napster and its copycats (I preferred WinMX myself) to the ascendancy of iTunes. It’s ironic that we travelled through P2P sharing, music first on MySpace, then YouTube and Facebook, Rhapsody, Pandora, Spotify, and who knows what else all to get to Apple’s launch of radio.
It’s unsurprising, then, that so many of you have never seen Die Hard. When would you have the time? Mass media culture is more accessible and diverse than ever, but its impact as a shared experience has diminished. For Gen Xers and those before us, media culture accumulated by layers over the decades; once exposed to the most current offerings in music, film, and television, we could go back and dig deeper. We shared album releases, went to concerts in stadiums, and dug into our parents’ music to find what inspired our favorite artists.
Mariah Carey led us to Minnie Riperton and Mahalia Jackson. Grunge led us back to Led Zeppelin which led us to Robert Johnson. Syndication allowed us to become conversant in both Law & Order and M*A*S*H, In Living Color and Monty Python. Home video had us revisiting the same films repeatedly and discovering the classics at our own pace. In short, Gen Xers have been lucky. We are the last generation to enjoy those large-scale experiences, the big watercooler moments, the shared jokes, the movie lines everyone knew.
So much of that has disappeared in the world of apps, memes, and viral everything. Millennials are neither prompted nor forced to revisit what has come before, and that’s a shame. Intergenerational communication is a little harder when we share less cultural vocabulary in common, and surely such communication is fundamental to how students and faculty relate to one another.
So Millennials, please understand that when your faculty huff and sigh and bemoan how little you know about this film or that show, it’s not your fault. However, it IS up to you to bridge the gap—listen to music from decades past, watch movies from before you were born. Do these things not because the music, films, and TV of years past is better (and it mostly is), but rather because we want to share it with you. And who knows, you might uncover your new favorite thing along the way. Yippee ki yay, Grizzlies.