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The Twentysomething Myth

A defense of the younger generation

Terry McGinnis/WireImage/Getty

It used to be that those of us who grew up in the '80s belonged to a generation without a name or even a press agent. But no longer. Ever since Time discovered the "twentysomething generation" in the summer of 1990, almost every major cultural institution -- from Taco Bell to the Clinton campaign -- has tried to devise a twentysomething contraption of its own. Two years ago Bret Easton Ellis could complain that television had "virtually ignored" his generation. This fall the networks stocked twenty-three of thirty-two new shows with dimly sincere major characters in their teens and 20s. Lollapalooza, a traveling festival of alternative rock, masqueraded as a second Woodstock over the summer, drawing large crowds that better-known artists could not. And the Democratic Party, hungry to recapture the youth vote it lost to Reagan and Bush, aimed a thirty-second spot at bike messengers and their friends in the final days before the election. More recently, The Atlantic predicted in a sixteen-page piece that a new generation gap would open as earnest baby boomers confront a youthful "carnival culture" devoted to "physical frenzy and spiritual numbness." (The article was more likely to induce the latter than the former.) Even the proper name of this newly ascendant group is commonly debated. MTV suggested, of course, "The MTV Generation," and Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X and Richard Linklater's film Slacker each proposed different generational sobriquets. Behind these efforts at labeling there lurks the increasingly received -- and inherently dubious -- idea that the generation that came of age in the age of Reagan has finally crafted a distinct identity of its own.

Since its publication in 1991, Generation X has become primary source material for the new theorists of youth culture. In Coupland's overlit world of low-end "McJobs" and high-end stereos, the reiteration of ironic gestures becomes the only way to ward off consumer fatigue and intellectual paralysis. Survivors of Wite-Out overdoses and broken Xerox machines, Coupland's characters suffer from "sick building syndrome" and liken their partitioned office cubicles to "veal-fattening pens." Bereft of primary experience, few of their defining events have occurred off-screen. And so cultural icons loom all the larger. Trying to blend into the landscape of television, they identify with the tawdrily famous, enacting the signature tics of sitcom stars with eerie enthusiasm and chatting in "Telethon-ese." They insulate themselves from a frigid regime of futuristic work stations and recycled television shows with hyperbole, self-deprecation, the magnification of the trivial, and the deflation of the sublime. Such habits do not encourage community. Irony may be a universal device, but it is also a divisive and unstable one; only a small group can be in on a particular joke at a particular time. Pinning private meanings onto public faces, Coupland's people cannot understand each other unless they are the best of friends. With the multiplication of irony, suspicion and misunderstanding protrude not only between generations but also within them.

Although Coupland satirizes the impulse, many readers have scanned his work, somewhat desperately, for instant summaries of the new generation. And assertions of group identity are usually followed by assertions of group strength. During the presidential campaign, proclamations of youth power were heard often, even driving a reluctant George Bush onto MTV (where he lectured his 24-year-old interviewer on conversational etiquette). But though first-time voters did play an important role in Clinton's victory, their turnout did not match expectations, and Clinton's slice of the 18- to 29-year-old vote was no larger than his share of the total popular vote. It seems that the '60s fantasy of youth cohesion and control has returned less because young people believe in it themselves than because their elders believe that they should.

The current middle-aged retailing of youth empowerment is perhaps best illustrated by Rock the Vote, a record company-sponsored organization with a nonpartisan mandate to "make voting hip." MTV has given the group millions of dollars in free air time, and Fox aired its T.V. special in the fall, an hour-long collage of skits and videos in which the American political system received an unprecedented number of celebrity endorsements. Rock the Vote's message is that, contrary to appearances, young people do care about their world and are eager to vote (as long as it's easy). But articulating the new idealism can be hard work. Attempting to highlight their generation's accomplishments on the Fox special, Jason Priestley and Lisa Bonet ask, "Who made styrofoam uncool?... Who inspired a fourth T.V. network?"

Jeff Ayeroff, a co-managing director of Virgin Records, assembled Rock the Vote in 1990, when mandatory record-labeling bills were pending before twenty state legislatures. "I was just sick of the record industry being the scapegoat for organizations like [Tipper Gore's] PMRC," he said then. Working to organize resistance to the labeling laws, Ayeroff noted to his colleagues that the Recording Industry Association of America "didn't have a grass-roots organization" operating on its behalf. (Given the RIAA's anti-consumer efforts to impose a tax on home taping, this should not have been a surprise.) He first assumed that Rock the Vote could mobilize young voters to defeat record-labeling efforts. During the election campaign his organization cleverly reversed the premise -- "once young people are aware of what censorship means," the president of Geffen Records explained, "we believe that voter apathy will cease." Despite its professions of altruism, Rock the Vote's approach to youth politics is not exactly disinterested.

To its credit, Rock the Vote has mobilized support for the motor voter bill and registered young voters in several states. It also challenged election laws in court, establishing in one New Hampshire county that prospective voters cannot be required to produce a birth certificate or passport in order to register. Rock the Vote is best known, however, for its irreverent celebrity promos aired on MTV urging young people to cast ballots (Madonna wrapped in an American flag threatening a "spankie"; Ice-T warning of a "hostile takeover"). Indeed, this fall it became hard for television viewers to avoid lyrics like: "Vote baby vote/Vote baby vote/Are you registered baby?"

Unfortunately, for the most part these calls to generational responsibility are either hypocritical or defensive. Many of the stars -- from Madonna to Iggy Pop -- who appeared in the first round of Rock the Vote promos had never voted themselves, as Rolling Stone reported. Responding to dismal rates of youth voting, Rock the Vote printed a coupon on compact disc boxes to support the motor voter bill. It read: "We aren't as apathetic as people think. It's just that the laws make it hard for many of us to register." But it's not that hard. And though more than 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were unregistered, it was the turnout of registered young voters that dropped fastest in the '80s.

Rock the Vote facilely combines libertarian politics with corporate-sponsored paternalism, spreading an absolutist position on free speech while its record company sponsors quietly knuckle under to pressure groups. (In fact, the most effective censor in the music business is MTV, which consolidates its power by strictly regulating which bands qualify for its "new music" formats.) As traditional ideologies fracture into the micropolitics of identity and the nonpolitics of celebrities, Rock the Vote tries in vain to conjure a coalition. Proudly claiming the mantle of political crusades of the past, it mobilizes young people to fight for a right that already exists and that no one is threatening to revoke. Behind its public service front, Rock the Vote is a simulation of public sentiment, another exercise in the ersatz populism of the business elite. At a time when it's increasingly hard to distinguish the artificial turf from the grass roots, Rock the Vote organizes young people to support Time Warner's right to speak, not their own.

Just as Rock the Vote lacks the authenticity of a real political movement, so the latest twentysomething T.V. shows conspicuously lack the subversive glee that "The Simpsons" and "Wayne's World" brought to television a few years ago. Instead, they betray the haste of story editors cobbling old formulas to new target audiences. These programs range from Fox's "The Heights," in which an improbably large rock band works successfully to get its theme song played on MTV, to NBC's "The Round Table," which tries to coax entertainment out of what is possibly the dullest of all subjects -- the lives of young people in Washington, D.C. The most conspicuous example is Fox's "Melrose Place," a "Beverly Hills 90210" spin-off for high school graduates that aspires to the emblematic status of "thirtysomething." The ensemble of would-be actresses, writers, and marketers inhabits an apartment complex of its own (generational solidarity is enforced by zoning). Alison, a receptionist in an ad agency, strives to convince the company to take her offbeat proposals more seriously. Billy roams the streets in a cab, struggling with the realization that he is a mediocre scriptwriter. The show, which is itself littered with limp screenplays, is framed by off-beat ads.

"Melrose Place" is best when it turns its own "entertainment values" against themselves, suggestively equating the impulses to merchandise, fictionalize, and falsify. In one early episode, a drug-addicted art consultant sells a phony painting to the lead singer of the band L.A. Guns, who is playing himself. But most of the story lines are standard problem-of-the-week fare, sacrificing the gradual establishment of personality to the rapid sampling of topical issues such as co-dependency and cardiofunk. And the quest for generational credibility is often strained. When Billy explains that he can't pay back his student loans because of the recession, the woman at the collection agency replies, "Do you think this McJob is my Nirvana?" Earnestly gluing the buzz words together, the script assembles its twentysomethingspeak out of hype, without even the redeeming gloss of irony.

Unlike commercial television, which remains well-groomed and timid even when it tries to experiment, popular music often communicates confusion and rage. The Lollapalooza festival, which toured the country each of the past two summers, aims to be a traveling road show of generational defiance, complete with nipple-piercing exhibits, samples of virtual reality, and the adventurous music of bands like the Butthole Surfers and Jesus & Mary Chain. Lollapalooza is primarily the invention of Perry Farrell, lead singer for the since-expired group Jane's Addiction. Farrell's goal was to restore an aura of danger and dissent to popular music.

But for all its anarchic bravado, Lollapalooza is an uncomfortable mix of subcultural pride and multimedia chaos. Although it gathers diverse "scenes" into what Farrell hopes will be a recombinated counterculture, the result is hardly a new synthesis. Devotees of metal and hiphop and punk pride themselves on their abrasiveness; they don't blend in the wash. And the festival's attitude toward the media is decidedly mixed. Farrell, who exhibited smashed television sets in cages on the tour, disdains mass entertainment. In his theology, largely derived from Jim Morrison, sin equals self-denial, and self-denial equals watching T.V. But Lollapalooza's success is inconceivable without the promotional activities of MTV, which, according to one executive, wishes to transform itself from a "rock and roll network" into a "generational network." Genre-crossing bands like Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which incorporate fragments of funk, rap, punk, and metal into their acts, are the perfect vehicles for such an aspiration.

Lollapalooza's political ambitions are similarly inconsistent. Farrell wants to start some kind of post-Reagan insurrection by promoting "confrontation," excess, and austerity. "Both decadence and the back-to-nature impulse are about freedom," he explains. "You feel free when you hit the great outdoors and you feel free when you get intoxicated." But he also invited the NRA and Army recruiters to join his youth circus. (The NRA later took out newspaper ads to denounce Lollapalooza artist Ice-T and his song "Cop Killer.")

Lollapalooza's popularity underscores one genuinely important feature of today's youth culture -- the breakdown of the boundary between "mainstream" and "alternative" entertainment. On the one hand, the formerly dominant mass audience that Johnny Carson addressed has apparently fallen into a welter of competing subcultures. On the other hand, those very subcultures have seen their attitudes and fashions gathered into the mainstream. As alternative cultural phenomena like grunge rock (the latest marriage of hard rock and punk) become more popular, the manufacturers of taste respond by buying them up, bonding them, and bowdlerizing them.

One of the few enterprises to survive such cultural implosion intact is Sassy magazine, which manages to be a teenage girls' magazine and a satire of a teenage girls' magazine at the same time. Sassy assumes that its readers are immersed in teen culture's icons and artifacts but regard them with skepticism and humor, and are eager for new sources of information and entertainment. Little-known bands and homemade magazines are introduced in each issue. Teen idols like Johnny Depp (the actor) and Keanu Reeves (who would very much like to be an actor) appear regularly, but are also held up to intelligent scrutiny and mockery. ("The traditional definition of a hero is someone who sacrifices him or herself for a higher purpose.... They are usually the founder of a new religion, nation, or way of life.... Now, what has Luke Perry done to redeem humanity? At press time, nothing. Still, he is widely adored.") Sassy's political slant is unabashedly p.c. ("What the Heck Are We Doing in the Persian Gulf?" thanked Ramsey Clark for his work as a fact checker), but the magazine has cast a cool eye on the excesses of animal rights activists and anti-censorship zealots, and it has published frank discussions with pro-life teens. Attuned to the incoherencies of its audience, Sassy sits at the cusp of mainstream and alternative tastes, poking fun at the former and publicizing the latter to its more than 750,000 readers.

Sassy will survive, but most of its older twentysomething cousins probably will not. Already many of the new T.V series have been canceled. Fox's Rock the Vote special finished 96th in the week's ratings, despite the presence of Priestley and Bonet. Of course, such rapid turnover is virtually a tradition. Since World War II, advertisers have constructed and catered to a succession of youth markets. (In 1968 Columbia Records advertised itself with the slogan, "The Man Can't Bust Our Music.") There's nothing new in Fox's assumption that it can make a profit without a single viewer over 50; record companies and movie studios have operated on similar premises for years. Fox's sponsors know that though young people have less money to spend, they are more likely to try new products, to experiment with identities and commodities, to respond to the easily manipulated dictates of style. These sponsors also know that, even as the disposable income of young people declines, they can use the allure of youth to reach an older and more prosperous clientele. The Gap has built a clothing empire by securing a teenage base and then launching a retail assault on babies and the middle-aged; its latest ad campaign puns that "For Every Generation There's A Gap."

This kind of generational packaging continues even as the actual bases of generational cohesion erode. Changing family roles and occupational hierarchies, the universal accessibility of the mass media to all age groups, early exposure to work and sex, gadgets and crime, have made age a less, not more, reliable indicator of taste, values, and behavior. The idea of generational culture is itself largely a byproduct of the considerable leisure and prosperity that young people enjoyed in the '50s and '60s, together with the existence of overarching causes like Vietnam. Today, a generic youth culture has been assembled from above precisely because it doesn't exist down below. How can one generalize about a group that is said to be politically disengaged and politically correct, obsessed with surfaces and addicted to irony, scarred by Watergate and Vietnam and unaware of them, technologically savvy and unconditionally ignorant, busy saving the planet and craving electricity and noise, prematurely careerist and proud to be lazy, unwilling to grow up and too grown up already? As young people acquire adult responsibilities (and adult vices) at an earlier age, their distinctness as a group diminishes. They do not stamp a unique sensibility on society so much as mirror its disarray.

The twentysomething generation is indeed a myth -- an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. Many young people do like grunge rock, gourmet coffee, and green politics, at least for the moment. Many do share an ironic immersion in the mass media and an interest in alternatives to it; many are well disposed to political activism, especially if it is cost-free and corporate-sponsored. But these characteristics don't cohere into a shared identity. Irony, after all, is inimical to solidarity. The shared taste for cultural alternatives similarly tends toward fragmentation, as Lollapalooza demonstrates. Appreciators of world beat and industrial noise don't necessarily have much in common, and one man's subculture is another man's sellout. Today's youth-based political activism also splits people up with its competing concerns. The twentysomething craze, like its components, will probably blow over soon. And when it has, this generation is still unlikely to have found a common voice, for its true cultural legacy is to have been disunited by the very experiences it has had in common.