Whither the MTV Generation?
Permit me a moment of self indulgent self reflection please:
It occurred to me the other day that the characters on How I Met Your Mother, Community, and The Big Bang Theory are roughly either the age I and most of my oldest friends are, or they're roughly the age of the leading edge Gen Y/Millenials who, now that they're mostly out of college, are now old enough and jaded enough to hang out with us in bars. And there's a recurring theme in all of these shows that seems to me more and more striking the more I think about it. That theme is of a group of ostensible adults who despite spending a fair amount of time in and around the trappings of adulthood, more or less are still living the crazed frenetic existences of our much younger days. This despite the fact that, as the HIMYM episode Murtaugh brilliantly pointed out, the characters in these shows are clearly "too old for this shit."
But I think it's telling that these are the successful television shows that have gripped my generation as we are dragged kicking and screaming towards middle age. We have to come to terms with the unique circumstances based on the timing of our lives that for the most part we missed out on the big Generation X opportunities for comfort. As a group, our television then seems aimed at confronting the fact that while we always sort of thought of ourselves as Gen Xers, we're really too young for that, because really, that's Obama's generation. And he's older than us. Obama, John Lydon, Robert Smith, and Paul Westerberg are all in their fifties now. And they ain't us. Because they came of age during the eighties and the nineties, the last periods of growth and opportunity in the US economy. We didn't. We're a microgeneration that were born roughly between 1976 and 1984, the first generation to grow up with computers and to be better at technology than our parents and grandparents, born in the early days of MTV after punk rock and New Wave and Hip Hop had all already begun to emerge and shape the culture we would inherit. You can call us the MTV generation, although that doesn't really fit. MTV is way more Generation Y now with all it's reality shows and bullshit. Our generation's MTV was the first season of the Real World, Liquid Television, and Beavis and Butthead. A period when MTV was cool and didn't just play top 40 videos, but hadn't yet devolved into the eternal game show that seems to appeal to the Gen Y sensibility but that our little slice between X and Y doesn't seem to really GET.
My cohort graduated from highschool just in time to work for free for a bunch of Gen Xers while we were in college. We then graduated from college just in time to see the tech bubble burst and spent the formative years of our young adulthood scrabbling at scraps that were, historically, much more limited than what was available just a few years previous or a few years later. And these sorts of things have long term consequences. Economists have shown that when a graduating class experiences severe economic hardship the class never really recovers completely. And then, confronted with that dismal prospect, we then clawed our way back to stable during the Bush years, if only to be able to move out of our parents' basements, just in time to watch the economy blow up and wipe us out again. As a result, we're a generation that has a particularly jaded view of notions like "economic stability" and "financial planning." Which is why it's funny to us how in this last season of How I Met Your Mother, that when Marshall and Lily, the two people who have more or less done everything right their whole lives, more or less have a house in the suburbs dropped in their laps, they go crazy and end up moving back into a smaller apartment in Manhattan because the stability of the American Dream just feels wrong to them. It is also why when Jeff Winger shows up to community college as a former lawyer who now needs a college degree he immediately finds himself torn between the MTV generation Brita, to whom he's initially attracted, and the Milleninal Annie, who's optimism for her own future is unsullied by the years of being a jaded broke loser that Jeff went through before finally finding some material stability. Here we have the love triangle standing in for a generations relationship to the self and the wider economy and a sense that for whatever reason, and probably nobodies fault, our shot got blown for us.
Contrast this to the navel gazing prime time soap operas and sitcoms that captured this period in the lives of our parents and older siblings generations: 30 Something, Friends, Allie McBeal, Cheers, LA Law, and Melrose Place among others. The anxieties on display in these television programs are very different. Ever present in them is a projected path that emerges from the wider narrative of a society that still institutes rites of passage and phases of life. The endless Sam and Diane and later Sam and Rebecca nonsense of Cheers, for example, is an example of a long drawn out story based on a transition that everyone of that generation got to make more or less successfully from single and young to a middle aged couple. Compare that to the central premise of How I Met Your Mother, an entire series which consists of the running frame narrative that Ted Mosby telling his children in 2030 the story of how he met the woman who would be their mother. Now 7 years gone by, and this woman has yet to have her face appear on screen or to speak so the audience can hear her. And for some reason that is a much more resonant story for us, this story of Ted struggling with a meta-narrative of American life that just isn't working out the way it is supposed to, that speaks to the anxieties I certainly feel in a way I could never relate to Sam and Diane. Or as MTV generation cohort member Shirley on Community put it "I hated Sam and Diane." When wider events in the world, September 11th and the war on terror, the bursting of the housing bubble, the bursting of the tech bubble, the control of the economy in the hands of oligarchs hellbent on protecting wealth and little else, are so sweeping in their scope as all that, they can't help but define the generation that should be doing other things but can't while they're going on. Just like the lost generations of world war I and the great depression, the MTV generation may in the end pay the same historical price as being a gap filler between epochs when more was or becomes possible. Or we could go the way of the Beat generation and take on a mythic importance for the younger, more able generation following behind us because we are still hanging around doing the same things they do, except ten years on because of the economic delays that wracked our own young adulthood.
What this comes down to, for me, is I think the realization that we can describe a linear range of possibilities that work for us and that only work depending on how much we cling to the inherited rites of passage of our culture. On the one extreme of that is Ted Mosby and his desire for the American Family and the American Dream. That desire gives structure and purpose to his life, but it makes him miserable, and he clings to it as an article of faith despite the fact that all evidence points towards the failure of his ever achieving it. It's TV so, y'know, they have to fudge that, but you get what I'm saying. A little further along, you find the figure of Jeff Winger on Community, the failure and fraud who, despite constantly being the coolest guy in the room, still manages to fuck up his entire life and end up back in community college in his mid-thirties. Jeff is more or less happy because he's given up on the long term dream and just lives for the moment, but his error was that he tried to have the career even though he didn't really care about the house the wife and the kids. Which brings us ultimately to Barney Stinson, a character the writers of the show are apparently fixing to fuck up, but who, represents the most realistic picture of what realistic goals for the MTV cohort look like. We can't commit to family and long term happiness of the sort our parents have because, seriously, look at the news. Granted, I'm speaking in broad terms, and there are exceptions, but by the time I hit thirty I knew more people who had already divorced than the number I currently know who are married and have kids and a mortgage. And We can't commit to just the career focus of early Gen X sellouts in the 80s because, again, look at the news. What do we have left except to just commit to being as awesome as possible? And that, in the final analysis, is an option you'll notice was taken by the people you know who are between the ages of 28 and 36 right now. Look around at us: lots of people who've had varied careers in weird fields. Lots of world travelers. Lots of people who work McJobs and bounce around from various art projects and pop culture fads. Lots of underemployed 30 somethings with advanced degrees, crushing debt, and lower middle class incomes that aren't going anywhere.
But man we're fabulous, and that's all that really matters isn't it? It isn't, of course. But when it's all you've got, you might as well make the most of it. And so when we see the paragons of ourselves and our goals retold for us on television we respond like the good culture consumers we are. And maybe it's a good thing. Maybe if we can give up on the received mythologies of American life, we can find a way to beat back all this crushing anxiety that we're just wasting our lives. I don't know if anybody else feels that way, but I know I do fairly often. We get older and we remain behind the line where we know we ought to be. Maybe that's just our burden. Here we are, caught between the height and the decline of the empire, denied any real opportunity to have meaningful lives on the grand scale. It's depressing, but space is a cold dead place, and we should be happy we get as much time as we have. And if that's the case, then shouldn't we be trying to be legendary, even if it's ultimately futile, just because that's more fun and interesting?
I really don't know where I'm going with that line of thought, I just wanted to throw it out there and see if I'm the only person thinking along these lines. Maybe I am. But I kind of doubt it.