‘Reality Bites’ for Most Generations When They Enter the Real World

Today’s Morning Jolt, hitting e-mailboxes now, also features a look at how the growth and maturation of “Generation X” suggests “Generation Y” and “the Millennials” may have a quite different outlook on life and politics within a decade or two.

How Generation X Shows Hope for Generation Y, and ‘Reality Bites’

Flipping through the channels the other night, I came across Reality Bites, a modestly successful little 1994 romantic comedy that somehow came to be considered one of the iconic films of the 1990s, or at least one of the films that came to define the reputation of “Generation X” — those born between the early 1960s and early 1980s.

A little while back, the great Mary Katharine Ham brilliantly dissected how the film looks from the perspective of today: the characters’ self-absorption and whining, the constant smoking, the grunge soundtrack, and the dated notion that Ethan Hawke’s grungy bar-band slacker is the hero, and that Ben Stiller’s kind-hearted but ambitious yuppie executive at an MTV-style network is the wrong guy for Winona Ryder. (Like MKH, I’m just going to use the actors’ names.)

Some modern analyses of the film like this one (funny but NSFW language) note the irony that the film is about the frustrations of unemployed or under-employed 20-somethings, and their fears that their dreams will never be realized . . . in the early-to-mid 1990s. That early-90s economy looks like Nirvana compared to today (no pun intended, but I’m pretty proud of it now that I realize it) and we know that in a year or two, Silicon Valley and the dot-com boom are about to turbocharge the job market that the characters find so horrific.

Looking back, we in Generation X had it pretty good. Not only was the U.S. economy roaring at the time, but opportunities for young workers were pretty widespread in the dot-com era. As costly as higher education was then, it looks positively inexpensive compared to today. It was a time of relative peace, when U.S. military actions in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans could be largely ignored by most of the public, and few foresaw the horrors of 9/11 lurking around the corner.


“Back in my day, son, before the Internet, we hung out on strangely unsecured building roofs, drinking beers and playing guitar, brooding.”

Despite the clunky landline phones, flannel, 1-900 psychic hotlines, and Lisa Loeb on the soundtrack, “Reality Bites” is less about a moment in our cultural life than a moment in the modern career trajectory. A large chunk of Generation X came out of high school or college with big dreams of success — high expectations fueled, in part, by the boom of the 1980s and the surprise end of the Cold War. We left the shelter of academia and entered the real world . . . and, for many of us, at least initially, the real world just kicked our asses. Only professional athletes leave college to step into their dream job. Almost everyone else starts at the bottom, interning or one step above interning, and gasps when they realize the distance between themselves and that dream job. Try and fail enough times, and you begin to fear the dream job might be just a dream. And how much does a hidden fear of failure fuel those pronouncements of disdain for “selling out”?

Of course, as fun as it is to mock Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder’s insufferable dismissal of any type of compromise on the road to success as “selling out,” there is a genuine, legitimate anxiety that those characters and the film express.

A lot of us feel some sort of creative impulse, and desire to create something — a book, a painting, a song, a sculpture, a film — that stands out and is recognized for its excellence, its insight, its ability to stir emotions in others. And we fear going through the effort and struggle of the creative process only to lose our creation, or to have it co-opted by others who just want to use it to sell things. You fear that just as you’re about to make a key point, and establish some sort of connection with the audience —


Anyway, as I was saying, both this film and another one of my mid-90s favorites, Grosse Pointe Blank, deal with the fear of spending years pursuing a career only to wake up one day and realize you hate what you do. Several characters in Reality Bites describe the divorces and frustrated dreams of their parents, and seem determined to avoid those mistakes — yet their preferred option is to not try.

Even then, the movie has to cheat to make the “selling out” option look so unappealing and bohemian rebelliousness look so appealing. A major plot point is that Clearly-MTV-But-Not-Called-MTV-for-Legal-Reasons executive Stiller takes a videotape of Ryder’s documentary, and shows it to network executives in New York, who he says are thrilled. But at a screening party in Houston, she’s shocked to find her earnest exploration of her housemates’ life challenges — awaiting the results of an AIDS test, the gay one coming out to his mother, etc. — has been heavily edited into crass pabulum.

Stiller says he didn’t know it would be edited that way either. So we’re to believe that nobody watched the program they were about to screen at the party? Huh? (I suppose Stiller could be lying.) Winona’s reaction is to storm out of the party, hurt and betrayed . . . instead of trying to salvage some of her original vision. (Did she sign a contract? Is this the final cut? All of these questions are ignored, to serve the plot’s requirement that Stiller is the “bad guy” or at least the wrong guy, because he’s a corporate sellout.)

After watching enough movies where the characters spent almost no time at work and live in lavish apartments, it’s refreshing to watch one where the protagonists worry about paying the phone bill. But even here, the movie cheats by suggesting that stealing from your parents will do in a pinch. Winona’s character gets cash from motorists and pays for their gasoline on her father’s gas-station credit card, running up $900 in charges. [MKH calculated that would be $1,400 today.] The closing lines of the movie play the dad’s reaction as sort of a joke. He might as well say, “Lucy, you got some ’splainin’ to do!”

Why am I writing at great length about a 19-year-old movie? Because the criticisms of Generation X back in the 1990s — they’re lazy, they’re educated but lack ambition and drive, they’re over-privileged whiners — aren’t that different from what we hear about Generation Y today. (To the extent one can generalize about an entire generation based on survey data, Generation X is pretty hard-working.) A lot of conservatives talk about today’s 20-somethings in fatalist terms, as if they’re all Occupy-protesting, Obama-backing hipsters with six figures of college debt from their post-graduate degrees in Puppetry Studies who want to enjoy a perpetual adolescence and free birth control.

Generation X grew up and got to work; 65 percent work full-time, 10 percent work part-time. What’s more, 82 percent are homeowners, 74 percent have children, 70 percent are married, 66 percent have a 401(k) or other retirement plans, and only 6 percent live with their parents. Perhaps most surprising, 29 percent reported making $100,000 or more annually. To be conservative, you usually have to have something you want to conserve.

Of course, Generation X’s maturation process had some help — that booming economy of the 1990s and about a decade and a half of policies under Clinton and Bush that fueled that steady growth. With the policies of this administration in place, who knows when we’ll next see steady growth and serious job creation. In fact, those policies may actually be impeding the process that prompts young people to drift towards the right as they age:

The U.S. birth rate has generally fallen since the Great Recession began in 2007, and some of the sharpest drops have been among women in the 20s. The birth rate for women ages 20 to 24 hit a record low of 85.3 births per 1,000 women in 2011, according to the most recent detailed data available from the Centers for Disease Control. For women ages 25 to 29, the 2011 birth rate of 107.2 births per 1,000 women was the lowest since 1976.

The drop comes amid a longer term trend toward women having their children later in life. The average age for a woman having her first child was 25.6 years old in 2011, up from 21.4 years old in 1970, according to the CDC.

It also has coincided with an excruciatingly long period of high unemployment and weak economic growth.

No kidding.

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