May 2, 2014

Why has Gen X always been the focus of reality TV dramas? Are Millennials too boring?

As the reality-drama genre has steadily taken over TV programming during the last 20 or so years, it's striking how consistent the generational background of the characters has remained — mostly Gen X, particularly the ground zero ones born in the late '60s and early '70s.

The first reality show phenomenon was The Real World on MTV in the mid-1990s. The cast were younger 20-somethings, with the occasional late teenager. It had already lost relevance among youth audiences — its only target audience — by the turn of the millennium. It has long featured stock character stereotypes for the benefit of the autistic youth audience made up more and more of Millennials. The last time there were memorable and distinct individuals was probably the 1995 season in London, when middle X-ers were the cast and late X-ers were the audience.

Big Brother in the early part of the last decade picked up where The Real World left off, only with a now older age group on camera — still late Boomers and X-ers, though.

There's also been a string of "celebreality" shows that followed the lives of famous people who ranged from early Boomers like Ozzy Osbourne up through late X-ers like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

Now the hot thing seems to be housewives, husbands, moms, dads, and other folks in their 30s and 40s. This genre was completely absent during the '90s and even the first half of the 2000s. Boomer parents in the '90s apparently were not thought to be worth the gamble to put on camera. Only when the early X-ers had kids old enough to be active in the background did this genre take off, during the past 5 to 10 years.

Why haven't the Millennials taken the place of the X-ers once the latter had outgrown a given niche? They've been old enough to star on The Real World for at least five years now, but they haven't turned it back into a thing. Nor have they simply made a related but different show a thing. Well, who would want to tune in to awkward brats diddling their digital devices for 60 minutes?

Some of the early Millennials are now also old enough for Big Brother type shows, though again imagine how boring it would be to watch them sulk around, mumble less than ten words per day, and surf the web on their phone.

Ditto for celebreality shows — Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were 23 when their show The Simple Life became a hit. Early Millennial celebrities have been that age since 2010, yet none of them have spawned hit shows that document their lives.

Sure, they're not old enough to star on shows about housewives raising a family with school-age children. But how did it even get to this point, where housewives and middle-aged husbands are more interesting to watch than college students? It was the other way around in 1992, when The Real World debuted.

For whatever it's worth, Gen X has the qualities that are needed to make watchable TV dramas taken from real-life people: they are sociable like the Boomers, but self-monitoring like the Millennials. Gregarious enough to get involved in other people's lives, and introspective enough to reflect on what the right thing to be doing is.

A Boomer cast would be up to a lot of activity, but there would be little self-awareness among them, hence no internal conflict, just one glib rationalization after another in the confessional. A Millennial cast would be paralyzed by their constant self-monitoring, and would not have much in the way of choices to examine in any case, since they keep to themselves all the time. No actions means no consequences of your actions to reflect on.

This generational influence extends further to that whole adrenaline junkie genre that began with Jackass and continued through Survivor and Fear Factor. Millennials are too fearful and too crippled by OCD to go anywhere near that kind of thing. Their mindset about where the proper boundaries are was shaped by the helicopter parenting culture of the past 20-odd years — not just in the home, but anywhere that their parents held influence (playgrounds, pools, schools). Their idea of livin' on the edge is playing their video games without automatic health regeneration.

The Gen X guys from Jackass etc. grew up when you not only didn't have to ask permission from your parents to leave the house, but you typically didn't even make a point of leaving a note to let them know. You were just "going out," and if they noticed you weren't home, they assumed you had "gone out" and would "be back." Pretty simple, really.

Of course I'm not holding up any of these reality show casts as paragons of personality. But they do reflect differences in the general public that might be otherwise hard to put your finger on. "Come to think of it, who would want to watch a reality show about Millennial phone-fondlers or Boomer blindness?" Reality TV may be near the bottom of the barrel, but think of how much worse it could get if the characters weren't at least somewhat gregarious and somewhat introspective.


  1. I'm not really up on it, but in the UK, the big reality shows are various Jersey Shore / the Hills spin offs (Made in Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex, etc), which are pretty much totally focused on vapid young Millennials. No really seems to cares enough about celebutard reality shows in this country to do them (celebrities acting like dancing monkeys on gameshows is another thing entirely), for some reason, that's more an American thing.

    Duck Dynasty is the most popular in the US I think. I think the Boomers are the more popular, dominant, self aware and reflective characters on that show compared to their Gen X offspring.

  2. Depeche Mode's documentary "101" from 1988 also stars Gen-Xers and has a large element of reality TV in it.

  3. The teenage shows aren't really documentary / reality, though. They pick the most caricatured cast, edit events to further exaggerate their one defining trait, and then set up a situation / edit further to ensure maximum levels of pissiness and shouting. Because for this new Silent Generation, shouting = drama.

    It's like those shows about family life where one is a dwarf and another is tall. Watch the sparks fly when The Slut has to be friends with The Prude! They're marketing it as the life of extreme freaks, not real people.

    Lots of the True Life episodes on MTV are like that too -- "I'm a lesbian Nazi hooker who was abducted by UFOs and forced into weight-loss programs."

    And that show Made (also on MTV) was more like a teenager who didn't fit into any stereotype with instant brand recognition, wanting to assume such a cookie-cutter role. "I wanna be made into The Life of the Party," or "I wanna be made into The Popular Kid." That was at least semi-interesting because we got to see what was going on in the mind of a normal American teenager.

    The Real World, when it first came on, wasn't in the freak show genre (that was more in the late '90s or early 2000s). And these Real Housewives of OC kind of shows do not lay it on so thick with caricatures. They cast and edit to easily distill and amplify the character's personality, but that person still feels like an individual rather than an instance of a generic type.

  4. So, while Millennials are cast into the freak show programs when they have maximum shouting potential -- i.e., as high school and college drama queens -- they are paid no attention afterward for most of their 20s, let alone their 30s (we'll have to see when they get there, but seems assured given their absence during their 20s).

    They're just not interesting to follow around as normal people in real life.

  5. good analysis

    it seems the cocooning age of the last 20 years has resulted in a less interesting, less social generation of young adults today.

    the cocooning seems even worse now than during the 90s. My kids have much less opportunity to socialize away from adult supervision. Even at the playground. I recall growing up going to the playground and always finding a bunch of kids, and never recall parents being around. My daughter is only 7 , but my wife would never let her walk to the playground alone to hangout. Parents might actually get in trouble if they allowed their 7 and 8 year olds to be un-supervised. When I was 7 my parents had a few rules, I was not allowed to go past certain streets. I was also prohibited from going to certain kids houses, because of some legitimate concerns they had, but I would usually ignore these rules. When I was 8 I started to explore the other neighborhoods 1/2 mile away. I turned 8 in 1977 and it was an adventure venturing to the other side of town, where many of the kids had no fathers around. Some of them were already smoking at age 8 and we certainly got ourselves into situations at a young age which would not occur today. Usually it was due to us seeing what the older kids were doing, and hanging out with kids who had older siblings.

    I think part of the reason we had more freedom, our parents grew up in the 50s had had less concern about kids getting into trouble.
    The parents today who grew up in the 70s and 80s with so much freedom, but they remember all the dangers and the things we did when parents were not around.

  6. BTW, I've heard the first cohort of Gen Xers(those born before 1979) referred to as the "MTV Generation". They were the kids who really grew up watching MTV, which was on the decline in the 90s, embodied the culture shown on MTV.

  7. true. I remember when MTV started in 1981.
    At the time i was 12 years old, and only one of my friends had cable TV. But my grandparents had cable TV, so I would watch it when I went to their house.
    By 1985 another friend of mine got cable, so I got to watch it more video hang in out at his house. 90% of the time this is what he was watching after school.

    This is another reason people in the 80s were cohesive culturally, as MTV had more influence among the youth of America, even though far fewer Americans had cable television. We all watched the same videos, there was not an alternative option. Although we had Friday Night Videos, a popular late night show on NBC, which I actually would tape with my VCR sometimes. It is hard to believe how significant music videos were to 80s culture. While today there are multiple channels which sometimes have videos, they are targeted to certain genres today and thus have less impact culturally for the people who grew up after 1995. today the youth is more fragmented in what they watch on TV and the music they listen to

  8. A new ad for Seamless Web (ordering food online) in the NY subways says it all: "It's easy. Like reading this ad to avoid awkward eye contact." Fun!

    Three out of four ads in the subway are for services that keep you from having to go out: ordering food, pet supplies, toiletries, social media, etc. I remember when many subway ads for were for clubs or concerts. No mas! The only people who seem unaffected by this whole mass hibernation are the Mexicans, who carry on with their family events as if nothing. I know in the SW and Cali there are real problems with them, and I do NOT support mass immigration - but the truth is that in NY, the Mexicans seem to be the happiest people.

  9. I don't care for Mexicans either, but I do envy their lower level of helicopter parenting and greater willingness to hang out in public places.

    Don't know if that's built into the genes, though. Mexico's been rocked by soaring crime rates / drug wars for awhile -- not unlike the background that influenced much of the "good old days" culture here in America.

  10. Millennials all know about, and they all have internet access (most of them even while on the go). That ought to favor a common culture, so I think it's more a matter of them not resonating with the music video format.

    A video clip is more of an occasional goof to distract them when they've got five minutes of "omg, distraction stream slowing down" time. Not something where they'd want to watch an hour or so of music videos more or less uninterrupted.

    They're also self-centered control freaks, so tuning in to a TV channel that has its own playlist is going to irritate their OCD. They would rather sacrifice the "common experience" feeling of watching the same videos as everyone else in their peer group, in order to micro-tailor their distraction routine.

    That seems to be the reason behind them wearing earbuds everywhere in public, even when music is playing. All of us strangers listening to the same music in the coffee shop.... ummm, awkward! I don't even know you guys, and we're supposed to, like, resonate on the same wavelength? Ewww! Just the sound of it! How about we just pop our separate earbuds into our separate heads and listen to our separate playlists? Ah, now that's more comfortable...

  11. "Some of them were already smoking at age 8 and we certainly got ourselves into situations at a young age which would not occur today."

    Smokin' in the toys' room,
    Smokin' in the toys' room...

    "The parents today who grew up in the 70s and 80s with so much freedom, but they remember all the dangers and the things we did when parents were not around."

    That's half of it, but the other half is the change of mind that being exposed to those things nearly brought about the apocalypse, so we have to shelter our children at all costs. Rather than remembering how open and more "dangerous" it used to be, but seeing that as character-building, like sparring in preparation for a real fight down the road.

    The funniest part of it is seeing the Gen X parents freaking out about their daughters dating or going to parties. "Holy shit, if it's anything like what it was when I was their age.... Uh, no, you will not be going to any parties until you turn 30." When they have nothing to worry about, with Millennial chicks being such Puritanical boy-haters who only want attention / ego validation, not the actual contact that used to go along with it.

    I don't know about small kids these days, though. If they were born past 2005 or so, they'd probably part of a soon-to-be neo-Boomer generation, not Millennials.

  12. it will be interesting to see what develops, my kids were born after 2006. But from what i see in my neighborhood it is a very different environment from the 70s. So many of the parents are older, all from Gen X. Very few parents are under the age of 30 with toddlers. When I was 7-10 none of my friends had parents over the age of 40. unlike today when it seems most of the parents are closer to 40 than 30. This is another factor, since as a young kid when our parents socialized, we were not the the focal point and generally did our own thing but we could see how 30 year olds socialized with each other during barbeques, parties etc.. Today it seems like most middle class people wait until 30 to have children, so they miss out on seeing these types of interactions. 40 year olds are very different from 30 year olds. Growing up and seeing a group of people 27-35 having a good time is very different from seeing people 37-45 socializing.

    i remember there were a couple of parents over 40 in our hood, but they usually had 3 or 5 older kids, and they generally did not socialize with my parents and a big reason was the age difference. when I was 10 , all my close friends had parents who were 29 to 38. My mom was 35 and my dad was 37 when I was ten, but half of my friends had younger parents. Like many of my friends , I did not become a father until I was 37.

    back in the 60s it was not unusual for middle class youth to have children at 18, 19, 20. In my generation it was rare. My Mom's sister was married and had her first child at 19. My best friend was born in 1970 and his mom was 20. My uncle was married with 2 kids at age 21. My other Aunt had her first child at age 19. My mother was considered a late bloomer, not having kids tip she was 26. All my Aunts went to college and , yet they both had children before they were 20.

    In the 90s very few college students were in a hurry to get married and have kids. I had a lot of friends in college, and only 2 had a child before turning 22. Most waited until after 30. Having older parents definitely effects the children, both good and bad, but in general older people socialize less and differently than younger parents.

    Maybe the millennials will have another baby boom, but so far they are postponing marriage and children at a much higher rate than Gen-X.
    in 2000 34% of Gen X between 18-30 were married. Today only 23% of millennials aged 18-30 are married. And most of the ones who are married with kids are not white, 50% of children being born since 2010 are non-white. a very different demographics from earlier generations.

  13. "And most of the ones who are married with kids are not white"
    Really? I know their fertility rate is higher, but the illegitimacy rate is much higher.

  14. My main point being that the millennials are having less children than Gen-X

    both the fertility levels and marriage rate for millennials is much lower than it was for Gen-X, which was lower than the boomers. Partly this is due to the poor economy since 2007 and the millennials were more likely to go to college, which delays marriage while adding debt making it more difficult to start a family, resulting in older parents if millennials eventually decide to procreate.

  15. "If they were born past 2005 or so, they'd probably part of a soon-to-be neo-Boomer generation, not Millennials."

    Hard to say, but according to a previous post, we'll know when the smoking rate changes. You put the start date of the Millenials at 1985-1987 by subtracting 13 from the year 2001, which is when the smoking rate began to fall(alcohol, smoking, and illegal drug consumption goes on for about 10 years after the crime rate declines).

    The reasoning was that drug use, drinking, and smoking are more accurate signs of generational changes than the crime, since most people don't commit crimes, but lots of people do smoke, drink alcohol, or do some amount of drugs. Therefore, when substance use changes, we can assume a real change in the attitudes of young people. Smoking started going down just as the first Millenials were turning 13, and choosing not to smoke.

  16. "I don't care for Mexicans either, but I do envy their lower level of helicopter parenting and greater willingness to hang out in public places.

    Don't know if that's built into the genes, though"

    Mexicans come from the Mesomerican farming civilization, so I'd expect on average they're more cocooning/neurotic. They seem more corporeal though, not like intellectual liberals, so that may be why they are more outgoing.

  17. I get that you're just talking about teens as overall cigarette consumption has been falling in the US since 1960.

    (The big falls in smoking rates are among the high education. That explains why the iconic image in Midcentury themed middle to high brow dramas is the smoking, not so much in prole dramas).

    Cigarette consumption also seems to have risen for teens all through the 1990s and had a big fall through 1975-1985 (although a fall to higher levels than the present day).

    Doesn't seem like a clear signal of a generational turnaround.

    (Another thing, the divergence between Blacks smoking and Whites smoking seems to have been through the 1970s - 1990s, where Blacks continued the fall in smoking rates from the late 1970s to end up much below Whites.)

  18. What causes the lack of introspection (rationalization, Boomer blindness)?

  19. A.B. Prosper5/3/14, 5:57 PM

    re: the Mexican question.

    There are a lot of different issues in play, I.Q. impulse control , religiosity, culture and IMO the big one, for them life is getting better, the US is safer, rich in many of the cultural elements they desire and on the average, most Mexicans are better off in their own mind than they would be otherwise.

    Most Whites however are worse off than they would be otherwise and feel it keenly.

    That said birth rates among Mexicans are dropping and at least the ones in the area I live (a highly mixed part of So Cal) have grown less sociable as well. Or so it seems to me

  20. Since musical trends from different time periods is a perennial theme here, a supercut of 90s alt-rock vocal hooks.

  21. The '90s was the beginning of the end for la's, da's, doo's, and dee's. Peak was in the '80s, starting in the '60s.

    De do do do
    De da da da
    Is all I want to say to you

    Talk to me (shoo-wop, shoo-wop)
    Like lovers do (shoo-wop, shoo-wop)

    Now it cuts like a knife
    Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na

    All the kids in the marketplace say,
    "Way-oh way-oh, way-oh way-oh"
    Walk like an Egyptian

    I've been kicking around a post on this exact topic, but it would take awhile to make it quantitative. (Of the top however-many songs on the Billboard Year-End singles, how many have a prominent nonsense vocal refrain?)

    It makes music sound more, well, musical (pure sound, and "sound symbolism," not semantics).

  22. "It makes music sound more, well, musical (pure sound, and "sound symbolism," not semantics)."
    Agreed. I might have mentioned it here before, but I sometimes enjoy music more when I can't understand the lyrics (partly a matter of most lyrics not being all that well written), which is not to say I have anything against singer-songwriter stuff. I don't think it fits your rising vs falling crime pattern though, since doo-wop is sort of quintessential 50s music (and before that there's scat).

    "sound symbolism"
    I sometimes come across the term "sound painting" or "tone poem" in discussions of post-metal (usually instrumental), but you might find that a bit pretentious.

  23. Doo-wop hit it big in the late '50s and early '60s, in synch with the start of the outgoing / rising-crime wave. It was so under-the-radar in the mid-'50s that the Year-End singles for 1956 don't include "In the Still of the Night". Sounds impossible, but it's true.

    Scat is more like the '90s trend -- a holdout during the '30s, as people start cocooning and crime rates are falling.

    With "sound symbolism" I mean the linguistics term, where certain sounds suggest certain things to the human mind. High front vowels like "ee" evoke small and weak, while low back vowels like "ah" evoke large and strong. So even when you're singing nonsense, you can evoke certain things in the listener.


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