March 4, 2014

Millennial cultural tastes remaining child-like into adulthood

This afternoon I dropped by the local hipster barber shop, and began chatting with the girl cutting my hair. The conversation got around to movies, and she said the best film she's seen recently was... The Lego Movie.

No, she was not a kindergartner who had switched places with her mother for Bring Your Daughter To Work Day. She was a youngish Millennial, 24 or 25, and dressed on the skater / grunge side of the Urban Outfitters crowd. Not obviously nerdy. She didn't strike me as unusual for people in her generation. That's just the way that 20-something tastes are heading these days -- toward the juvenile.

You could forgive them somewhat for having such tastes when their helicopter parents kept them under lock and key in the house all day, every day. They should've at least started to rebel against that during adolescence, though. But not only did that not happen, they're trying to keep themselves stuck in childhood even when they're out of the house and can check out and get involved in whatever cultural trends and scenes that they want.

If you have Millennials among your Facebook friends, you may have seen pictures like this when the final Harry Potter movie came out a few years ago. Remember, these folks are in their late teens and early 20s:

One of the most popular channels on YouTube, with nearly 2.3 million subscribers, is Superwoman, a Punjabi girl from the Toronto area. Although she too is 25, and does touch on more grown-up themes like dating, a lot of it is conflict with parents (who she has never moved away from), and a good portion of her pop culture references are to kiddie stuff for the early Millennials (Barney, Power Rangers, etc.). Whenever she apologizes to the audience for, say, uploading a video later than promised, she says "Saw-wee" like a child.

She can be funny, she's empathetic and can put herself into the minds of other people, and she isn't ugly. So why so juvenile? It's not just the total outcasts and rejects who are retreating away from growing up these days -- even the pretty, popular type is likely to stay this way well into their mid-20s.

I wouldn't characterize the way the kiddie Millennials feel as enthusiastic, as though their brains were still exactly the same as when they were children, nor would I say it's angry, rebellious, or something else that would merit the term "refusing" to grow up. It's more of an uncertainty about where they're going, and a profound awkwardness of someone with a child-like mind inhabiting a more grown-up body and doing more grown-up things like living away from home and/or working.

They feel uncomfortable away from the cocoon of their helicopter parents' home, and they want to do whatever they can to make it feel like they're still a child that's being taken care of by mommy and daddy, and that doesn't have to deal with the awkward adolescent stage of becoming more socially connected and autonomous. In their cultural lives, their plan is to just hide under a pile of blankets until adolescence goes way. Hence their preference for the cutesy, the campy, and the innocuous.

It's an unsettling repeat of how the ethnographers of the Silent Generation described them way back in the original Time magazine article from 1951 (unfortunately no longer available online). Now, inequality and status-striving were falling back then, so folks in their mid-20s could move out of the house and start a family, rather than try to realize their dreams of establishing the awesomest most epic career ever -- BECAUSE I DESERVE IT, OK DAD.

Still, the observers back then noted the Silent Gen's lack of purpose or goals, their uncertainty and anxiety, and their feeling uncomfortable with growing up, performing their duties, and moving through life's stages. As with today's Millennials, I think yesterday's Silent Gen turned out that way because of the Dr. Spock zeitgeist of the Mid-century, and the socially stunting effect of their "smothering mothers" (as helicopter parents were called the last time around).

It's easy to forget what cultural tastes youngish people had back then, because most of it was not cool enough to be retained into future generations (particularly after the '60s). As one brief but telling example, remember that in 1953 an annoyingly cutesy-kiddie song stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for two whole months, and won the #3 spot on the year-end charts -- "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" Such a song could not have enjoyed such success during the Roaring Twenties, which were more like the Eighties.

Related: an earlier more in-depth post on the cultural tastes of Mid-century man-children.


  1. 'What does the fox say?' I've heard 40-somethings who love that song.

    But, where are the good adult comedies on TV? Every five years or so I see a war movie as good as Combat!, which was hackwork, by 60's TV standards. When did you last hear a popular song aimed at adult tastes? Adele, sort of. It's supply-driven- people don't move beyond childish media because there's not much good stuff aimed at adults.

  2. Chiming in with Biff, it was my impression that Lego Movie was popular among parents in their 30s as well.

  3. You provide precious little evidence that mid-century Silents were anything remotely as childlike in their artistic tastes. One cute pop hit won't cut it.

    On the contrary, mid-century Americans took part in book clubs reading - not analogues to YA novels - but Pulitzer Prize winners and New York Times bestsellers.

    On Golden Age of television there were productions of stage plays.

    In mid-century composers and conductors were still household names. Even modestly educated people read about Sartre and existentialist philosophy in Time Magazine. The list goes on.

    The contemporary zeitgeist is different in kind. Today we have a relentless leveling, a skepticism of the intellectual, and a widespread and corrosive informality of speech and attire.

  4. The popularity with doofus parents isn't too surprising -- they've been the main audience, along with small children, since kiddie movies have taken over the box office during the past 15-20 years.

    What's odd at this point is that it's a supposedly hip young person in their mid-20s, with no connection to children, who are seeking it as a retreat back into the comfort of childhood.

    The parents are not trying to escape back into childhood, but wanting something that's "fun for the whole family," i.e., too wussy for adults and assuming too much knowledge/experience from the toddlers.

  5. If you want to hear more of the story, read the related post which I said goes into greater depth. Don't pretend you know what was going on without doing any work, and without personal memories.

    First, the song was not "one" cute hit -- it was part of a broader pattern. Read the related post. Second, it was a #1 hit for two whole months and #3 for the year -- if youngish people didn't have kiddie tastes, this would be an impossible feat.

    You're also confusing the Silent Gen and the Greatest Gen when discussing "mid-century Silents" -- these were young people during that time period, not educated adults with time to spend participating in book clubs, etc.

    Silent Gen goes from roughly 1925 to 1944. Toward the end of the period, say 1955, Silents ranged from 11 years old to 30 years old, the prototypical one (who wouldn't have shared much with previous or future generations on either side) being around 20.

    That's near the end of the period. Earlier than that, the Silents were even younger or perhaps not yet born.

    Even among older folks, i.e. Greatest Gen, they were avid comic book readers (read the related post). They also made the #1 magazine at newsstands -- not anything like what you mentioned, but a trashy gossip tabloid, with other gossip / celeb / sex scandal mags making the genre a key piece of the zeitgeist:

    Adults today beyond their 20s don't read YA novels either. They too read whatever is on the NYT best-seller list. It's a given that most of the book-buying audience will be reading "best-sellers."

  6. Who was "modestly educated" way back before the bubble in higher ed? About 15% of the age group attended college. That same top 1 standard deviation is still familiar with the fashionable philosophers and commenters of their own time, probably more so thanks to streaming TED Talks over the internet.

    That also undercuts the clueless claim that we have a skepticism of the intellectual -- the demand for intellectuals has not been this great since the Mid-century heyday of social science. Intellectuals are everywhere these days, and people cannot get enough of them, and quoting them.

    What relentless leveling, in a society that's marked by an ever-widening gap between social layers? Which types of store are booming? -- Whole Foods-type supermarkets and dollar stores. Even within the top 10%, the top 1% keeps moving apart from the lower 9%, and the top 0.1% keeps moving apart from the lower 0.9%. Walk around New York, and you see people wearing sweatpants and a saggy white t-shirt one moment, then wearing a $5,000 suit with a "power tie" the next.

    In fact, it was during the Great Compression that things became more informal and leveled. How formal and high-class was the Mid-century office worker who wore a white shirt with short sleeves, a pocket protector, and thick nerd glasses? And who wore dark Bermuda shorts with socks yanked up during the weekend?

    Here's another reading assignment to bring you up to speed on the reality of Mid-century society:

    It's an old Fortune magazine article on how formality and upper-class-ness among executives had plummeted within living memory. You're thinking instead of the Gilded Age or Pre-War 20th century.

    Here's a post on how these trends in status-striving and inequality were reflected in home prices and styles:

    There were no McMansions during the Mid-century -- everyone had the same Mid-century Modern ranch house, or if less wealthy, a Cape Cod in a Levittown sub-division. *That* was the leveling spirit, not today's spirit of undoing an entire half-century's worth of leveling.

  7. This is one of the best blogs on the internet. I am amazed by your level of perception, i.e. by how often we agree on our observations. I recently left a comment about usage of the word "So" to begin a sentence, which relates to this generations' general autism, and is also related to this lingering childishness.

    HOWEVER, there is one thing you consistently overlook: these kids are on drugs! Literally. Not pot or coke but medicated, and often from a very young age. I am a divorced Gen X who now dates 20-somethings in NYC and Brooklyn. I am shocked at the number of girls, their friends and male satellites who are or were medicated with serious psychotropic drugs. The only public intellectuals of note who ever discuss this are Michael Savage and Jon Rappoport, but it's a more important issue than I would have thought. Something fundamental changed between my wedding and now. The kids are literally duped. They have become bovine in part because they are running on low batteries. Many have a look of being stoned yet don't smoke pot. Their hyper goody-goodiness is probably related to this. In short, we have a generation that has been drugged into subservience.

    BTW, I stumbled across this very perceptive and likable Millennial from Scotland whop is making quite interesting video commentaries.

  8. As one brief but telling example, remember that in 1953 an annoyingly cutesy-kiddie song stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for two whole months, and won the #3 spot on the year-end charts -- "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?"

    Bear in mind that is peak Baby Boom era. Parents do buy music for their kids. I mean, I'm not sure "Music is bought only or mainly by teens, thus all the Silent Generation kids were full of the desire to rock out to Doggie in the Window" makes any sense at all.

    I could see that more as a sign that Silent Generation kids just didn't care enough about mass pop culture to move the market, more than that they were actually into that.

    Such a song could not have enjoyed such success during the Roaring Twenties, which were more like the Eighties.

    But we can't actually know this one way or the other as there isn't any of this kind of data for this period...

    (Incidentally a "Lego Movie"? That seems to fit out technocratic times, with trends towards more focus on building and tool like toys.

    I have noticed that left liberal people seem to be into endorsing this Lego Movie due its supposedly anti-corporate stance. "Kiddy" today seems nerdier than it was - less sentimental and mawkish, smarter and less visceral.)

    Boomers generally seem to be into younger stuff than Silents when they were the same age (compare what Silents were doing in the 1970s to what Boomers were doing in the 1990s-2000s). Generation X seem to like more childish stuff than Boomers of the same age. I don't know - there might be a periodisation effect where everyone in a less violent time skews more less sexual, risky and violent in their behavior, so less teen like and more child and parent like, but I think I'm happy to be completely dismissive towards a cohort effect on personality.

  9. Post #7, that was just plain vulgar and contributes nothing. I don't always agree with Agnostic, but have never resorted to personal attacks.

  10. Them's fightin' words. Pretty ridiculous too.

  11. The Harry Potter picture speaks to me. When I was 25, I dated a 20 year old briefly, and she was just like these people. Her email address even had a Harry Potter reference. She was really sweet, but it only lasted a few weeks.

  12. I do touch a nerve every now and then, and get weirdos who can't stay away. So far they've taken the hint. Maybe this bitter doofus dad will prove more clingy.

    The substance of the deleted comment was that the infantilization started with Gen X, e.g. Star Wars being a kid's movie and the skater / grunge culture being a Gen X thing. Skater / grunge was not a kiddie thing -- rather, an adolescent thing. Not like the Lego Movie, Harry Potter, etc. Neither was Star Wars a kiddie movie -- appealing to kids, but also to adults, who loved it as well when it came out. Watch Star Wars and Harry Potter back-to-back, and it's obvious that Star Wars is not a kiddie or child's movie.

    Now, if Labyrinth or The Neverending Story had been huge hits with adult audiences, that would have been noteworthy. But they were not -- back in the '80s, kids' movies were strictly for kids.

  13. Also, the Disney renaissance movies were not a hit with 20-somethings, so wrong about that, too. They were first step toward's today's "fun for the whole family" movies, where the parents and children agree to disagree on what movie to see, and pile into a bland tentpole movie instead.

    Today's 20-somethings are different from Gen X, who were not avid fans of Aladdin, Lion King, etc. when they came out (or since).

    Get a clue before commenting.

  14. Wasn't ET the highest grossing film of the 80s?

  15. "In short, we have a generation that has been drugged into subservience."

    And also denied opportunities by a repressive social environment. Even members of the Baby-Boomers and Gen X become dysfunctional during a period of falling-crime.

  16. For instance, look at the celebrity Michael Jackson. He was far from sheltered, being born around 1960, meaning he spent all of his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in a period of rising crime and increased social interaction. But he went off the reservation in the 90s.

  17. "Wasn't ET the highest grossing film of the 80s?"

    Was that because of childless 20-somethings piling into theaters, or was it mostly children and their parents who took them out?

  18. Like the high-grossing Potter films, I presume it was both.

    Now let's look at the highest grossing films of the 00s: Avatar and the LOTR franchise. I'd say these are more adult themed than the kid-friendly ET/Star Wars/Ghostbusters 80s juggernauts.

    I would say the 80s folks were far more thrilled by childish films than we Millennials are.

  19. That was a rhetorical question -- of course 20-somethings were not packing the theaters for E.T. Nobody dressed up for the occasion, ditto for the Star Wars sequels of 1980 and '83. I remember even when the crappy prequels came out, it was not common to see 20 year-olds dressed up in costume, like "Fuck yeah, Star Wars prequels!" Not for the first two anyway. I didn't see Revenge of the Sith in the theater.

    Star Wars and Ghostbusters aren't kiddie movies, something obvious to anyone who's made it past childhood.

    It's clear you haven't seen many '80s movies, only the ones that were still shown to children when you were growing up in the '90s. If you don't know from personal experience, look it up. Wikipedia: "YYYY in film," for any year.

    Lord of the Rings and Avatar are not kiddie, but prove my point -- they are the upper bound of how mature movies are allowed to be these days. Almost nothing is rated R anymore.

    Here's a post on how the top 10 movies were rated from 1969 to 2011, along with how many of the top 10 showed partial or full nudity:

    Those graphs would not surprise anyone who's familiar with popular movies from the past several decades. You're typical of Millennials in not knowing what you're talking about, not caring about it, and not bothering to do simple "research" or reality checks.

  20. They re-released the original Star Wars movies in the late '90s, and I don't recall seeing people my age (late teens) dressed up for that either. There could have been small pockets of fanboys who descended on a chosen theater, like it was a convention, I don't know.

    But it wasn't like you could pick the nearest hot-spot cinema and rely on seeing 20 year-olds in costume. That's almost entirely a Millennial phenomenon.

  21. What's in question here isn't really whether the audience for animated films is proportionately more teen-20s than for the previous generation

    It's whether animated films are more teen oriented or more "kiddy" than they were 30 years ago, whether there is more of a progressive trend in generations being into more "kiddy" or man-teen like stuff or whether it oscillates around a violence cycle, and whether changes in audience composition and design for child oriented films have more to do with changes in age composition or other variables.

    I tend to buy the normal film studies story of the Spielbergisation and blockbusterisation of films in the 70s-80s, moving away from mature adult oriented films to more child, teenage and manolescent* oriented films. Seems like the well documented conventional wisdom.

    It's possible the films of the early 1960s and 1970s (when there was that big "New Hollywood" generation of young adult Baby Boom writers and directors coming through) might have been more adult than the bland big studio films of the 1930s-1950s though, but hard to tell.

    *manolescent being, I guess - "I'd watch John Hughes films and Back to the Future in my early 30s!", for an example.

  22. "What's in question here isn't really whether the audience for animated films is proportionately more teen-20s than for the previous generation"

    If it's not in question, then you agree that Millennials continue to have childish tastes well into their 20s, unlike somewhat older generations -- the whole argument of this post and most of the comment thread.

    The standard film studies story is wrong, no surprise there since it's academics discussing culture. They're cherry-picking adult-oriented movies from a period they like ('60s / early '70s counter-culture) and youth-oriented movies from a period they don't (Boooo Ronald Reagan). That's why you have to use an objective measure like top 10 / 20 / etc. at the box office, or well known movies in a certain genre over time.

    Let's take 1968 -- the most revolutionary year of the counter-culture, right? The #3 movie at the box office was... The Love Bug, a campy Disney flick. At #7 is Oliver!, another one mostly for children. #6 is the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet -- hard to get more adolescent than that, though way better than those other two.

    The darker adult-themed movies were more popular during the mid-'70s -- Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Network, Three Days of the Condor, etc. That style did not extend back into the '60s. And a good amount of New Hollywood was as adolescent as you could get (clueless, bratty, utopian), most obviously in The Graduate.

    The '80s have almost no kiddie movies in them (as shown by the number of G-rated movies in the top 10 -- see the graph in the post I linked to). If you're not going to watch them and see for yourself, at least read through the list of top box office movies for each year of the decade, and read up on them. Don't be like the rest of the Millennials by mindlessly swallowing what the authorities tell you to.

    Hit movies of the '80s focusing on middle-aged and old people, and outside of an ass-kicking, horror, or other context that would appeal to adolescents:

    On Golden Pond

    Chariots of Fire (characters are in college, but movie is adult in tone)

    An Officer and a Gentleman

    Gandhi (not an endorsement of this over-rated movie, just using to establish the claim of no kiddie movies)

    Terms of Endearment

    The Big Chill

    The Color Purple

    Out of Africa



    Fatal Attraction

    Rain Man

    Dead Poets Society (characters are high schoolers, but adults like this more than teens do)

    The War of the Roses

    Driving Miss Daisy


    Steel Magnolias

    Field of Dreams

  23. "*manolescent being, I guess - "I'd watch John Hughes films and Back to the Future in my early 30s!", for an example."

    This is the try-hard approach toward maturity, only found among the yet-to-mature. Like, once you hit 30, you must abandon everything you liked as a teenager or 20-something, and GET REAL SERIOUS about what signals you're broadcasting through your music tastes. Time to load up on Frank Sinatra.

    Nothing wrong with *expanding* your tastes to include more adult or settled-down stuff. But you're taking a Puritanical approach, as though grown-ups only watch and listen to things meant for grown-ups, or enjoy hobbies and activities that are exclusively grown-up (say, smoking a pipe while grooming your beard and wearing a tweed jacket).

    There goes anything athletic or kinesthetic, then -- that's a young man's game. I guess you're supposed to take pride in a beer gut than in having fun by playing sports, dancing, or otherwise continuing to be active.

    Same with songs. Remember that swing music used to be young people's music -- when those listeners were in their 40s and beyond, were they childish or manolescent for continuing to listen to swing?

    Watching Back to the Future or The Breakfast Club when you're no longer in high school requires empathy, putting yourself back into that mindset, almost like studying a strange tribe through an interpreter / informant (your own memory).

    Millennials flocking to Harry Potter premieres in costume is not using empathy to enter another group's mindset. They are still in that child-like mindset themselves.

  24. You're also prohibiting nostalgia, a perfectly normal and healthy emotion. Nostalgia assumes that you're no longer in the place that you're recalling. Watching a John Hughes movie in your 30s, for instance. The very fact that you feel wistful for not belonging in that time and place proves that you've matured beyond it.

    Millennials do not feel nostalgic about Harry Potter, since they've never left it. You can't feel nostalgia for your home if you never move out of the house.

  25. Another anecdotal data point to add:

    I was speaking recently to a 30-year old woman and remarked that there are maybe a handful of movies made each year that I'm excited to see in theaters. She concurred, and said she's only excited to see movies based on books she's read like...Hunger Games.

  26. The fortune link about top 500 execs doesn't work anymore. Here's an archive of that link:

  27. plenty of songs from mid-century that are childlike, like The Chipmunk Song and Witch Doctor and The Purple People Eater


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