The Gap: Not talking 'bout my generation

April 17, 2006 | By Stephanie Hoo

“One generation’s punch line is the next generation’s set-up line.”

What are the media moguls missing?

So says William Strauss, whose new book “Millennials and the Pop Culture” looks at why entertainment executives keep getting it wrong when trying to figure out today’s 20-somethings.

Album sales are down, TV viewership is falling and movies are playing to half-empty theaters. But instead of rethinking their approach, entertainment moguls are instead blaming young people for not watching or listening to what older people want them to, Strauss says.

And it’s not just Baby Boomers who don’t get it. Even Generation X’ers complain that younger people don’t have a very sharp sense of humor.

But, “they just are laughing at a different set of jokes,” Strauss says. What might seem ironic to an X’er is just a given for the next generation—the building block for a new kind of humor. “What makes them laugh will be something born of a new set of circumstances.”

Strauss and co-author Neil Howe call this new group “Millennials,” Americans born after 1982. It’s a group that is used to being the center of attention, with magazine articles in the mid-’80s already heralding their high school graduation as the “Class of 2000” and speculating about what life would be like for them.

Now, they’ve arrived. And, Strauss and Howe say they’re about to shake up pop culture.

Birth of a Generation

Beginning around 1982, there was a new positive attitude in the culture about babies, Strauss says. America exited what he calls “the evil child movie era” of the late ‘60s and ‘70s—think: “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” In their place came movies like “Baby Boom” and “Three Men and Baby” in which “adults become better people with babies around,” he says. Still later, cartoon movies made the first resurgence in decades.

In the political sphere, child safety issues became paramount, whether it was helmets for bike-riding or sex abuser notification laws.

“There was a lot of focus on making sure that babies were well taken care of in our society,” he says. “And, very gradually, that specialness wrapped itself around those early ‘80s cohorts as they entered school.”

For the Millennials themselves, instead of using technology as a retreat, they use it to build community, whether it’s through IM or on MySpace, he says. Their biggest health issues aren’t drug or alcohol abuse but are instead eating disorders, obesity and other consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.

Celebrity culture is something of a joke for them, too, Strauss says. They look at Paris Hilton or Britney Spears and often describe their own friends as more talented. “Look at the success of ‘American Idol.’ It reflects a desire to find something new,” he says.

And while they’re watching less TV, they spend more time in front of computer screens. When they do go to the movies, they’re texting their friends with instant reviews right from the theater. Mobile technology is a coming of age tool, Strauss says.

How to Bridge the Gap

For starters, the entertainment industry needs to see Millennials as active users of pop culture and not passive consumers, Strauss says.

It needs to learn how to monetize how young people get their entertainment, Strauss says. So, suing Napster into the ground is what NOT to do.

“On the creative side, one thing is to marshal these young people, to find young creatives who are either under 25 or who really understand the under-25 mind-set and start telling their stories with characters that work for them and that are fresh,” he says.

“You sometimes feel when you look at the culture that they’re retelling stories that are of interest to the older generation and trying to repackage them,” he says. And that just isn’t going to work.