Winograd and Hais: Do you get the Millennial Generation?

The Christian Science Monitor

By Morley Winograd and Mike Hais

MTV premièred in August 1981, seven months after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as America's 40th president. It revolutionized TV and the music industry as much as Reagan changed the country's politics.

And now, just as the election of Barack Obama to the presidency signaled the end of that political era and the beginning of another, MTV is belatedly shifting gears as well.

The network, long known for cynical and vapid content, has suddenly understood the importance of being earnest. Booze and bikinis are out. Do-good singers and hard-working art students are in.

MTV acknowledged that its programming had become out of step with the progressive, service-oriented values of today's youth, the Millennial Generation. "It was very clear we were at one of those transformational moments, when this new generation of Millennials [born between 1982 and 2003] were demanding a new MTV," a channel executive explained.

After losing ground for years, MTV finally got it. But many other corporations and institutions – the Republican Party comes to mind – still don't. As a result, they risk alienating the approximately 95 million young Americans who will be defining the nation's politics and culture for decades to come.

MTV's mistake was to assume that the members of particular demographic groups, in this instance young people in their mid-teens through their mid-20s, behave the same and hold the same attitudes at all times. If only MTV's executives had gone to the movies more often, they might have recognized these generational changes much sooner.

For baby boomers (born 1946-1964), a generation of idealists driven by strong personal values, no coming-of-age-movie captured their rebellious and moralistic spirit better than "The Graduate." The protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, is a depressed loner who rejects his parents' "plastic" values. In his dalliance with Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin seeks emotional attachment and deeper meaning, whereas she is in the "relationship" only for physical release.

The movie ends as Benjamin rescues his true love, Elaine (Mrs. Robinson's daughter) from an "arranged" marriage by blocking the door from the church with a cross. Benjamin and Elaine ride away on a bus, embracing a new idealistic lifestyle while forever turning their backs on the shallow and meaningless existence of their parents.

But the tone of coming-of-age movies shifted dramatically when Generation X (born 1965-1981) became teenagers and 20-somethings in the 1980s. This generation was best represented in "Risky Business."

Tom Cruise portrays Joel Goodsen, an alienated young man who, like many real-life Gen-Xers, is a latchkey kid abandoned by his vacationing parents at their suburban home.

Unlike Benjamin Braddock, Joel does not use his alienation from the grown-up world as a reason to pursue deeper values. Instead, he uses his time alone to perform an iconic dance in his underwear while lip-synching to "Old Time Rock and Roll." He wrecks the family car, hires a hooker, and, in true Gen-X entrepreneurial fashion, provides a "for hire" outlet to satisfy his friends' sexual desires, using the family home as his place of business.

Contrast those stories with the emblematic Millennial movie "The Devil Wears Prada."

Millennials are the American generation least bound by gender role expectations, so it isn't surprising that the protagonist is a young woman with an androgynous name, Andy (Sachs). Because Millennials are also the most tolerant American generation, it's not surprising that Andy's best friends are an African-American woman, a gay man, and her sensitive boyfriend who aspires to be a chef. In true Millennial fashion, Andy constantly relies on her friends and parents, whom she adores, for love, advice, and support.

Andy is temporarily attracted by the glitter of the world of high fashion. However, like others of this generation who are driven by a desire to solve society's problems, she realizes her true calling is far different.

She breaks with her boss, Miranda Priestly, at the fashion magazine where she works, so that she can take a job writing for a liberal newspaper. But, as a polite and conventional Millennial, the break is not harsh. In fact, her old boss, the devil herself, provides the crucial reference for Andy's new job.

Everyone in politics and pop culture should learn the lesson MTV belatedly has. To really understand the preferences of young people, take a look at their generation and not simply their age. That will tell you everything you need to know.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows at NDN, a progressive think tank in Washington, and the New Policy Institute. They are coauthors of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics.”