|The cast of the film St. Elmo’s Fire. Source: biography.com|
A while back I got caught up in a couple of Twitter threads that reacted to articles about the Boomer and Millennial impact on politics and culture. In both cases Generation X, the smaller generation of people born between 1961-1981, were left completely out of the discussion. I had to react about the omission.
I’m a Gen Xer, having been born in late 1964. And while I realize we’re a true sandwich generation squeezed between two generational behemoths (we were initially called the Baby Busters in the late ’70s, after all, in reference to our far smaller numbers compared to the Baby Boomers), we are often overlooked when it comes to our impact on American society.
Case in point: if you’re looking for the generational roots of today’s back-to-the-city revival, don’t look to the hipster Millennials who settled in over the last 15 years or so, or the NIMBY empty-nester Boomers who did the same. Generation X blazed that trail, and there’s ample popular media examples to prove it.
Back in the ’80s Boomers’ place in society could be characterized by how they were portrayed on television and film. That place? Firmly in suburbia. Family Ties showed how former ’60s hippies settled down in the suburbs to raise a family in the context of rising ’80s conservatism. A more absurd take would be Married… With Children, which explored underlying dysfunction in the suburban household. Another take on Boomers might be L.A. Law, which in some ways echoed the “greed is good” mantra that was apparent in the film Wall Street. And if it wasn’t clear that the principals in both shows lived in suburbia, it’s because it didn’t matter.
But at the same time the ’80s saw a genre emerge that showed young adults finding their way in the big city — mirroring a trend that was underway in reality. Here are four popular examples:
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). The Wikipedia entry says it best: “The movie…centers on a clique of recent graduates of Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, and their adjustment to post-university life and the responsibilities of adulthood.” I never watched Lena Dunham’s Girls, but somehow I feel there’s a lot of similarity.
About Last Night… (1986). One might consider this the Chicago version of St. Elmo’s Fire, but not exactly. First, it’s based on a 1974 David Mamet play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Second, the film definitely features Chicago prominently in the background, with all the cool things that attract young adults to cities, but it’s a film about shifting gender roles and relationships.
Living Single (1993). This show was about six single young adults living and loving life in a Brooklyn brownstone. Two young men lived in one apartment, and three of the four young women lived across the hall. They were professional, upwardly-mobile Gen Xers, both resisting and later succumbing to the sexual tensions between characters. Sound familiar? Maybe because within a year Living Single was ripped off to create…
Friends (1994). This show was about six single young adults living and loving life in a Manhattan apartment building. Three young men lived in one apartment, and three young women lived across the hall. They were professional, upwardly-mobile Gen Xers,… you know the rest.
My point here is that that the back-to-the-city revival didn’t start in 2000 because recent college grads had student loans up to their eyeballs and sought a new place to live. Hollywood recognized the trend going back to the ’80s. If anything, it goes back even further. In 1967 the film Barefoot in the Park was released, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as young newlyweds adjusting to married life and adulthood in their Greenwich Village brownstone. And that film was based on a 1963 Neil Simon play of the same name.
Look, Millennials have definitely brought more attention to cities in ways that Gen Xers did not. But maybe Xers like me should be recognized as the trailblazers we are.