’21 Jump Street’ shows us how Millennials are different

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A scene in the “21 Jump Street” movie taps into a recent generational change I’ve been noticing among Millenials. Here’s some background on the plot: Five years after graduating high school, two rookie cops (played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, respectively) are assigned to go undercover in a high school to bust drug dealers (okay, that’s obvious to anyone who watched the 80s TV show of the same name.)

The fun starts when Tatum’s character (who had been popular in high school when he graduated just five years earlier) assumes the same schoolyard rules (never look like you’re “trying”!) that applied in his day still apply today. Wanting to make a good first-impression (in order to immediately establish his high school “street cred” and Alpha male status), he seeks out easy prey to intimidate.

“He’s trying, he’s actually trying,” Tatum’s character says (pointing at some kid who seems to be minding his own business).  “Look at the nerd!” When the nerd takes umbrage at this, Tatum’s character punches him and says: “Turn that gay-ass music off.”

Surprisingly, the crowd sides with the nerd, and one of the cool kids says, “That is really insensitive.”

The premise of this scene illustrates an interesting new phenomenon. Today’s “cool” kids no longer think “trying” makes one a nerd. (Nor do they condone casual gay-bashing.) Times have changed. And since they turned this generational shift into the plot point of a movie (ironically, Jonah Hill’s character becomes the popular kind in this new paradigm), I’m guessing others will notice.

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Speaking at the July 2012 Portland/CreativeMornings, author and literary critic William Deresiewicz described the same phenomenon. Regarding today’s young people, he observed, “[T]hey’re all incredibly nice. They’re all…polite, well-spoken, pleasant, moderate, earnest.”

Comparing today’s rock idols to the musicians of yore — who trashed hotel rooms and talked about how many groupies they slept with (think Channing Tatum’s character’s fantasy) — Deresiewicz argues that today’s bands are “all like low-key, self-deprecating, post-ironic, very earnest, very eco-friendly sort of presentation.”

Deresiewicz has been surprised to learn that “trying” and being entrepreneurial is actually considered “cool” these days. “It’s like every artistic or moral aspiration is now expressed in terms of starting your own business, whether it’s food or music or good works,” he says.

This, of course, is dramatically different from the way things used to be.

“We used to talk about something known as ‘selling out’. It was a bad thing,” he says. “I think it’s really interesting that that phrase has completely dropped out of our vocabulary.”

So what is the cause of this change? In the 1950s, kids rebelled against their straight-laced parents. Could it be that this generation is just rebelling against their slacker parents? It’s a nice theory, but that doesn’t really make sense. If the slacker trend essentially lasted from at least 1955-2005, the generational backlash theory would have had kids rebelling against rebellion as early as the mid-70s.

Another theory holds that schools have ratcheted up politically correct propaganda campaigns in recent years. Perhaps this had some level of impact?–but my guess is that kids had been ignoring the advice of authority figures forever. Why should increased calls for tolerance or even taking education more seriously, etc., suddenly begin working?

Some will surely argue the mass media is responsible, but this theory also seems to fall flat. In the 1980s, we were preached to by the media about all sorts of things (see slogans like, “The More You Know,” “One to Grow On,” “Knowing is Half the Battle,” etc.), and we still behaved like heathens and avoided homework.

My guess is a few societal things are at play here.

First, economic incentives work. When blue collar kids could slide through high school and still get a job paying $19 an hour in a factory, school could legitimately be seen as a joke — a waste of time. That trend has obviously come to an end. (It probably ended in the 1970s, but it might have taken a generation or so to become clear.)

Today’s generation of students have grown up with economic uncertainty, and have seen the fallout associated with not being prepared or equipped to succeed in a brave new world. As a result, obtaining a college degree is now seen as de rigueur. It stands to reason that what constitutes as “cool” might ultimately shift accordingly. “It’s uncool if you don’t try,” one young co-worker told me. The slacker-type is multi-generational and hasn’t gone away, but now it’s just not cool to be one.

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Ultimately, I think technology and the internet are the most important reason for this generational shift — and for a few reasons.

First, the rise of the internet seems to correlate pretty nicely with the arrival of this shifting paradigm. As I noted, the rebellious slacker/jock mentality seemed to define “cool” for thirty of forty years. The biggest and obvious change that could be responsible for the shift was the creation (and ubiquity) of the internet.

Another factor: While many blue collar kids, circa 1980, were viewing high school as a waste of time, the types of kids poised for success in the pre-internet business world were “Type A” sorts — jocks, bullies, etc. (think Johnny Lawrence from “The Karate Kid.”)

Nerds were still considered weirdos and outsiders.

Today, however, technology is among the most lucrative and appealing fields, and the kids most predisposed to thrive in this environment are no longer the “Type A” jocks, but instead, nerds. (We always knew they would some day reap the rewards of their brains, but could it be that that awareness trickled down, making them more appealing even in high school?)

As a side benefit, the internet made it possible for kids formerly considered outsiders to congregate and network. There is strength in numbers, and kids who once thought they were all alone probably become bolder when they realize there are millions of other kids just like them.

There’s also this: Just as the internet empowered adults to manage their own stock portfolios and sell their junk on eBay, it also transformed young artistic types — kids who might have previously dissed the notion of “selling out” — into young entrepreneurs.

As one young person told me,

I see the entrepreneur spirit in a lot musicians, especially electronic musicians, who post songs on their Soundcloud page or on Facebook. Maybe they initially just wanted to start out by sharing their music for pleasure because the Internet makes it so easy to do so, but I’m sure the chance to gain feedback and network with other musicians makes them feel like they’re doing something significant and important.

The fact that they’re so easily doing something that was before acceptable as just a hobby and viewed as a risky, unstable career path, from their own home on a computer, I think is getting rid of the idea that it’s uncool to be famous and significantly diminishing the concept of selling out. I say the last part because there’s so much different music out there that a lot that people would think is weird, but it gets positive feedback. And with the huge number of “musicians” out there, it definitely pays off to have something that the majority isn’t used to seeing or hearing. It pays to be different. This isn’t necessarily selling out though, I think.

The connotation of selling out wasn’t that making money was bad, but that one would compromise their artistic integrity in order to satisfy some corporate entity. The internet, where one can sell to a niche audience, removes the negative side of “selling out,” leaving the good side — the selling.

There is a lot to this, and clearly something interesting is afoot. I do find it interesting that “21 Jump Street” seems to be at the forefront of exposing this phenomenon.

Matt K. Lewis