Generational Shift

By | Monday, June 05, 2023 Leave a Comment
It occurred to me not long ago that, by a weird confluence of technological and business intersections, Gen X is in something of a unique position as far as understanding previous generations. I'll explain mainly through television examples; it applies across media writ large, but I think it's most easily explained via TV so I'll circle on back to comics towards the end of this post.

Let's start with this basic premise: art is a reflection of life. Or, more to the point, art is a reflection of life as it exists at the time of its creation. At a social level, art is an interpretation and reaction to what's going on in the artist's world and, at a technological level, what's capable of being created is limited by the technology that's available. For example, a caveman's art is going to be primarily about survival and created using found tools -- brushes hadn't been invented yet. Cubism, by contrast, arose in the 20th century because people were starting to see/hear about the entire world, not just their corner of it, and were beginning to understand and process how a single subject could be seen from multiple perspectives simultaneously; however, these paintings were not done digitally because computers weren't a thing yet. Art is a reflection of life.

Television was invented in 1927, but commercially wasn't widely available until about a decade later. So while the oldest members of the Silent Generation (born in the mid-1920s) could probably recall seeing television for the first time, the youngest members (born in the mid-1940s) could've grown up with TV. In either case, television was still new and broadcast options were limited and programming was relatvely crude. Boomers (mid-1940s through mid-1960s) would've grown up in a time when television was becoming pretty ubiquitous and programming was stabilized. The first televised pro football game was in 1948; the first national, nightly news program began in 1950; the first televised presidential debate was in 1960. But there were only a handful of national networks airing (mostly) original programming. The notion of reruns didn't exist at all prior to 1953 as most shows were performed live without even being recorded.

All of this meant that anyone growing up during this time had access to whatever was being aired currently and that was pretty much it. Television, even if you were watching something set in the past like The Lone Ranger, still reflected the fasions, social mores and customs of the time it was created. Even ostensibly historical shows like Davy Crockett and Annie Oakley bore more resemblence to the 1950s than the 1800s in which they were set. So viewers tuned in nightly to whatever they wanted to watch and saw a mirror of some sort, whether that was The Honeymooners or Dobie Gillis. But it was always a mirror of life as they knew it.

Then we get to Gen X. While cable television was created in the late 1930s, it didn't really start gaining major traction until the 1970s; the number of subscribers began doubling every 4-5 years beginning in 1970. This led to a very rapid massive expansion of channels and it became something of a go-to joke in the 1980s how we went from three to five hundred channels and there was still nothing on. Of course, the reason for this was because this rapid expansion meant that you suddenly had literally hundreds of outlets looking for programming to fill twenty-four hours a day, but without the budgets to do original scripted programming like the national networks. So all these new channels did the same thing -- they got the rights to air old movies and TV shows. And they grabbed everything they could -- Three Stooges shorts, Fred Astair movies, Buster Crabbe serials, Japanese kaiju films, every sitcom you've ever heard of...

Which means that Gen X had ongoing access to not only art that reflected their life, but art that reflected the lives of everyone over the previous 50-75 years. Granted, Leave It to Beaver was never a perfect reflection of anybody's actual life, but it was a window into what that era was like. It reflected the values of that time. Gen X saw, through the proliferation of channels and long Saturday afternoons, glimpses into what it was like in previous eras. Something that previous generations simply did not have access to.

Interestingly, though, this doesn't really carry over much to Millenials (born in the early 1980s) and later generations. By the time they start coming of age enough to watch and understand television, cable companies were producing enough new content on their own that, while you could watch Gilligan's Island pretty much any time you wanted, there was a massive selection of new material that spoke more directly to current audiences. Not only were the historical national networks still producing new material, but all of these cable channels began doing so as well so new viewing options expanded at an exponential rate. The notion of watching some old movie or TV show just because "nothing else was on" fell to the wayside because there was always something new on. All of which means that Millenials weren't seeing any of those reflections of Gen X or earlier; those mirrors were available but were obscured by newer ones. This trend has only become exasperated since then, with the rise of both streaming and independent content creation -- there's nearly 300,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube alone on a daily basis!

As I said, it's most evident via examples through television, but I think much the same applies to comics. They, too, are reflections of the times they're created and it's fairly small window in which reprint material (and, to a lesser degree, new material based on historical properties) started becoming readily available but before a glut of publishers -- later including webcomikers -- flooded the maket such that it's impossible to keep track of everything, much less actually read it all.

All that means thats Gen X had a unique perspective looking at and understanding or being able to empathize with previous generations in a way that previous and later generations did not.

It makes me wonder if one of the reasons there seems to be less generational strife from and against Gen Xers is because they have a better (though obviously not comprehensive) understanding of where other generations are coming from, as they had more opportunties to view life through others' eyes. More relfections of other eras. I don't doubt there are other generational aspects going on here as well, but I can't help but think the particular shift in the media landscape while Gen X was coming of age had a hand in things.
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