Monday, November 23, 2009


a.k.a., Return of the Generation Gap

rall mugI'm a cartoonist, columnist, writer and editor. So most of my friends are cartoonists, columnists, writers and editors. And a few publishers. One topic towers all over all others in my circle of friends: the future of journalism. Print media is in trouble; online media is ascendant. But consumers don't pay for online content and online advertisers pay much less for x readers online than they do in print. As NBC CEO Jeff Zucker famously warned last year, the media is "trading analog dollars for digital pennies."

But not everyone is worried. Many aspiring journalists and cartoonists in their twenties have embraced the Web. They don't dread a future without print--they welcome it. If newspapers and magazines are going under, say these e-vangelists, they have no one to blame but themselves. "Considering most political journalism is editorializing disguised as reporting, what would be the big deal," asks Shawn Mallow, a blogger at "Does anyone have any illusions as to which way the New York Times leans in its political reporting?"

At Erick Schonfeld adds low quality to the list of old media sins: "The newspaper industry wants to go back to the world before the Web, when each newspaper was a small media bundle packed with stories, 80 percent of which sucked…News sites can no longer capture reader’s attention with 20 percent news, and 80 percent suck."

Remember the "generation gap"? In the 1960s and 1970s, it described the cultural chasm between rock 'n' roll-loving hippie Baby Boomers and their stodgy Lawrence Welk-watching parents. It came back in the 1990s, when snotty twentysomethings wrote books like "Generation X" and "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids," deriding their Boomer elders as sentimental, selfish and unaware.

Generational détente has prevailed since then. Gen Xers born in the 1960s and early 1970s are now in their 40s, America's culturally dominant age group. Sure they're inheriting the country just as it's collapsing. But whining is unbecoming when one of your own has just been elected president. Laid-off Xers (many of them canned by media companies) are coming to grips with failure, causing them to go easier on Boomers, whom they'd previously blamed for everything from global warming to blowing the chance for a revolution back in 1968. Stuff happens. We get that now. How's that alimony payment working out for you?

Besides, we Gen Xers get along with Gen Y types, who are roughly 25 to 35 years old these days. We're both cynical, distrusting of authority, pessimistic about our economic prospects, and dig a lot of the same music and movies. Generation gap? We're too cool for that.

Now here come the Millennials to wipe that smug we-still-listen-to-the-Dead-Kennedys look off our faces. Generational demographic gurus William Strauss and Neil Howe define the Millennials as Americans born after 1982--at this writing, people under age 27. Gen X never saw them coming. Now they're challenging Xers--and the generation gap is back.

This generation gap is the opposite of previous versions, in which young insurgents attacked their elders for being too arch and moralistic. Like Mulder in "The X Files," they desperately want to believe: their leaders, their government, their corporate executives. And they really want to believe in technology. In my little world of journos, they toil on blogs like the Huffington Post for pennies or nothing at all, perfectly happy because they're sure it will pay off someday. How? They don't know, but "someone"--some tech company, some entrepreneur--is bound to figure it all out. When those of us in our 40s point out that there's no evidence to support contentions such as theirs--my favorite is that online ad rates are bound to go up someday, just because--these Young Turk Millennials mock us as washed-up has-beens.

Young people mocking old people for being too cynical is weird.

According to Mssrs. Strauss and Howe, however, this clash was inevitable. Xers are one of four recurring generational archetypes in American society and in Great Britain before the colonies. (They trace these cycles back to the War of the Roses in 1459.) Gen Xers, they argue convincingly, are a "nomadic" generation. According to Wikipedia: "Nomads are ratty, tough, unwanted, diverse, adventurous, and cynical about institutions. They grow up as the underprotected children of an Awakening, come of age as the alienated young adults of an unraveling, become the pragmatic, midlife leaders of a crisis and age into tough, post-crisis elders…" Serious columnists aren't supposed to quote Wikipedia, but I'm Gen X. I'm ratty. I break rules.

Millennials are a "heroic" generation. They "are conventional, powerful, and institutionally driven, with a profound trust in authority"--i.e., perfectly programmed to be intensely disturbed by Xers. If you're the gullib--er, trusting--type, what could be more threatening than to have a generation that doesn't believe in anything be your elders?  "They grow up as the increasingly protected children of an unraveling, come of age as the heroic, team-working youth of a crisis…" That last part is dead on. When U.S. society came apart at the seams in the 1970s and 1980s, Millennials' Boomer parents smothered and coddled them. Now they're working for Teach for America. Or at a paid internship. Something will work out. Someone will think of something. Besides, with Boomer parents, money isn't a big worry.

A recent blog post at brought it home for me. "I'm starting to not comprehend Ted Rall's politics at all," wrote Jesse Levin, almost certainly under age 27. "His current slate of strips basically targets Obama's lefty ineffectuality. His blog rails against Bush...Things may not be black and white, but where on Earth do ya stand as a political cartoonist? Unless you're just an independent spraying hateful buckshot at all authority figures, I think Ted's logic centers are failing on several levels."

"An independent spraying hateful buckshot at all authority figures." Sounds like the perfect definition of a Gen X pundit to me. And perfectly calibrated to piss off up-and-coming Millennials.

(Ted Rall is the author, with Pablo G. Callejo, of the new graphic memoir "The Year of Loving Dangerously." He is also the author of the Gen X manifesto "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids." His website is

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