It’s been three years since Joel Stein wrote his infamously snarky Time article “The Me Me Me Generation” about that ungainly cohort born between roughly 1980 and 2000 “whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated.” The piece was swiftly criticized for peddling lazy clichés and picking low-hanging fruit, but we’re still not over our obsession with “millennials,” if only because of the group’s outsize buying power.
Lately there have been more signs of millennial-bashing fatigue, from the backlash to the New York Times article on millennial workplace habits to the recent Nielsen report that actually acknowledged the fact that “18-to-34 year olds are not a monolithic group with a common set of technologies or behaviors.”
The latest counterattack to the stereotype of the lazy, entitled millennial is a somewhat random six-episode documentary airing on the Ovation network. The title of the series is technically accurate, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. Millennials: Growing Up in the 21st Century doesn’t attempt to paint a portrait of a generation; there’s no panic over young people’s reliance on technology or inability to connect face-to-face. Despite some heavy and certainly dramatic subject matter, the series doesn’t aim to induce that kind of generational panic.
Millennials follows 22 Seattle-area youths from childhood to early adulthood; filmmaker Rick Stevenson likens the project to a real-life Boyhood, which director Richard Linklater made over a period of 12 years. Stevenson stuck to his own neighborhood, working with the Shoreline School District to pick his subjects. He interviewed each child annually, asking questions based on Bloom’s taxonomy, a teaching method meant to assess different levels of critical thinking and analysis. The result is a charmingly lo-fi series that defies cliché even as it finds common ground between its subjects.
Millennials bears traces of the British docu-series Seven Up!, in which filmmaker Michael Apted follows the lives of fourteen children from the age of seven on, with a new installment released every seven years (2012’s 56 Up was the most recent). Stevenson was a little looser with his scheme, choosing kids from age 7 to 13 and sticking with some longer than others, allowing his subjects to drop out any time they chose.
The series is not exactly polished; the editing can be a little awkward and on the nose, with gratuitous cuts to earlier interviews meant to highlight a contrast between a subject’s feelings at different ages. Stevenson’s voiceovers are similarly clunky, particularly the explanatory intro that plays before each episode to a montage of photos laid against a cloudy sky: “Growing up my grandfather was my best friend. He would ask me questions about the big issues today and sit patiently as my young mind tried to make sense of the world….”
Millennials may not have high-budget production values, but the no-frills packaging disguises a surprisingly nuanced presentation of the evergreen “kids today” narrative. “I started interviewing kids once a year in hopes of helping them find their stories,” Stevenson says in his intro, and for the most part he cuts through the tired millennial stereotypes by letting the kids have their say: Mercifully, there are no talking heads or “experts” attempting to explain millennials’ behavior.
Refusing to make grand statements about millennials is a wise move. Instead of a nebulous thinkpiece come to life, Millennials is about the specific stories of its subjects. One girl, Danielle, was sexually assaulted at a party at the age of 12, and we see her struggle with the psychological effects of the attack in the years after; another girl, Gwenth, grows up chafing against her overprotective parents, who immigrated to the States from Vietnam. Rather than cutting back and forth between stories, Stevenson devotes about a third of each episode to one person’s story — a snapshot of a crucial, formative time in each of their lives.
Played back to back, these stories reveal a lot of common ground. In the first three episodes, most of the kids express the desire to feel in control of their lives. They want to be listened to, they want their parents’ attention, and they want their lives to be meaningful. They’re impatient for adulthood; one boy describes feeling “restless in a wanting something bigger kind of way, as long as I can remember.” Many of their parents are or eventually become divorced. Millennials may not traffic in melodrama, but the kids Stevenson chooses are a troubled bunch: drugs, self-harm, institutional visits, absent fathers and mothers, and mental breakdowns are persistent throughout the series.
What stands out the most is how normal it all looks. The marketing aimed toward the lucrative 18-34 demographic would have you believe all millennials base their life choices on the misadventures of Hannah Horvath, impulsively shelling out cash for summer music festivals and take-out cupcakes. On not a few TV shows, millennials stroll through New York City and L.A. with an aimless charm that belies the generational anxiety bubbling underneath.
The boys and girls of Millennials are grounded by very real, if mundane, problems. Divorce has become so common that it’s easy to forget how earth shattering it can feel to a kid, and many of the children featured are torn apart when their parents split apart. Others struggle with depression or feeling unable to meet their parents’ high expectations. One boy who emigrated from Mexico as an 11-year-old finds out only as he’s poised to graduate high school that he and his family are not legal citizens, and so he can’t apply to colleges. Some find religion as adolescents, while others reject it.
Ironically, the show’s marketing materials would likely turn off most millennials; the key image, which shows Stevenson lying on the grass on his back in a nod to the Boyhood poster, looks more like parody than winking homage. But this less-than-savvy approach suits the program. It may lack the high-sheen gloss of other products aimed at millennials, but it also lacks the whiff of desperation and condescension they so often radiate.