In Garry Trudeau’s animated short film, A Doonesbury Special, the stoner ex-hippie Zonker announces to his group of middle-class roommates that “the commune is passé,” at which his roomie Mark worries out loud, “Where will I go? Who will I be? What will I eat?!” Zonker responds saying, “unless you’re from Vermont, the commune is finito,” and he continues to suggest that the group “disband, intermarry, and move into condominiums.” After Zonker’s speech, Mike, the contemplative character in the house, sadly comments to Mark that Zonker was right about “the passage of an era,” and Mike questions: “When was the last time we fought for anything?”
By the time A Doonesbury Special debuted in 1977, the decline of the Sixties dream was already well-worn territory. A year prior, Tom Wolfe penned his influential essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in which he argued that the communitarian ethos of the 1960s had shifted into a prosperity-driven, individualistic quest towards self-realization. He notes how the Boomer generation in the 1970s began asking themselves “what will the Real Me be like?” In his essay, “Decade of ‘Image, Skin Flicks and Porn,’” Norman Mailer said that the 1970s were a time when “people put emphasis on the skin, on the surface, rather than on the root of things. It was the decade in which image became preeminent because nothing deeper was going on.” Boomers in the late 1970s seemed to have altogether abandoned their hippie ideals in exchange for corporate jobs, traditional marriages, and houses in the suburbs. It was a time that Bruce Schulman described as “an era of narcissism, selfishness, personal rather than political awareness.”
Like Trudeau’s characters, many Boomers were coming to terms with the loss of their activist identities. What had begun as a countercultural fight against the system had turned into complacent acceptance of it. By the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, Boomers were selling out—turning “from yippies to yuppies”—and the what did it all mean? question loomed heavy on their minds. These uncomfortable realizations among Boomers manifested in the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. The cinema of the late 1960s and the 1970s started to show the cracks in the façade. Movies like Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, Nashville, A Woman Under the Influence, Killer of Sheep, and Interiors, to name a few, all exhibited a kind of decay from the sense of purpose and optimism found in the earlier films of the 1960s. In particular, Sidney Lumet’s Network, a movie about the corporatization of news networks, stimulated rage about the decline of liberal American values. In the picture, Howard Beale, a news anchor turned “mad prophet of the airwaves,” exhorts audiences to rebel by yelling out, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But take it they did. This enthusiasm turned out to be nothing more than a last gasp for the Boomers, and the movies of the 1980s shifted to new Boomer problems: becoming yuppies, having kids, getting divorced, and living with suburban angst.
Newsweek declared 1984 the “year of the yuppie,” writing that a bourgeoning professional class was “making lots of money, spending it conspicuously, and switching political candidates like they test cuisines.” The yuppie represented a sea change in the Boomer mentality: a move towards conservative bourgeois values and away from the leftist values of their adolescence. However, not all Boomers made the jump so quickly. In John Sayles’ 1980 film Return of the Secaucus 7, seven friends reunite and bring up old and new personal issues. A core theme of the movie is their coming to terms with the fact that they used to fight for social and political causes, and now they work regular jobs and have mundane family lives. The justification for their new lives lies in their retention of social liberties despite the abandonment of their former political beliefs. In his essay “Yuppies,” John Hammond notes this distinction:
Media accounts, though impressionistic, have suggested that yuppies reject high taxes, social spending, and government regulation, the New Deal economic agenda. But they are liberal on issues of personal freedom and lifestyle, especially sexual and gender freedom: they support equal rights for women; they reject restrictive sexual mores, and accordingly endorse freedom of sexual preference and abortion rights. Finally, the media have pictured yuppies as materialistic, but not out of economic insecurity; rather, they are economically privileged and they take advantage of it.
In essence, the yuppies wanted to maintain their Boomer concern for civil rights and sexual freedom, but they also wanted the freedom to make and spend more money. One of the most telling scenes in Return of the Secaucus 7 is when Irene, the activist-turned-highly-paid-government-employee, insists that J. T., the wandering musician, allow her to invest in his music career. She guiltily notes how she would feel better if her money was spent on something of value like art rather than on pointless, superficial things.
It did not take long for advertising companies and corporations to latch onto the notion of the yuppie. Schulman notes that “Americans began discovering yuppies everywhere. Carmakers, demographers, academics, film and television producers, record company executives, journalists, and politicians began to see yuppiedom as the new, influential wave in American life.” In the movie world, this yuppie obsession is best represented in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill. The movie deals with many of the same issues presented in Return of the Secaucus 7: entering age thirty, remembering youth, dealing with family life. The difference is that, compared to the humble, contemplative vibe of Return of the Secaucus 7, The Big Chill, as Joel Bocko put it, “appears almost vulgar in its slickness.” Hollywood glommed onto the concept of the yuppie to the point of glorification—instead of regretting the loss of their activist youth, the characters in The Big Chill embrace their materialistic and wealthy lifestyles. Kasdan’s big-budget picture draws heavily on Sayles’ storyline, but Kasdan turns his actors into stock characters—mere caricatures of the ones Sayles presented.
Despite its polished appearance, The Big Chill is not completely unaware of itself. The characters often make subtle, lighthearted jabs at the yuppies they have become. For instance, Sam, the cheesy television actor, once reflects that he has been “too slow to realize that people our age with histories like ours, having gone through the same stuff, could be dishonest, unprincipled, backstabbing sleazeballs.” Similarly, Michael, a writer for People magazine, advises Sam: “Don’t knock rationalization—where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations that are more important than sex.” When Sam resists this notion, claiming that “nothing’s more important than sex,” Michael responds by saying, “Oh yeah? Have you ever gone a week without a rationalization?”
While Return of the Secaucus 7 presents itself as the more genuine of the two films, they both deal with the phenomenon of Boomers-turning-thirty. In his 1984 essay “Arise, Ye Yuppies,” Michael Kinsley discusses how the yuppie experience reflected this generation in transition:
Anyone who expected a generation of social revolutionaries to emerge from the 1960s has cause to feel disappointed, though the fraction of that generation who were social revolutionaries even at the time was awfully small. Part of this disappointment, I think, is just the sadness people of every generation must feel as they settle into their thirties and realize that they’ve made some irrevocable choices about the patterns of their lives. It’s only natural that as people approach middle age, their main concern is going to be for themselves and their families. And that’s as it should be. Those who expected more of this generation expected too much.
Both movies showcase the characters’ constant reflections to their glory days of the Sixties (this motif is blatantly obvious in The Big Chill’s soundtrack, which harkens back to 1960s pop music), but there are equally as many reflective moments on their present selves. The Sixties, the era that David Farber calls “the age of great dreams,” did not solve the problems that the Boomers had hoped it would. Despite their socially liberal ideals, Boomers remained anxious, depressed, and worried about the future. As Chloe, the youngest one in The Big Chill, remarks, “I haven’t met many happy people in my life. How do they act?”
As the Boomers settled down into their comfortable jobs and nuclear families, it soon became apparent that their forward-thinking ideas on human relationships did not protect their marriages. In 1986, the New York Times published a piece titled “Divorces Up, Marriages Down” that highlighted how divorce was a growing trend among Boomer couples. Not only were Boomers getting married less frequently, but they were also getting divorced more often. This marital strife caused issues for the couple, of course, but the rising divorce rates also became a significant contributor to the nihilistic attitudes of their Gen X children. In her 1984 article “Perils and Pain of Growing Up Too Fast,” Glenn Collins notes how Boomer parents were pushing their Gen X kids to succeed faster than youth had been expected to in the past, and these yuppie parents were causing mental stress on their children. He notes: “One fundamental change involves their parents. It is not just that the unprecedented divorce rate has caused problems for adolescents, but also that many parents have different attitudes about traditional values from previous generations, including the roles of women, the importance of sexuality and the quest for personal fulfillment.” In “The Divorce Generation,” Susan Thomas remarks how Gen Xers became defined by this family dynamic: “For much of my generation—Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980—there is only one question: ‘When did your parents get divorced?’ Our lives have been framed by the answer.”
Movies about divorce had typically been a taboo subject in cinema. Divorce films in the 1960s tended to obscure the tough subject through campy humor, like Divorce American Style or The Parent Trap. It was arguably Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage that was the first to take a harsh look at the devastation that divorce causes. Scenes from a Marriage was so honest and brutal that critics feared it contributed to rising divorce rates in Europe. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hollywood films had begun to depict divorce more and more. The movie that really made Americans face the topic was Robert Benton’s 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, which outlines a couple’s divorce and the damaging effects it has on their son. The film was unique because it showed the woman leaving the man and the child, a reversal on the traditional divorce trope. In one of the most impactful scenes, the father Ted and his son Billy get into a screaming match over Billy’s disobedience, in which Billy pleads for his mother, only to have Ted respond with “I’m all you’ve got.”
Films about divorce or films with divorced characters, such as Manhattan, A Woman Like Eve, Rich Kids, An Unmarried Woman, The Tempest, and Irreconcilable Differences, became more mainstream as divorce among Boomers became more commonplace. While many of these films focused on the impact of divorce on the married couple, the newer batch of films shifted focus to its effect on the children of divorced parents. These Gen X movies usually portrayed teenagers as having tense relationships with their parents, and coming from a broken home emerged as a fundamental theme for Gen Xers in cinema. Tim Hunter’s 1987 film River’s Edge captured this feeling. The movie tells the story of a group of teenage friends dealing with the fact that one of them has murdered his girlfriend. Her dead body rots by the river’s edge throughout the duration of the film while the characters come to terms with their cold, emotional distance from the death of their friend. While Gen X nihilism is the main topic of the film, it also presents the viewer with an important sub-theme: familial dysfunction. This idea is especially illustrated in the existential character of Matt, whose mother is divorced, his mom’s boyfriend is abusive, and he gets into fistfights with his little brother. When Layne, the erratic troublemaker, asks Matt’s little sister where her parents are, she responds by saying, “Mommy’s at work, Jim’s at a bar, and I don’t have a daddy.”
Parental tensions would become an essential aspect of Gen X identity. Weak or abusive father figures, as in movies like River’s Edge or Blue Velvet, echoed the uneasy father-son relationships portrayed in films from the 1950s, such as Rebel Without a Cause or Bigger Than Life. (This throwback to the 1950s is visually evident in Blue Velvet as many scenes are ambiguous as to whether they take place in the 1950s or the 1980s). The difference with Gen X films is that they also had an absent mother figure as well. Whether through divorce or the need for a second income in the home, Boomer parents were preoccupied with adult problems and had little time for their kids. In other words: Gen Xers were on their own. This lack of parental guidance gave way to the Gen X label “latchkey kids,” a term that came about because so many from this generation came home everyday to an empty house, creating a generation that had to be incredibly self-reliant. The rise of latchkey kids stirred panic among social scientists. In 1982, People Magazine called the phenomenon a “national disgrace,” and expressed fears that these teens would end up in a life of crime. The same year, the Christian Science Monitor suggested preventative measures, such as first aid training, to thwart possible dangers that might befall the youth.
In 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail, Neil Howe and William Strauss discuss the characteristics of this neglected generation:
Kids buying groceries for busy moms and dads… Kids of divorce… Kids battling back against drugs and alcohol. Kids in mutual protection circles of friends, girding against an adolescent world far more dangerous than anything their parents knew. Kids struggling to unlink sex from date-rape, disease, and death… Whatever their schooling, these young adults seem to get poorer the longer they’ve been away from home—unlike their parents at that age, who seemed to get richer. In the workforce, they lower their sights and take jobs as yardworkers, Walmart shelf-stockers, Blockbuster checkers, healthcare trainees, and as the miscellaneous scavengers and nomads in low wage/ low benefit service economy. In unions and corporations, they face career ladders where the bottom rungs have been cut off.
For Gen X, the world was bleaker, unresponsive, and financially insecure—and no one was there to support them. Gen Xers could not depend on their parents, nor any other authority figure for that matter. The Boomers who had come before them were sell-outs—Gen Xers had witnessed their parents’ and teachers’ quick relinquishment of liberal ideals in exchange for superficial yuppie values. These Gen X attitudes manifested in films like River’s Edge, such as when the teacher is desperately trying to explain to the students the significance of his Boomer youth: “Fundamental changes were made… The civil rights movement, later the Women’s Movement. And Vietnam. We stopped a war, man. We took to the streets and made a difference. We turned public sentiment around,” to which the students unaffectedly reply, “All the hippies are executives now, and everybody’s sold out.”
The troubled relationship between Boomer parents and Gen X teenagers became the source of blame for a host of other Gen X ills: higher crime and incarceration rates, an increase in teenage homelessness and drug use, and higher depression and suicide rates. In the 1983 article “The Loss of Childhood,” Marie Winn notes:
The connection between family breakdown and the child’s educational outcome is becoming ominously clear… The accelerating divorce rate in the United States has closely paralleled the rise in drug use… Moreover, poor academic performance, susceptibility to peer influence and delinquent behavior (all characteristic of drug users), as well as suicide and homicide, have been found to be more pronounced among children from homes with one or both parents missing or frequently absent.
In the mid-1980s, many news articles and studies came out documenting the rapid increase in teen suicide. James Barron asked, “Has self-destruction become the 1980s response to pressures that teenagers of every generation have faced? Have teenagers decided that adulthood is not worth waiting for?”
One of the most compelling movies that records the decay of the traditional family structure and captures these fears for the new generation is the 1984 documentary film Streetwise. Streetwise follows the lives of young teenagers who live on the streets of Seattle. They survive by living in abandoned hotels, eating food from dumpsters, panhandling, selling drugs, and turning tricks. The movie not only tracks the kids, but their parents too. All of them come from dysfunctional families—the parents are divorced, alcoholics, or imprisoned. At one point, the 14-year-old prostitute Tiny is trying to talk to her mother, but her mother responds, “Be quiet—I’m drinking.” The viewer leaves the film with a great deal of sympathy for these street kids. Roger Ebert said of the movie, “You walk out of Streetwise realizing that these aren’t bad kids. They are resourceful, tough, and true to their own standards… They talk about their parents in a matter-of-fact way that, we suspect, covers up great wounds, as when one girl says she’s never met her natural father—‘unless maybe I dated him once.’” At the end of Streetwise, after a long speech from his jailed father, one of the more troubled teens, DeWayne, commits suicide by hanging himself. Only four people show up to his funeral, two of whom are the prison guards for his father.
John Hughes’ film The Breakfast Club comes out in 1985, a year after Streetwise, yet it presents Gen X anxieties in a glossy, Hollywoodized way. Where Streetwise documents real, complex youth woes, The Breakfast Club presents teens as two-dimensional characters: the jock, the rebel, the geek, the freak, and the popular girl. The teens in The Breakfast Club are clean, suburban, and glaringly innocent compared to the real-life teens in Streetwise. However, the film still deals with many of the same tropes: family strife, suburban angst, teen suicide.
Arguably the film that combines Boomer and Gen X issues the best is Robert Redford’s 1980 film Ordinary People. The movie tells the tale of the breakdown of an upper-middle-class family as they deal with the death of their son. The surviving brother has attempted suicide, and his mother and father struggle to relate to his feelings. What is telling about Ordinary People is, like other Gen X cinema, the father is weak and the mother is emotionally distant. Suicide, suburbia, angst are all sub-themes, but the main point is the power of the family dynamic. As Ebert says, “There are no cheap shots against suburban lifestyles or affluence or mannerisms: The problems of the people in this movie aren’t caused by their milieu, but grow out of themselves.”
By the 1980s, the Boomer generation had strayed far from their roots and embraced Reagan’s America. They traded their love beads for stock portfolios. This rightward cultural shift paved the way for Gen X: a generation that would—having seen their parents sell-out—grow to be skeptical, nihilistic, and self-reliant. This transition in attitudes was reflected in the cinema of the time. Movies portrayed Boomers contemplating their past, dealing with divorce, and struggling to understand their Gen X children. As Hollywood began to pick up on Gen X fashion and mindsets, the concept of Gen X would eventually become commodified and marketed back to the youth of the late 1980s and 1990s. Films like Singles and Reality Bites would center around the music and style of this generation, creating a caricature of Gen X. However, the small window of films from the late 1970s and early 1980s gives a glimpse into the social and cultural milieu of changing times: a short moment when the cinema reflected this generation gap between the Boomers and Gen Xers in real time.
Shalon van Tine is an adjunct professor with University of Maryland University College. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from Arizona State University, an M.A. in humanities from California State University, and an M.A. in world history from Norwich University. She is a doctoral student in American cultural and intellectual history at Ohio University, where she specializes in the political, social, and cultural movements of the twentieth century.
 Garry Trudeau, A Doonesbury Special, directed by Faith Hubley and John Hubley (New Haven: Hubley Studios, 1977), film.
 Tom Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York, August 23, 1976, 280.
 Norman Mailer, “Decade of ‘Image, Skin Flicks, and Porn,’” U.S. News & World Report, December 10, 1979, 57.
 Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001), 145.
 George Rising, Stuck in the Sixties: Conservatives and the Legacies of the 1960s (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2010), 281.
 Paddy Chayefsky, Network, directed by Sidney Lumet (Beverly Hills: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976), film.
 “The Year of the Yuppie,” Newsweek, December 31, 1984, 14.
 John Sayles, Return of the Secaucus 7, directed by John Sayles (New York: Libra Films, 1980), film.
 John L. Hammond, “Yuppies,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1986): 487–488.
 Sayles, Return of the Secaucus 7.
 Schulman, The Seventies, 242.
 Lawrence Kasdan, The Big Chill, directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 1983), film.
 Joel Bocko, “Sixties Reunion: The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus 7,” Lost in the Movies, August 23, 2012.
 Kasdan, The Big Chill.
 Michael Kinsley, “Arise, Ye Yuppies!” New Republic, July 9, 1984, 4.
 David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (New York: Hill & Wang, 1994), 3.
 Kasdan, The Big Chill.
 “Divorces Up, Marriages Down,” New York Times, April 15, 1986.
 Glenn Collins, “Perils and Pain of Growing Up Too Fast,” New York Times, September 24, 1984
 Susan Gregory Thomas, “The Divorce Generation,” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011.
 Kristi McKim, “Marriage as Cinematic Movement, or Loving the Face in Close-Up: Scenes from a Marriage,” Senses of Cinema 44 (2007): 2.
 Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 1979), film.
 Neal Jimenez, River’s Edge, directed by Tim Hunter (Los Angeles: Hemdale Film Corporation, 1987), film.
 David Lynch, Blue Velvet. directed by David Lynch (Wilmington: De Laurentius Entertainment Group, 1986), film.
 Ken Huff, “The Lonely Life of ‘Latchkey’ Children, Say Two Experts, Is a National Disgrace,” People Magazine, September 20, 1982.
 Deborah Churchman, “Support Systems for Latchkey Children,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1982.
 Neil Howe and William Strauss, 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? New York: Vintage Books, 1993, 8–9.
 Jimenez, River’s Edge.
 Marie Winn, “The Loss of Childhood,” New York Times, May 8, 1983.
 James Barron, “Suicide Rates of Teen-Agers: Are Their Lives Harder to Live?” New York Times, April 15, 1987.
 Cheryl McCall, Streetwise. Directed by Martin Bell. New York: Angelika Films, 1985.
 Roger Ebert, “Streetwise,” Roger Ebert Great Movie Reviews, April 19, 1985.
 McCall, Streetwise.
 John Hughes, The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes (Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 1985), film.
 Alvin Sargent, Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1980), film.
 Roger Ebert, “Ordinary People,” Roger Ebert Great Movie Reviews, April 19, 1985.