Gen X Erasure Is Coming Soon to a TV Near You
Why it’s okay that a millennial-centered reboot of the boomer classic ‘thirtysomething’ totally skips my generation
The thirtysomething reboot is the latest example of Gen X erasure but I still can’t wait for it.
When I heard that ABC is planning to reboot thirtysomething, the iconic late 1980s, early 1990s drama about very attractive people who overthought everything and wore their elite college sweatshirts like uniforms, my first thought was, “nothing good can come of that.” My second thought was, “how long do I have to wait?” The network has ordered a pilot, to be written and directed by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz, the original creators of the show. That means it could be months — a year, even — before this delicious potential train wreck comes to screens and launches a thousand think pieces about (in no particular order): whiteness, privilege, boomers, millennials, aging, the price of elite colleges, the price of sweatshirts, the price of real estate, and the price of the American dream in the era of late capitalism (whatever that means).
The show will star much of its previous cast. They’ll play older versions of their characters, a group of tightly knit friends who live in Philadelphia and struggle to reconcile their hippie-era idealism with their adult desires and responsibilities. Though no specific announcements have been made as to which characters will return, we can count on some combination of the original gang: the annoyingly perfect Hope and Michael, the annoyingly only-slightly-imperfect Nancy and Elliott, the quirky but pathetic singles Ellyn, Melissa, and Gary, none of whom ever quite managed to shake their auras of pathetic singleness despite coupling up — and also in one case dying — in later seasons. Mind you, all of these people will be in their sixties now.
But this won’t be Golden Girls with slicker production design. The concept, according to reports, is to focus on the millennial offspring of those characters. That is to say, the babies, toddlers, and other small tykes whose chief role in the original series was to demonstrate the impossible “juggling act” of work and career, will now be thirtysomethings themselves.
It’s easy to forget that, by many measures, Gen Xers continue to be the most downwardly mobile cohort of our time.
Oh, the places this could go! Maybe Nancy and Elliot’s kids will be so traumatized by their parents’ chaotic marriage that their storylines will revolve around rehab stints and their own destructive relationships? Maybe Emma, the offspring of the free-spirited Gary and sanctimonious do-gooder Susannah, will assert her independence by becoming a straightlaced Republican in the mode of Alex P. Keaton? Maybe Hope and Michael’s daughter, Janey, who was played in alternating shifts by twin baby-then-toddler actors, will continue to be played by twins even into adulthood!
I’m embarrassed to admit, but thirtysomething cuts a deep existential groove in my identity formation. If Little House on the Prairie was the seminal television show of my childhood, thirtysomething was the seminal cultural experience of my adolescence. (If there hasn’t yet been a Media Studies dissertation along the lines of “From Ma and Pa to Hope and Michael: Work-Life Balance Across Performative Ecologies,” I hereby bequeath it to the first PhD candidate reading this who wants it.) It premiered in 1987 when I was 17. I was not the target audience, but I watched it as though reading a guidebook for adulthood. Everything about the characters and their situations, even their greatest burdens (those endless repairs on that perpetually leaking, possibly toxic Craftsman house!) was aspirational since the only thing I wanted in life was to be grown-up. As I saw it, problems related to corrupt bosses, radon contamination in the attic, and even marital infidelity were vastly more appealing than problems related to college applications, who to go to the senior prom with, and getting my parents to let me use the car.
I often watched thirtysomething with my mother, who claimed to be in it chiefly because she admired Hope’s earrings. Watching Hope’s frenzied parenting — she was forever trying to do three tasks once, the house was perpetually cluttered, the baby seemed always on the brink of tears or in a full-throated tantrum — my mother more than a few times asked “how hard is it to take care of one baby? Just put her in a playpen! Does she not take naps?”
Notwithstanding the technicality that the Steadman baby was actually played by two babies, my mother had a point. She had also, inadvertently, highlighted the central, albeit never-directly-spoken message of thirtysomething, which could be boiled down to this: Baby boomers' problems are special compared to the problems of other generations. Please observe with appropriate awe.
I thought about this idea while reading Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, a new book by Ada Calhoun positing that it’s actually Generation X women who drew the worst card when it comes to work-life balance. Calhoun’s central thesis is that if the idea of “having it all” was novel to the boomers and “had finally come under broad attack” by the time the millennials rolled around, Gen Xers “entered life with ‘having it all’ not as a bright new option but as a mandatory social condition.”
Calhoun goes on to explain that for all the talk about how millennials are being screwed by massive student debt, unaffordable housing, and climate catastrophe, it’s easy to forget that, by many measures, Gen Xers continue to be the most downwardly mobile cohort of our time. She cites various sources showing we have more debt than boomers and millennials, got hit hardest in the mortgage crisis, and are more likely to suffer the effects of corporate downsizing. As boomers retire and clear the way for Gen Xers to enter managerial positions, those positions magically disappear. One consulting firm reported that “Gen Xers are most overlooked for promotion and have been the slowest to advance.”
Overlooked is often the operative word for Gen Xers. “We are the Jan Brady of generations,” Calhoun writes, “ — overshadowed by the older boomers (our parents, aunts, uncles) and the younger millennials (the kids we babysat)… Any day now, when millennials surpass boomers in numbers, Gen X will still be millions smaller than either.”
I’d say Gen X erasure is everywhere you look, but that statement doesn’t really make logical sense because it’s literally nowhere you look. We are the negative space of demography, the no there there of population trends. Last year, a CBS news graphic listing generational cohorts from the silent generation to post-millennial, left out Gen X altogether. Is the thirtysomething reboot poised to do the same? It might throw in a few token and peripheral fortysomethings, say a middle manager whose job is being eliminated by Emma, who’s become a merciless corporate consultant. But my guess is it will do for millennials just what it did for boomers: find a million different ways to suggest that their problems are special and uniquely complicated.
In one of the most most-discussed episodes of the original thirtysomething series, Hope returns to work after weaning Janey but is so undone by supermom syndrome that she finally gives up and decides to stay at home full-time. The agony and angst of that hour of television singed itself into my 17-year-old brain. Hope feels that she’s betraying her daughter by going to work but also betraying herself — and the feminism that underscores her entire being — by staying home. “I’m supposed to be able to do both,” she says to Michael through tears. “That’s all I hear about.” Michael then admits that as “unliberated” as it is for him to say, he’d like her to be at home, too. The episode ends with Hope dreamily dancing with Janey to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.”
Watching that episode at 17, I’m pretty sure the message I internalized was along the lines of “Hope can choose between working in the home or outside the home and all women from now on will have that choice.” (This was followed by “who’s Van Morrison? Is that one singer? A whole band? The band’s van?”) But that’s not exactly how things went. By the time I reached my thirties, the near-impossibility of raising a family on one salary meant that most Gen X mothers would be lucky to wrestle with Hope’s dilemma. They would be lucky to live in their elegant — if possibly-radon-contaminated — Craftsman house on two salaries, let alone one. And that’s providing they could find an employed male partner to begin with. Calhoun writes about a nationwide “man deficit” among college-educated men, noting that a Pew study “showed that most women consider it very important for a man they might date to be employed, but for every one hundred unmarried women there are only sixty-five employed unmarried men . . .” (It should be noted that the study measured unmarried adults between 25 and 64, so it’s hardly just a Gen X thing.)
Of course, with millennials having fewer kids anyway, the concept of work-life balance has taken on new contours. If Hope scaled back her professional ambitions to dance with Janey to Van Morrison, Janey’s version of the same might involve ditching her career altogether in order to travel around in a van — or committing herself to fight climate change full-time (or both!). Whatever the storylines turn out to be, I have to confess that my greatest wish for the return of thirtysomething is both totally random and totally within the realm of possibility. My wish is that it finds a role for Melissa Gilbert, star of Little House on the Prairie. It’s not so far fetched. Gilbert, as it happens, is married in real life to Timothy Busfield, the actor who played Elliot.
Seeing a Gilbert character sitting around with Hope and Nancy as they complained about their lives would be the closest anything could come to a thirtysomething/Little House crossover. My head would truly explode. The entire genome of my childhood and adolescent perception would radiate from the screen, leaving me incapable of doing anything other than writing a think piece — or possibly a Media Studies dissertation — about the show and its role as a cultural and political touchstone.
Like I said, nothing good can come of this. And it can’t come soon enough.