The one-bedroom apartment in renter’s beige isn’t featured on MTV’s celebrity home-showcase “Cribs.” No one hails the Honda Civic as stylish transportation. There’s no Prada purse. No plasma TV. Just a nail-biting wait to see if that Visa card will clear the Target checkout.
Well…where is that lush life? That was the promise, right?
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Brad Pitt–a millionaire movie god if there ever was one–mouthed this dialogue in the 1999 film “Fight Club,” a fan-favorite flick for the 25- to 35-year-old sect. And his sentiment is being echoed from a host of 20-somethings.
“Anybody who says popular culture doesn’t play a role in their perception of the world is either lying or lives in a commune,” said Russell Tanton, 25, of Marietta, who holds an English degree but is currently unemployed. “I don’t think anyone was straight with people my age about how low our expectations actually should have been.”
With little social or political upheaval marking their generation, television, movies and music define their history. But as they mature, the images–perhaps illusions–they’ve been fed through the gilded filter of media begin to crumble.
The burden of the recently named “quarterlife crisis” may not have been caused by popular culture, but those images surely haven’t helped.
“Everyone who is successful is on TV,” said khalid kamau, 28, of College Park. kamau–who changed and lowercased his name when he turned 18–studied film at Ithaca College in New York. He is now training to be a flight attendant.
“You begin to think that it’s not only possible, but probable, that you too can make your first million by age 25,” kamau said.
MTV, once the barometer for musical trends, is now a channel devoted to the luxuries and excesses of wealthy youth. There’s the aforementioned “Cribs,” which showcases the grandiose homes of the young and rich; “Rich Girls,” which details the shallow lifestyle of two spoiled heiresses; “The Ashlee Simpson Show,” featuring the lip-syncing sibling of Jessica Simpson–a celebrity based on her mere bloodline; and “MADE,” where insecure teenagers are given the chance to find an identity that revolves around popularity, beauty or athletics.
Cathy Stocker, 34, calls this inflated ideal the “‘American Idolization’ of career expectations.” Stocker, who attended Westminster High School in Atlanta, now runs the Web site quarterlifecrisis.com. She also co-wrote the upcoming book “Quarterlifer’s Companion.”
The frustrations, she said, go beyond career. Many are shocked when they don’t easily find post-graduation a tight group of companions a la TV’s “Friends.”
These godchildren of MTV and Madison Avenue–slowly wisening–are now fighting to reclaim some perspective in a world still obsessed with over-the-top portrayals of accomplishment.
“I think a lot of folks have been shocked by reality,” said Carolyn Gerrits, 31, a marketing developer in Atlanta. “We actually have to work for success.”
When she was 25, Gerrits moved to Atlanta, had a great job but felt she had no “tangible effect” on the world. She’s made peace with her career choice, but she still has several friends who are toiling to make it in the music business.
“I’m quite happy,” she said, “right in the middle.”
Conditioned By Media
Many experiencing the quarterlife crisis were pounded by more media stimulus than any prior group of young adults in U.S. history, experts say.
“They’re the least nurtured, least supervised generation in modern American history,” said Chuck Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative, a Cincinnati consulting firm which advises corporations about generational marketing. “They grew up isolated from older generations by the media. They had their own radio stations, TV channels, the computer.”
Not to mention a more fractured form of family.
In 1971, the divorce rate was 165 percent higher than a decade earlier, according to U.S. census statistics. That number continued to rise. Dual-income households soon became commonplace.
Another part of their reality: a lack of monumental social change and reference.
Baby boomers experienced the furor of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, wars of protest, campus unrest and the sexual and drug revolutions. This generation had Madonna’s cone-shaped bra, “We Are the World” and Rachel and Ross playing kissy-poo on “Friends.”
Generations X and Y “came to age with very few such events,” Underwood said. “Which means that the pop culture of their youth assumes a large importance in their lives. And advertisers swooped in on them.”
But these are the progenies of yuppies, after all. And they want the same things. Only more. And faster.
“You couple the sheltered upbringing with get-rich-fast and this culture of celebrity, and you have this recipe for disaster when people enter the work force,” said Judy Tso, a Boston social scientist, speaker and consultant who works with companies such as Procter & Gamble to incorporate diversity.
In what could be described as either evocative or exploitative, the very media that reared them to expect these treasures are now responding with sympathetic images and sounds. The producers behind the television show “thirtysomething” are now planning a program called “1/4 Life.”
And while the perception of wealth and success can no doubt be influential, in some cases it’s crippling.
“My desire to still be thought of as successful by society has kept me from pursuing my dreams,” said Leslie Wright, 31, of Atlanta, who works in Internet technology. For years, she’s toyed with the idea of performing “meaningful” social work. But that career move won’t make the payments on her BMW.
“You turn on the TV, and you see the ‘The Apprentice,’ the super-fab restaurants, the designer clothes. It’s telling you that’s what you should aim for,” she said. “But I know that in 20 years, I won’t have done anything better for the world.”
As this breed becomes husbands, wives and parents, will their perspectives and attitudes evolve?
“The media has done such a number on them for so many years,” Underwood said, “that we might never get their values and perspectives firmly placed on the ground.”
Kristen Glass has completed an arc of sorts.
A self-proclaimed quarterlife crisis victim, she perhaps has found the ultimate escape: She counsels those experiencing this confusion as a vocational counselor at Augustana College in Illinois.
Describing herself as a “pop-culture savant,” Glass, 28, notes a turning point for the sensibilities for her contemporaries: “When ‘The Real World’ debuted in 1992, it was the beginning of reality TV.
You could be famous for just being yourself.”
MTV’s staple “The Real World,” which features a group of seven singles living in a metropolitan mansion–for free–while pursuing flashy careers and romance, has been a voyeuristic treat for more than a decade. And perhaps a bit toxic.
Both Glass and kamau auditioned.
Glass said many of those she counsels seek careers in the very media that may have subconsciously raised them. “People now want to do something meaningful and make a lot of money,” she said.
The stimulation saturation may have resulted in one benefit: savvy consumerism.
“Marketers that try to deceive them will be beaten to a pulp,” Underwood said
And sooner or later, the hypnotic allure of glitz and materialism cools.
Marriage and a move to the suburbs were an awakening of sorts for Jason Shepherd, 28, of Kennesaw, though he felt the same career and social malaise at 25. Now an information specialist for Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, his friends are other married couples, and priorities include mowing the lawn and politics.
In other words: He grew up.
“Two years ago, there would not be a day when MTV was not on for at least some part of the day in my house. Now I can’t remember the last time I watched it,” Shepherd said. “Sometimes, I think my generation tends to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”