The Glaring Omission in National Geographic’s Show About the 80s

by Jennifer James McCollum

You need never look back again…
– From Reo Speedwagon and Take It On The Run

It was a significant, simultaneous gathering of Gen Xers, and it played out in the same way it always has. We were together in the sense we were all watching the same thing: National Geographic’s mini-series, The 80s: The Decade That Made Us.

But, we were alone in that togetherness. Sitting in living rooms across America, by ourselves, probably still crunching on some Quisp or Lucky Charms. Generation X, raised on Saturday morning cartoons, After School Specials and MTV, now glommed onto a show dubbed the biography of a generation.

Ratings Success
According to TV By the Numbers, the show, which premiered Sunday night and ran through Tuesday, achieved high ratings in the Adults 25-54 category. Howard T. Owens, president of National Geographic (and a Gen Xer) said he was “stoked” about its success. He’s the one who called it “the biography of a generation.”

But, what generation he never bothered to say. Baby Boomers? Generation X? Gen Y? An amalgamation of them all? The 25-54 age category includes all Gen Xers (born 1961-1981), but only the tail end of Baby Boomers (1943-60) and older members of Generation Y (1982-2000).

Labels and Pejoratives
In not defining the generation, National Geographic and the show’s producer, Nutopia, kind of denied name recognition to the very generation that contributed most to the show’s successful ratings: Generation X. Of course, the label is unpopular with Xers, so I don’t think anybody but me is complaining.

I have written about label-resistant Gen Xers for a long time, and have mentioned Generation X as a pejorative in numerous blog posts. Here’s one about U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Generation X and another about Project 1979 and younger Gen Xers connecting with the name.

But, that’s not why they didn’t mention Generation X. They didn’t mention it for marketing reasons. Who can blame a network or producers for trying to appeal to the broadest demographic?

The Eras We Encounter As Children and Youth
Still, I was born in 1967, and I am not going to connect with a show about the 1960s and the icons and events that emerged and unfolded during that time. At least, not like I’m going to connect with a show about the 80s. I came of age during the 80s, and whether National Geographic wanted to say it or not, their show was a biography of Generation X. Here’s why in the words of Neil Howe and William Strauss:

Members of a generation share…location in history: they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. Because members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults, they also tend to share certain common beliefs and behaviors. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation also tend to share a sense of common perceived membership in that generation. — Strauss and Howe, Generations, 1991

All things considered, I enjoyed The 80s: The Decade That Made Us. They packed a lot into those six-hours, skimming the top layer of various political, technological, cultural and social revolutions that took place during those 10 years. They covered everything from the Berlin Wall and 9 to 5 to Madonna, Baby Jessica, Steve Jobs and Christa McAuliffe. In my opinion, they missed several iconic figures and events of the decade, but at the onset, National Geographic said the show wasn’t about nostalgia.

But, oh, it was.

For three nights I read reactions to the series in real-time on Twitter via the hashtag #NatGeo80s. Emotions ran high among those tweeting Gen Xers reliving their youth and coming-of-age. Some of them were, as Howard said, stoked. Others expressed relief that the decade is still behind them. But, all seemed genuinely stirred, if not a little flattened by the reality that the 80s began more than 30 years ago.

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