The Net Generation -- for whom social networking via the Internet is a birthright -- are probably too young to characterize adequately. They were in their teens and 20s in the Nineties (1994-2003; not to be confused with the '90s); and they are in their 20s and 30s now, in the Oughts (2004-2013; not to be confused with the '00s).
Not to be confused with the so-called Generation Y or Millennials (pop demography terms that refer to Americans born between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s), Netters aren't the parent-loving, resume-padding, squeaky-clean paragons of virtue we've heard their parents praise to the skies. Like OGXers, who were lumped in with Boomers but never felt part of that generation, Netters are a lost generation; older Netters have been lumped in with PCers (who, to make matters worse, were mistakenly called Xers), and younger Netters have been lumped in with Millennials. This trend stops here!
Of course, MSM pundits have bloviated about youth many times before... but I'd figured that members of my much-mischaracterized generation wouldn't make the same mistake, when we got to be middle-aged. Looks like I was mistaken. Netters, please drop me a line to tell me how wrong-headed I am about your demographic cohort.
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
Lost Generation The New Kids
Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
The Greatest Generation Partisans
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
Generation X PC Generation
Generations X/Y Net Generation
Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.
NETTERS AT WORK AND PLAY
In a 2000 New York Times story titled "Coming of Age, Seeking an Identity," the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild articulated the sense that Americans then in their late teens and early-to-mid-20s didn't belong to Generation X (i.e., PCers) or Generation Y (i.e., MIllennials). What defined this unnamed generation, according to Hochschild, was America's "trend toward a more loosely jointed, limited-liability society, the privatizing influence of that trend and the crash-boom-bang of the market, which, in the absence of other voices, is defining generations left and right."
You've seen Netters hard not only at work but at play on "Jackass," "Entourage," "The Simple Life," and "That '70s Show." Also, they're way into tattoos: So if their current careers don't work out, heavily inked Netters like Angelina Jolie, 50 Cent, Drew Barrymore, Christina Ricci, Steve-O, David Beckham, Lil Wayne, Nicole Richie, Amy Winehouse, Eve, and all the Suicide Girls can just run away and join the circus. Which they might do, but not before spilling the beans about how horrible their Boomer bosses were. Netters pioneered the "underling tell-all" memoir and blog: Think of Lauren Weisberger ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus ("The Nanny Diaries"), Jessica Cutler (Washingtonienne), Nadine Haobsh (Jolie in NYC), and Jeremy Blachman (Anonymous Lawyer).
Nor do they have much in common with PCers (except, perhaps, for Jayson Blair and Margaret Seltzer, talented writers who learned from my generation how to live a lie). For example, unlike us capitalism-damaged PCers, Netters are entrepreneurial; when Time Magazine noted in 1997 that "Gen Xers" were "flocking to technology start-ups," the "Gen Xers" to whom they were referring were actually Netters, plus younger members of Generation PC. In fact, during the Nineties, many of us PCers -- including yours truly -- found ourselves employed by Netters (i.e., our juniors). Just how entrepreneurial are Netters? Ask Kimora Lee Simmons, Paris Hilton, Selena "Missy Suicide" Mooney, Tila Tequila, and everyone from "Jackass" who isn't Johnny Knoxville (a PCer): These young Americans have no skills in particular, yet they're not merely successful actors or models, or whatever they're supposed to be, but (wildly) successful businesspeople. Then there's "The Apprentice," whose first-season cast members -- like Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth -- were Netters; a show like this wouldn't have worked for PCers.
Why are Netters so entrepreneurial? Obviously, the post-industrial economy had something to do with it. Whereas OGXers and PCers were blindsided and bummed out by the economic changes of the Seventies (1974-83) and Eighties (1984-93) -- one might include the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, the emergence of efficient automation, outsourcing and offshoring, and demands made by corporations that workers be flexible instead of loyal -- fresh-out-of-college Netters thrived in a culture where hard-won experience at a single job had become a liability. Why shouldn't they have done so? After all, they didn't have any experience yet.
U.S. economic growth accelerated as the Nineties (1994-2003) began, while unemployment and inflation remained low. So Netters were raised to have faith in permanent steady growth of the US economy, plentiful white-collar jobs, and a generational immunity to the boom and bust macroeconomic cycles that had plagued their elders. (Remember the OK Soda marketing campaign -- men and women standing in front of boarded-up factories, accompanied by the counterintuitive promise that everything was, and would always be OK?) In 1995, Newsweek announced a New Economy. Magazines like Wired and Fast Company urged young go-getters to eschew the lifetime-employment-with-benefits mindset of previous generations, and to jump from one job to the next. Startups sprung up in valleys and alleys from coast to coast. Ah, 'twas a marvelous time to be young in America.
Those days are over, now, but Netters' entrepreneurial instincts haven't vanished. HR professionals say that Americans born from the mid-1970s onward feel more entitled in terms of compensation, benefits, and career advancement than older generations. Netters expect to be paid more; they expect to have flexible work schedules; they expect to be promoted within a year of being hired; they expect to have more vacation or personal time; and they expect to have access to state-of-the-art technology. Netters have a tough time taking direction, since they regard their elders as dinosaurs who should just hand over the business! To PCers, who've waited impatiently for Boomers to retire -- and Boomers refuse to retire -- this is a bummer. Because now that a few Boomers are finally taking the next life-step, or whatever the preferred euphemism is, Netters are poised to leapfrog over PCers.
I've borrowed the term Net Generation from books like "Wikinomics," which defines Americans born from the mid-1970s on as "the first generation to be socialized in a world of digital communications." Also called the iGeneration, or Generation M (for Multitasking), or the Google Generation, it almost goes without saying that Netters take listservs, email and instant messaging, Google and Wikipedia, MySpace and Facebook, YouTube and Flickr for granted. Netters also don't remember life before fast computers and Internet service; they are a wired generation, sometimes accused of addiction to instant gratification. They don't read print newspapers, buy CDs, or rent DVDs, and their collective grasp of the concepts of copyright and intellectual property is shaky, at best.
But not to worry! In his 1996 book "Playing the Future," Douglas Rushkoff predicted that "digital kids" weaned on Macs and MTV weren't screwed, as some pundits feared; instead, they were evolving into a generation uniquely capable of succeeding in a chaotic, highly networked 21st century. In his 2005 book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," Steven Johnson updates the argument, arguing that complex videogames and multi-plot TV shows have made American youth smarter and more prepared for the complexities and multitasking of contemporary life than Atari and "Eight is Enough" did for PCers.
Socially speaking, Netters were the first American generation in a century or more to successfully merge a strong proficiency with technology and coolness/attractiveness -- when many of them were still "screenagers," the phrase geek chic was coined to describe older members of their cohort. The prime fictional example is Seth Cohen on "The O.C." Adam Brody, who portrayed Cohen, is a Netter, as is Alexis Bledel, who played Rory, the cute (and, later, sexy) young intellectual on "Gilmore Girls." Elijah Wood, who made J.R.R. Tolkien's hairy-footed Frodo Baggins sexy, and Tobey Maguire, who did the same thing for Marvel Comics's nebbishy Peter Parker -- also Netters.
I should also mention real-life chic geeks, including math wizard and programming wunderkind Bram Cohen, the cofounder of BitTorrent; Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, the cofounders of YouTube; Digg's Kevin Rose; Slashdot's Rob Malda; and -- although he wasn't born in the US -- Janus Friis, cofounder of KaZaA, Skype, and Joost. Netters.
The cynicism, irony, and skepticism that had sustained previous generations during the Cold War reached an apex, during the Nineties, with "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons." A number of Netters -- Jedediah Purdy, Wendy Shalit, England's Zadie Smith -- daringly rebelled against what Purdy called Seinfeldian irony and called for a new earnestness... an earnestness just as hip, that is, as irony had been. (This might explain the popularity of the TV show "Party of Five," in the Nineties, not to mention Dave Eggers's success.) Netters also helped pioneer a hiply earnest new form of social activism: a networked "movement of movements." Madrid94, J18, Seattle/N30, Genoa: These are the political touchstones for the Net Generation's so-called anti-globalization movement. For the hardy but less adventurous, there was City Year (founded in 1988), Teach for America (1990), AmeriCorps (1994), and "service learning."
As grade- and high-schoolers, Netters on TV and in movies have frequently been portrayed as hyper-articulate, wised-up, and altogether un-childlike: Sara Gilbert on "Roseanne"; Jason Schwartzman in "Rushmore"; Fred Savage on "The Wonder Years"; Claire Danes on "My So-Called Life"; Topher Grace on "That '70s Show"; Mark-Paul Gosselaar on "Saved by the Bell"; Thora Birch in "American Beauty" and "Ghost World"; Christina Ricci in "Mermaids" and "The Addams Family"; Wiley Wiggins in "Dazed and Confused"; Edward Furlong in "Terminator 2"; Anna Chlumsky in "My Girl"; Kristen Bell on "Veronica Mars"; Lacey Chabert on "Party of Five"; Alexis Bledel on "Gilmore Girls"; and the entire cast of "Dawson's Creek." Natalie Portman ("The Professional," "Beautiful Girls") and Anna Paquin ("The Piano," those MCI commercials) weren't born in the US, but they count. So does Calvin, the 6-year-old protagonist of "Cavin and Hobbes," which debuted in 1985.
Small wonder, then, that we've come to expect Netters to achieve great things while still wet behind the ears. I'm thinking of wunderkind novelists Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer; the editors of the intellectual journal n+1 (Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Marco Roth, plus PCer Ben Kunkel); and, of course, Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst. Britney Spears, as we are all forced to know, didn't even have a spare minute to lose her virginity before becoming one of the best-selling female recording artists in history.
MARKETEERS AND MOUSKETEERS
In 2000, Arlie Hochschild wrote, of Netters: "To be sure, every American decade has fashion marketeers define generational looks and sounds, but probably never before have they so totally hijacked a generation's cultural expression."
When you think of "school shooters," "boy bands," or "American Idol," you're thinking about Netters. Infamous school shooters Wayne Lo (1992), Barry Loukaitis (1996), Jamie Rouse (1996), Evan Ramsey (1997), Luke Woodham (1997), Michael Carneal (1997), Andrew Wurst (1998), Kip Kinkel (1998), and, of course, Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (1998), are Netters. So are most of the members of 'N Sync, The Backstreet Boys, and the Irish boy band Westlife. And so are "American Idol" stars Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jennifer Hudson, Elliott Yamin, Kimberley Locke, Josh Gracin, Bo Bice, Bucky Covington, Blake Lewis, Chris Daughtry -- not to mention Ryan Seacrest.
Fun fact: A bunch of Netter actors and pop stars started out as Mousketeers in the 1990s, on the Disney Channel's revived "Mickey Mouse Club." Alums include: Christina Aguilera, JC Chasez, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake.
PLAYING IT STRAIGHT
One final point: Like "Batman Begins," his 2005 franchise reviver, Christopher Nolan's forthcoming movie, "The Dark Knight," will eschew the eccentricity of 1997's "Batman and Robin" -- one immediately thinks, for example, of the nipples on George Clooney's leather outfit. In Jon Favreau's "Iron Man," Robert Downey Jr. will portray the man-in-steel as Stan Lee conceived of him back in 1963: not merely a tin-plated hero, in other words, but a man whose suit of powered armor keeps his injured heart beating. And if you thought that the 1967-68 anime series "Speed Racer" was too fast-paced and violent for kiddies, then you won't be surprised to learn that the live-action adaptation was directed by the Wachowski Brothers, best known for the ultra-violent, thrill-a-minute "Matrix" trilogy.
A trend emerges: Ironic distance, the sine qua non of superhero flicks and TV shows since Adam West danced the Batusi in 1966, is out. Whereas OGXers and PCers enjoy brooding over the past, assembling fragments of past cultural moments into collages in various media, Netters take a less complicated approach. They just dig the past, and slip it on like a Halloween costume. (Paging Andre 3000, Amanda Palmer, Sisqo, Pink, and Jack White!) It's no longer the case that Americans in their 20s and early 30s want their reheated entertainments freshened up with air quotes. These days, they prefer taking it straight.
Netter actresses, for example, relish playing cartoon heroines, whether it's Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne from "Scooby-Doo," Jessica Alba as Sue Storm from "Fantastic Four," or Thora Birch as Enid from "Ghost World." (Or Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie from "Josie and the Pussycats," Christina Ricci as Trixie from "Speed Racer," and Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft from the videogame "Tomb Raider.") Our favorite Netter rock bands -- The Strokes, The White Stripes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs –- are garage-rock revivalists. British Netters, meanwhile, tend to be post-punk revivalists; consider Bloc Party, The Libertines, Editors, Interpol, Kaiser Chiefs, Babyshambles, and Franz Ferdinand. Netter chanteuses Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, and Amy Winehouse are soul revivalists.
As for the aforementioned journal n+1, undoubtedly the Net Generation's most impressive accomplishment thus far, its editors are patently wistful for the New York Intellectual scene of the 1930s-50s. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to n+1.) This is demonstrated not only by their socialist aspirations, intellectual sprezzatura, and unseemly/admirable eagerness for literary dust-ups, but by their journal's design -- a tribute to Partisan Review, or Dissent, back in the day. Each n+1 cover is a love letter from the editors to a lively New York Intellectual scene about which they've only heard stories.
NB: I'm not claiming that Netter revivalists and aficionados are reactionary, or less talented than their predecessors whose style they've appropriated. And we all know that there's plenty of room for originality when artists choose to operate within strict parameters. I'm merely pointing out that when it comes to venerable pop culture franchises, Netters don't want to brood over them, or mock them. Like vintage videogames, they just want to reboot them.
Meet the Netters.
1974: Nicole Krauss and also Nicola Kraus, Leonardo DiCaprio, Alanis Morissette, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Marco Roth, Nelly, Ryan Adams, Meg White, Adrian Tomine, Ryan Seacrest, Tiffani Amber Thiessen, Trisha Donnelly, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, Amber Valletta, Seth Green, Cee-Lo, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jenna Fischer, Jenna Jameson, Steve-O, Hilary Swank, Kenyon Farrow, Emma McLaughlin, Donald Faison, Carlos Dengler, Nick Zinner, Kevin Connolly, Prodigy, Havoc, Alyson Hannigan, Colin Meloy, Mekhi Phifer, Wilson Cruz, Xzibit, Jewel, Wayne Lo. Elsewhere: Kate Moss, Christian Bale, Victoria Beckham, Penelope Cruz, Nicholas McCarthy, Daniel Kessler, Andrew White.
1975: Angelina Jolie, 50 Cent, Jack White, Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Sean Lennon, Tiger Woods, Bram Cohen, Nell Freudenberger, Curtis Sittenfeld, Danica McKellar, Jedediah Purdy, Sara Gilbert, Drew Barrymore, Wendy Shalit, Mayim Bialik, Eva Longoria, Li'l Kim, Jolene Blalock, Zach Braff, Tara Reid, Rose McGowan, Tobey Maguire, Isaac Brock, will.i.am, Jack Johnson, Lauryn Hill, Zia Suicide, Andre 3000, Sufjan Stevens, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, Kimora Lee Simmons, Margaret B. Jones/Margaret Seltzer, Brian Littrell, Bo Bice. Elsewhere: Zadie Smith, David Beckham, Kate Winslet, Asia Argento, Milla Jovovich, Natalie Imbruglia, KT Tunstall.
1976: Selena "Missy Suicide" Mooney, Wiley Wiggins, David Itzkoff, Reese Witherspoon, Jayson Blair, Joey Lawrence, Adrian Grenier, Keri Russell, Fred Savage, Alicia Silverstone, Jaleel White, Rob Malda, Peter Hayes, Freddie Prinze Jr., Aesop Rock, Ja Rule, Amanda Palmer, JC Chasez, Taylor Hicks. Elsewhere: Colin Farrell, Ben Gibbard, Feist, Janus Friis, Nick Jago, Sarah Chalke, Audrey Tautou, Cat Deeley, Yotuel Romero, Paul Thomson, Gordon Moakes.
1977: Kanye West, Jonathan Safran Foer, John Mayer, James Van Der Beek, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Tom Welling, Danger Mouse, Chad Hurley, Kevin Rose, Lauren Weisberger, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Liv Tyler, Edward Furlong, Vinnie Paz, Jon Heder, Brittany Murphy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ludacris, Fiona Apple, Jaime Pressly, Jeremiah Green, Laila Ali, Joey Fatone, Bucky Covington. Elsewhere: Orlando Bloom, Shakira, Chris Martin, M.I.A., Daniel Alarcon, James Blunt, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Oxana Fedorova, Simon Rix, Nick Hodgson, Spencer Krug.
1978: Usher, Sisqo, Karen O, Ashton Kutcher, Eve, Perez Hilton, John Legend, Jim James, Topher Grace, Katie Holmes, Diablo Cody, Joshua Jackson, Jason Biggs, Robert Levon Been, Katherine Heigl, Maria Menounos, Julian Casablancas, Jessica Cutler, Kevin Federline, Brian Chase, Josh Hartnett, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Nikolai Fraiture, Paul Banks, Jamie Rouse, Kimberley Locke, Elliott Yamin, Chris Dixon, A. J. McLean, Justin Guarini. Elsewhere: Steve Chen, Laetitia Casta, Nelly Furtado, Ben Lee, Gael Garcia Bernal, Carl Barat, Ricky Wilson, Drew McConnell.
1979: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Claire Danes, Kate Hudson, Foxy Brown, Rachael Leigh Cook, Mena Suvari, Rosario Dawson, Adam Brody, Brandy, Lance Bass, Pete Wentz, Norah Jones, Pink, Bam Margera, Adam Levine, Avey Tare, Nathan Followill, Alison Lohman, Brandon Routh, Chris Daughtry, Dan Auerbach, Nick Stahl. Elsewhere: Pete Doherty, Heath Ledger, Evangeline Lilly, Corinne Bailey Rae, Petra Nemcova, Sophie Dahl, Matt Tong.
1980: Conor Oberst, Jason Schwartzman, Zac Posen, Christina Ricci, Zooey Deschanel, Kristen Bell, Alicia Keys, Nick Carter, Michelle Williams, Chelsea Clinton, Laura Prepon, Channing Tatum, Jessica Simpson, Albert Hammond Jr., Chesa Boudin, Nadine Haobsh, Macaulay Culkin, Ben Savage, Lil Wayne, Anna Chlumsky, Christina Aguilera, Jake Gyllenhaal, Patrick Carney, Eliza Dushku, Josh Gracin, Bijou Phillips. Elsewhere: Eva Green, Regina Spektor, Gisele Bundchen, Ryan Gosling, Kian Egan, Fabrizio Moretti, Robert Hardy.
1981: Britney Spears, Beyoncé Knowles, Devendra Banhart, Tila Tequila, Elijah Wood, Justin Timberlake, Lupe Fiasco, Paris Hilton, Julia Stiles, Jessica Alba, Jamie-Lynn DiScala/Sigler, Christopher Robert Evans, Ben Kweller, Jenna and Barbara Bush, Rachel Bilson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jennifer Hudson, Alexis Bledel, Nicole Richie, Ivanka Trump, Sienna Miller, Danielle Fishel, Josh Groban, Blake Lewis, Nick Valensi, Amanda Beard, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Evan Ramsey, Barry Loukaitis, Luke Woodham. Elsewhere: Natalie Portman, Jens Lekman, Anna Kournikova, Hayden Christensen, Sarah Harding, Kimberley Walsh, Gwenno Pipette, John Hassall, Kele Okereke, Russell Lissack, Tom Smith, Chris Urbanowicz, Edward Lay, Candylac Suicide.
1982: Joanna Newsom, Jessica Biel, Thora Birch, Nellie McKay, Kelly Clarkson, Kirsten Dunst, Brad Renfro, Lil Wayne, Caleb Followill, Amina Munster, Ne-Yo, Anne Hathaway, LeAnn Rimes, Dan Berger. Elsewhere: Prince William of Wales, Anna Paquin, Lacey Chabert, Elisha Cuthbert, Kristin Kreuk, Kip Kinkel, Becki Pipette, Russell Leetch.
1983: Kate Bosworth, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hanson, Yung Joc, Leelee Sobieski, Michelle Branch, Nicky Hilton, Maggie Grace, Peter Gelderloos, Michael Carneal, Andrew Wurst. Elsewhere: Emily Blunt, Amy Winehouse, Cheryl Cole/Tweedy.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.