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Few movies provoked more striking reviews, negative and positive, than Citizen Kane. The Chicago Tribune’s reviewer damned Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece with faint praise: “It’s interesting. It’s different. It’s bizarre enough to become a museum piece. But its sacrifice of simplicity to eccentricity robs it of distinction and entertainment value.”

Others were much more positive. Time magazine called it “the most original, exciting and entertaining picture that has yet been produced in this country.” Wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, “It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than fifteen other films we could name.” Or how about John O’Hara in Newsweek:

“It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.

With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.

Name of picture: ‘Citizen Kane.’

Name of actor: Orson Welles.

Reason for regret: you, my dear, may never see the picture.”

I just saw an extraordinary off-Broadway play that I doubt you will ever get a chance to see. MacArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s The Comeuppance, an off-Broadway account of a reunion of five high school friends, is, in the words of the Timesreview, “a bigger, chillier Big Chill.” It’s a millennial version of Return of the Secaucus 7.

As the five members or associates of the “multiethnic reject group experience” reunite, long-suppressed jealousies and resentments surface. Secrets are disclosed. Conflict erupts. Chaos ensues.

Summed up that way, the plot sounds predictable, formulaic, even derivative.  It’s anything but. The play is among the most searing accounts I’ve seen of what it’s like, years later, to encounter your high school self and to reflect on how your life has evolved for good and ill. We come face-to-face with bitter regrets and disappointments, with promises unkept, potential unrealized, dreams dashed, talents unfulfilled and truths denied. 

The play is also about how little we actually knew about the peers who were closest to us during one of the most formative periods of our life and the intimations of mortality we must process as our bodies age.

The play’s characters are the walking wounded, nursing still-felt high school grievances and buried resentments. Each is suffering an identity crisis. Over the course of 130 nonstop minutes of invective-laced snark, confession and personal revelation, we learn what went wrong in their lives. Their comeuppance, the audience discovers, isn’t so much a matter of just deserts or due recompense or karma for something awful that they have done. Rather, it’s a product of the character flaws that all humans share, mistaken life choices and circumstances that left deep wounds, whether public, like the pandemic or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or as personal and private as missed romantic connections, marital disappointment, illness and a parent’s and a grandparent’s death.

One review in a trade journal accurately calls the play “an acute portrait of a generation suffering mental fatigue from a nonstop parade of traumas” and a “canny cocktail of dark comedy and social observation.” If the dialogue might strike you as excessively morose and verbose, the play’s dramatic intensity is powerful indeed as the characters, in ways foreshadowed by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, puncture each other’s illusions and shatter their psychological defenses.

In contrast to The Big Chill and Secaucus 7, the friends are a multicultural, millennial mélange suffering from depression, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse and the emotional aftermath of a series of abortions and miscarriages. But the true force that has shaped their lives is generational trauma. As one character puts it, “look at all the shit we’ve been through—it’s like too much. Columbine, 9/11, the war, the war, the endless war, then Trump, then COVID, whatever the fuck is going on in the Supreme Court …” Whether due to the death of a loved one, the shock of war or the failure to find a fulfilling relationship, none of the characters has found contentment or successfully grown up or moved on.

I mention Comeuppance as a lead-in and counterpart to a widely reviewed social science study that provides a host of valuable insights into the lives of a generational cohort. Jean Twenge’s best seller Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future has already exerted a powerful influence on the discourse surrounding contemporary youth and young adulthood. Her book makes several major claims, some of which are uncontroversial, others of which are hotly contested.

  1. Young people are growing up much more slowly. Today’s high school seniors’ behavior resembles that of ninth graders in the 1970s.
  2. The transition to adulthood has become much more prolonged. The attainment of the traditional markers of adult status—entry into a stable job, marriage, childbearing, house buying—is occurring much more slowly than in the recent past, if at all. The norms that defined life for the Silent Generation have broken down.
  3. Mental health problems among the young have intensified, and technology and faulty parenting are largely at fault. Twenge argues that today’s “epidemic” of anxiety and depression is partly due to shifts in child-rearing practices, as increasingly vigilant, risk-averse parents, intensely anxious about their children’s future, deprive their offspring of the opportunities for failure that are critical to healthy development. But it’s mainly the product of new technologies; social media and lifestyle and reality TV disseminate unrealistic norms and expectations and place adverse competitive and financial pressures on the young. Outsize expectations have, in turn, produced a “constant drizzle of grievance and disappointment.”
  4. Age cohorts have a greater impact on beliefs and behaviors than do parents. Generations, each with their own distinctive values, attitudes and behavior, have become the most important source of social division within American society.
  5. A “toxic” culture exacerbates the worst features of American society. Family instability, frayed extended kinship ties, secularization, the drift away from marriage and a noxious, poisonous, extraordinarily individualistic culture, a relentless emphasis on consumption and a sensationalist media contribute to distrust and pessimism, anomie, social fragmentation, information bubbles and an exaggerated sense of menace that undercuts young people’s sense of agency.

The headline takeaways from Twenge’s book are these:

  • After a rough start, the millennials are thriving economically, and
  • Generation Z, born between the early 1990s and early 2010s, is a “less confident, more uncertain, [and] more anxious” generation than the millennials were at the same age—although it’s also a more tolerant and individualistic generation.

Twenge’s critics have questioned her methods and conclusions. The methodological concerns involve questions about sampling and selection bias, overgeneralizations based on limited data, failure to look sufficiently at subpopulations, disregard for contradictory data and a relentless focus on negative trends.

Then, there’s the matter of interpretation. As Mike A. Males, whom I consider one of the leading sociologists of adolescence, points out, this book, like her earlier scholarly writings, downplays two crucial realities. One is that by many measures, young people are doing better than their recent predecessors. Rates of smoking, drug and alcohol use, delinquency, and teen pregnancy are all down, while college attendance and completion are up.

Second, many of the trends that she focuses on among the young are actually far worse among adults, including much higher rates of anxiety and depression, self-harm and suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and deaths of despair.

Let me be clear: Twenge’s book offers a cornucopia of valuable information. Generations will not only be the go-to source for survey data for years to come, but its arguments will frame many current and future policy debates. It offers precisely the kind of evidence-based big picture of societal and cultural change that has been lacking. If the book handles context differently than I would and, in my opinion, overstates the impact of technology, Generations is aware of the shaping influence of major economic, political and ideological developments upon individual lives. It’s the kind of accessible and provocative interpretation that I’d describe as ideal for classroom use, if only more faculty members still assigned books.

Twenge’s a social psychologist, not a historian, but her focus on generations does suggest change over time: that social and cultural change take place one funeral at a time. But for all her book’s many strengths, her cohort approach, like that of the best-selling generational theorists Neil Howe and William Strauss, does result in sweeping generalizations that tend to downplay diversity within generations. More worrisome, we learn little about what goes on in schools, the primary arena for generational socialization or about the complex ways that historical, economic, political and sociological context intersect with individual lives. That’s precisely that focus that makes Comeuppance such a powerful and penetrating analysis of the roots of millennial angst and its consequences.

Chapter 1 of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, his always-timely critique of how schooling can diminish students’ imagination, is entitled “The One Thing Needful” and includes the following famous words: “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

When Nietzsche wrote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” he suggested, quite rightly, that perception trumps facts seven days a week. Or as the great political sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. used to say, statistics always show that things weren’t so bad before the revolution.

The stories we tell about ourselves, the narratives we collectively craft, shape our identities, facts be damned. As a social historian, I am a dust-ball empiricist, eager to recover past facts and reconstruct a bygone world as it was. But as a cultural historian, I am equally interested in the meanings that people construct and that help shape their views, behavior and self-understanding.

The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote words that every arts and humanities department should post on its walls: “Before we experience life, how do we learn about life? Novels, plays, TV, dance, music and movies teach us how to live by giving us examples of experiences we have never had and some that we’re not likely to have.” She’s absolutely right: the arts “are the great expander of horizons.” A play like The Comeuppance makes no pretense toward statistical representativeness or scholarly objectivity, and yet it can tell you as much about the millennial generation and their hopes, dreams, confusions, social relationships and personal anguish than a host of multiple-choice opinion surveys.

If we are to truly understand a generation, statistics, surveys and correlation coefficients are not enough. We need to burrow beneath the surface and uncover a cohort’s inner life and the stories that it tells about itself. That remains the task of our most accomplished playwrights, novelists, filmmakers and other architects of the collective imagination.

So: read fiction. Go to museums, the theater, the movies and other performance venues. Listen to popular music. The truth is out there.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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