Millennials are often compared to their boomer parents in terms of their penchant for social activism and positive change. Cynically minded social commentators have also characterized the millennials’ flavor of activism as “slacktivism” or, more recently, as a “diffuse, click-and-go” activism. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article).
On Oct. 30, however, we saw a very different side of this generation.
Millennials gathered in the tens of thousands to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C., to speak out against fear-mongering in politics.
With an economy that’s no laughing matter, one might have expected to see a generational temper tantrum, but instead we bore witness to the dynamic that we at MTV have lovingly dubbed “smart ‘n’ funny as the new rock ‘n’ roll.”
That is, the boundary-pushing, anti-establishment role that rock ‘n’ roll played for boomer (and even X-er) parents has been replaced, to some extent, by iconoclastic, absurd, high-wire, non-PC, super-smart humor.
Consider this distinctly unfunny stat: Nearly 40 percent of millennials 18-29 are out of work, per the Pew Research Center. And, according to our new study, the M-Edge, fielded in October with 2,000 millennials 12-24, 63 percent believe that “people my age have been most negatively affected by the economy.”
Sixty-seven percent also agree that, “I may have to settle for a job that just pays the bills.” And 79 percent agree that, “people my age are growing up in a scarier world than my parent’s generation.”
But, hey, why punch a cop if a punch line gets you there faster and without all that messy jail time? Rallying millennials voted with wit as their weapon of choice. “It’s a sad day when our politicians are comical and I have to take our comedians seriously!” read one of the placards. Another read: “There’s nothing to fear but fear…and spiders.”
Many of the punch lines on the signs ended up not on the nightly news but on the “best of” Funnyordie.com roundup.
For a generation battling to get the most “likes” from a stinging status update, sharing 140-characters-or-less bites of wit has become the lingua franca. It’s simply the logical next step that they’ll leverage funny to take back the White House.
While good old Franklin Roosevelt once told us, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” today’s impassioned rallying cry read, “I’m more afraid of Twilighters than I am of Socialists or Muslims” and was written on the inside of a pizza box.
MTV research shows that this generation believes that being “smart”—meaning tech savvy, clever and having a “layered” sense of humor—is the ultimate social currency, as well as the way to get ahead. Forty “likes” is the 2010 equivalent of a 40-yard touchdown.
But humor isn’t just about being cool. Millennials pride themselves on using humor to get ahead, with 6 in 10 claiming “being funny helps me get what I want.” They have grown up using smarts to manipulate and negotiate for decision-making power in their democratic (with a small “d”) homes, with 57 percent claiming to be smarter than their parents.
The new smiley face “;-)” of rebellion among millennials has been spurred by numerous factors, with one of the most significant being their relationship with parents, or “peer-ents” as we call them at MTV.
The role of a parent has shifted from being an authority figure who sets rules and boundaries to that of peer, friend, therapist and, dare we say it, “swagger coach.” With no clear boundaries to push against, millennials have developed smart, fast, non-PC, edgy humor to test just how far they can push before things snap.
The Rally to Restore Sanity has been coined as this generation’s Woodstock. This speaks well to the fact that both events enabled these massive generations to demonstrate on a large scale their power, social consciousness and desire to enact change. (Millennials are, in fact, the largest generational cohort in American history, second only to boomers.) Yet the “old-fashioned,” crassly anti-establishment spirit of Woodstock and the ’60s was oh so absent from the 2010 rally.
Instead, millennials brought us a hint of what’s to come with Rebellion 2.0. According to our research, 76 percent of millennials agree that “I hate when other people expect me to live by their rules,” but that iconoclasm looks like it will express itself in a new mode, a mode where one doesn’t seek to revolutionize the system or smash the system so much as to game it. And when it’s “game over,” they’ll leave the system laughing, but wondering nervously, “Are they laughing with me or at me?”
Nick Shore is svp of strategic consumer insights and research at MTV.