What I think about what Millennials think about “The X-Files” #sabbaticaldiaries

The reason “What Millennials think about ‘The X-Files'” became so long is that I began with some reflection on how this sabbatical differs from my last. It’s an important reflection because I’ll be posting about the questions the reflection raises in the future. But I decided to cut it and make “What Millennials think about ‘The X-Files'” more of a teaser. For those who didn’t read it, what you were teased with was the following conversation I overheard between two twenty somethings: 

Friend #1: My boyfriend and I started watching The X-Files on Netflix.

Friend #2: Are you binge watching?

Friend #1: Not really. He doesn’t watch TV at all, so the most I’ve been able to get him to watch is an episode a week. It’s probably going to take us like 10 years to finish the series.

Friend #2: So how do you like it so far?

Friend #1: It feels pretty dated. It’s like this pre-war on terror and pre-global warming era when the only thing people had to worry about was whether or not aliens exist.

Friend #2: Wasn’t it also about government conspiracy? Or fears of government cover ups?

Friend #1: Yeah, but back then the concern was more with what the government was hiding. Today we don’t care what the government is hiding from us. We’re more worried about how the government gathers information about us and what it knows about us.

Here’s why this conversation was so relevant to my current sabbatical that has just gotten underway…

This sabbatical, my second since I arrived at the University of San Francisco in 2002, comes at a bit of an inflection point in my career and life. I guess all sabbaticals are supposed to be times of reflection and introspection. But my first sabbatical came when there was still the carrot of promotion to Full Professor which motivated me to stay focused on a few conventional academic projects. I needed to use the time productively to demonstrate I had achieved the academic standards for promotion to Full Professor, a promotion I’ve since received. Now at the highest rank, with no formal rewards for which to strive, this sabbatical feels different. Combined with the fact that I’ve been sensing a shift in my relationship to my students, I’m feeling compelled to use this sabbatical to figure out what my new relationship is what it means for my approach to teaching.

Here’s a little more context. During my 2009 sabbatical I was roughly 16 years older than my average upperclass student. The difference between myself, a Gen Xer, and my Millennial students did not seem so great. When I end this sabbatical and return to teaching I’ll be almost 45, 24 years older than a typical upper division student and 27 years older than incoming students. I’ve definitely been feeling this difference in the last couple of years, especially when teaching the Senior Capstone Seminar in Environmental Studies. It’s in this class where some of the deeper concerns, fears, and hopes of my Millennial students are revealed to me as we discuss post-graduation plans, career paths, professional socialization, and the reality of moving on from college.

As I’ve struggled to figure out how to relate to my students the thought has crossed my mind that the 22 remaining years of my working life might be better spent in another profession. I’m at the age that my father was at when he made a radical career change from working in the insurance industry to becoming a small business owner. When he died in 2002 I was only 31 and just starting my career. I couldn’t have foreseen the need to ask his advice about making a mid-life about face, a decision that impacted not just the rest of his life but also the lives of his wife and children.

Me and my father in 2000, two years before he died of cancer. I was too young and too naive to know what advice to ask for even though I knew my time with his was limited.

Me and my father two years before he died of cancer in 2002. I was too young and too naive to know what advice to ask for even though I knew my time with his was limited.

Of course, the benefits of being an academic–summers off, a paid sabbatical every seven years, setting one’s own schedule (more or less), mid-week work flexibility even during the semester, tuition remission for my children if they attend USF, and so on–are impossible to find elsewhere. So my sabbatical will be spent, in part, thinking through this turning point in my life.

Do I begin looking more seriously at career alternatives? Another motivating factor as I consider this question is whether higher education, with its rising tuitions, is a bubble ready to burst. And, If so, what are the implications? Budget shortfalls are one of the few ways in which a tenured professor can be fired.

Or do I recommit myself to my profession, and to teaching in particular, by reinventing myself as a teacher, discovering a new relationship to my students, and pursuing deeper and more meaningful “scholarly activity” (i.e., research)? As I contemplate this question, I’m faced with the reality that I’ll need to get a better grasp of who students are today.

It just so happens that I’m currently working on a manuscript that looks at how certain “cultural impulses” (e.g., urban agriculture and sustainable/alternative food systems, bicycling as transportation, and the sharing economy more broadly) are practiced by Millennials. The manuscript, tentatively titled “Mead, Interactionism, and the Improbability of Ecological Selves: Toward a Meta-Environmental Microsociological Theory” (jargonistic, I know, but it’s hard to shake academic habits) will hopefully appear as a chapter in an edited book called Microsociological Perspectives for Environmental Sociology (edited by Brad Brewster and Tony Puddephatt).

I’m working on this project in collaboration with my undergraduate mentor, Andy Weigert at the University of Notre Dame, who is perhaps three or even four generations removed from Millennials. He does the heavy theoretical lifting while I try to walk him though what I know of the younger generation. We’ve had to sort through a lot of the popularized notions of who Millennials are. There are some decent reports and a handful of academic studies available that are beginning to move beyond the blanket statements that make good headlines (e.g., “Millennials are lazy, entitled, and narcissistic”) to identify some nuances. Examples of the more nuanced understandings are evident in reports by the Pew Research CenterIBMGoldman Sachs, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and in an academic study by McDonald (2015) in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

I also very much like this statement by the Millennial Advisory Committee of the Andrew Goodman Foundation in its “Social Change Manifesto”:

We are the most diverse generation in U.S. history and have come of age when the pillars of this great nation have failed us. But despite the collapse of financial institutions, the failing education system, the focus on short-term profits and corporate greed, and environmental degradation, we are emboldened by our hope and tech savvy–we possess innovative spirits to make a better future for all.

I interpret this to mean that despite having grown up in an age of terrorism and wars, during which the U.S. experienced the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Millennials are optimistic about their abilities to forge a future better than the present. This is a rather curious attitude for a generation that is “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age” (“Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends,” Pew Research Center). Despite their financial burdens,” the Pew report continues, “Millennials are the nation’s most stubborn economic optimists. More than eight-in-ten say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want (32%) or expect to in the future (53%). No other cohort of adults is nearly as confident.”

This brings me back to Friend #1 and Friend #2 and their conversation about The X-Files. The X-Files, which aired from 1993 to 2002, was being interpreted by Friend #1 vis-à-vis an historical context that hadn’t really occurred to me. In case you missed the 90s or haven’t binge watched to catch up with cultural touchstones of the decade, The X-Files was about unsolved FBI cases with possible paranormal explanations. Agent Mulder (David Duchovny) desperately wants to find evidence of the paranormal, and believes there is a government conspiracy to prevent the cases from being investigated. In the show’s pilot, Mulder gets a new partner: Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), scientifically trained and ever the empiricist. Scully’s job is to use her scientific skepticism to rein in Mulder’s theories but several seasons into the series her skepticism wanes as Mulder and Scully both begin to realize they are pawns in a much larger game of cover up being controlled by a “shadow government” group called The Syndicate.

Writers of the X-Files used “The Truth Is Out There” as a tagline at the end of the opening credits in most episodes (certain episodes had taglines specific to the episode’s plot or topic). Season One’s finale included the tagline “Trust No One.”

In looking back on these taglines and the series more generally, I see The X-Files as presaging the political and cultural turn the United States took at the start of the Millennium. This turn paradoxically produced gridlock resulting in perhaps the greatest entrenchment in the history of American politics while simultaneously extending and expanding laws guaranteeing rights to gays and immigrants.

The first decade of the 21st century began with an election where the Electoral College and a Supreme Court decision ensured that the candidate with the most votes lost. Shortly thereafter we had a terrorist attack and a war premised on nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction” In 2005 the country witnessed a hybrid natural-industrial disaster in which government incompetence helped lay bare deep racial and class divides within American society. And that was only the first half of the decade. Meanwhile, powerful corporate interests were at work persuading the American public that scientists could not be trusted. Which scientists? Those whose research slowly but surely grew into a conclusive body of evidence linking human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, to observable increases in global mean temperature and in extreme weather events.

The X-Files’ popular taglines–”The truth is out there” and “Trust no one”–perfectly capture the ambiguity and ambivalence produced by these and other defining events of the decade. In other words, The X-Files augured the zeitgeist of the ‘aughts’ (a decade so full of uncertainty that, as The New Yorker pointed out, we never quite figured out what to call it).

It’s no wonder that Friend #1 interpreted The X-Files through the lens of a pre-war on terror and pre-global warming era. Maybe Friend #1 was spot on. In fact, she may have overlooked another important fact that defined the decade. Not only were the 90s “pre-war on terror and pre-global warming,” they were also the decade of the greatest economic growth in the nation’s history. In this context, an era of bounty (albeit unequally enjoyed), perhaps growing inequality both domestically and globally began eroding Americans’ trust in one another. Social scientists, in fact, have measured during this period (and continuing into the 00s), declining trust in institutions like government, science, and the media.

The decade taught us, and more specifically the generation that came of age during the decade, that government can’t be trusted to handle elections, wars or disasters; scientists’ accounts of a warming planet can’t be trusted; and the media generally can’t be trusted to get to the bottom of it all (as “The Daily Show” nightly reminded us). Obviously, then, Millennials grew up distrustful. But they also grew up believing that “the truth is out there.” Out where? On the Internet. Rather than liberating, however, this may have functioned more as a burden. The cognitive labor of sifting through information, accounts, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, conspiracies, all with the intent of identifying “facts” and producing a (or the) truth is understandably overwhelming. A backlash against that which is produced, manufactured, steered, manipulated or otherwise controlled would not be surprising.

It’s no wonder that as The X-Files declined in popularity a new form of TV was on the rise–Reality TV. As debatable as the format’s “reality” may be, the rise of reality TV must have fulfilled a growing desire for something true, meaningful and authentic.

Maybe my analysis will be put to the test when The X-Files returns early in 2016 as a six-episode miniseries. What will the new tagline be? How will Millennials respond? What about the broader viewing audience? Will any of the themes resonate with us now that we’ve moved beyond “the ohs” and into a new decade?

In the meantime, I’ll continue trying to understand the generation I’ll be teaching when I return to the classroom after my sabbatical.

Works cited:

McDonald, N.C. “Are Millennials Really the ‘Go-Nowhere’ Generation?” Journal of the American Planning Association (2015) DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2015.1057196

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