With five generations in the workplace at once and six alive at the same time, our destiny as a longer-lived society and a much more multigenerational one is clear. What’s less clear is how well we’ll navigate this new terrain, particularly across lines of age and race. Are we headed toward a zero-sum future with old and young at each other’s throats, as some contend? Or will we find new ways to come together that are mutually beneficial and enrich the lives of all generations?
After half a century or more of radical age segregation—with so much generational vitriol on the opinion pages, so much social distancing as a result of the pandemic, and so many two-dimensional stereotypes of older (and younger) people historically in the popular culture—it’s fair to ask whether we can even imagine what a thriving multigenerational future might look like.
And yet, there’s cause for optimism emanating from a most unlikely place. A set of the best and most-watched television shows of the past year elevates stories of intergenerational intersections, friendship, collaboration, and, yes, strife. On closer examination, they provide competing parables for our multigenerational future—and perhaps even models that we might try to emulate in real life.
On the one hand, The Chair
The Chair is a cautionary tale. It’s set on a college campus, where one might expect to see older teachers playing an important role in cultivating the next generation, part of a cross-generational web of nurturance, development, and support.
Not at fictional Pembroke University.
The Netflix series begins with Sandra Oh ascending the stairs to her new office as the English department’s first female chair and first chair of color. It’s a proud moment for middle-aged professor Ji-Yoon Kim until she settles into her desk chair, which promptly collapses. A harbinger of things to come.
Professor Kim soon finds herself in an impossible job, haunted by declining enrollments and squeezed by a vision-less dean focused only on cutting costs and putting “butts in seats.” Worse, she’s caught between two implacable factions: an entrenched, clueless, over-the-hill group of senior faculty teaching to empty classrooms while clogging up the pipeline for young scholars, and the entitled Pembroke students consumed with grievances, quick to cancel at the slightest misstep, and utterly unforgiving in their judgments.
It’s a perilous situation. Unless the “dead wood” can be coaxed to retire or at least change, new faculty with knowledge students crave can’t be recruited and retained, and the department can’t justify its budget. Professor Kim tries to encourage collaboration but fails to convince Elliot Rentz, an older white professor, to commit himself to team-teaching a class with Yaz McKay, a young African American scholar. Although McKay draws students in droves and electrifies them with her charisma and insights, Rentz dismisses her achievements and patronizes the younger scholar, who eventually departs for Yale.
In another scene, Joan Hambling, an older, white, female faculty member long overlooked and undervalued due to her sex, finally decides to take her case to the University’s Title IX office, staffed by a young Asian American investigator. It’s a chance for the age- and race-diverse women to come together around shared feminist values. But the two become immediate adversaries, as Hambling takes a cheap shot at the younger woman’s clothes.
The Chair’s creator Amanda Peet said she wanted to set the show “in a place in which the vestiges of white, male elitism are still hanging on, where intergenerational tension is a constant issue. It seemed like it would be ripe for comedy.”
At one level that’s true: The Chair is often funny. But the future it portrays offers little comfort or amusement. Instead, it’s essentially a dramatization of some of the most despairing, dyspeptic predictions about the fate of a multigenerational America, set out in books like OK Boomer, Let’s Talk and A Generation of Sociopaths. What’s more, the show is built on profoundly ageist stereotypes of both the young and the old, portrayed mostly as cramped cut-outs incapable of empathy and utterly consumed with their own narrow worldviews.
On the other hand…
Our age-diverse future might well look like the discord of Pembroke’s English department writ large. But there’s another prospect, one that’s been largely missing in much of the popular culture until recently. Three of the most heralded shows of the past year—Hacks, Only Murders in the Building, and Lupin—illustrate a far more uplifting outlook, showcasing the power of cross-age bonds and the extent to which older and younger people need each other’s love and unique assets.
Jean Smart, the former Designing Women star, capped her comeback year (she was the much-heralded mother in Mare of Easttown) with an Emmy-winning performance as Deborah Vance in Hacks on HBO Max. A Joan Rivers–like stand-up comic entering her 70s, Vance is about to be fired from her longstanding Saturday night gig at one of Vegas’s biggest casinos. She’s a victim of age discrimination to some extent, but also of stale material worn thin over decades of rolling out the same schtick.
To rejuvenate her career, Vance’s agent contrives to pair her up with another client on the skids, a young Hollywood comedy writer named Ava Daniels (played by Hanna Einbeinder, a real-life stand-up comic and daughter of Saturday Night Live pioneer Lorraine Newman). Daniels is also facing cancellation, of the 21st century variety, for a set of indiscrete tweets.
In this odd-couple match, there are echoes of Professor Kim’s efforts to pair up older and younger professors to achieve a better outcome. And as in The Chair, neither party is initially happy about the prospect of working together; the two comics consent more out of desperation than hope. Naturally, the collaboration begins with misunderstanding, insults, and missteps. But over time, the dynamic between Vance and Daniels slowly starts to shift. They realize they need each other not only as career life rafts, but as friends. The two come to a grudging respect and a growing, if prickly, affection.
In selecting Hacks as one of 2021’s best shows, the New York Times describes it as “a love story” disguised as “a hate story,” perhaps inadvertently making a larger point about the prospects of our multigenerational future. The intergenerational reality we’ve been taught to dread is actually, according to an accumulation of developmental and evolutionary research, one of the pillars of human thriving. It also holds what may be, in the words of UC Berkeley law professor john a. powell, one of the “short bridges” to coming together across difference in our multiply divided America.
But for all the promise of these bonds, Hacks closes with a reminder of what may be the true prize: joy. In a final scene from the first season, Deborah and Ava find themselves in the young writer’s Midwestern childhood bedroom, after Ava returns home for her father’s funeral. Vance shows up out of respect and caring, a symbol of the long distance their relationship has traveled since the beginning of the season. They’ve become like family.
When the two go off to Ava’s bedroom to talk, Deborah announces that she’s decided to head out on the road with a new comedy act, one that moves into uncharted creative territory. And that she’d like the young woman to join her, as co-writer of the show.
“And you…can’t do it without me!” Daniels responds triumphantly.
Vance snaps back that nothing could be further from the truth. “But it would be a lot less fun,” she says.
And then there are the murders…
That closing scene from Hacks, its barbed wit and lack of sentimentality, keep the cross-generational affection and interdependence—the “love story”—from sliding into saccharine. The same can be said about another comedy success. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building brings together two older, white, show-business has-beens, Charles and Oliver (played by Steve Martin and Martin Short), who live in the same upscale Upper West Side co-op, The Arconia. After a fellow resident is murdered, they join forces with a young Latina neighbor (Selena Gomez) to try to solve the crime.
Like Hacks, there are wariness and insults at the outset. At one point, Gomez’s character, Mabel, discovers that one of the older men leaves his apartment door unlocked. “I mean, a murderer probably lives in the building,” she quips, “but I guess old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change. Sad.”
But the intergenerational “love story” in Only Murders is warmer and more appreciative than Hacks, as the older men become offbeat uncles to Mabel. Perhaps more centrally, it’s a “growth story”—much like Hacks, but in sharp contrast to The Chair.
In Hacks, the two women, younger and older, are able to break through their own limitations to begin creating richer, more adventurous comedy than ever before. Neither could have managed that on their own; they are truly better, and braver, together. The same is true in Only Murders, where the lead characters decide to create a co-generational, true-crime podcast.
They likewise manage to come together across not only age and gender, but also race—a combination that similarly animates one of the central subplots of the French show Lupin on Netflix. Assane Diop (played by the young French actor of West African descent, Omar Sy) is struggling to bring down the evil tycoon, Hubert Pellegrini, who framed his father.
Diop is outsmarted and overpowered at every turn. That is until he forges a partnership with an older investigative journalist, Fabienne Bériot, who was herself destroyed by the wealthy oligarch decades earlier. Ostracized and blacklisted for trying to bring the billionaire to justice, Beriot is consigned to a lonely, broken existence until approached by Lupin to help him bring Pellegrini to justice.
As with the other shows, the characters initially resist the intergenerational partnership. But ultimately the two come together to do something that goes beyond friendship or even career rejuvenation. Together, they are a force for social justice and a better future, the embodiment of all that’s possible when the generations come together animated by a larger, shared purpose.
Flipping the script
As America careens toward a much more multigenerational future, we remain largely ill-prepared to imagine, let alone realize, the potential that age diversity brings. Indeed, sociologists of aging have long argued that we’re unlikely to get much help on this task from a popular culture that historically lags behind in its imagery and storylines, often perpetuating caricatures in the process. Witness The Chair.
But maybe popular culture isn’t lagging behind so much anymore; arguably, it’s starting to lead the way. As I write these words, 95-year-old Tony Bennett and 35-year-old Lady Gaga’s album, “Love for Sale,” stands nominated for six Grammys. Last winter’s Oscars were dominated by wins for older actors, including Frances McDormand, Anthony Hopkins, and Yuh-Jung Youn, who played the grandmother in Minari. One of the most popular real-life podcasts today is 70 over 70, in which a younger host interrogates the wisdom of guests often four or five decades his senior.
Here’s hoping the successful writers and performers behind Hacks, Only Murders, Lupin, and these other triumphs will inspire yet more artists to elevate the multigenerational society they envision—one that offers creativity and humanity, mutual benefit and interdependence, along with substantial servings of love and joy.