Skip to main content

Reality, Still Biting

Gen X is the most economically screwed age group. Were the slackers onto something after all?
Reality Bites. (Photo: Universal Studios)

Reality Bites. (Photo: Universal Studios)

Winona Ryder stands near the fridge in her messy kitchen. A quick glance is enough to tell the viewer it’s the ’90s: She wears a saggy vintage-style housedress in a sad oxblood color; her hair is cut in a boyish shag; maroon matte lipstick is happening to her. She’s surrounded by three roommates, all in thrift-shop clothing, one of them sitting on the counter eating Pringles. Ryder’s character, the difficult-to-spell Lelaina, announces, “I just got fired.” The three others look dismayed but unsurprised: Getting fired is what happens, after all.

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember Reality Bites as an unfunny romantic comedy; you might recall nothing at all about the film except your murderous feelings toward Ethan Hawke, which is OK, everybody feels that way. Despite being a cynically made piece of ephemera, the movie landed as a kind of Generation X cultural touchstone, with lots of pundit types worrying about what kind of future could possibly lie ahead for tiresome slackers such as these. (The term Generation X itself was popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of that name, which gave the cohort a smarter look.) In the New York Times, Caryn James wrote that Lelaina and her friends lead “lives that are pretty much all texture and no forward drive.” Twenty years have passed since the film’s release, and it has stuck with us—annoying, persistent—like gum on our shoes.

When it first came out in 1994, Reality Bites struck me as exploitative fluff—as if it were trying to market my own experience back to me. While that’s no big deal these days, at the time it felt notably distasteful. I was a member of the genus represented in the movie: young, educated, urban, artistic, mopey. More than I realized at the time, or would have cared to admit, Reality Bites represented my life.

In the maw of the Great Recession, Generation X—defined by Pew as people born between 1966 and 1975—was harder hit than both the boomers ahead of us and the millennials behind us.

I watched the film again recently, my curiosity aroused by all the economists who kept making bad puns based on it—and I discovered that Reality Bites, weirdly, provides interesting commentary about the economy. In fact, it’s a film about money. To be a little more specific, the movie explores a deep, complicated ambivalence about work, freedom, capitalist impulses, and authenticity. The young people of Reality Bites—I find myself now tempted to call them children—think about their financial situation all the time. They don’t want to, but they have to, and they absolutely hate the fact that they do.

I must say, I can relate. I happened to screen the film on a Wednesday morning in my bed, which is sometimes my desk. I didn’t have to go to a job; I never have to go to a job (or never get to go to a job, depending on how you look at it). I have worked for myself as a writer for almost 20 years; the same goes for my husband. I realize this is inherently and spectacularly privileged: We’re living the dream! It’s also, at times, a huge problem.

I found it painful to watch the 20-somethings of Reality Bites and their economic struggles, because, predictably, their story looks a lot less romantic from the vantage point of middle age. Generation X has turned out to be not so much indifferent to money as screwed by it. A recent “Economic Mobility Project” (the title of which made me want to snort ironically in a Gen X kind of way) from Pew found that our age group lost 45 percent of its wealth between 2007 and 2010. That’s right, almost half its wealth. In the maw of the Great Recession, Generation X—defined by Pew as people born between 1966 and 1975—was harder hit than both the boomers ahead of us and the millennials behind us: Early boomers lost 28 percent of their wealth, late boomers lost 25 percent, and millennials saw their net worth decline by 25 percent. It’s tempting to write off Gen X’s failure to thrive in a scolding, parental way: Whiners get what they deserve. Faced with some statistics, I can’t help but wonder if I’m responsible, if this downfall has come about because I’m lazy; because we’re all lazy. But that’s a kind of victim blaming.

Reality Bites. (Photo: Universal Studios)


The sad truth is, macroeconomic forces have come down on Gen X, with very bad timing. We’ve suffered major income loss during what should have been our prime moneymaking years. Our assets are shot: 18.7 percent of Gen X homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, in large part because we bought into an inflated housing market. As for retirement, there’s an ominous storm threatening to cloud what should be our lovely golden years. In short, we’re hosed. Those of us on the older end of the age group began working around the time traditional benefits packages evaporated and 401ks seemed almost faddishly new. The idea of 401ks was you put your money in the stock market, among other things. And then you sit back and watch as it grows and grows! That was the experience of our parents, who came up with this great idea. But the market has crashed twice already during Gen Xers’ adult lives. Our 401ks have suffered. Add to this the housing quagmire and college, and it seems to be more than the fragile structure of our earning power can bear. Like many of my Gen X peers who grew up in middle-class families, I feel, well, downwardly mobile. It’s one thing to be grungy and artiste-y when you’re young and you think you’ll have the option of being less grungy later. It’s quite another when you’re wearing tattered jeans and flannel shirts at age 47 and you know that’s as good as it’s going to get in this life.

I THOUGHT ABOUT ALL this as I watched the film. There was plenty of time to think about financial woes, because Reality Bites is not what you’d call a gripping picture. Ryder and her friends have just graduated from college. Ethan Hawke is Troy, an intellectual musician with chin-whiskers who is usually found being both supine and a contemptuous know-it-all. Janeane Garofalo is Vickie, a pop-culture-loving, bed-hopping tart who always looks like she’s saying something funnier than she’s actually saying. And Steve Zahn is Sammy, a jolly non-entity until the film needs a bit of pathos, whereupon he comes out as gay to his mom.

To recap briefly, lest the details have escaped you: Ryder pulls a subversive prank at work and loses her TV production job. Already it’s been established that she’s terminally irresponsible with money—in the film’s most notorious scene, she uses her dad’s gas card to buy everyone groceries. Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo is destroying her soul earning a pittance by folding mock turtlenecks at the Gap, Ethan Hawke is fired from a newstand job and basically retires, and Steve Zahn is ... we never learn. In 1994, in lame movies, “gay” sufficed as a whole character description.

"When someone tells you they've just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality."

What’s important to this group is making art (if we can call it that). Hawke plays in a (terrible, terrible, terrible) band and Ryder spends months making a cinema verité–style documentary about her pals and their anomie. We’re meant to think she is a gifted artist, evoking the emptiness of contemporary American experience, even though most of her footage looks like poorly shot home video from a slacker family reunion. Her real vocation appears to be smoking awkwardly. Smoking is very, very important in Reality Bites. If the core values here are leisure and authenticity, then smoking is the perfect do-nothing, please-only-yourself pursuit.

Like a Jane Austen heroine, Ryder must find her truest and best self by identifying her correct partner. Enter Ben Stiller, who directed as well as starred in the film. He plays a yuppie VP at In Your Face TV (like MTV, but without the subtlety); he’s in a position to transform Ryder from artiste to careerist—like him. Will Winona choose craven capitalist Ben or greasy poet Ethan? On its face, Reality Bites is a love triangle, but seen through the lens of money, the Winona-Ben-Ethan relationship morphs into a morality play: Industry and Authenticity vie for the soul of Everywoman. Winona, the lone pilgrim, chooses authenticity, natch. As so many of us did. When we were in our 20s, my friends and I arranged our lives so we could go to shows, write down our feelings, and smoke. And now we have 401ks so empty, so barren, you can hear the tumbleweeds a-blowin’ through. I’m often tempted to think that this is our payback for a self-indulgent youth, but things didn’t necessarily turn out much better for go-getter characters like Stiller’s. Based on those Pew findings, his 401k is likely pretty pathetic, too.

Reality Bites. (Photo: Universal Studios)


REALITY BITES IS REMEMBERED for its portrait of youthful ironists, but the film’s real irony is more meta than that: Ryder, with her adorable pout, is tortured by the idea of commodifying her dissent, but of course she’s trapped in a movie that’s shilling every aspect of alternative youth culture to produce a box office hit. The climactic moment comes when Ryder, who has sold her documentary to In Your Face TV, accompanies Stiller to the premier of her work. But soon she storms from the screening room, horrified to see that he’s reduced her opus to pizza jokes and dopey graphics. From there, it’s a short trip to Ethan Hawke’s dark and deep vintage-suit-jacketed arms. (Hawke’s wardrobe reminds me how brown everything was in the ’90s. I’d forgotten the brownness.) The film pretends authenticity and art have won, but just the opposite has happened. Commerce, in the form of the cynical film itself, has vanquished art.

The film unintentionally shows its true feelings in the way it regards Hawke’s character. Stiller, as director, makes Hawke the romantic hero, but somehow he can’t find anything about him that’s appealing. Over and over, Hawke comes off as an annoying asshole. In fact, there’s really only one thing that’s at all seductive about Hawke’s character, and it’s something the filmmakers can’t quite appreciate, so they set it up as a character defect. It’s his glorious ability to waste time. As Ryder says, “All you do around here, Troy, is eat and couch and fondle the remote control.” Later she accuses him of dicking around “the same coffeehouse for five years.” Well, that gave me a little moment of recognition. I myself hung out at the same coffeehouse for more like a decade. I can put a gloss on it now and say I was teaching myself to be a writer, but what I was doing was dicking around. Like Ethan Hawke, God help me.

I still like my freedom—just like a lot of my peers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2005 that 7.4 percent of the workforce was independent, and that number seems to be on the rise. The Freelancers Union just issued a report claiming that 53 million Americans freelance. It’s hard to gauge whether a freelancer is self-employed by choice or by necessity. After all, just as workers have become more interested in freedom and flexibility, employers have come to see all too clearly that contract workers are cheaper than salaried, insured staff. So, for Gen X, the desire to work for ourselves is only partly self-determined. We’ve also internalized a message we’ve been receiving since long before the Pew study came out: You will do worse than your parents did; there is no job security; you are ultimately the only one responsible for yourself. (That last bit sounds Sartrean, but I assure you doesn’t feel at all Continental or glamorous.) If your mindset is you’re going to fire me anyway, then not really having a J-O-B is not only logical, it’s a very prudent way to hang onto self-respect. As the demographer Neil Howe argues, we’re not really slacking by choice. Our detachment is just a face-saving pose. “For millions, we’re talking about involuntary un- or under-employment leading over time to loss of skills and detachment from the labor force,” Howe said at a 2014 Federal Reserve conference on the finances of younger Americans. “This was especially true for minority, immigrant, or low-skilled Xers, who were most likely to have lost most or all their wealth since 2008 and who have been the slowest to recover any of it.”

In my own independent, time-rich life, I have a 401k that’s like a tiny, glittering souvenir from my last place of employment—a financial accessory, a really great-looking bracelet. It’s not going to help me out when the time comes. I have a small retirement account, and equity in my house. Some years my husband and I make out all right, some years we sit underneath what we call a cash avalanche, and some years it’s touch-and-go, a scramble from check to check. Do I wish I had a retirement fund? Yes. Would it be nice to draw a steady paycheck? Of course. Would I trade this life for anything? Never—not even with the knowledge that I am in many ways an economic artifact.

The characters in Reality Bites took a dim view of the future. “Hey, Sammy, what’s your goal?” asks Ryder’s character. Steve Zahn responds: “My goal is ... I’d like a career or something.” Ambivalence and uncertainty have ruled my generation’s economic lives ever since we came of age alongside the film. It seems to me that Ethan Hawke, with his supine ways, had the right approach. Not to give up, exactly, but to accept that economic expansion is not going to be our lot during our decades on this planet, and that perhaps the years are best passed with some degree of self-styled sovereignty. Sure, this mindset may have been hastened by the shifting tectonic economic forces, but nonetheless, time and independence are the commodities we’ve been given as a generation. Can we enjoy these gifts, or as we age will they feel more and more like a burden?

For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).