It’s a dark time in America, and Planet Earth is in trouble, and it’s Millennials — the supposedly lazy, entitled, narcissistic snowflakes born between 1980 and 2000 — who are gonna save us.
That is the world according to filmmakers Joshua & Rebecca Tickell, a world that bends to historical cycles which define the people who come of age within them. The Revolution Generation is a grab-bag of ideas (often contradictory, never well developed) and inspirational sound bites that aims to get these twenty-/thirty-somethings off the disaffected sidelines and into the game, partly by briefly highlighting a few who are already in the field of play.
After an opening pastiche of talking heads badmouthing Millennials, The Revolution Generation quickly displays its defining intellectual and stylistic aesthetic: mess. Meaningless edits (why do we cut so often to Michelle Rodriguez giving her narration in TED Talk format?) and hundreds of music cues cater to short attention spans, while curious claims are made in the service of incoherent narrative. “There was a time when our culture looked down on having children,” Rodriguez says at one point, referring to a 1970s drop in birthrate due to expanded reproductive freedoms as if people took to the streets with “GOD HATES PARENTS!” picket signs. Then comes 1980–2000, when “[s]uddenly people cared about having kids again” — never mind that the birthrate barely fluctuated during those 20 years and by the end of the millennium was lower than it had been at any time in the ‘70s.
In part The Revolution Generation is an apologia for Millennials, propping them up — such as crediting them for the rise of Bernie Sanders — while justifying their disaffection that let Sanders’s presidential nomination slip away when 3/8ths of registered-to-vote Millennials didn’t bother. It goes like this: As their parents’ generation (Baby Boomers) were ruining the environment, Millennials were being told they were special and promised a nice, shiny world — but the one they grew into was full of 9/11 and school shootings, making them feel unsafe. Then social media took them down a nasty rabbit hole that led to their needing to medicate themselves with pharmaceuticals. When they graduated high school, they took on predatory student loan debt that they could never hope to repay in the newborn gig economy. After all that, what do you expect?
All of this is underpinned by the element that Tickells come back to more than any other in The Revolution Generation: a cyclical view of American history propounded by Neil Howe, co-coiner (with William Strauss) of the term “Millennial” in their 1991 book Generations. According to Howe, history moves in 80-year cycles, called “Turnings” or “Seasons” (Spring – high; Summer – awakening; Autumn – unraveling; Winter – crisis), during which “society has a specific mood and direction and adopts specific trends.” Each Turning defines a generation that comes of age during that period, each of which conforms to one of four archetypes — namely, Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad — which repeat in a consistent order over time.
You don’t have to look very hard for inconsistencies in Howe’s system. For example, his system labels the so-called “Silent” generation, born 1920–1940, as an Artist archetype, “heavily protected in their youth.” Um, you mean that youth where they endured the Great Depression and were decimated by polio?
But laying such quibbles aside, what makes Howe’s system to attractive to the Millennial-loving Tickells is that Millennials are a Hero generation coming of age during a Winter/crisis turning. Last time around Winter included the Great Depression and WWII. Now it’s climate change — plus there’s probably a coming war. After all, history tells us that “things will probably get a little worse before they get better,” and that “Western civilization is very cyclical,” and that “The first lesson of history to be aware of is that all of the total wars in American history took place during Fourth Turnings.” Need proof? Revolutionary War: 1776. Civil War: 1861. World War II: 1945. “Eighty years. Eighty years. Eighty years. Huh.” (Yes, Rodriguez actually says “huh”; and yes, I know WWII ended in 1945 rather than beginning that year, but this is what the Tickells put onscreen, so….)
Although the Tickells’ investment in Howe’s cyclical system seems to make them perhaps too confident that Millennials will successfully see us through our Fourth Turning period of crisis, they’re not so fatalistic that they don’t make The Revolution Generation’s final act an exhortation for Millennials to get involved in politics — specifically, by running for office, highlighting recent success stories along these lines, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the highest-rising Millennial to date. “If you want to change a broken system, you have to change the structure of that system.” However confused the film is up to this point, the Tickells are quite clear on this point.
In the end, this may be the film’s saving grace. However dubious The Revolution Generation’s academic pose, however aesthetically cluttered, however full of meaningless sound bites (“What I know for sure is that young people have the answer. Old people have the answer, too”), its target audience isn’t an academic Gen Xer like me, but disaffected folk half my age and younger who more than anything need to be motivated to get out there and effect systemic change to a world that’s clearly in crisis on many fronts whether or not this actually has anything to do with historical cycles. If The Revolution Generation can help with that, then we’ll all be better off for the Tickells’ having put it out into the world.
Find out more, including where to view The Revolution Generation, at revolution generation.us.