“Frances Ha” and Those Narcissistic Millennials

May 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Frances Ha,” the new movie by Noah Baumbach is basically “Girls” in black and white.  Twenty-seven year olds in Brooklyn. They move from one relationship to the next searching for a good one and never quite finding it.  The same goes for jobs and especially for apartments.* Fluidity rules. For the girls at least, only their friendships have something suggesting permanence, importance, and intensity.

Most of the reviews of the film were favorable, but at the New York Film Critics Circle, Armond White (here) would have none of it.
It offers an obnoxiously self-satisfied portrait of a young white New Yorker–played by Greta Gerwig–running out her parent’s stipend, roommating with other New York hipsters, sometimes skipping the pond to Paris, all the time pursuing her goal to be a professional dancer, even though she demonstrates no aptitude for it.
White tears into Baumbach’s “warped values,” values that White says also permeate Baumbach’s “detestable” movie “The Squid and the Whale.”  What really galls White are the concerns and desires of the characters in the film.
Maybe you have to be a Mumblehattan elite to love this kind of self-love.
I wouldn’t pay such attention to this obscure review except that it embodies a much more widely held view of “millennials” like the characters in this movie. They are narcissistic, they won’t work hard for the things they want but instead feel entitled to them. “They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide if it’s an inability or an unwillingness to make trade-offs.”  “Their attitude is always ‘What are you going to give me,’” says a manager of human-resource programs.  (These quotations are from a WSJ distillation (here) of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace by Ron Alsop.

A Facebook friend of mine says much the same thing
 My work in HR teaches me daily that the younger generations entering the workforce are dripping with this undeserved sense of entitlement (not all, of course).        
A business researcher says,
Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents think Millennnials are lazy and uninterested in their jobs. What’s more, 55 percent of Millennials agree.
This moralistic hand-wringing about the younger generation – even when the hand-wringers are not so old themselves (my FB friend is 33) – reminds me of the song “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie,” a musical that opened more than a half-century ago.**

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today! . . .
They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
But they still just do what they want to do!

The perception of millennials as “lazy” or “uninterested in their jobs” or doing only the things they want to do may not even be generally true of most of these twenty-somethings.  So the complaint probably tells us more about the complainers than about the objects of their contempt.  The complaint comes down to this: Frances Ha, Hannah Horvath, and their real-life counterparts are willing to forgo financial rewards in order to spend more of their time doing (or at least looking for) something personally meaningful. And for some reason, in the view of theses critics, that’s just wrong.  Those who castigate them seem to be saying, “For years, I spent forty or more hours a week at a job I disliked, making myself miserable so that I could make a lot of money. You should choose to make yourself miserable too.”


* You could even say that “Girls” and “Frances Ha” are really about the New York rental market.  In a 2007 post, I said that most American films are “about” Success in the same way that British films are “about” The Class System. Even if the characters do not discuss them explicitly, these ideas and structures (Success, Social Class) shape the actions and reactions of the characters in the way that grammar shapes their speech.The same goes for the NYC housing market.

** This post from years ago offers a more complete explanation of the moral nostalgia that this song is satirizing. 


Bob S. said...


I think you miss an important point about the laziness complaint; for some it doesn't end!

These are the same people that are willing to sacrifice money for something they enjoy now; but they also complain when they are older they can't afford a house, car, kids, etc.

There is a big difference between indifferent to the pursuit of money and being lazy. If 55% of millennials agree; don't you think there is something to it?

“For years, I spent forty or more hours a week at a job I disliked so that I could make a lot of money. You should choose to make yourself miserable too.”

It isn't about being miserable; it is about putting in the hard, unfun work to get to the point where things can be afforded. To get to the point where it makes sense to buy a house (hello Mortgage Debacle ?!?!), where it makes sense to have kids (how many grand parents are being stuck with grandkids?) or even something as simple as paying off college debt.

They agree to the debt but how many are defaulting?

And why are they defaulting?

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Kanye West: "Yo, Millenials, I'm happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but the Baby Boomers were one of the most narcissistic generations of all time! Of all time!"

Jay Livingston said...

Bob: Not to go all Gershwin here, but you say “putting in the hard, unfun work to get to the point where things can be afforded,” and I say, “forty or more hours a week at a job I disliked so that I could make a lot of money.” Potato, potato.

Are Millenials lazier or more narcissistic than previous generations? Anonymous pretty much nailed it, and I suspect that Anon is too young to remember those articles about “The Me Generation” of boomers – articles written with the same moral righteousness and fear for the future of the republic that we now see in writings about Millenials.

And no, I don’t think 55% agreeing with a perception is very good evidence that the perception is accurate. Even if the question were “Are you yourself lazy and narcissistic?” rather than “Are other people your age lazy and narcissistic?” I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the answers as an indication of reality.

Are college loan defaults higher than they were 20 or 40 years ago? If so, it might have more to do with who is now going to college, how much the tuition is, and the kinds of jobs that graduates can get today rather than with a decline in moral character since some golden age in the past.

In a similar way, I doubt that the mortgage debacle was caused by some generational decline in morality. After all, it wasn’t the Millenials who were taking those mortgages, and it certainly wasn’t the Millenials who were bundling them into the MBS, CDO derivatives, and then giving those instruments inaccurately high ratings. Nor were Millenials the ones buying and selling those financial disasters.

Uomo di Speranza said...

You perfectly described what I, as a Millenial myself, just can't stand about some (not all) in the older generations: they expect everyone else in the world to be miserable just because they made themselves miserable. Although our narcissism isn't very useful for many things, it will play to our advantage in not letting us destroy our own futures. Amen!

Jay Livingston said...

Uomo, I am a member of those older generations, and as a college teacher I see plenty of millenials, and despite the industry that has grown around the project of describing the various generations, I don't see all that much difference. Real cultural change is a slow process. Id don't know the data offhand, but my impression is that the "hard work for its own sake and maybe more money" ideal has been on the decline for decades. Whether that is a matter for despair or for speranza is a matter of one's values.