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Do you get the Millennial Generation?

Until recently, MTV didn't – and paid a price. Millennial values, typefied in "The Devil Wears Prada," may surprise you.

By Morley Winograd, Michael D. Hais / May 15, 2009

Arcadia, Calif.

MTV premièred in August 1981, seven months after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as America's 40th president. It revolutionized TV and the music industry as much as Reagan changed the country's politics.

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And now, just as the election of Barack Obama to the presidency signaled the end of that political era and the beginning of another, MTV is belatedly shifting gears as well.

The network, long known for cynical and vapid content, has suddenly understood the importance of being earnest. Booze and bikinis are out. Do-good singers and hard-working art students are in.

MTV acknowledged that its programming had become out of step with the progressive, service-oriented values of today's youth, the Millennial Generation. "It was very clear we were at one of those transformational moments, when this new generation of Millennials [born between 1982 and 2003] were demanding a new MTV," a channel executive explained.

After losing ground for years, MTV finally got it. But many other corporations and institutions – the Republican Party comes to mind – still don't. As a result, they risk alienating the approximately 95 million young Americans who will be defining the nation's politics and culture for decades to come.

MTV's mistake was to assume that the members of particular demographic groups, in this instance young people in their mid-teens through their mid-20s, behave the same and hold the same attitudes at all times. If only MTV's executives had gone to the movies more often, they might have recognized these generational changes much sooner.

For baby boomers (born 1946-1964), a generation of idealists driven by strong personal values, no coming-of-age-movie captured their rebellious and moralistic spirit better than "The Graduate." The protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, is a depressed loner who rejects his parents' "plastic" values. In his dalliance with Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin seeks emotional attachment and deeper meaning, whereas she is in the "relationship" only for physical release.

The movie ends as Benjamin rescues his true love, Elaine (Mrs. Robinson's daughter) from an "arranged" marriage by blocking the door from the church with a cross. Benjamin and Elaine ride away on a bus, embracing a new idealistic lifestyle while forever turning their backs on the shallow and meaningless existence of their parents.

But the tone of coming-of-age movies shifted dramatically when Generation X (born 1965-1981) became teenagers and 20-somethings in the 1980s. This generation was best represented in "Risky Business."