Generation X and the influence of television: About Postmodern Sitcom

Project Abstract

Population projections estimate that, in 2019, 73 million Generation X will overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Still, this generation is known by other generations for being neglected and ignored as children and misunderstood as adults. Gen X’ers navigate their lives through a lens of disillusionment created by unrealistic expectations perpetuated by 1980s sitcoms. The research presented in this project helps inform how Cultivation Theory justifies the influence of television content on Generation X, resulting in a disconnect between memory and reality when making decisions and interacting with others today. This information serves as the basis for Postmodern Sitcom, a podcast series aimed at investigating why 80s TV was so influential on Generation X and whether or not TV content created unrealistic expectations for these individuals. To facilitate intergenerational communication and understanding, Postmodern Sitcom explores contrasts between content in 1980s television and modern-day perceptions of Americans born between 1965 and 1981, also known as Generation X.

Keywords: Cultivation theory, interpersonal communication, generations, Generation X, intergenerational communication, I want my MTV, latchkey kids

About Cultivation Theory

Studies surrounding the influence of television on viewers surfaced in the mid-1960s as researchers sought to determine if there was a connection between TV viewership and real-life perceptions. Cultivation Theory emerged out of the connection that television viewing has effects on viewers’ behaviors (Shrum, 2002) and that “high frequency viewers of television are more susceptible to media messages and the belief that they are real and valid” (Davie, 2011). Generation X was the first true group of young people taking care of themselves due to circumstances such as divorce, working parents and social change, “Thus, Gen Xers comprised the first generation to experience coming home alone” (Morton, 2003) to television as their babysitter. Latchkey kids ended up cultivating a “unique relationship with media, particularly visual media” (Oake, 2004) as content delivered through television prevailed, as the percentage of U.S. households with TVs increased from 23% in 1980 to 57% by the end of the decade, and daily viewing peaking to seven hours and two minutes by 1989 (Nielsen Media Research, N.D.).

As after-school nanny for many latchkey kids, the television was regarded as a “domestic fixture and unifying feature for Generation X” (Hill, 2018) wherein its physical presence infiltrated the “domestic realm” by blurring lines between content and reality, or “a gateway through which broader social and cultural ideas are accessed” (2018, p. 14). Further, “the categories of ‘media’ and ‘reality’ were fatally confused, inverted or perhaps dissolved altogether” (Oake, 2004).

Cultivation Theory also supports the idea that the more television people watch, the more they distort reality and “the more they will come to view the real world as similar to the world portrayed on television” (Shrum, Wyer, & O’Guinn, 1998, p. 448). There is also a significant relationship between “frequency of television viewing and social perceptions that are congruent with the world as it is portrayed on television” (Shrum, 2009, p. 57). Shrum’s findings also explore how judgments about others are based upon memories (2009) therefore, a “generation who was raised on television and movies” (Petrie, 2006) uses those memories to construct real-life relationships. If “Cultivation Theory is based on findings that television presents a systematic distortion of reality” (Shrum et al., 1998, p. 448) then subject matter presented in Generation X’s formative years distorts the information, experiences, and memories necessary for decision-making as adults.

Other research indicates “messages in the media can influence behaviors, beliefs, values or attitudes” (Hammermeister, Brock, Winterstein, & Page, 2005, p. 260). Cultivation Theory ultimately supports the hypothesis that Generation X was created by television, significantly impacting their personalities, viewpoints, and interactions. These skewed viewpoints intensify communication barriers in dealings between Generation X and other generations.


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Hammermeister, J., Brock, B., Winterstein, D., & Page, R. (2005). Life without TV? cultivation theory and psychosocial health characteristics of television-free individuals and their television-viewing counterparts. Health Communication; Health Commun., 17(3), 253-264

Hill, L. (2018). Mining the box: Adaptation, nostalgia and generation X. Open Library of Humanities, 4(1), 1. Retrieved from

Morton, L. P. (2003). Targeting generation X. Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Nielsen Media Research. (N.D.). U.S. households with cable television, 1977-99. Retrieved from:

Oake, J. I. (2004). Reality bites and generation X as spectator. Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television, (53), 83-97. doi:10.1353/vlt.2004.0010

Petrie, G. & Hayes, M. (2006). “We’re from the Generation that was Raised on Television”: A Qualitative Exploration of Media Imagery in Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Video Production. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 19(4), 499-517.

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