deep dives

What Mister Rogers Can Teach Us About Gen X and the Generational Divide

Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Photo: Bettman/Bettmann Archive

In his decades as a television host and national child-comforter-in-chief, the late Fred Rogers became synonymous with kindness, hope, and compassion. But thanks in part to last year’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the constant sharing of Rogers quotes and videos online, and the release of the Tom Hanks–as–Mister Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, his messages might be resonating even more now than they did when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was actively on the air.

Because Rogers is seen as an American hero by so many, we don’t talk as much these days about the generational impact that Fred Rogers had, particularly on the first group of people with whom his messages resonated: kids who grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s. Yes, I’m referring to the Gen-Xers, those future alleged slackers born between 1965 and 1980 who are known for their cynicism and apathy, attitudes that are completely at odds with what Fred Rogers represented. How is it possible that those of us raised on — or perhaps more accurately, raised by — Mister Rogers could have turned out to be so disengaged and sarcastic? Well, for starters, maybe because we are not as disengaged as we’re often described. (We are definitely as sarcastic.) But I think it’s also because the lessons Mister Rogers imparted are often placed, especially on the internet, into a general kindness and goodness box that doesn’t fully capture what he accomplished.

Our default assessments of various generations, and not just Generation X, have become so hardened that we don’t consider the way our childhood influences can help to clarify the qualities that both define individual generations and highlight the connections between them. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood isn’t the only prism through which to highlight these issues, but given its place in the Zeitgeist at the moment, it’s a good place to start.

Generation X was hardly the only generation influenced by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show made its national public-television debut in 1968, when the youngest baby-boomers (born between 1946 and 1964, according to the Pew Research Center) were roughly 4 years old, and it remained on the air until August 31, 2001, a little more than a week before 9/11, a point when millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) had largely aged out of the Neighborhood and Gen-Zers (born starting in 1997) were only beginning to be exposed to it. Fred Rogers had an effect on members of multiple age groups.

But Gen X was certainly the first generation to fully grow up in a Mister Rogers America and it’s reasonable to say that they were more impacted by his program than any other. An archivist for the Fred Rogers Institute confirmed that the ratings for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose influence had built throughout the 1970s, peaked during the 1985–86 season, when roughly 8 percent of all U.S. households tuned their televisions to the PBS show. During that time frame, the youngest Gen-Xers were turning 5 or 6 and the oldest millennials were just entering their preschool years. For older Gen-Xers growing up prior to that peak, in the 1970s and early ’80s, shows like Mister Rogers and Sesame Street were often the only choices. We turned to the Neighborhood in steadily increasing numbers because there were far fewer viewing options for children in those days. And we stuck with the Neighborhood because it clearly valued us for doing so.

Fred Rogers was particularly skilled at conveying the depth of that value. He’s most often praised for his niceness and for how much he cared about young people, which isn’t wrong. But that characterization overlooks the more specific quality that made him such a superb children’s television host: his treatment of children as equals. When he spoke to his “neighbors” through the television, he wasn’t condescending or yukking it up for the sake of entertainment. He was meeting us where we were, speaking with a soft, patient demeanor that acted as a balm. If Generation X is, as many memes suggest, a generation with a knack for sitting back and rolling with the punches, maybe that’s because shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught us to maintain equilibrium at an early age. Often this tendency is described in negative terms as ambivalence or an inability to take action (and sometimes it is). But there are times when that X-ish tendency also reflects an inclination to keep calm and carry on, which isn’t wrong either.

Mister Rogers also famously taught children that they were special, a fact that, several years ago, got twisted in a Wall Street Journal column and a Fox News segment into a way to explain why millennials are so entitled. One of the Fox hosts even referred to Mister Rogers as an “evil, evil man,” which should qualify as an FCC violation. It was all wrong for a number of reasons, but a chief one is that it misunderstood what Fred Rogers meant when he told kids they were special. He wasn’t saying they were perfect and deserved only good things without having to work for them. What he was doing was teaching them a sense of self-worth.

Over and over again, Fred Rogers told his pre- and elementary school constituency that their feelings mattered and that it was okay to express them. This idea was hammered home to young Gen-Xers not only on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but on Sesame Street and, even more crucially, via Free to Be You and Me, the 1972 book, album, and eventual TV special spearheaded by Marlo Thomas to foster gender equity and pride in one’s own identity. It’s hard to overstate how much Free to Be You and Me looms over my early elementary-school memories. We listened to the album in music class and during indoor recess constantly, absorbing the sound of football legend Rosey Grier singing in his deep voice that “It’s All Right to Cry” until it became part of our molecular makeup.

Fred Rogers told us many of the same things that Free to Be You and Me did: That girls and boys are equal, that “everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine,” that it’s okay to shed tears and feel sad. Granted, the older, more sarcastic Gen-Xers would have giggled at all of this, and probably did at some point in the early ’90s while waxing pop-culture nostalgic after drinking one too many Zimas. But being exposed to such accepting philosophies at such a young age undoubtedly had an impact on us. As Alex Williams wrote in an essay earlier this year in the New York Times, one of the things that defines Gen X is its more progressive social outlook and experiences when it comes to race, sexual orientation, and gender. Or, as a subhead in the article cheekily put it: “We invented woke.” Which is not to say that everything was hunky-dory and that we single-handedly became the first youths to stamp out racism, misogyny, and discrimination based on sexual orientation. That is clearly not true at all, not even a little bit.

But more than previous generations, Xers were raised in an increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse America and a good number of us embraced that intermingling, in our friendships and in our pop-cultural preferences. This is even more true for millennials and Generation Z. Maybe we were conditioned to accept other people for who they were and to see the beauty in them, in at least a small way, by Fred Rogers, who, despite his conservative cardigans, was an extremely progressive man. (Another thing we don’t talk about nearly enough when it comes to Mister Rogers: the fact that he was both progressive and Christian and that those two things were in no way mutually exclusive.)

Fred Rogers altered the lyrics in his song “Creation Duet” in order to refer to God as “She.” He cast François Clemmons, a black actor, as a policeman in 1968, not long after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Rogers’s gesture subtly but unmistakably doubled as a political statement. “It’s you I like,” Mister Rogers sang to us. “Every part of you / Your skin, your eyes, your feelings / Whether old or new / I hope that you’ll remember / Even when you’re feeling blue / That it’s you I like.” There was no qualifier around that “you.” Everyone was worthy, and it made it clear to children that we should see others the same way.

Gen-Xers may be the last generation to have a genuine issue with the notion of selling out. Even though a few of us eventually managed to cash in and go corporate as grown-ups (hi, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google), the idea of trading one’s artistic or personal integrity for money or fame when we were young adults felt like a grave sin in a way that I don’t think it has for subsequent generations. This explains why you may see some Xers visibly cringe when they hear the term “Instagram influencer.” It also explains why Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites doesn’t want to sell her documentary to In Your Face, the low-brow MTV knock-off network where Ben Stiller works.

That obsession with selling out stems from a core Gen-X value: authenticity. Most people would say they value honesty and forthrightness, but I think Xers clung extra-hard to it, even as kids, perhaps because our overexposure to the phoniness of family sitcoms and other TV fibbery made us hyperaware of when we were being lied to. Growing up in the shadow of Watergate, when a mistrust of government laid thick in the air, may have had something to do with it, too, and so did watching many of our parents’ marriages crack in half.

Which brings me back to Mister Rogers and one of his tremendous gifts to children: his honesty. Sure, he took us to a Land of Make-Believe and pretended to be Henrietta Pussycat (meow, meow), but that was when he was playing. When he was being real, he got really real. He explained that goldfish die, and that people die, and that it’s okay to get upset about it. He talked about divorce, something more Gen-X children had to grapple with than previous generations did. He even devoted several episodes to nuclear freaking war in 1983, the same year that a lot of kids were scared to death by The Day After. Mister Rogers told us that life could be scary and it wouldn’t always be easy but that you could get through it.

To put it another way, Mister Rogers was no bullshit, and we admired that. Maybe that unwittingly set us up to be disappointed when we grew up and fully began to understand that a lot of the world is total bullshit. But he also gave us the emotional tools to cope with that fact and try to rise above it. And contrary to what the media has said over the years about Gen X — or you know, not said, since we’re usually ignored — I think many members of my generation have worked very hard to rise above it. Not always succeeded, but tried. And I think that’s also true of millennials, who have been saddled with a lot of financial and sociological burdens that were not of their own making.

Which brings me to my final point: that maybe we should look to the example set by Mister Rogers more often while navigating our often-heated conversations about generation gaps. If you’ve taken a passing glance at any social-media feed recently, you’ve probably noticed that intergenerational warfare has gotten more intense. “OK boomer” bombs are dropped right and left. Millennials and their parents are becoming both sides of that Spider-Man meme. Meanwhile, Gen-Xers are calmly sitting back and comparing themselves to Jim Halpert from The Office and the members of The Breakfast Club.

I am as guilty as anyone of directing an anti-boomer tweet or a “Sure, Jan” GIF at any comment that feels out of sync with my Xer sensibilities. But here’s something that is so obvious yet rarely acknowledged: The people that shape our sensibilities usually come from the generation behind us. Many of the artists and creators that Gen-Xers point to as formative for them — Prince, Madonna, John Hughes, Spike Lee — are or were baby-boomers. Some millennials might cite Dave Chappelle, Wes Anderson, Kurt Cobain, or Jennifer Lopez as major cultural influences; all of them are Gen-Xers.

And Fred Rogers, a man who helped Generation-Xers begin to define themselves and, sure, some millennials, too? He was born in 1928, which places him in the Silent Generation. Yet he still feels like he belongs to Generation-Xers, which, in turn, has prompted us to share him with our kids, through old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or a movie about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that stars Tom Hanks.

Each generation is different, “special,” as Mister Rogers would put it. But the things that define each generation are also the things we pass on to the next one and the next one, that build connections that transcend the years in which each of us were born and the stereotypes that often accompany those markers. I’ve learned that as a parent and as a co-worker and as a friend over the years. I know one of the reasons I learned how to connect is because, when I was very, very little, I was taught to by my neighbor, Mister Rogers.

What Mister Rogers Can Teach Us About Gen X