Your average fortune-teller can rarely predict anything more accurate than a tall, dark stranger coming into your life at some point over the next, say, 50 to 100 years. Andy Warhol was a bit more specific. In 1968, he looked into his crystal ball and declared “in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes”. Pretty bang-on for a man who also said “I never think that people die. They just go to department stores.”
If there’s one social phenomenon that has defined the last decade, it’s been the culture of celebrity. From Big Brother, Jordan, the Wags, the X Factor, all the way through to the terrifying-walking-press-release that is Kim Kardashian – in the noughties everyone and anyone could have their 15 minutes of fame, whether they had talent or not. In fact, the less talent the better.
But what’s it all actually meant for the young people growing up as part of Generation X-Factor? How has celebrity culture changed the way we want to live our lives? It’s a question that Brunel University will be attempting to answer in a new study launched this autumn. Stretching until May 2014, it will be the first UK-based empirical study to examine celebrity's significance and its effect on young people’s aspirations. It will be the most comprehensive attempt yet to answer a question that’s been worrying a lot of people for a long time now – has the culture of celebrity systematically screwed up the aspirations of a whole generation?
Well, UK politicians have had their minds made up on this for some time. Education Minister Nick Gibb and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions blamed last year’s riots on the “get rich quick” attitude of the X Factor generation. Labour are at it too – in 2008 former Culture Minister Barbara Follett said that "kids nowadays just want to be famous. If you ask little girls, they either want to be footballers' wives or win The X Factor. Our society is in danger of being Barbie-dolled.” Why be a surgeon when you can be wear a bikini in the jungle and become an instant glamour model? Why work hard when you can make a mint as a walking, talking plastic doll?
It’s the type of hyperbole that could risk clouding what’s actually going on here. The truth is that reality TV has never burped out perfectly formed little Ken and Barbie dolls. In fact, ‘normality’ is central to the way reality TV is marketed – it’s meant for us ‘real’ folk. It’s not just those sparkly movie stars who can conquer the earth! Look at ‘normal’, working class Joanne from Croydon! Buy her record! She’s just like YOU! As a format, reality TV is supposed to be democratising. It’s the place where anyone can become famous, regardless of our backgrounds, and somewhere where you needn’t bother with any of that hard-work nonsense. They can make you rich and famous NOW.
It’s a powerful sentiment and it’s one that everyone – not just stage-schooled, fame-hungry little blighters – gobbled up with relish. It made it look like the normal, majority of people all have red-carpet worthy careers – and if those losers can get wealth and acclaim, why on earth can’t everyone else? The reality television generation have adopted something like a reality television approach to their careers – we’re the first generation who not only hope, but expect to bag the job of our dreams.
At one end of the spectrum this spawned some eye-wateringly determined young people – like Lena Dunham – who’ve turned over-achievement into an Olympic sport. But on the other end of the spectrum, the X Factor generation has bred something like a culture of entitlement – with the ‘pushy intern’ now the archetypal stereotype of our generation. Pushy interns weren’t only spawned from reality TV culture – they now ARE reality TV culture. Don’t believe me? Check out Channel 4’s reality television programme The Work Experience for further information.
Obviously entitlement isn’t nice – it’s actually pretty bloody annoying – but it isn’t, in itself, a huge cause for concern (and six months in a normal office has a way of knocking that out of a person). What’s more worrying is that nobody’s actually given young people the skills they need to manage their ballooned expectations. Obviously not everyone can be famous or bag the job of their dreams, and what happens to those people? Without any sense of working hard now to enjoy the benefits later, young people are ill equipped to deal with the current jobs market – where rejection and stiff competition for paid work is the reality for most jobseekers. When the get-success-quick bubble bursts, who’s there to pick up the pieces? There are more reality TV culture casualties out there than Steve Brookstein and Matt Cardle.
It’s a mess, but it’s not a lost cause. Reality TV viewing figures are showing signs of dwindling as people start to see though the veneer of the get-success-quick mantra. Youth unemployment has shown signs of slowing down and with proper, paid jobs young people are beginning to get an outlet for their ambitions. With a bit of luck, soon we’ll arrive at a place where becoming a celebrity isn’t seen as the pinnacle of human achievement – then maybe the only time we’ll hear the words ‘you’re fired!’ will be when we’re saying them, with no camera in sight.