People watching a movie.

The movies that define each generation


Whether you’re watching them to laugh or to cry, movies have a way of reflecting our world back to us. Perhaps that’s why we like to discuss how our most beloved films have “defined a generation.”

When we watch a movie that depicts what we believe to be true about our world, we feel seen, understood and connected. Of course, what resonates with one generation may seem irrelevant to another – which is why it’s so much fun to look each generation’s biggest blockbusters.

Traditionalists and The Wizard of Oz (1939)

For the kids (or kids-at-heart) of the late 30s and early 40s who were getting out of the Great Depression, The Wizard of Oz offered a respite from the dark times around them. It provided a real shock of color in a world that seemed bleak and gray.

Thematically, it reflected a world of good and evil, a significant sentiment for a country on the precipice of  World War II. In the end, Dorothy and her friends learn that what they needed so desperately (brains, courage, heart and a way home) existed inside of each of them the whole time. This glorification of self-reliance fits in quite well with the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality of the Traditionalist generation.

Baby Boomers and Easy Rider (1969)

One might argue that Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is the defining movie of the Boomer generation – or at least a strong contender. In a post-WWII world, teens were beginning to test the limits imposed on them by their more traditional parents. Leather-jacket-clad James Dean personified the growing hints of rebellion in the air, to be sure.

However, if Rebel Without a Cause indicated the winds of change were blowing, then Easy Rider is a veritable hurricane of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” mentality that became somewhat synonymous with the 60s and the Free Love generation. More than any other, with its counterculture bikers traveling across the country looking for America, this film captures the societal landscape, the tensions and the issues of this tumultuous time in history. Even the way the film was made was an embodiment of countercultural values, changing and expanding the accepted approach to filmmaking and sparking the indie film movement. Daring and disruptive, it makes sense that Easy Rider was one of the highest grossing films of 1969, and one that we still talk about today. 

Gen X and Star Wars (1977)

Just as Depression-era kids were looking for a much-needed escape from their bleak reality (and found it in The Wizard of Oz), people coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s were also growing a bit weary of their cultural landscape. Terrifying tragedies like the one that unfolded at the 1972 Munich Olympics left an indelible mark on the minds and hearts of America’s youth, reminding them at an early age that happy endings are never guaranteed. Plus, the round-the-clock coverage of Watergate and other high-profile scandals seemed to suggest that maybe there was no such thing as a good guy to look to for hope, comfort and safety.

Youths in the 70s needed something to believe in, and Star Wars delivered a band of true, scruffy-looking heroes/nerf-herders. They didn’t pretend to be perfect and made mistakes along the way. But they fought on the side of good in a universe clearly and comfortingly divided into Dark and Light. Which, for them, was a welcome relief from the ambiguity of the real world.

Millennials and Harry Potter (2001)

When the first Harry Potter book was released, many Millennials could relate because they were about the same age as the main character. As the story unfolded over multiple books, they learned with Harry about friendships in a world that seemed simple. Yet, as the books tackled more and more complex issues as Harry’s – and Millennials’ – world became filled with shades of gray.

That said, the first Harry Potter movie in 2001 opened to a wildly enthusiastic audience of devotees who grew up right along with Harry, using his life lessons to begin making sense of their world. It also makes sense Harry Potter’s message of love conquering hate would resonate with this optimistic generation.

Generation Edge and The Hunger Games (2012)

The oldest members of Generation Edge were about 16 years old when the first Hunger Games film was released in 2012. They grew up (and are growing up) in the age of social media, under what must feel like near-constant scrutiny. They are also coming of age in the aftermath of the Great Recession, having watched their parents and perhaps older Millennial siblings suffer the fallout.

The dark, dystopian world in which the hero Katniss resides perhaps captures the sense of impending doom experienced by members of Gen Edge throughout their childhood and adolescence. However, it is important to note that, while the world in Hunger Games is dark, it is not without hope. In this world, you can win. You just have to be cautious and clever.

What about you?

Ask 20 people which movie defined their generation, and you’ll get 20 different answers. The fact that people are likely to disagree about which movie is the most influential isn’t a problem, however. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to get to know someone from a generation other than your own. Ask this question around the water cooler or the dining room table, and then discuss why each movie mentioned was so impactful. Better yet, watch a few influential blockbusters together. The “Siskel & Ebert” type conversation you’re likely to have after will be fun and, and it will likely give you some great insights into what makes each generation tick.

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Associated Tags: Advising Across Generations

Traditionalist, before 1946; Baby Boomer, 1946-1964; Generation X, 1965-1979; Millennial, 1980-1995; Generation Edge, after 1995

This information is prepared by an unrelated independent third party, BridgeWorks, and is provided for informational purposes only. Waddell & Reed, Inc., believes the information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but does not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.