This Is Our Youth Analysis
by Kenneth Lonergan

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Casey Affleck, Summer Phoenix, and Matt Damon in a 2002 production of This is Our Youth Published by Gale Cengage

Consumerism

In the 1980s, the government's political and economic agenda, with its championing of American capitalism, triggered a promotion of self-interest. The decade of the 1980s was ushered in with Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration in 1981 and was heavily influenced by Reagan's economic philosophy. "Reaganomics," as this philosophy was termed, proposed that the encouragement of the free-market system, which depends on the individual pursuit of wealth, would strengthen the economy. This vision included the theory of trickle-down economics: as businesses were freed from governmental regulation, their profits would eventually trickle down to the American public through the creation of jobs and strengthening of wages. Americans would then be able to spend more money, which would further bolster the economy.

Republicans argued that the welfare programs implemented in the 1960s had turned Americans into government dependents and that only the reality of poverty would inspire lower-class Americans to adopt an independent spirit of enterprise. This championing of the free-market system focused the country's attention on the amassing of wealth and material possessions, fostering a dramatic escalation in consumerism and a new zeitgeist for the age. Reagan's own inauguration cost eleven million dollars. Soon after entering the White House, the first lady, Nancy Reagan, continued the spending spree with expensive renovations at the White House, which included a new set of china that cost more than two hundred thousand dollars. Initially, this lavish spending was criticized, but eventually, the entire country became caught up in the attraction of wealth.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, the New York financier Gordon Gekko insists that "greed is good," which became the mantra of the 1980s for many American consumers as well as for investors on Wall Street. During this decade, American goods were more plentiful than ever, and Americans began to feel that they had the right to acquire them. This age of self-interest was promoted by the media through periodicals like Money magazine, which taught Americans how to dramatically increase their earnings and glorified entrepreneurs like Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, and the real-estate tycoon Donald Trump. One of the most popular television shows of the time was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which brought viewers into the lavish homes of the superrich.

Shopping became Americans' favorite pastime during the 1980s. Apart from going to malls, consumers could also satisfy their shopping urges by accessing the mall from home. With the advent of the shopping television network QVC and the steady stream of catalogues and telemarketing pitches from a wide range of mail-order companies, such as Sears and L. L. Bean, consumers could purchase a variety of goods over the phone.

Voices of Dissent

Some voices critical to the promotion of America's consumer appetites were emerging in the early 1980s and became stronger at the end of the decade, when evidence of insider trading on Wall Street resulted in prison terms for greedy speculators. Economists noted that the unemployment rate reached its highest point in more than forty years in 1982, which helped raise the number of Americans living in poverty to the highest level in seventeen years. Sociologists warned of the effects of homelessness and drug abuse and insisted that more governmental programs were needed.

Writers like Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City , 1984) chronicled the empty lives of Wall Street's elite. Musicians made political statements by organizing concerts and recording music to help a variety of social and political problems. In 1984, Bob Geldof, for example, put together a band of Irish and British musicians, called Band Aid, to cut a single to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Geldof went on to organize multivenue charity concerts, called...

(The entire section is 1,069 words.)