‘You’re a slacker, McFly’: Vice Principal Strickland is always with us

I remember back when all of the exact same kids-these-days articles now being written about the Millennial generation were being written about my generation — “Generation X.”

Not much has changed. These articles still mostly trade in sweeping generalizations that communicate far more about the writers than about the purported subjects. They’re all still written with that “Here’s what you need to know about these weird kids” perspective — presuming that “you” are and must be, like all legitimate people, not one of them. Most of these pieces never realize, let alone overcome, this insider/outsider, us/them framing, and thus never seem to realize that their central theme tends more to be congratulating their intended readers for not being like these kids today than about actually trying to understand whatever generation they claim to be describing, interpreting, or pinning to a board like a lepidopterist collecting specimens.

The olds and scolds who made “Generation X” the nickname for people my age traced that term back to Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel — but no further. Given that they never actually read that book, and that they weren’t particularly interested in finding out anything more about how or why Coupland might have chosen that title, they wound up using the name clumsily, like someone who’d selected an unfamiliar word from out of a thesaurus. They used the term with no sense of layers, of reference, allusion or connotation as to why “wild, wild, wild youth” might have embraced it.

The same was true of the favored pejorative used for Gen-X: “slackers.” The olds and scolds seemed to think this term originated with the 1991 Richard Linklater movie they never watched. And since they never bothered to figure out why Linklater chose that term, or what he meant by it, they never learned to use the term correctly. Despite cranking out endless iterations of the same article lamenting the supposed “ironic detachment” of Generation X, it never seemed to occur to them that the term “slacker” might be one that could only be understood ironically.

Richard Linklater didn’t invent the word “slacker.” Like most people my age, he appropriated it from Back to the Future.

Hill Valley High School’s vice principal, Mr. Strickland, berates that movie’s Gen-X hero, Marty McFly, by repeatedly calling him a “slacker.”

You got a real attitude problem, McFly. You’re a slacker. You remind me of your father when he went here. He was a slacker, too.

The whole point of that scene — and of Strickland’s existence as a character in the movie — is that he’s wrong. He’s wrong about Marty, and he’s wrong about young people in general. Strickland is a cruel clown whose words are not intended to be taken at face value. This is made very clear in the scene above, in which Strickland is angry with Marty for entering his band in the school’s dance audition. “Why even bother, McFly?” Strickland says, “No McFly ever amounted to anything.”

In other words, Strickland calls Marty a “slacker” because he’s too ambitious — because he refuses to settle, because he’s not apathetic, complacent and compliant.

Thus Back to the Future tells us that this shallow, literal-minded “definition” of the word slacker cannot be taken seriously. Strickland’s definition of “slacker” as a pejorative dismissal for young people, the movie says, is simply wrong. (This is why I find it particularly grating when people cite Strickland as a credible authority to justify their redefinitions of my word.)

As with many pejorative terms, the nominal definition of the word “slacker” is less important than what the use of the word signifies. The word provides little descriptive information about its target, but it reveals a great deal about the person wielding it. “You’re a slacker, McFly,” tells us nothing trustworthy about Marty, but it tells us all we need to know about Vice Principal Strickland.

All of which is to say this to those of you in the “Millennial Generation”: Don’t listen to Vice Principal Strickland, or to Time magazine, or to any of the other olds and scolds desperate to categorize and dismiss you because of your age.


"I saw one very uneducated person say that Doki Doki Literature Club looked like a ..."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus
"Trump has signed three new executive orders which his administration claims will make the federal ..."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’
"I don't think Japan or the Koreas care much about the Euro :-P."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’
"Iirc, the "Former Yugoslavian Republic" was suggested by the Macedonians themselves, not the Greeks."

LBCF, No. 186: ‘Lone Gunmen’

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Carstonio

    I grew up with Superman and I’m willing to give any take on the character a chance, as long as it’s done well.

  • The 80s were pretty bad. They were not as bad as the aughts.

  • banancat

    Permatemp is a fantastic word and I’ll certainly use it in everyday conversation.

    Here’s the really ridiculous thing: my contract actually goes through two different agencies, each taking a cut off the top. It’s really quite ridiculous. To try to make it less exploitative they started this thing that if you work 2 years, you can’t work that job again for 6 months. The goal was to pressure managers into hiring people instead of stringing them along forever, but instead they just scramble without that person for 6 months and then renew the contract after that.

    And the other thing is that my boss actually agrees with me and really wants to hire me permanently, but he gets resistance from everyone above. He does try to slip in some benefits here and there, like informal training on the things that I am excluded to take real training for. But he has to sneak it and it’s quite ridiculous.

    Oh, and just because I’m ranty now, the company started pushing this big “inclusion” initiative…which contractors were explicitly excluded from.

    I’m in a pissy mood because it’s been almost a year and I’m up for my contract renewal, which would be a good time to negotiate a pay increase. But there are various problems with this, the worst of which is that any increase over 2% requires written approval from some high-up manager at least 5 levels above me, who probably doesn’t give a fuck about this anyway. But to hire a new contractor, it wouldn’t have to go up nearly that far. My boss truly doesn’t want me to leave because he realizes how much the department depends on contractors, but we are considering the option that I just quit and get hired on at the higher salary. What a joke.

  • On the internet, this kind of article gets a lot of attention. Attention on the internet is very nearly everything. Recently, someone wrote that women don’t like Game of Thrones (I hate it, but lots of women love it) because women don’t like geeky things (pfft) or stories of incest (I still can’t stop laughing at that one.)

    She was wrong about every single thing in the article. And her website got a ton of attention for it. TON. Flamebait. It’s more obvious on the internet, but I’d bet the basic principle’s been the same since people developed language.

  • The guy playing Superman in the newest movies is an ass. Not totally evil like many people in Hollywood, but a sexist, extremely unintelligent ass. I won’t soil my idea of Superman by watching a movie with him playing the character.

  • Fusina

    And that reminds me of an incident about ten years ago, I was singing along to a song on the radio at my church–we were setting up an estate sale thingie and there were teenagers there helping–and playing rockanroll on the radio. So these twin sisters saw me basically rocking out. I stopped, and had to ask, “So, now the song is totally ruined for you?”

    My daughter and I like a lot of the same music, and she was pretty miffed that I didn’t introduce her to the Beatles years earlier than she thinks I did–I swear I tried, but she wasn’t interested the first few times. OTOH, I finally acquired all the Beatles albums.

  • Fusina

    Yeah. Going from zero to anything seems to be the tricky part of getting a job. I never had to work at McDonald’s, but I did work at a few soul-sucking jobs. Then I got married, had kids, and I’ve been working hard ever since bringing them up to be contributors to society. Hopefully, they will be able to find jobs etc… when they are out of college. The first one heads off next fall. I’m practically retired!

  • Fusina

    I figure I’ll be young until all the teenyboppers who went through Beatlemania are dead. So I still have around 20 years of youth ahead of me. ;-)

  • Rhubarbarian82

    Yeah, this was probably the first article in Time that anyone born after 1975 has read in years.

  • The reason women often give a reason for refusing a man is that we are socialized to go along and be nice, which means not saying no. We’re not socialized to be allowed to say no, so we have to think up an excuse, fast. And we’ve nearly all been subject to enough boys badgering us by the time we’re grown, it is no surprise we come out with excuses before a man can start badgering us too. And trust me, we’ve nearly all been badgered plenty. Saying something before we can be badgered is a protective measure.

  • I’m sorry. I know exactly what that’s like. Having dealt with it for over a decade now has contributed quite a lot to my depression. The worst part is that the longer it goes on, the less likely you are to get a job! Being unemployed is in itself considered a reason not to hire someone!

  • P J Evans

    Some companies handle it better than others. The one I worked for changed policies back around 2003 – before that you could be temp indefinitely if you were working on a project (and I twice put in several years doing that). Now you can be a temp for a year, then either they buy your contract and you get put on the payroll as a year-to-year contract employee, or you disappear forever. (They pay well, and the benefits of being an inside contractor are not bad.)
    They also pay their interns, and will hire them when they get out of school.

  • … Does she at least mention how poorly women are treated in the books and show?

  • I build websites for a living, turned 30 last month*, and can’t make head nor tail of Tumblr. It’s blogging software minus all the useful bits, such as usable navigation.


    * !!!!!!!!

  • mattmcirvin

    The Generation X Reagan fans I knew in school weren’t Alex P. Keaton-type rebels at all: they were echoing their very conservative Silent Generation parents. The kids with liberal parents were liberals, by and large.

    I think people are more likely to inherit their parents’ political attitudes than rebel against them completely and flip to the other end of the spectrum. On the other hand, there are long-term trends that get overlaid on top of that: every generation since the Civil Rights Movement has been a bit less racist than the previous one, for instance, and there really was a move toward right-wing, laissez-faire economic attitudes from the mid-Seventies up to close to the present (though it may have peaked).

  • mattmcirvin

    (Everything clearly comes around to characters played by Michael J. Fox. I’m trying to get “Teen Wolf” in here somehow.)

  • Tumblrer

    All I know is, I go to Tumblr and get a neverending stream of pictures of all my favorite things.

    (Trying to use it for anything else is a hassle, but it sure is easy to share pictures there.)

  • reynard61

    It helps that a) I live in a rather large city (Indianapolis) near the downtown area (which has more than a few people in my particular position), and b) I’m about as white bread as they come. I have no doubt that if I were slightly “Brown”-er (to use George Carlin’s euphemism), I’d probably get picked up for vagrancy every other week or so. It also probably helps that I don’t drink or do drugs — except aspirin for my back pain — and I make a concerted effort to stay away from places where I might be seen as…well…a “Slacker”.

    “Why does he think he has the right to interrogate you?”

    My guess is that he was from one of the Northern suburbs (Carmel or Fishers), where entitlement and wealth practically ooze from every surface and pore. They (and Greenwood, the Southern suburb where my mom lives) are basically Indiana’s version of Orange County, CA — with *ALL* that that implies…

  • reynard61

    Actually, I use Tumblr to follow some of my favorite artists/cartoonists. (Courtney Godbey, Shazzbaa [“Today Nothing Happened”, “Rune Writers”], Dana Simpson [“Ozy and Millie”, “Heavenly Nostrils”], Becca Hillburn [Natto Soup] and Felix Wright. [“From the Machine”, Felix Makes Lots of Things]) I think of it as sort of a Twitter for art.

  • Jamoche

    We had an intern on a Mac development team who was born on the 1984 Superbowl Sunday, making him exactly as old as the computers he worked on.

  • Lori

    Her boss took one look at my resume and refused to even interview me, telling her that he could never offer enough money to interest me.

    Those people and the ones who won’t talk to you because you’ve been unemployed for more than 6 months are basically the bane of my existence.

  • Could be worse: I was told that I lacked work ethic, based on a three hour (unpaid) test period, where I not only did everything I was asked, I also asked the staff for extra jobs to do (although they didn’t have any).

  • Lori

    It depends on what you’re focusing on. I think that more people got hit harder economically in the aughts. However, I think a higher percentage of the population in the 80s personally, genuinely expected to die in a nuclear war than personally, genuinely expected to die in a terrorist attack in the aughts and the possibility of nuclear annihilation was certainly more real. The 80s also had the AIDS crisis and the crack epidemic.

    Basically, anyone who lived through any of that has ample reason to tie one on if that’s how they roll.

  • Lori

    OMG. The very idea of dealing with a combination of Southern Indiana (aka Kentucky) and Orange County at the same time makes my head hurt. If I’m going to deal with that entitled crap I at least want the beach and food that goes with Original Recipe OC.

  • Lori

    So the “test period” was basically just a way for the company to get free work from people they had no intention of hiring and would fob off with BS?

  • AnonaMiss

    The phrase “Original recipe OC” makes me desperately wish for a merger between KFC and Panda Express.

  • AnonaMiss

    My interpretation of this phrase has always been that women, like men, can’t have it all. The idea being that in the traditional model men lose out on forming close relationships with their kids, so if you’re going to choose the ‘traditionally male’ route, you’re also going to lose out on forming close relationships with your kids. There’s just not enough hours in the day to be Perfect Professional Employee and also Perfect Involved Parent, and so you shouldn’t beat yourself up for having to choose sometimes.

    Obviously there are major problems in the idea – apparently, professional employment and children are both necessary and sufficient for complete personal fulfillment! – but I’ve always thought it was in analogy to men, not in contrast to men.

  • It’s not even that, because what I was asked to do was mostly just learning the basics of the job rather than anything substantial. As I said, I asked for the opportunity to do free work and was turned down. Which makes it even more confusing (and annoying, which is my real complaint – I genuinely felt slighted by such an arbitrary conclusion about me).

  • While I’ve also experienced Yes-pressure and the socialization to “be nice,” responding with prejudice (pre-judging) doesn’t solve anything in the end. One, not all guys are jerks. A pre-emptive Bat-Shark-Repellent spritz in a wide field will hit any man in its path, not just a shark. Two, “when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child—but when I became grown, I put away childish things.”

    Saying No IS hard—but as Chesterton said, there’s a difference between that which is tried and found to be hard versus that which is found to be hard and therefore not enough tried.

    (p.s. … So this is the Disqus system of which I’ve heard such tales. Apparently it thinks I am The Old Maid, and The_Old_Maid, and TheOldMaid, and won’t log in any version of me on the first 10 or so attempts. Basically, any version which links to my website (“Potluck”) is me. And any version that doesn’t, I’ll try to merge it.)

  • storiteller

    Can we please not drag back in very old issues with a poster who no longer posts here? There’s just no reason to get personal. Thanks!

  • storiteller

    I understand unpaid internships if you’re at least getting college credit for it, because those are credits that you’d have to pay the college for otherwise. But unpaid internships with zero compensation are just wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s really just full-time volunteer work, which is fine if you have the luxury of being able to do it, but shouldn’t be assumed.

    Plus, my internships all seemed to provide me with a whole lot of no help when it came to getting a job. When I went back to the one place where I interned over a summer for an entry-level position, I didn’t get it because I wasn’t qualified enough. Even though I had interned there and had gotten a masters degree in the meantime.

  • reynard61

    Actually Greenwood, Indiana, is very much a modern Midwestern suburb, and it’s only about 15 or so miles from where I live. (Indianapolis is smack in the middle of the state.) It’s just that a lot of the wealthier families from Indy moved there during the mid- and late-1960s (a somewhat quieter version of the “White flight” that other cities experienced at around the same time) and brought their wealth (and overweening sense of entitlement) with them.

    Also, most of the Kentuckians that I meet are here to look for jobs (Good luck with that!) and are a helluva lot friendlier than one would think from looking at Mitch McConnell’s example.

  • Lori

    Yeah, that sounds like it sucked out loud.

  • Lori

    I have no problem with the Kentuckians that I’ve met as individuals. The dominant politics and some of the collective behavior are not what I’d want to deal with every day.

  • banancat

    Actually, Justin Bieber’s more recent stuff is pretty good. I have a wide range of tastes and I’ve never been a music snob, but I still think it’s pretty good while the older stuff is doesn’t do much for me. It might be worth giving it a chance.

  • banancat

    I’m surprised that a 28 year-old is an intern. Is he a student or is it just a reflection of the bad economy that he can’t get something permanent?

  • banancat

    About a decade ago, my aunt went on a rant about Kids These Days with their cell phones in school. I know she was clearly judging us based on fiction because at my school, I was literally not allowed to even have possession of a cell phone within school property, even if I wasn’t using it. It was the same rule at the high schools of all my cousins who were also at that family reunion.

    And now realizing that high school was a decade makes me feel old. Sadface.

  • Jamoche

    Had, as in a long time ago. But it was making me feel old even then :)

  • Lori

    Not my thing. More power to him and all, but I’m not the target audience.

    Varying musical taste aside, every time I think of him now I think of a picture that I saw a couple months ago during one of his melt downs*. It was reportedly of one of his bodyguards holding him back from jumping out of his SUV and going after the paps. Because both the bodyguard and the SUV were quite large and Justin is not, what it looked like was a grown man stuffing a tantrum-throwing toddler into the back seat of the family car. If I had any talent with a meme generator the caption on that picture would have been something about not letting your mouth write checks your body can’t cash.

    I’m not sure I could shake that mental image even if he was the second coming of the Beatles.

    *I wish him luck with that. My lack of interest in his music doesn’t mean that I don’t hope he avoids pulling a Lohan.

  • arthur Piantadosi

    I remember the Back to the Future movies very well. . . I think Strickland’s great-great-grandfather was good guy who got shot by “Mad Dog” Tannen. . .

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Did you mean 5000 mAh, or rather, 5 Amp-hour, batteries? Because otherwise that’d be over 200 gigajoules on a 12 volt battery.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    It sounded like he was supposed to be a liberal, but maybe it wasn’t explained quite correctly, since “Extremely radical in the 1940s” might also mean ‘fascist’.

  • Um, yes. Yes I did.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Right. There’s one too many zeroes in that statement.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    This seems somewhat relevant: The Battle Hymn of the Baby Boomers

  • Paul__Revere

    So you’re a Marxist. Could have just said so and saved us all from having to wade through all that.