Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Generation X

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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.

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