As we pause this Labor Day weekend to celebrate the Great American Worker, we can't help but wonder: Whatever happened to the Great American Slacker?
It wasn't that long ago that slackers ruled the earth. OK, maybe ruled is a bit over the top because slackers, by definition, didn't really rule — or try very hard or take full responsibility. Whatever. But they sure were omnipresent there for a while.
"Slackers really didn't want to do anything much," says Elayne Rapping, professor emerita of American studies at the University at Buffalo. "They celebrated not having to work at much."
They slouched around on couches and quoted the tag line "Work sucks" from the 1999 film Office Space. They sang along with the Ben Folds Five slacker anthem Battle of Who Could Care Less: "I know it's cool to be so bored."
For more than a decade, the do-nothing attitude of slackers slaked a national thirst, an apathetic antidote to American drive and determination.
Slackers: A Media History
1990 – New York Times credits the University of Texas, Austin, with coining the term "slackers" for neo-beatniks on campus.
1991 — Slacker, a low-budget film by Richard Linklater, chronicles the lives of Austin's offbeat denizens.
1994 — The Official Slacker Handbook by Sarah Dunn. Contains advice such as "How to maintain a surface industry in one's artistic endeavors and yet never have to produce a single page, canvas or stanza."
2002 — Slackers, the Hollywood version, starring two generational Jasons: Schwartzman and Segel.
2006 — Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America, a book by Tom Lutz, puts slackers in historical context.
2007 — Slacker Uprising, a film by Michael Moore, is made available free to all slackers — and to everyone else.
Type the word "slacker" into Google Trends and you will see that search engine interest in the term peaked in the United States in December 2008. Since then interest has steadily declined.
Maybe the demise began with the 2011 story in The New York Times titled "Burberry's Well-Heeled Slacker"— signaling that Madison Avenue had co-opted the posture. Or maybe it coincided with the corporate emergence of Slacker music — an Internet-based service that is anything but lazy.
Now — like pay phones and video parlors — slackers seem to be disappearing.
Rapping says the world has moved on. "I think slacker is pretty much out now," she says.
So to paraphrase Peter, Paul and Mary: "Where have all the slackers gone?"
Rapping's theory: The slacker has been "replaced by the hipster, which is very different."
Hipsters today, she says, "also live cheaply and on the fringes, but they are much more sophisticated and self-consciously ironic and, well, hip. They have attitude, and attitude is important these days as we search for identities in a changing world."
The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj