IN JANUARY 1967, Time announced that its “Man of the Year” for 1966 was not an individual, but the generation of “Twenty-five and under”: “Never have the young been so assertive or so articulate, so well educated or so worldly.” The cover featured a young man in a suit, attractive and confident, intelligent and ready to inherit the future. 

Then, in December 1967, Mike Nichols released “The Graduate”, a film adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel of 1963. Benjamin Braddock, the film’s unlikely hero, is neither assertive nor articulate, and it is precisely the future that worries him. Out of place in his parents’ suburban Los Angeles home after graduating on the east coast, he takes refuge in an affair with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner, until he falls in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). 

As it turns 50, “The Graduate” remains relevant in a world grappling with inter-generational conflict, where young people fight for a “new kind” of politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Today’s young, saddled with debt and struggling to get onto the property ladder, do not immediately resemble Benjamin with his wealthy parents and new Alfa Romeo Spider. But his desire that his future be different, and his rejection of his parents’ way of life, tells a great deal about society’s sudden shifts.

Benjamin on the screen departs from the Benjamin of the novel. Charles Webb’s tall, blonde and outwardly confident protagonist was originally destined to be given to Robert Redford. But Mr Nichols reckoned “He couldn’t be a blond, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people?” and opted instead for Dustin Hoffman, then a little-known stage actor of short stature and Russian-Jewish descent. 

Mr Hoffman makes Benjamin more relatable, trading Salingeresque angst for nervous wreck. This is complemented by the film’s Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. “The Sound of Silence”, “April Come She Will” and “Scarborough Fair”, suggesting Benjamin’s isolation, hardly make up the leitmotif of an anger-filled rebel. Jitteriness pervades the comedy of Benjamin’s interaction with others, from his father’s friend’s famous one-word career advice—“plastics”—to trying to please Mrs Robinson: “Oh no Mrs Robinson I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends.” In a memorable scene, she asks whether he has something to tell her, expecting to be given their room number at the hotel. Benjamin, shaky and submissive, responds with “I want you to know how much I appreciate this. Really.” Hardly the all-conquering youngster on the cover of Time

Mrs Robinson is between generations, too. On the one hand she symbolises disappointment with the 1950s-era role life has given her to play. Trapped in an unhappy marriage because of a college pregnancy, she seeks escape through Benjamin. On the other, she is modern and domineering, as rebellious as her daughter. She seduces Benjamin and then does all in her power to keep him away from Elaine, even pressing her daughter into marrying Carl, producing the film’s climax at the church and in the bus. Though she wars with her daughter, she is just as rebellious, seeking freedom to determine her own future. The generations are not so different after all. 

Time welcomed 1967’s upcoming youngsters as “not just a new generation, but a new kind of generation”. “The Graduate” challenges this: it seems that all generations have in common the same yearning for independence. Half a century later it reminds the viewer that everyone represents posterity at one point. Even those lucky enough to seize the future will get old, too, with more behind than ahead of them. Will Ben one day look around as Mrs Robinson had before him? What does the future hold for Elaine and Ben’s own children? The bus moves on, but we do not know where. “The Graduate” is still relevant today because each new generation must re-learn its lessons.