‘Survivor’ Host Jeff Probst Previews Culture War on ‘Millennials vs. Gen X’ Season

Kelly Woo

Every season of Survivor is a battle among players to outwit, outplay, and outlast. But this time, a new dynamic is shaking up the game: a battle between generations.

Season 33, “Millennials vs. Gen X,” pits 20-somethings against their 40-something predecessors. “We’ve never done a season like this, and it will feel very fresh and alive and current and of the time,” host and executive producer Jeff Probst told Yahoo TV.

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The season, which filmed in Fiji, is a culture war that will highlight how once-groundbreaking Gen Xers have ceded turf to oft-disparaged millennials. The two tribes, Takali (Gen X) and Vanua (millennials), have very different styles of gameplay, as seen in this exclusive sneak peek. The kids party a little too long on the beach instead of setting up camp, and as darkness encroaches, their shelter remains unbuilt. With rain coming, they scramble to finish it, but as one millennial ruefully notes, “We are so screwed.”

Read on for more of Probst’s thoughts on the generational divide, some of the more memorable players, and the new hidden immunity-idol twist.

Yahoo TV: How did you come up with the theme of millennials vs. Generation X?
Jeff Probst: We’ve been striving to get more young people on the show, and it’s been tough to do in the past. This year, we just decided to make a concerted effort to find the best young people we could … and all of a sudden it was like a flood of great young people. There were so many good young people that we weren’t going to have room for them all if we did a traditional tribe decision.

We just started winnowing it down and figuring out what kind of division it should be. Millennials vs. Gen X really popped as the clear choice: We had all these great young people coming in and they had a consistent point of view, which was in sharp contrast to the 40-year-olds we were meeting. It really is a culture war.

And what drew you to these millennials?
Here’s what I found from the millennials: All of the clichés are true. They are entitled, they do want things right now, they do want things on their own terms, they are kids of technology. They are also really smart, really driven, super-passionate. They have a great sense of purpose in what they’re doing. I found that the stereotype that you read about doesn’t really paint an accurate picture. They are “now.” They are the generation. Whether you like the way they’re doing things or not, you need to jump onboard or you’ll be left behind.

I found myself ridiculously attracted to their energy — where anything’s possible! “Let’s do it now! Let’s go swimming right now! Why don’t we try to do this now? We don’t have to wait until tomorrow.” And then you hear the Gen X tribe say things like, “Back when I was a kid,” and I found myself thinking, “Oh, shut up.” That just sounds like the old guy. I wanted to say, “Let me guess, you used to have to walk to school in the snow and kill your own bear to eat meat.”

Did they exhibit very different styles of gameplay?
I knew what to expect from Generation X, because I’m Generation X. I wasn’t sure how the millennials were going to respond. It’s pretty clear, just a few minutes into the show, that they’re going to be wildly entertaining and surprise the Gen Xers with how they approach the game. It’d be easy to come into the season and think the millennials have absolutely no shot, just don’t have enough life experience. That would be a fair assumption, but be prepared for the millennials to reverse those expectations. They are much brighter than people give them credit for.

Will Wahl, 18, the youngest 'Survivor' contestant ever. (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)
Will Wahl, 18, is the youngest “Survivor” contestant ever. (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

And one of those millennials is the show’s youngest player ever.
Literally left high school to come play Survivor. It’s not like he just graduated; he was still enrolled! We’ve never had a kid leave high school to come play. You would never guess Will [Wahl] was 18 years old when you listen to him speak and you hear his points of view about the world and what it’s like to be alive right now. He’s a really bright kid, and I’d be so proud if my 18-year-old was like that.

I know you don’t like to predict how popular a season will be with the viewers, but what was your general impression of this season as it filmed?
My general impression was excited every single day. I know one of the raps on me is my enthusiasm for Survivor, which is always kind of funny to hear. But it’s genuine. I really think we have another very good season and that it’s going to feel very current.

One of the great things about Survivor is, you can always count on the format of the game. You can always count on challenges, tribal councils, alliances, blindsides, idols. But each season is unique from the standpoint of the people you put on the show. I think people will be engrossed after the first episode. You will know a lot of people. We introduce a lot of really interesting players, quickly, and they’re memorable.

Taylor Stocker of the millennials (Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS)
Taylor Stocker of the millennials (Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS)

Any players in particular who are really interesting? Last season, on Kaoh Rong, Tai stood out immediately from Day 1.
There’s quite a few. One general thing you’ll notice is the occupations and how different they are. Part of it is due to age, certainly, and longer time in the workforce. But if you drill down a little deeper, Gen X has police sergeants, lawyers, entrepreneurs, business owners. The millennials have ski instructors, baristas, youth ministers. It’s a really interesting contrast.

Taylor is this snowboard instructor who embodies what you think of when you think of a millennial — he’s this great-looking guy with an energy that matches. It’s an energy that says, “DUDE! Yes! I’m into it! I don’t even know what it is, but I’m into it!” There’s a guy Jay, who is sort of like a young version of Ozzy — he just instantly makes you think this is a jungle kid. Their friendship is bonded within the first 30 seconds, based in no small part on admiring each other’s hair.

And then you add into that mix Figgy, who’s a 20-something, hot, flirty, manipulative woman, and Michelle, who’s equally hot but who’s all about helping young people understand the Bible. She’s jokingly called Namaste Girl. You have these four young, hot millennials, supercool. And then on the other side of that millennial tribe, you have Hannah, who is like an Aubry [from Kaoh Rong] or a female Cochran [from South Pacific and Caramoan]. She’s sort of nerdy, smart, never been in the cool club — she’s always seen herself as part of the freaks and geeks. There’s this culture clash within the millennials.

Hannah Shapiro of the millennials (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS)
Hannah Shapiro of the millennials (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS)

You contrast that to Gen X, where you have Bret, a Boston police sergeant, and Chris, a lawyer from Oklahoma. You have David Wright, a television writer from Hollywood that makes Cochran look like Tarzan. He is afraid of everything. I don’t think we’ve ever had a guy who was as nervous in the first few moments as David. Even the sound of bamboo being split makes him put his fingers in his ears, because it’s too disturbing to his central nervous system.

And these are the guys on the other side of the beach going, “Oh, we’re going to kick their ass. These kids have no chance against us.” On the other side, the kids are going, “Eh, we’ll see. See you at the first challenge.”

David Wright of Gen X (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS)
David Wright of Gen X (Credit: Robert Voets/CBS)

There’s a new twist to the hidden immunity idols, right?
One of the most fun parts of the job is figuring out the little tweaks we’re going to do to the format. For the idols this season, there’s a really fun idea: They will be hidden in plain sight in a way we’ve never done before. On a beach, you tend to find things like shells, coconuts, driftwood. Those are where the idols will be hidden. They will be hidden inside a coconut. You might find one inside a piece of driftwood, which sounds impossible, but not when you have the Survivor art department engineering it.

It’s really fun to watch these people figure it out and realize, “Oh, my God, it’s inside this shell. How am I going to get it out without anybody noticing me?” Or “the clue makes me think it’s in a piece of driftwood, but how could an idol be inside wood?” It’s really going to be fun for the audience, because I think so many people watch the show to play the game vicariously through the other players. This is one of those moments where you think, “This would be so fun, to be out on the beach with a thousand seashells, to try to find the one with an idol in it.”

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X premieres Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.