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The 20-Year-Old Fogey

January 11, 2010

The other day, my father tweeted a link to this article on the New York Times website. It basically argues that with the advancing pace of technology, “mini generation gaps” are springing up with higher and higher frequency.

I was intrigued by the title of the article, since it coincides with a thought I’ve been having, but as is often the case the title is misleading.

As a member of what is apparently called the Net Generation, I disagree strongly with the conclusions being drawn by the researchers cited. For one thing, I think the differences they cite are largely demographic — I don’t instant message as much as high schoolers do, but I did when I was a high-schooler.[1] The fact that I don’t do so anymore is no more a “mini generational gap” than the fact that my younger brother loved Pokémon when he was in kindergarten and I — in 7th grade — could not stand that shit.

You hear this all the time — I know people only a few years older than me who were “just past the age” where Power Rangers was cool. But I was just at that age when Power Rangers dropped and I thought it was awesome. And then I got older — the age my friends had been when Power Rangers failed to excite them — my interest waned naturally, and I moved on to other things.

So I don’t think this in particular has anything to do with the rapid pace of technology. I think at a certain age you’re just too damn old for Pokémon.

The article essentially posits that leapfrogging advances in technology will cause younger and younger people to feel out of touch with the times, as things advance too fast for them to keep up. I think this is exactly wrong — perhaps unsurprisingly. It’s written by someone old enough to actually be out of touch and not see how this is going to work.

My theory is that, starting with the Net Generation — children of the 80s, like me — what’s actually going to become a thing of the past is “falling out of touch” itself.

Consider: until very recently, every generation has come of age and lived their lives at a time of very little change. There would be a major technological advancement and/or social upheaval (the former often creating the latter) approximately once a generation. The people who had lived the majority of their lives before the change had trouble coping with it because they were just so used to the way things were.

But I think those who grew up with these technologies — my generation and younger — are used to sweeping change. The landscape of our world changes daily, hourly. And the more connected we become, the more information we receive and the more instantaneously we’re aware of some new upheaval in progress.

When things change, we don’t shy away in Luddite horror. Generally speaking, we embrace the new development.

This is not to say that new technologies are always widely accepted immediately; considering the lightning speed of our world, people want to know that something new is worth investing their time, has staying power and isn’t just a shiny, transient bauble. We even have a term for people who are willing to make the leap before something has proven itself to the masses: the “early adopter.” But once something is deemed “ready” by some unspoken consensus, it quickly reaches a critical mass of adoption and cultural saturation.

Take Twitter as an example. It was a slow burn, and people who aren’t on it still don’t “get it.” (One person I follow put it this way: “People who don’t ‘get’ Twitter are the ones who think its only possible purpose is to tell strangers you’re eating a hot dog.”) But the people who do get it are completely on board.

We may not get something right away, but when we get it, we get it.

That isn’t necessarily generational. A good friend of mine in his early 20s doesn’t have a Twitter account, because he doesn’t see the point. But take another look at the first sentence of this post. My father tweeted a link. I didn’t have to show him how to do that. I didn’t have to explain Twitter to him. I’ve never had to explain any mainstream tech thing to him. My dad is in his 60s, but he’s not out of touch — he’s got an XBOX 360, plays Rock Band, and uses Facebook way more than I do. He regularly mocks newspapers, record companies, and anyone else who can’t see the writing on the wall of this brave new world, which he has embraced quite happily.

I would guess that’s rare among the Baby Boomers, and I believe what sets him apart is that he’s always been interested in the latest in technology. On the one hand, it’s how he put food on the table — he worked in the field of Computer Law starting in the 70s, literally wrote the book on it, and he had to keep up in order to remain effective. It was his job to be on the cutting edge for 30-odd years.

On the other hand, dude just likes gadgets and always has. We had an Apple II and a Laserdisc player and a DVD player and the Internet before anyone else on our block.[2] My father likes change, he embraces it, even chases it down when it doesn’t come to him fast enough, and as a result he is acclimated to it. That may be rare in his generation, but I’d say it’s the majority in mine, and will be the norm in all generations to come.

As I said, though, there is an extent to which I agree with the article, particularly in the way it’s phrased in the headline. I’m 26, almost 27. Still pretty young. And yet I feel as though I’ve lived a long life already. And going by what I said above, I kind of have. I’ve experienced repeated social upheavals of the kind that once only came once in a lifetime. And while I consider myself a progressive and embrace the change gladly, at the same time I find myself thinking back on earlier times with nostalgia.

So again, my dad’s all over Facebook and I’m the one reminiscing occasionally about the good old days. But I’ve talked to other people around my age and the experience is, if not universal, then shared by the people I hang out with. We’re in our 20s and we feel old, because so much has happened in our short (so far) lives.

It’s not that we mind, or that we’d want to go back. I would be crippled without the web and I can’t imagine life without it. And I think I and those like me are ready and willing to ride the technology wave to the singularity and beyond.

But yes, NYT. It does make us feel like fogies every once in a while.

  1. I think the article’s extrapolation of IMing’s effects on younger people’s social function is bullshit. Face-to-face communication has always been instant by its nature, IMing won’t seriously change expectations in real world communication. Also, ironically, instant messaging is the only direct communication tool that we savvy websurfers don’t expect to be instant. Since we can’t see the other person, if they go a while without answering we assume that they’re away or otherwise haven’t seen the message yet. The fact that we are willing to give each others’ silences the benefit of a doubt actually creates a communication buffer zone. You can write something, then take a moment to consider whether you really want to send it to the other person, and decide against it, all without the other person ever knowing or suspecting (although in the case of a heated conversation, long silence without at least a “brb” becomes more suspicious). Can’t do that face-to-face or on the phone, where once you’ve blurted something out, it’s out; and the other person knows when your silence is damning.
  2. Commercial internet, that is. I was too late for Usenet. Anyone else remember Netcom, though?
  1. ratna permalink

    I felt old when I was 18, and I am almost as old as your father. I take things as much more individual than generational. Then, and now, feeling old was/is not necessarily about feeling nostalgic, nor necessarily about the volume of changes one has experienced in large or small spheres. To me, it has been about how acutely and multivalently one is aware of one’s days. As for flexibility in the face of change, some people remain as infants (Taoist meaning) always experimental, exploratory and soft.

    Btw, are you going to review Avatar (or have you?) I’m dying to read your take on it.

  2. Ray permalink

    I just like bellyaching like an old man. Its fun.


  3. Just came across this post which details a survey which agrees with you:

    I always said this – that at least those of my age and definitely more so for those younger – that we have grown up with change and are used to it, even expect it.

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