In my sociology of change class, we’re finishing the semester with a book called, Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters. In it, he tries to unpack the phenomenon of college-educated, never-marrieds cruising through the period that’s now being dubbed “emerging adulthood.” In preparation for this book, we watched a TED Talk comparing the Millenials to the Gen Xers, which would be me. This all got me thinking about Gen Xers, Millenials, owls, and the nature of existence.
A caveat about generational cohorts
Let me just say at the get-go that there are limits to the usefulness of describing and, especially, reducing people to generational cohorts. Technicallly, Gen Xers were born between 1960-1980, while the Millenials span the 1980s to 2000. Those are really big spans of time, and things get fuzzy at the edges of those two groups. My husband was born in 1959–he’s really not a boomer, but I have to say, he’s not quite Gen X, either.
For any cohort, there are also as many differences along categories of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, region, and community background as there are along generational lines. Someone who grew up in Appalachia is probably more different from someone who grew up on the Upper East Side, regardless of whether they happen to both be Gen Xers. Generational cohorts, not surprisingly, often seem to best describe urban, white, middle class, straight kids.
And yet, we persist in talking about generational cohorts as if this is a useful thing to do. Is it?
The Gen Xer looks at the Millenial*
I’ve been teaching students who qualify as Millenials for almost ten years now, and because I am generally a skeptic about generational cohort-speak, I’ve always tended to assume they are just like me when I was 18-21. This is not as misguided as it sounds. There are some similarities in what it’s like to be young that can transcend time periods. Like me at 18, many of my students are generally less secure in their sense of who they are. Like me, they have more free time, even though they don’t believe that they do, most of them not yet having juggled a job and a family. Like me, they sometimes do stupid things.
But increasingly, I’ve come to realize that in many ways, these kids are not at all like I was at that age. This is not reducible to the lists that go around, telling you all the things this current generation doesn’t know. Yes, they’ve never lived without the internet, and that’s important. Yes, they no longer get any of your dated pop culture references, because they didn’t grow up with John Hughes teen angst. They also don’t remember when you couldn’t buy pre-cut vegetables at the grocery store or what life was like without reality television. Do these things make us different in any important or meaningful ways, though?
Understanding exactly how it matters that you’ve always known the internet and never known The Breakfast Club is complicated. It’s not enough to stop at the fact that the internet has always existed without exploring what that might mean. In the TED talk, youth culture expert Scott Hess made a convincing argument that because of social media, being a teenager is a very different experience for Millenials. That seems important. So, imagine yourself at 14.
Fourteen is a crap age to be. In the talk, Scott Hess describes his experience as a Gen Xer at 14. He was into punk rock, but he lived in Hamilton, Ohio, which was not exactly a hot bed for the punk rock scene. There was no way for him to find other people who liked punk rock. He could draw pictures on the cover of his notebook and send away (via snail-mail, not online) for e-zines and skateboarding stuff. But those were pretty much his options for finding other people who liked the things he liked–other people who were like him. There was no way of answering one of the essential questions we face at 14–where is everybody and what are they doing? And today, of course, there are infinite ways to answer these questions.
That is a fundamental difference. I distinctly remember being 14 and feeling terribly alone. What if I could have Googled other people who secretly loved Dr. Who and Star Trek? What if I could have Tweeted about my obsession with the 60s? What if I could have, in sum, found people like me? Would I be the same person? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the answer is probably no. Instead, I had to wait until I was 17, when a foreign exchange student showed up at my high school. Yes, people had to be imported before I could find someone who seemed in the least bit like me.
The Gen Xer covets the Millenial**
I’m a Gen Xer. According to Hess, our icon is Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We are so over it (I guess that’s what this means…I confess I’ve never actually watched this movie all the way through). So it’s not surprising that my first inclination is to think, “So what that they didn’t have to suffer alone at 14? Big deal. What do I care? [INSERT OTHER SPICOLI-TYPE STATEMENTS HERE].”
After that Gen X reaction, I’d put on my fancy sociologist hat and tell you that it wouldn’t have really mattered if I’d been able to find another Dr. Who geek at age 14. They’d have been online, and you can’t be friends with someone online. You can’t connect with people you’ve never met. Only nerds and very lonely, depraved people do such things. Really, only a Millenial would think you could have a meaningful relationship with people you’ve never met face-to-face.
Only (and here the Gen Xer inside me cringes to admit this), I have. I do. I feel connected to some people I have never actually met. I have a writer friend who saves me from the complete desolation that is writing a novel, and we’ve never met in person. I have people whose blogs I read and people who read mine. It is possible through social media like Twitter to have conversations and help each other out, and never actually sit in the same room. This is deeply baffling to me, but still true.
I recently posted on Facebook that I want to see an owl. A real, live owl, out in the wild. And people told me how. In great detail. They posted videos of the sounds that owls make and they told me exactly where to look for them. All of them were people whom I have met face-to-face at some point in my life, and some were people I see on a regular basis. But some were people that, if Facebook did not exist, I would have how to get in touch with. And yet, they were all able to give me advice on how to see an owl. That, my friends, is a kind of magic. Imagine how it might have felt at 14!
Get to the point, Spicoli
I’m not sure what the point is. Feeling mildly alien-like at the age of 14 turned out okay for me in the end. Most of the scars have healed, and I did eventually realize I was not alone. But it wasn’t pretty and I’m quite happy to think that maybe my daughter will never have to feel that way. Maybe a lot of kids will never have to feel that way. Scott Hess in his TED talk argues that Gen Xers are jealous of the Millenials. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can certainly appreciate how Facebook might have made my adolescence a little less painful.
What do you think? Are Millenials and Gen Xers different? Or is it all an elaborate marketing tool?
* I will give extra points to anyone who can identity this literary reference.
** No extra points for that literary reference because “covets” just makes it all to easy.