The Generation Gap
August 18th, 2010

I am 32 years old.  A spry young thing in the greater landscape of the human experience, right?    I’m still younger than most of my coworkers.  I’ve only had to pluck one grey hair.  And on most days I have the energy to keep up with my one-and-a-half-year-old son.  Nevertheless, I don’t always feel so young.  Sometimes I feel downright old.

Some of my favorite examples:

  • My brother-in-law (10 years my junior) didn’t know what a rotary phone was.
  • In a meeting a few weeks ago we were somehow talking about how we learned of the Challenger shuttle explosion and an intern mentioned he hadn’t been born yet.
  • During the opening credits of Marley and Me as REM’s “Shiny Happy People” began to play I leaned over to my brother-in-law (same BIL, he makes me feel old a lot…) and said, “I haven’t heard this song in years,” to which he responded, “I have no idea what it is.”

Moments like these make me grumble a little bit.  I remember asking my mother about “the olden days” of her childhood and naively thinking that my kids would never view my childhood era as “olden.”  We had microwaves, and Nintendo, and Swatches.  Really, how much more modern could things ever get?  Right?


My son will never look up a movie show time in the newspaper.  He will never have to search for a blank VHS tape.  He will never load a roll of film into a camera.  He will never mail a postcard from a vacation spot.  He will never carry an atlas in his car.  He will never wait for a friend or relative at the gate in the airport.    He will not buy new music on CDs.  He will never know a world without cell phones.  He will never even know the crackling sounds of dial-up internet service connecting.

And while it is a cathartic cliché to reflect on the ways in which the world has changed around us, these changes don’t create that large a cultural divide between us and those around us who are a generation older or younger.  My grandfather has learned how to e-mail and my mother has learned how to program her Tivo.  I have learned how to use Facebook.  And someday IEP will adopt something that hadn’t been conceived of during his childhood.  We all learn.

But in scanning headlines yesterday I came across this article which discusses how college mindsets are trending with time.  Beloit College has tracked these changes for the past 13 years in an effort to help college professors continue to relate to students whose cultural markers are vastly different from their own.  Some examples from the list:

For students starting college this year…

  • Fergie is a pop star, not a princess
  • Have never seen a carousel of Kodachrome slides
  • Ruth Bader Ginsberg has always been on the Supreme Court
  • Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than Dirty Harry

How fascinating and challenging it must be to spend your days trying to mold young minds using cultural reference points that draw blank stares.  How frustrating it must be not to speak their language.  The college years are at their best when book knowledge is augmented by personal experience; when someone who is older can hearken back to your own age and convey a sense of sameness based on shared experience.  Yet how do we convey the essence of a shared experience when the external trappings of that experience are so different?

Higher education is an imperfect institution on many levels.  But when it’s done right it’s a perfectly beautiful thing.  I admire Beloit College for taking these steps to bridge a generational gap.  Maybe some 19-year-old kid will walk out of a Modern American History class later this fall and feel like his professor isn’t so out of touch after all.

12 Responses to “The Generation Gap”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I love this. It makes me feel old, but it also makes me wonder. For me the seminal moment was a few years ago when I said something about “My So-Called Life” which was so influential when I was in high school (maybe I am too old for you, even, and you won’t know it!? :) ) and my college aged babysitter looked at me blankly.

  2. Gale Says:

    Angst-ridden Angela Chase? Sweet Brian Krakow? Of course I remember. I was 17 when it aired and as the consummate good girl I loved Angela for her rebellious friends and dour attitude. It’s always so strange when particular cultural moments that were significant for you are meaningless to someone else. The kicker for my parents’ generation? I’ve never seen a single episode of MASH… I guess it goes both ways, right?

  3. Bridget Says:

    I read that article as well and I found the most surpising statistic that they don’t know how to write in cursive. Really? Crazy how fast it all flies by, but fun to think back on where we’ve been and realize the current events from today will be on that list before we know it. These kids were in 4th grade on 9/11 – wow!

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I mentioned to my stepson the other day that I typed all of my college term papers on an electric typewriter and he looked at me like I was the oldest dinosaur on the planet.

  5. Gale Says:

    Kitch – Yep. I wrote everything on an electric typwriter until high school. Then we had one of the original Macintosh computers (tiny little thing with the 5″x7″ black and white screen?). What a godsend it was to be able to edit without dribbling White Out everywhere!

    BTW – there are much older dinosaurs than you on the planet. In the world of dinosaurs, I’m sure you’re rather a young one. ;)

  6. Lindsey Says:

    A little over a month ago, right after our plane landed in San Francisco, I over heard a conversation between two teenage boys. We were on a Delta flight complete with personal TVs and free inflight shows. I had been watching the same show on E! That boy A had been watching. The conversation went something like this:

    Boy A – I guess OJ Simpson was convicted on murder charges
    Boy B – Who’s OJ Simpson?!
    Boy A – (Trying to sound like he had a clue who the man was). Uh, an American Legend!!
    Boy B – Oh (like he could have cared less)

    Eventhough I have yet to hit 30, I know how you feel!!

  7. Cathy Says:

    I’m 40 and there is definitely an awakening when you realize it. I think the moment for me was when I was talking with my babysitter and told her how Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a classic, and she had never heard of it much less seen it!

    I read that article and, while I agree with your comment about how Beloit is making an effort to improve the teaching but getting educators up to speed on what’s current, I don’t really see the importance of much of what they reference. “Beethoven has always been a dog”? “Ruth Bader Ginsberg has always been on the Supreme Court”? Isn’t college about teaching them these things?

  8. Gale Says:

    Cathy – I think the point is to provide context for the kids’ cultural markers in a way that also resonates with the professors. They’re trying to emphasize that these kids never knew a world in which RBG wasn’t a Supreme Court justice, rather than merely noting who today’s justices are.

  9. Anne Says:

    I heard a speaker at a conference recently who’s called “The Gen-Y Guy”–he’s actually about my age…maybe a tad younger. He made a crack about the fact that he can’t read cursive, much less write it, and the audience just roared with laughter. I personally haven’t written in cursive in probably 15 years.

    Since I work with college kids every day, it’s always a challenge to BOTH relate to them AND open their eyes. As educators, we’re here to make their world bigger, but we can only do that by relating to them in a way that makes us trusted and kind in their eyes. It’s a tightrope, and a fun one in my opinion.

  10. Jack Says:

    I am 41. I play basketball 3 times a week with college kids who remind me that I am not even close to their age. Not because of physical differences but because of the cultural things that you listed above.

    The Breakfast Club is 25 years old. John Hughes movies are part of my generation’s voice. I remember the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan getting shot, John Lennon’s murder, the Berlin Wall falling.

    I see myself as being about 25, but every day I realize that those days are farther away than they used to be.

  11. Angela Says:

    Is this what we call the generation gap? What to do, although I can look back and see things that I did, that my children will only hear about, it’s the same with my parents, who did things that I only heard about and could only imagine.

    Life and times, evolve, revolve and it’s so awesome that we all have a story, whether it be new, old, seeing, remembered or only imagined.

  12. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    It’s true what you say and yet, in some ways, our changes are drawing history together. I picked up an ipod of my daughter’s (17) friend recently and was astounded at the wide range of music found there. Everything from before my era to Lady Gaga. The internet opens up music (and lots of other cultural experiences) to a vast audience … if they’re interested.