Sunday, May 29, 2011

Generation Hex

I’ve decided to stop doing something.

It’s not something I do a whole lot of, but when you have a much-younger sibling and friends across a wide age range, you tend to do it at least once in a while.

It’s that “when I was your age” stuff. It’s wrong for a lot of reasons:

1) It means you’re old.
2) This is usually when you realize you’re old.
3) It is entirely possible to have this conversation with a legal adult who you are dating, at least up until this snuffs out the passion.
4) You’re likely to hear people far younger than you saying it to even younger people, which will make you feel even older. And you will want to tell that young person that they have no idea what maturity is, further reinforcing your oldness.
5) Kids these days. They’ll never understand.

Mainly, though, I want to quit these stories because I hate reading them in blogs, Facebook messages and emails. Sometimes I’ll run across a version of them in publications, where they take the tone of, “Today’s children don’t remember life before 9/11.” And those are interesting in a cultural sense. But most of the time, there’s this underlying one-upsmanship attitude, like the previous generation had it tougher and are thus better people.

I’m all for overcoming adversity, but that’s rarely the point of generational comparisons. Usually, it’s just to deride kids for not appreciating their situation. Or for being slackers or having other bad traits that didn’t exist before the Beatles. But most of all, such points are wrong. Always.

Here’s how these things often go:

“We didn’t have World of Warcraft. We had the Atari 2600! No fancy graphics, just squares. We had to use our imagination!”

Yes, because the Atari 2600 was in no way a time- and ambition-killer when it first came out. I’m sure that when it entered American living rooms, everyone saw it for how crude it was and in no way considered it a technological quantum leap. And I’m positive no parents at the time ever worried about the effect of this new craze on their kids’ precious imaginations.

If anything, video games don’t have the impact they once did, because we’re long since used to them as a pursuit and are used to technological upgrades.

“We didn’t have cell phones. Or caller ID. Or email. If the phone rang, we had to answer it blind! If we went somewhere, we were out of touch until we had access to another phone. We had to mail letters with a stamp! You kids these days, with your Internet, texting and constant communication!”

OK, I’ll grant that texting and cell phones are annoying in the respect that everyone has them and uses them far past the limit of what they have to say, and also that they’ve created a digital divide in society. But what is the point of saying this? That we were better back when communication was a hassle? At its best, portable communication is vital in emergencies and any other time when something needs to be cleared up fast. Like everything technological on this list, such things exist because someone saw the need for it. They didn’t invent it to disrupt societal fabric — they invented it because the past wasn’t as perfect as we imagine it to be.

“We didn’t have fancy baby seats back then! Or even seat belts! Our 1959 Behemalux had a rope on the back of the seat. We used to shut up and hold on!”

Ah, the good old days. Back when babies could fly around in a car and it was OK because LOVE and GUTS would keep them alive! Damn restraints took that all away.

“We never sassed our parents. If we did, we got a well-deserved tirade and pop in the chops with a bullwhip! Because back then, parents didn’t want to be friends. They wanted you to wet your pants with fear every time they walked in the room, then whip you for wetting your pants. And by God, it worked! I wouldn’t be who I am today without their tough love!”

Yes, you wouldn’t be a vengeful punishment fetishist who transfers everything you hated about your upbringing (and led to decades of rebellion and resentment) onto your own children, because that’s what you know. Even in this comment, though, you tacitly acknowledge that something is wrong with those days, because obviously you aren’t doing the same things. Is it possible to brag about something you lament?

“We weren’t politically correct! We said what we wanted to say, flew the flags we wanted to fly, wore what we wished to wear and to hell with anyone else if they were offended.”

Yes, you could be a bigot in public back then. I don’t see how that’s changed much.

(Tangent: In my experience, a lot of the same people who decry race mixing also want everyone to drop hyphenated ethnicities and just be “Americans.” Interesting dichotomy.)

“I worry about the young generation and who among them is going to lead one day.”

I don’t. I’m worrying enough about who the older generations continue to offer up. I reject the notion that elders automatically know better and that youth are stupid nose-pickers who can’t be trusted with themselves. Why? Because experience has taught me that we’re all human, and no humans are infallible.

Even when we live hardscrabble lives, we romanticize our youth and enshrine it forever as our frame of reference. So when we inevitably grow up and see life’s gritty realities, we think things have gotten worse. And as we age, we see the younger generation pick up on the life we’ve left behind. This makes us pine for the past, which was a better time because it was our time. We hadn’t yet dealt with sea changes and our generational loss of innocence. But we mistake that for concrete truth, and thus have disdain for “kids these days.” And we think kids are hopeless because we, as kids, couldn’t see ourselves through adult eyes. Bottom line, we see the same things from different perspectives in our lives, and it always leads to the same conclusion: that the past was better and the future is dim.

Guess what. It isn’t. As Billy Joel sang, “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”

“My ____ were better than your _____.”

No they weren’t. You were better back then. Now you’re set in your ways and it’s someone else’s turn to get set in their ways so that they can one day say that their blanks were better than their descendants’ blanks.

So from now on, I won’t insist that my upbringing/tastes/etc. are innately better than those of other generations. No one should. Because when it comes down to it, we’re all pretty much the same.


Nick Istre said...

I'll drink to this!

I try not to do this same kind of "when I was your age" stuff either, though really, I honestly like living now better than in the past. Despite my income dropping by 33% and loss of employer-covered health insurance and retirement in the past 10 years, despite the periods of unemployment, and the hard breakup in recent years, my now is better than my then.

Maybe I'm not old enough to do the "back in my day", maybe I embrace new technology more readily than most. But even though I really can't claim I've ever had it hard, but I'd rather live the way I am now than when I was in high school. My own school life wasn't roses and I wanted out of high school. If there was anything that really disappointed me when "growing up", it was that there are many places and people that seem to want to extend that high-school life, from companies to politics. Fortunately, it's easier to escape from that once you're out of school...

Grateful said...

As a 40-something year old, I appreciate your comments and perspective. I do try not to say 'when I was your age...blah, blah, blah". ('cause blah blah blah is all the other person hears!!)

Your post brought two things to mind for me.

I am fascinated by the PACE of developments in technology. It truly is wild to me to think that I typed my college papers on a typewriter, that cell phones didn't exist in the early 90s', etc. There seems to be an ever-increasing speed of our technology...and a corresponding onslaught of information and connectedness. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I want to escape it (thus my current exodus from Facebook).

The other thing I think about is my 94 year-old grandmother. I like to think about the changes SHE has seen in her lifetime. She was a much of the new world has passed her by and that is a shame. I so admire the older folks (even older than I, haha) who are keeping up with the changes in technology and lifestyles and keep adapting.

And let me say right now...I don't pine for the past, myself. I don't look back. Life is NOW. I try to learn from the younger generation to keep me young. And I try to learn from the older generation to make me wiser.

Keep up the great blogging, Ian. I read you every day, even though I don't often respond.


E.J. said...

I kind of like being able to say "When I was your age..." because it reminds me that: 1)I'm still here; and 2) I can rough it if I need to, that there are times when I get can around being dependent on the trappings of today because I've done it before. I love hearing the "Back when..." stories of the older generations. It doesn't annoy me. It makes me appreciate how strong and creative they were to thrive without today's conveniences or that it takes more than child welfare laws and seatbelt regulations to ensure your children live to see adulthood.

I think it's important to tell younger folks about how things were because it's important to have a sense of history, of one's place in time. It's fine to talk about "when I was your age" if that's the point you're trying to make and not trying to make yourself feel better or tougher or put down today's youths and pretend like you don't appreciate or take advantage of the advantages of modern living.

I do know how you feel though because hearing myself say "when I was your age" use to make me cringe. But that was back when I was your age. Like 2 whole years ago! lol

Ian McGibboney said...

Nick - Like you, I'm not nostalgic for any past period. Maybe in some ways, yes, but overall I wouldn't want to be anywhere other than now. And yes, the high school mentality is everywhere in the adult world.

Robin - I too admire those who keep pace. I hope I too can always live in the now. I see myself not doing that in certain ways, but I try to catch it when it happens. One thing I've always liked about you is that you do that so well. Look ahead, not back.

E.J. - The difference between hearing stories and bragging is very important. I learned so much from my grandparents and their Depression stories. Like I said, it sticks in my craw when it's done for the wrong reasons.

Mustang Bobby said...

When I use "When I was your age," I do it either with admiration because some things have improved and I'm happy to keep up with them, like auto mechanics (I don't miss having to tune up the car and change the points and plugs and fiddle with the carburetor), or I say it with a tinge of pride, because chances are, the improvements were made by people of my generation. Or close to it.

The world we dreamed of when I was a kid never really came to pass, but that's okay, because it still can. And as John Patrick noted, "Man is by nature an optimist. If not, we'd eat our young."

I don't live in the past, but I honor it.