Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Generation Gaps

Every generation has gaps to bridge with the next.

Sometimes, these gaps are self-inflicted. The greatest generation experienced economic depression and suffering they didn’t want their children – the baby boomers – to ever experience. Boomers, knowing what they were up to in their youth, kept Gen-X/Gen-Y-ers on a short leash. The absence of an experience in a child's life can cause them to react in unexpected ways (e.g., the 1960s). It also creates a gap between parent (who has an experience) and child (who does not). It's a bit like government policy: no matter how well intentioned, the law of unintended consequences prevails.

Some gaps result from technical or societal advances. Consider that a generation ago, we didn’t have mobile phones, web browsers, instant messenger, or Twitter. Those of us who grew up without them have a pre- and post-context into which these things arrived; that is, we lived before they were available, and we lived after they were available.

The experience of not having something and then having it is significantly different from not knowing what it means to not have something in the first place. Living without instant access to complex market data, detailed sports stats, comprehensive weather, and global news and opinion is simply foreign to the children we’re raising today. Similarly, our children don't understand the inability to be in continuous (if low bandwidth) communication with a network of friends anywhere they happen to be at the moment.

The presence of something like wireless communications at the time our children arrived on the scene gives it a prominance in their lives that we don't ascribe to it. We see it as evolutionary from the context we know; they see it as a permanent part of the landscape.

One consequence is that our children’s context for how they interact with each other is mechanically different from ours. And this is our gap to bridge. Having that pre- and post- context may limit how much we can appreciate how young people come to grips with these things: they engage something like Twitter with less life experience than we have, but with greater creativity and unteathered thought than we do. That, in turn, makes it difficult for us as parents to truly understand the impact these will have on their values, on their ways of communicating and interacting, of learning about things, on their emotions and reactions, and on their interpretation of the world.

The old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” has stood the test of time. Media come and go: as one generation mourns the death of newspapers, yet another will lament the death of television, and yet another will be crushed by the obsolence of internet search in favor of something else. But we mustn't confuse media for message. It’s up to us as parents to understand the basics and richness of human interaction, and help our children come to grips with it, whatever the media du jour happens to be.

Societal norms of politeness and behavior reflect the available technology at the time, a veneer over our core being. Our needs to interact with each other, indeed the social fabric of our society, follows age old needs and desires that no technology will replace, or define.