The new generation gap

Only a couple of shopping days left, and many of us parents have a problem. It is not that we are not sure we want to buy the things on the wish list. We have nothing against Bop It Extreme 2, Star Wars Galaxies or even - if we are truly laisser faire - Halo: Combat Evolved.

What concerns us is the incomprehensibility (Bop It) and, more important, the interactivity of the games. When we buy interactive games, we might as well be buying children private spaceships, or aircraft tickets dated December 25. Aircraft tickets away from us.

Every generation shuts its elders out with technology. Our own generation shut our parents out with Christmas day television, telephones and the Walkman. Our parents shut theirs out with the radio. But today's young are the first to manage that feat so early and so thoroughly. By the age of 10, they have already found a new community through gaming or "IM" - instant messaging. This trend cuts short childhood - a pain much discussed. But it cuts short parenthood as well.

My own thesis is that there is a new generation gap that we all will have to get used to. The phrase "digital divide" does not quite capture it. The gap has to do with the old grammarians' principles of convention - what was correct in the past - and usage - what is popular now. People born before 1975 are people of convention - mostly, the convention of the word. They like books. They like music - often because of the lyrics. And yes, they like computers: computers are a cool new way to play around with words.

To these people, Google's plan to digitise the contents of the world's best libraries sounds like the best Christmas gift of all. Through Google, after all, we can all learn more about our ancestors' conventions.

People born after 1975 are, however, people of usage. They do whatever the current culture is doing, and much of that involves pictures, not words. They do not mind books - but some of their favourite "insta-books" are written along the plot lines of action movies that have already been produced. And they like computers - mostly because those computers offer a chance to stage a Wookiee rebellion against the Empire.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Harry Potter is all about convention and words. Star Wars Galaxies, the game, is about images, but it also is about traditional characters worthy of Chaucer. Still, the fading of the conventional culture is a genuine thing, as the National Endowment for the Arts has documented. According to a study titled "Reading at Risk", four out of 10 college-aged people say they read novels, short stories, poetry or plays (a class that includes Harry Potter) on a regular basis. In 1982, by contrast, six out of 10 in this group read literature. What is more, literary reading among the young is dropping at an accelerating rate.

It is difficult for the generation of Greenham Common - not to mention that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show - to admit that we are conventional. After all, we are the original rebels.

Still, many of our generational differences were, in fact, minor.

The older generation quoted their parents quoting Tennyson. The younger one quoted The Greening of America. The older generation tried to use correct grammar. The younger generation tried less hard. But it still tried. One of the smallest but commonest battles of the 1960s and 1970s was the age-old one over word order and prepositions. If you wanted to be an attorney or a teacher you had to learn to avoid putting your preposition at the end of your sentence. "To whom do you talk?", not "Who do you talk to?"

Nonetheless, revolt in those days was a phase. For most of us in the pre-1975 crowd - with the exceptions of the heroin addicts and the Maoists - knew that convention was there in the background, waiting for the day we would go to work. There we might never use slide rules, but we would still, for the most part, be operating in our parents' culture.

The younger generation, by contrast, partakes of a revolution that is closer to permanent. They believe that the majority of the tools of their predecessors are forever outmoded. They assume the end of the use of the pen (penmanship being already dead), the death of the old watch, the demise of the book, the encyclopedia, the index, and, yes, the non-virtual library.

What makes us older types anxious is that we know these assessments are probably correct. We see, too, that our children derive great satisfaction from their new communities - even though those communities are not part of our conventions. Usage rules.

Still, some of us old rebels are still feisty, and perpetually - especially in holiday weeks - contemplate measures to keep our children with us, culturally and physically. We can, after all, limit computer hours. We can limit computers. We can cloister our children in traditional summer camps that ban even digital cameras. We may have to cast our children pretty far back - a quarter of a millennium, say, into cello lessons and Latinity - but at least we will be creating adults we can understand.

But let us face it: generational changes are hard to prevent, and these last steps would be selfish and cruel. For by their 30s or 40s, we would be gone. And then, who would they talk to?

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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