It must be the hallmark of any earlier
generation to promulgate to today's generation the way
things used to be and why they were so grand.
We've all heard from parents or grandparents, "When I
was your age, people used to have to do A or B," implying
that doing A or B back then was somehow better for your
used to tune most of this stuff out.
As a teenager, I asked how could my parents, members
of the Silent Generation born between 1925 and 1945,
understand what it was like growing up as a Generation X'er,
born between 1961 and 1981?
Probably less than I assumed they did.
My parents were toddlers during the Great Depression
and up until the end of the Second World War.
They missed these major history markers in memory,
but through their own parents who remembered these incidents
very well, their generation's thinking was shaped.
By the time my parents were in their late teenage
years in the mid 1950's, the USA was experiencing a level of
relative prosperity compared with the rest of the world it
will never experience again.
The USA had an industry, an economy, and job
prospects no other place on the planet could match.
There was one enemy, the Soviet Union, but it was
far away and not an omniscient threat.
One paid a price growing up in this
time period though.
Buying into this prosperity meant buying into the
system hook, line, and sinker, great if you were already the
The Silent Generation was silent, all right.
They kept their mouths shut.
They married right out of college to a partner who
was probably more a reproductive mate than a soul mate, had
kids almost immediately, and set about finding the safest
job they could that would insure a long and prosperous
career. Most women
didn't and weren't required to work. There was little room
for alternative lifestyles, doubting of authority, or
breaking any molds.
I and my peers in Generation X grew up
during a very different time.
There were oil crises in 1973 and 1979, recessions,
major stock market crashes, the fall of the Berlin Wall and
economies had caught up to the US and others were still on
the way to catching up.
Japan and Germany were major powers, Europe had
rebuilt its war torn economies and the citizens there
actually enjoyed higher real standards of living than did
those in the US.
Former poor economies like Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan were
up and comers with standards of living rising to match
Outsourcing began, and the job certainty so prevalent
in my parents' generation was gone, though it still lingered
a bit longer in mentality in Europe and Asia.
My generation could marry when and whom we pleased
(or not marry at all) and live a lifestyle on the fringe if
that's what we desired.
But in real terms, most of us were poorer than our
parents. A study
released in 2007 documented that American males earned, on
average, 12% less than their father's did 30 years earlier.
The women of Generation X worked.
A lot of them thought they were doing it to exercise
their equality with men, but the reality is that they had to
work to help households keep pace with inflation.
Real wages in the United States peaked in 1973.
My generation is nicknamed the MTV
generation because we came of age as MTV and the 3-minute
attention span was birthed, but it's the generation which
came after me, Generation Y (roughly, those born between
1982 and 1997), who felt more of the effects.
I never felt much of a kinship with
those from Generation Y.
To me they seemed overly materialistic and obsessed
Marketers took immense interest in them, as these children
of the Baby Boomers obtained their initial purchasing power
when e-commerce became a buzzword.
What the Y'ers want and what appeals to them
dominates the marketplace today.
Depending on which stats you believe, Generation Y is
either 50% larger than Generation X (Julie Connelly, The
New York Times, 22 September 1999) or "more than three
times the size" (Businessweek, 15 February 1999).
They dwarf my generation however you do the counting.
There are advantages and disadvantages
to being part of Generation X.
The advantages are that I still have some firsthand
experience of what life was like before the world moved so
fast, when politicians still had some level of
respectability remaining, and the American Dream still
seemed like it might hold true, regardless of what the dream
was really trading at in the black markets.
The disadvantage for us X'ers is that, many times, we
still see the world in a way in which it no longer is.
When I first came across Facebook in 2007, all the
Y'ers were already on it and using it daily.
My generation was not an early adopter and only came
onto the social networking scene two years later, which can
be considered decades in internet time.
It's harder for X'ers to continue to feel relevant
in a world increasingly tilted toward Y'ers and their
younger brothers. The
Y'ers set the course for the prevalent attitudes among the
progeny of my own generation, known as Generation Z, those
born after 1998.
Z'ers know of no life without internet, ubiquitous cell
phones, iPods, and 24/7 entertainment.
They're more brand and fashion conscious at younger
ages. I know of
Z'ers who use better laptops and cellphones than I do.
They are truly products of the Digital Age.
In some respect, my generation
represented the juncture at which the analog world became a
digital one. We
X'ers were the first to grow up with home computers, though
they were not very powerful ones.
As we entered early adulthood, we were still being
geared up and trained in the thinking of the old analog
world and the models it bred.
As such, X'ers were the last generation to have
straddled both worlds.
Some of us have not made the adjustment to the new
paradigm as smoothly as the succeeding generations have.
I had been given an unwilling front row
seat to Generation Z via my girlfriend's son.
He was age six when I first met him.
Personally, I had recognized in myself the lack of a
paternal gene and did not think I'd ever be or prioritize
being a father.
When I became involved with her and we moved in together, I
found myself having to assume a father-figure role, rather
reluctantly, I might add.
I witnessed what he was studying -- or not
studying, as the case usually would be, how he focused his
attention, how he used his time.
I was probably initially insensitive to
the way I viewed all of this.
My excuse is that I didn't consider myself a
I watched him as an observer only, as a man who
could clearly remember his own experiences at that same age
and how those experiences led up to where I am now.
It's too easy for most parents to see their little
Junior through the biased and cute lens of the present
without being able to adjust the lens for future distances.
Since I was not yet fully invested in my girlfriend's
son's future, I thought I could see him without any of the
Well, what did I see?
The first image was a kid who lived in front of the
One of the ironies of cable television is that even with
over 70 stations, there's still nothing to watch.
It didn't matter to him.
Movie DVD's cost just $3 apiece over here, and he'd
built up quite a collection already.
He was happy to re-watch the same movie ad infinitum.
Eventually, we limited his television access.
When my girlfriend brought a laptop back from Korea
and he started using it regularly, it was Facebook games,
non-stop You Tube videos, and entire TV series (like The
My Generation X mind didn't see the computer as a
Generation Z mind does, which is as an extension of the
In the end, we just lumped the computer, the television set,
the DVD player, and the playstation into a single category
and limited access to the lot.
There was within him a lack of passion and
inspiration, no doubt brought on by the passivity bred from
too much non-interactive entertainment.
We bought him a paint set, he hardly used it.
Got him a bicycle. After
the first month, he barely rode it. Purchased educational
DVD's for the computer.
I could probably resell them as new.
Whatever he was given and no matter how much, he
always felt entitled to more.
Now please don't get me wrong and
conclude that I viewed my girlfriend's son as some sort of a
admit that I was overwhelmed at first.
In my acquaintanceship with him, I was shocked at how
much kids had changed since my generation's turn at
blamed unfairly on her son much of what I found fault with
in Generation Z.
I later came to realize he was par for the course and plenty
of his peers at school were much worse.
My girlfriend's son is considered one
of the brightest kids in his class.
Maybe I played some small role in that by forcing him
to do extra reading and homework assignments after school.
I have no idea.
I do know that the school doesn't push reading in
general and that none of his close friends ever pick up a
book. By the
time I was seven, I'd read the complete Chronicles of
Narnia series and probably would have digested the
Harry Potter series if it had then existed.
My girlfriend's son is coming from a different place.
To this day, I have to put pressure on him through a
punishment-reward scenario in order to get him to
You see, Generation Z doesn't read.
They have short attention spans.
All their entertainment is on a screen.
The faster pace of today's world has made patience an
irrelevancy for them. They're the Now Generation. In my
childhood, one had to wait several years before a movie went
from the theaters to television.
Today, there could be no wait.
In Thailand, a kid can see a pirated version of a
movie at the same time as it's playing in the cinema.
Objects of one's
desires are picked out on the Net today and mail ordered out
The impatient Z'ers are growing up a
lot faster than us X'ers ever did, in more ways than one.
The internet can
be a fantastic educational tool -- to instantly look up the
biography of nineteenth century American paleontologist Othniel
Marsh. Or to
skim X-rated information and content that would have been
out of bounds and out of reach for any X'er.
And with a more adulterated and instant diet full of
hormones, chemicals, and preservatives, the Z'ers actually
seem to look physically older at younger ages than we did
back then. At
parent-teacher conferences recently, my girlfriend's son's
teacher told us that the kids were starting to go through
the hormonal and behavioral changes which can make them
difficult to be around.
He was referring to puberty, of course.
In the days of Generation X, you didn't have this
discussion till the kid was twelve.
With today's technology and the
decentralization of knowledge on the internet, Z'ers should
be the healthiest generation which ever lived.
Should be doesn't mean they will be.
The fast food industry as I knew it in the 1970's has
grown by leaps and bounds since then to include high profit
margin foods pre-made in grocery stores.
With two parents working the norm, Z'ers grow up
eating more instant noodles, TV dinners, and fast food
family menus without a commensurate amount of exercise to
The paunch that might've shown its first signs for us
Generation X'ers by our mid thirties will be evident in the
Z'ers before they hit their teenaged years.
More Z'ers will experience disease at earlier ages,
diabetes mellitus being one of the more common ailments, and
have to rely on ever more expensive medicines to mask the
Those entrepreneurs who know how to tap
into the less mentally nimble Z market are minting the next
round of fortunes.
Currently, the most popular poster on You Tube is a
seventeen-year old actor from Nebraska playing a six-year
old in a series of webisodes.
I would never have believed such videos would get
five million or more views, yet they do, largely because
Z'ers like my girlfriend's son and his friends watch them.
For several weeks, my girlfriend's son was busy in
front of the computer working on his virtual farm on
didn't pay much attention until I later found out the CEO of
the company manufacturing these free games had a net worth
of almost $1bn, valued largely from the success of this
game. I would
posit that very few X'ers have willingly watched those You
Tube videos or devoted significant time playing those
Are my fears for Z'ers overblown?
If a car is moving at 60 miles per hour towards a
cliff sixty miles away, you can do the math to predict where
the car will be in an hour unless it changes course. You
can't condition a generation of kids to be passive, lazy,
and have a sense of entitlement and then expect motivation
and inspiration to take hold of most of them by the time
university studies arrive.
Years ago, I saw the movie 28 Up.
Begun in 1963 as 7 Up, director Michael
Apted interviewed a group of fourteen British 7-year old
children and did follow ups every seven years.
Remarkably for many, you could see the seeds of who
they became at 28 in the children they were at age 7.
Similarly, generation Z's future is written in the
aspirations of today's chubby youngsters watching Epic
Movie for the seventeenth time.