Connections Between Generations

J. D. Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye' speaks equally well to my generation and my parents' generation. In the age of Facebook, can we find another cultural phenomenon that can connect us to our children's generation?

Reading the New York Times obituary of J. D. Salinger yesterday brought me right back to my profound feelings of adolescent alienation and angst. No work of art touched me more deeply in those years than his classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

What’s intriguing now, looking back at my deep connection with Salinger’s timeless protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is how a semi-autobiographical story from the 1930s, published in the early 1950s in a dominant medium of that age (i.e. a paperback novel), could touch an adolescent of the 1970s so deeply.

Will our little kids, adolescents of the 2010s, connect deeply with a story from four decades before – i.e. the 1970s? Will they consume it in a medium of the early 1990s, before the Internet explosion?
I certainly hope so, but I’m skeptical. I hope so because that would mean that my children could connect to adolescent experiences from my era, and they could do it through a medium I grew up with.

I’m skeptical because today’s children’s day-to-day experiences are changing so much faster, to the point that some people are talking about mini-generation gaps between kids a mere 10 years apart. The huge chasm between kids today and us parents is vividly illustrated in the recently published Kaiser Family Foundation study on children’s electronic media consumption. (See my article on this.)

The study finds that children spend practically every minute of their day that they are not sleeping or in school consuming electronic media that didn’t exist when I was a kid. What’s more, during roughly half of the time they spend consuming these media, they are multitasking – i.e. “consuming” more than one medium at a time.

Two electric media have come to dominate teenagers’ social lives: the Internet and mobile phones. Decades ago, teens would go to physical places to hang out with friends and romantic interests. Now, they spend far more time hanging out on online social networks and texting on their mobile phones.

In fact, today’s teens play out entire romantic dramas on Facebook. They “sext”. They get driven to depression, even suicide, by people they’ve never even met physically. They live “second lives” all from their bedrooms in immersive virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Everything about these experiences is totally alien to most parents today.

I and many others have lamented the objective, psychological effects of this radical change in children’s lives. Here, though, I’m concerned with another issue, a much more selfish one.

To what extent will I be able to connect with my children, and them with me? Salinger’s novel spoke equally well to my parents’ generation and mine. We all mourn his passing equally.

I realize that every generation of parents laments how different their children’s worlds are from theirs, but the cultural difference between us parents and our kids today is unprecedented.

I want my children to grow up in a culture that I understand, so that I can maintain some fundamental connection with them. Sadly, I worry that this is becoming less and less possible.

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