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April 1, 2009
Dear young people: My generation is cooler than yours
By Christopher Stefanick
It’s usually assumed that the younger generation is “cooler” than the older. In the brief history of “cool,” that’s generally been true. Not so any longer. Teens today are so surrounded by modern conveniences and high-tech knick-knacks that they’re a step removed from reality, and that fails to meet an essential criterion for “cool” by any definition of the word. But there’s reason to believe that tough times in the forecast might bring in a new “cool front.”
I’m a proud member of Generation Atari. There was something more “raw” and simple about life when I was a kid. My youth straddled two historic eras. Born at the tail-end of Generation X, I experienced remnants of the Old World first-hand, and I saw the digital age rush in like a tidal wave with its many blessings and weaknesses.
While young people today are more globally connected thanks to the Internet and cell phones, we were more immediately connected with the people right in front of us. Many young people respond with a blank stare when greeted with a “hello,” but their eyes light up when their cell phones notify them of a text. Unlike junior-highers of today, I learned to converse with people in full sentences by spending inordinate amounts of time playing and then talking on the phone after school. We didn’t text message 500 times per day because we didn’t have cell phones. And when your girlfriend wanted to dump you she couldn’t send an e-mail or a text, she had to tell you why she just didn’t like you. (Jodi Pukl! Why!?!?!)
There was a greater connection to everything from imagination, to homework, to food. When we had a research paper due we had to go to the library and look through card catalogues to find books. Want dinner? You have to cook it. Want popcorn? You have to stand over the stove and watch it pop (but make sure it’s done before that movie comes on TV because there’s no pausing it!). I remember the days before video games with such amazing graphics that they can suck your brain away from reality for endless hours. Before that we used our imaginations and played with toys until mom called us home for dinner. As I got older, when we wanted to express our teenage angst we learned to play instruments and formed garage bands. Youth today play “Guitar Hero” on Xbox, which, contrary to popular belief, requires zero musical skill.
I saw one modern convenience introduced after another, each one quickly becoming a necessity. I can’t imagine life without them now. But somehow life was simpler and purer when I was a kid.
I got to see the last remnants of the Old World slipping away. I remember watching Slovak women in babushkas cooking all the food for my cousin’s wedding. Catering? For shame! I somehow knew that I’d never see anything like that again, and I never have. And when I grew up the world wasn’t as homogeneous as it is today. There was no European Union. You could still dream of visiting the Old World because it was still there. I remember hearing stories of an Ireland where everyone had a brogue, and horse-drawn wagons carried crops down dirt roads, and you’d be woken up to the sound of bagpipes in the countryside.
My own parents still represent the tail-end of the Old World. You can’t enter my house in New Jersey without my mom making you tea as her Irish ancestors have done for 1,000 years. And introspective questions like, “Do I like my job?” never seemed to enter my dad’s mind. If it fed his family that was good enough for him. And extravagant vacations … what are those?
They grew up in a world that knew the immediate connection of hard work and money. It was a world of immigrants that had a firm sense of community, born out of necessity for help from the people around you. It wasn’t marked by entitlement, and entitlement’s firstborn “child”—credit debt.
If President Obama’s inaugural speech is right, we’re going to see some return of Old World virtues thanks to our current global financial crisis. The younger generation might see a renewed understanding of the value of a dollar, of tight communities that know what it means to pull together, and a loss of some of the conveniences that bring someone across the world into our living rooms with a Webcam, while turning the people in our living rooms into phantoms. If it does, the young generation will be cooler than mine, but until then …I’m still the cool one.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Denver Archdiocese. Visit chris-stefanick.com.