Social scientists (and critics) are forever trying to decipher a generational fulcrum that transcends the year one was born. What is today’s quick and easy litmus test to discern wherein lies your allegiance? A dozen years ago email was the magic crystal. Those who preferred it to telephone calls were clearly in the “What’s an answering machine?” camp. How one experiences media is a favorite litmus of seers today. Still watching television on a television? It might be time to up your iron and ginkoba. Still reading printed materials? Have you updated your long-term care policy lately?
The sticking point with some of these formulas is that they tend to rely too much on new technology. While it’s true that in broad terms, younger people are more intrigued/gullible and will adopt any and everything new, it is also true that some older people will do the same. There are younger people (we’ll call them hipsters) who actually eschew technology and/or gadgets. They choose to demonstrate their rugged individualism by roughing it with LPs, land lines, a pocket full of quarters and a mental map of pay phones. There are people well past their retirement age who are wickedly plugged in. Some of these seniors use technology to literally and figuratively connect with their grandchildren (“hey if I buy something new, Braydon/Aiden/Jayden will come over and set it up.”) Other older tech adopters actually like technology and enjoy staying current.
What might be a more useful tipping point is that of consumption habit. Without any data whatsoever, and armed only with a dark sinking sense of the world leaving me behind, I posit that generation Y and incoming Zs, view major consumer goods as disposable. There was a time when purchasing a television (that thing that older people use to watch programs) was a major event. They were expensive and the size of a credenza. They got smaller but remained pricey for quite some time. A 30-inch color television set was a lavish retirement or 35th anniversary gift. If something went awry with the set a repairman could be summoned to the house. When is the last time you saw a television repair shop? Was it somewhere near a pay phone? People not only toss a set into the trash when it falls ill, but toss perfectly healthy sets when it’s time to “upgrade.” As televisions get smaller, flatter and then bigger again, people buy them. The programs haven’t changed, but we feel more accomplished watching it on a brand-new device. Now, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but you’d be hard pressed to find people of a certain age tossing out perfectly good appliances. Generation X and boomers may adopt new technology, but they don’t necessarily toss the old stuff out. (Is it all that surprising that older people see the worth in older things?) Don’t believe me? Let’s take a virtual road trip to Florida. Fear not, I have a cooler of whole foods and an iPod set on shuffle. We’ll be fine. Let’s pull into a gated retirement community shall we? Now surely there are no discarded t.v.s dotting the sidewalks. And good thing too, can you imagine the hazard to pedestrians and golf cart drivers? After visiting many of these communities you will see that…Oops, what’s that?! A rather new looking set with a friendly sign stating; “perfectly good set. my son the big guy with the fancy banking job bought me a new set. if you can show me how the hell to turn it on, this perfectly good set that I liked very much is yours for free.”
Things aren’t made as well as they once were. No one would argue that. But cars really should last more than ten years, no? Furniture (unless it came with a plate of swedish meatballs) should last between twenty years and forever. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at a landfill, appliances do in fact last longer than their style or color fashion. However there are generations without any first hand knowledge of a depression, military draft or odd and even days at the gas station, whose orientation to big ticket items is that of disposability. Capitalism, consumerism, it’s what makes the world go round. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something telling about generations who covet the newest iPod simply because it’s new. To put it into generation X terms; Do you remember how you clutched that hard won walkman with all your might? Do you remember the months of babysitting, lawn mowing or burger slinging that bought you that little box? How much birthday/christmas/graduation pleading led to that cherished high tech gadget? You kept that sucker past the ill-fated discman didn’t you? There is no shame in that, but for the record you’re now probably too old to take up wakeboarding; says the woman who ain’t too proud to tweet she prefers David Cassidy to Justin Bieber.