Culture Clash

Solving for Y

July 22, 2010

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Solving for Y

The first time we spoke she walked past me, pointed at my feet without breaking her stride, and sternly said, “Good shoes.” By the time I thought of something to say back she was on the other side of the building. It’d be weeks later before we would first make eye contact. Was I, the lowly magazine assistant, allowed to say things to her? I had no idea, but I was desperate to find out.

I went into her office with a stack of photocopies she didn’t need and took a look at her watch. It was a Must de Cartier Vermeil Tank with a manila yellow face and worn leather band akin to what Jackie Kennedy sported during the Camelot years. I had some knowledge of wrist wear and took advantage of the opening. “Is your watch vintage!?” I rabidly asked in a half-mumble, half-shout. What an exceptionally in-the-know reference, she’s going to love me for this, I thought. Next I’ll ask her if she scored it on eBay or, better, at the iconic LA re-sale shop Decades. I’m a genius!

“Technically, yes, it is vintage, I’ve had it since I was 13.” My boss sauntered off in skyscraper heels and a Marni dress chuckling at both the idea that she was “vintage” and how preposterous it must have seemed for me.

That was the moment I realized I was part of Generation Y.

On a weekly basis I’d overhear hundreds of references coming from her—and others in my office—that would continually fly over my head. If ever given the option, which was a rarity, I either pretended to understand them or nodded my head, praying no one would ask me any follow-up questions.

Still, as time went on I adapted. I became expert at Wikipedia-ing on the fly. As she and other Gen X-ers hovered in the hall talking about the 2005 Bauhaus Resurrection Tour, I, with one eye and both hands on my computer casually piped in with, “Yeah, love their Ziggy Stardust cover.”

It was risky and scary, but, it kind of worked.

Seemed like all I had to do was study and I could make-up for lost time. For due-diligence after office hours, I YouTubed films like Metropolitan, Heathers, and About Last Night; downloaded NWA, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran hits; googled images of Benatton rugby shirts and Tretorn shoes; and started collecting albums on vinyl. I felt like I was cheating, knowing Gen X didn’t have the same luxury of being key strokes away from the cultural-know or rare-used records for that matter, but the ethics of the equation didn’t bother me. I was ready to contend.

“My generation’s problems were much deeper than the fact that we grew up listening to Chumbawamba and Third Eye Blind. Yes, worse than that, we were the first generation to grow up with the Internet. There’s never an urgency or hunger to understand something because access is never ever fleeting. “


Just when I was feeling up to speed with the Gen X-ers in the office, another one of my bosses hit me with, “I’m thinking of getting my hair cut like Errol Flynn, what do you think?”

“Errol Flynn?” Who the hell was he? Was he the gay guy from Reality Bites? I googled him in an angry fury, feeling like a teacher had unfairly quizzed me on something that wasn’t on the study guide. The Errol Flynn bit was not a blip. It became clear to me these Gen X-ers not only had a handle on their own generation, but they could speak for hours about 1970s samurai films, Ian Fleming novels, Japanese citruses, arcane Catholic theology, The Thin Man, and Belgian fashion designers with the casual meter I expected people to talk about an episode of Friends.

I realized then that my generation’s problems were much deeper than the fact that we grew up listening to Chumbawamba and Third Eye Blind. Yes, worse than that, we were the first generation to grow up with the Internet. For almost as long as we can remember there’s been free and fast access to everything we’ve wanted to know about anything. With all that info right there, why would we look into it? It certainly wasn’t going anywhere. There’s never an urgency or hunger to understand something because access is never ever fleeting. And, as a result, there is something vastly different about how Gen X and Gen Y experience culture.

Gen X-ers rode their bikes to the local music shop, paid cash for an album (album being a key signifier) and brought it home and listened to it in their room, over and over. We click iTunes, search for a single song, export it to our iPods and iPhones and listen to it in a random sequence with thousands of other singles. Just think of all the B-sides we’re missing because we have the technology that affords us to.  The mathematical analogy would be how graphing calculators made algebra class a breeze for us. We knew how to solve equations by pressing the right buttons on our graphing calculators, but I can guarantee that knowledge has flown out of most of our ears. Our predecessors who were forced to solve those same equations on a slide rule not only endured exponential frustration and learned the true meaning of patience (something Gen Y has a big big problem with), but those slide rule sons of guns sure know their math inside and out, they had no choice.

Marketing experts agree that Gen Y is satisfied with understanding things in their shallowest form and have a tendency to multi-task to a fault. Facebook status updates and Tweets informing others of their going-ons being the perfect examples—a benign status update as simple as “Kenneth Noland at The Guggenheim rocks!” really implies “I’m looking at art, and clearly also on my mobile Facebook app!” How can this Gen Y status updater be expected to soak in the painter’s shift from abstract expressionism to plain ol’ minimalism with one eye on their phone and half their brain working on constructing a 140 character or less summary of how they feel about it, let alone have the capacity to actually enjoy the experience? 140 characters or less!? No Gen X-er I know would dream of giving something such little thought. They thrive on a thorough, deep understanding of culture that they dissect and mull over with care. For us, it’s “I need to digest this into a headline-length thought ASAP so I can reply to the three G-Chats I have open right now.”

So even for those of us Gen Y-ers who have been freakishly diligent on their cultural homework over the past five years, even if it is mostly (ok, solely) in an attempt to avoid embarrassment, we’ll never be able to go toe-to-toe with Gen X. Not only do they have a decade or so on us, they’ve also had the huge cultural advantage of not growing up with the Internet.

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