If you’re reading this, chances are good you were born in the 20th century. If you weren’t, put this down, you precocious little beast, and go out and play. For the rest of us, the 20th century was the cradle, the nursery, and probably most of the education of our existence. As Herman Raucher once said, “It is our time, and we’ll never leave it.” To us, it’s our life. It’s not history; it’s memory. The great events we witnessed are coupled with our birthdays, divorces, new cars and houses. However, in a couple of hundred years (or maybe a thousand) when people look at our time, they’re going to draw a sharp line between the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re going to separate us like exhibits in a museum. Right now, we exist simultaneously in both centuries, like two pages of a book — totally different, yet intimately touching at every point and completely useless without the other. In the future, however, we are going to be one thing and those precocious little beasts poking away at their iPads are going to be another.
As much as most people would like to deny it, we are the cumulative result of history. There is a direct line from you and me back to the dim reaches of time, when the epic human struggle was merely to stand on our own two feet. For example, if I wanted to be an intellectual smart-ass, I could trace the birth of our world back to shoddy obstetrics in the Imperial court of Prussia in 1859. Or I could research (plagiarize is such a hard word) Paul Johnson and go back even further to a Frenchman’s hemorrhoids at the dawn of the 19th century. My point, of course, is that there is no start to history — only final judgements passed on the results.
Our current 21st century’s i-Generation is a perfect example. These are the kids who are adapting our world to Facebook and Google, one app at a time. They’ve changed Wikipedia from a slightly tawdry secret to a tolerated research tool. They are intent on sharing, not personal experience, but data with the world. In the future, they will be judged in isolation. Nobody will bother looking at the seeds and shallow roots provided for them. Their obsession with consumption rather than creation will be seen as a character flaw – an aberration which was always destined to kill or cure our fat, wheezing planet. Yet, the i-Generation didn’t just appear one day like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, nor is it even fully grown yet. It still depends on Generation Y for its existence.
Generation Y! — those 80’s babies who can’t seem to decide if they are a stand-alone product of the Baby Boom or only just an echo. Constantly harassed about the dangers awaiting them, these are the folks whose abilities have always outshone their underdeveloped egos. They risk little and expect much. Their literature is the graphic novel; their art, the expressive font; and their technological advances are made on the playing fields of virtual reality. Generation Y stands alone — with its devices connected to the planet but they, themselves utterly isolated from it. Not since the Dark Ages have humans been so devoid of contact with the outside world. Generation Y lives and works in a series of separate technological villages, timidly toiling like Copeland’s microserfs, afraid to venture beyond their firewalls. But they, too, did not arrive fully formed like a Botticelli Venus rising from the ocean’s foam. They are the children of Generation X.
Generation X, the first generation of the Age of Entertainment. They showed up just in time to see America leave the Moon, never to return, and George Lucas unleash his Jedi to battle the Death Star. Raised on Sesame Street and Cocoa Puff cartoons, Generation X has never understood why the world doesn’t play nice like its television friends do. Completely overshadowed, Gen X was forgotten and left to fend for itself. As it saw the brave old world bending under the weight of its uber-ego parents, it could only step back in fear of the imminent collapse of power, oil and profit and seek salvation in Spielberg and Scorsese. Still, we must remember Generation X was never abandoned like the solitary child of the goddess Hera, twice tossed from heaven. It was born into the rarified air of the Baby Boom. It cut its teeth on impending disaster, with only discredited institutions and disassembled Gods to comfort it.
And so it goes; back and back, each generation shaped by the wants and fears of the ones preceding it. If history judges the early 21th century harshly, it will be because the i-Generation believes that clicking Like on Facebook can change the world. Yet, it is we, from the 20th century, who taught them that. I-Gen is the product of two generations of constraint and constriction. The Xs and Ys watched the world of their parents and grandparents falter, assailed on all sides by everything from financial ruin to pandemic disease. So they taught their children to be wary, to keep their distance and to “Stay strong.”
John F. Kennedy spoke of his generation (what we call “The Greatest Generation”) as “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” I don’t have many regrets, but I do regret not being able to hear what the i-Generation will eventually say about itself.