Why Coming of Age in the 90s Means Everything for Tomorrow
In Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, there’s an eerie scene between the protagonist and his wife’s friends who, like his wife, are incredibly ignorant to their surroundings and to their sense of self. They are completely swept up in their society of tech consumption and purposeless living. Perhaps it could go without saying that this eerie feeling stems from the fact that this scene sounds all too on-point with today’s society–a reluctant validation for Bradbury’s prophetic fiction.
After unplugging the “parlor walls” (televisions that span the length of three living room—or parlor–walls, broadcasting endless streams of pointless shows and superficial commercials), Guy Montag corners his wife’s two friends into an actual discussion on matters that most readers would find important, precious even. He starts by inquiring about the women’s children. One lady, Mrs. Phelps, reminds Guy that she doesn’t have–and would never care to have–any children. Then, Mrs. Bowles chimes in with a pathetic defense on the worth of having children:
“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlor’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes: stuff laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs. Bowles tittered. (p. 96)
“…You heave them into the ‘parlor’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes: stuff laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs. Bowles tittered.
Bradbury’s 1950s concerns with television resonate with today’s concerns regarding smartphones, tablets, and overall screen time. But his prediction falls somewhat short in one substantial way. Television was mesmerizing, but it wasn’t that convenient. You couldn’t put it in your pocket or interact with it. But now we can. What does this kind of technology do to a society? What does it do to our values? What does it do to our experiences? What do we gain? What do we lose? And when do we know we’ve lost it?
Television was mesmerizing, but it wasn’t that convenient. You couldn’t put it in your pocket or interact with it. But now we can.
Millennials Know the Difference, But Do They Remember?
If you were born in the 80s, your childhood was marked by 80s and 90s culture. You’re considered the older millennials–and, perhaps, the wiser compared to that of your younger millennial siblings (those born in the early to mid 90s). We use this term wiser under the confines of what the human experience–more importantly, the coming of age experience–was like before the internet took off and before the iPhone existed. This is no exaggeration: older millennials are the last torch-bearers of what is now an obsolete experience. And if those millennials–now, many of which are parents–know what that truly means in relation to today’s world, there is wisdom in that.
This is no exaggeration: older millennials are the last torch-bearers of what is now an obsolete experience.
Does any of this sound familiar when you think of your childhood?
Sitting outside on a summer night with only a flashlight and a paper map of the sky. Looking for constellations. Alone.
Building a treehouse with hammers and nails and scrap wood. No parental supervision. No YouTube video tutorials. (And no posting a picture of it on social media in hopes of receiving loads of fleeting praise.)
Listening to music on your Walkman. And that music was on a cassette tape that you purchased at the store. No, not through the iTunes store. A brick-and-mortar store your parents drove you to after you saved up enough money to buy that cassette. You’d come home, pop the cassette into your Walkman and listen through the first few songs you didn’t know just to get to that one catchy song you first heard on the radio or MTV or The Box.
You’d come home, pop the cassette into your Walkman and listen through the first few songs you didn’t know just to get to that one catchy song you first heard on the radio or MTV or The Box.
Waking up in the morning to the sound of birds. And that’s all you could do while you lay there. Listen to the birds. There was no phone to check. No text messages. No social media posts. Just the birds. Just the present. Just you and yourself.
Waiting all week for a new episode of your favorite television show to come on. No Netflix. No Hulu. Maybe not even a second television in the house. If you missed it— well, you missed it.
Waiting for your mom to come pick you up from school with nothing to do but stare at your feet, or other people, or the trees, or your homework. No frantic ETA text messages. Maybe there was one phone call. On a landline.
Discovering something in your garage or basement or attic that transformed your sense of self. And why were you in your garage that long? Or your basement or attic? Because you were bored and didn’t have a smartphone to stop your boredom from tapping into something truly amazing.
Now we know millennials have gotten a lot of flack over the years as they’ve entered the working world with their apparent sense of entitlement and odd tech-driven social habits, but when you really think about it, they went through a rather schizophrenic coming of age experience.
…but when you really think about it, they went through a rather schizophrenic coming of age experience.
The older millennials were the last to experience bits of true independence, self-reliance, patience, and solitude. They’re the only ones to come of age both before and after the internet became popular (circa 1995). They learned to socialize with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) only after years of simply going outside and knocking on their friends’ door with social inquiries. They went from watching commercials for Encyclopedia Brittanica (like the actual hard copies of such books) to, just a few years later, popping the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-ROM into their family household desktop computer.
They learned to socialize with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) only after years of simply going outside and knocking on their friends’ door with social inquiries.
And then the internet–albeit dial-up–entered their homes and schools. Flip phones became a hot commodity by high school. Google became their college tutor. And by the time they graduated college, the iPhone and social media platforms took hold of the world (and our back pockets). Who needs all that patience when everything now moves faster? Who needs self-reliance when you have search engines and GPS? Smartphones have become an oxymoronic pre-requisite for independence. And solitude? Facebook friends and text messages buried that concept real quick. All of this innovation and progress in technology swept millennials off their feet before they could realize what else had been swept away by the digital currents.
Who needs self-reliance when you have search engines? Smartphones became an oxymoronic pre-requisite for independence.
For the first ten years or so of their life there was no internet. Many of them didn’t even own a cell phone until high school. So, really, the first 15 years or so of their life was where they cultivated those aforementioned qualities and experiences of independence, self-reliance, patience, and solitude. And the next 15 years? Its complete undoing. They’ve got the roots of one tree but the branches of another.
Many millennials may have forgotten what it was like to be independent from technology. They may have forgotten that there was a time in their life when they were impressively self-reliant. They may have forgotten how much patience they used to have and how powerful and peaceful solitude could be.
They’ve got the roots of one tree but the branches of another.
If we want to restore this type of human experience, then older millennials must remember their past–especially those who are parents. Knowingly or not, they are the last generation who can pass down such wisdom. To avoid television altogether, to avoid smartphones and tablets today would be unrealistic. No one should be asking millennials to chop off their branches; but they must remember their roots.
In the long run, as Bradbury eerily pointed out so long ago, forgetting our roots doesn’t bode well for society.
- For millennials: What are some memories you have as a child before your family owned a computer, or before you owned a cell phone? What do you notice about younger generations? What do you notice about yourself?
- For pre-millennials: How did technology influence your coming-of-age experience? What do you notice about younger generations? What do you notice about yourself?
- For post-millennials: What kind of person do you imagine you would be if you didn’t own a smartphone? How did (or do) your parents handle technology with you? How does technology help or hinder your relationships with friends and family? What do you notice about older generations and/or younger family members?
- Parents of all ages: What is (or was) the biggest challenge in parenting your children? What role (if any) did (does) technology play in your parenting experience? Did (or do) you ever let your children be bored?
Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Ray Books.