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Today a friend and I were talking on the phone, and she mentioned something that I thought was interesting. This friend was born in 1980, and I was born in 1979. we are both undergraduates in college, although we are getting close to an age where we are no longer "college age". We were talking about how we felt going to school with people a few years younger than us. She mentioned that quite apart from the normal differences of associating with people four or five years younger then her, there was a specific cultural difference, almost a generation gap, between herself and people sometimes just a year below her.

We talked about this, and we found that there is a generation gap between people who entered junior high around 1992 or 1993, as opposed to those who entered junior high in 1994 or 1995. The entire way of viewing popular culture between me and her, and people two years younger than us, is different. The reason for this is possibly that in the early 1990s, as cliche as it sounds now, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were called alternative and actually were. People who came of age then and embaced "alternative" culture saw of themselves as "a little group", and saw the mainstream culture as in opposition to them. However, fairly quickly, as early as 1994, mainstream culture begin to absorb "alternative culture". I remember how shocked I was to see blond haired, soccer girls wearing Pulp Fiction t-shirts in 1994. Soon, music and fashion that had once been polarized between "alternative" and "mainstream" were fused together. Wearing a nose ring, for example, which had once been an "anti-fashion" statement had become yet another fashion statement. Countercultural attitudes, instead of being opposed to the mainstream, were seen as being the height of "coolness". While nose rings and choices of musical styles may seem quite trivial, the later ramifications of a youth culture that didn't understand the difference between being "popular" and "cool" are still being felt.

Note, however, that this is just the view of someone who was going to an alternative private school in the early 90s in Portland, OR. This 3 year generation gap may not be a factor in other areas where the mercurial nature of youth culture took a different road.

I'm inclined to agree with Glowing Fish, and have even long harbored a theory about this mysterious generation gap. I don't think it's geography- I grew up in Kentucky, my girlfriend in California, and we both came to the same conclusion: there is a serious generational gap of some sort between folks born about 1981-1976, and those born just a few years later. I was born in 1980. Folks up to about four years older than me seem to remember most of the same things that I do about growing up- TV, politics, and general cultural detritus. Go three years younger than me, on the other hand- we don't know eachother's music, we remember different things about the world and technology. Having at some point isolated a generation gap between myself and my friends on one hand, and all my friends little siblings, on the other, I began to wonder what the difference really was. I came up with a couple things; please keep in mind that I'm not talking about what people were alive for, but rather about the things that most shaped the way that they grew up- the way the world was during those critical junior high years when we start to become much more aware of the world around us. In no particular order:

  1. Communism. People born after 1982 or so can't really remember what the world was like when there was a U.S.S.R, when Germany was split, or when we were all watching Tienamen Square wondering what the hell was going to happen. Smack in the middle of junior high, the U.S.S.R went from being a big, giant reddish pink splash across one whole side of the globe to being a whole bunch of irritating little names ending in '-stan' that we had to remember and place on a map on quizzes. Some of the most vivid memories I have from my adolescence is watching people climbing the Berlin Wall, wielding sledge hammers and shouting 'All are Free, all are Free!'. I didn't entirely know what it meant, and certainly was a great deal in the dark about the historic background to it. Nonetheless, I was given a thorough impression that something Really Big had just happened, and that the world was fundamentally changed. I remember watching a Chinese guy stare down a tank, and remember journalists being bundled out of the Square when the crackdown came.

    So what the hell does this really matter? Well, for one, it means that some of the most stirring memories of people born from the end of the '70's until the early '80's are nothing but archival footage to folks just a few years below them. And as much as we post-modernize the Cold War, and talk at length in college classes about how the threat was never as real as we thought it was, there was a different feel to the world when the U.S.S.R went down. Suddenly, the unyielding enemy that had dominated the fears of the scholars of war for nearly fifty years had passed into a puff of smoke. It's taken ten years for most of the world to figure out what life in the post-Cold War era means for security and defense, international politics, and the way we think about the world. You can't tell me that doesn't have some effect on the way people think.

  2. Computers.
  3. Folks born after the early 80's, those in the middle class and above, at least, don't remember the days before a 486 on every desk. They don't remember when the Internet was a phenomenon that only nerds cared about. They don't remember when people had CLI only MS-DOS on their computers. My girlfriends younger sister was confused when we told her that we hadn't used the Internet to register for the SAT when we were in high school. Mail? How primitive. Most of the people I associate with weren't online until we were in college. Kids of the mid eighties can't recall a time when mom, dad, school, businesses, and grandma didn't all have significant network capabilities. They've never made mix tapes for their friends and SO's- they burn CD's. It's changed the way people socialize, and the way they think about communication. It's a big deal.
  4. Economics. Black Monday. Stagflation. Reaganomics. Life before the .com boom. Folks born before '81 or so remember their parents worrying about their jobs, remember layoffs and stock market crashes. People born after generally remember smoother sailing- the era from 'it's the economy, stupid' through the .com crash. The era from late 2000 to the present day is their first taste of what life is life when the economy is a lot less than rosy. Those just a little older are experiencing it in the job market for the first time, but are also remembering the effect the economy had on their parents in years past.

These are, of course, generalizations. There are folks who were alive smack dab in the middle of the breakdown of Communism who were more profoundly affected by the '00 World Series. Some people born after the threshold I've put at '81-'82 feel themselves to have more in common with people older, rather than younger, than they are. Some people born in '78 think everyone born in the '80's is weird. But it is a general impression that I've seen repeated by enough people my own age that it seems worth paying attention to. And certainly, there have been some changes in the world that could produce such a gap; for most people, when their brain 'switches on' sometime between 10 and 15, what's going on around them right then affects them, and shapes their experiences. That three year gap was time enough for the world to change quite a bit- and it's reflected in the different experiences of the people on either side of it.


P.S: Glowing Fish correctly points out to me that all of this observation is centered on the U.S- obviously, while some of the above applies to other regions of the world, certainly not all of it. I certainly don't know enough people from other countries to feel qualified to analyze their generation gaps. At least one helpful noder, however, has mentioned seeing the same thing in England and a few other spots in Western Europe that they're familiar with. I'd love to know what it's like for folks who grew up in former Soviet republics.

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