Generational shifts and technological changes: some thoughts

I think often about the various analyses that are circulating about ‘Millenials’. According to Pew Research, the group is those born between 1984-97; that makes me a part of the ‘baby boom’ (born between 1946-64; my father’s in the ‘silent generation’, born between 1928-45. Reading the Pew analysis, it’s focused on the USA, and I’ve often taken a deep breath as I think whether the strange social dynamics of that country are really the right basis for assessing groups outside that frame. But, having said that, as all of my children have spent a significant amount of their time living in the USA, some of the analysis may apply. My household has two Millenials on that basis, plus a teenager (so far as I see, yet to be defined as an analytical construct). While I personally don’t share the views of the researchers, the assessments make me think about generational shifts that do seem to have significance. While what interests me is not easily set into an analytical frame, it does focus on how technology shifts how we act and perceive our options. I’m just going to run through a few major technological changes that I recall and see where it leads.

Since, I was born in the mid-1950s, I’ve experienced the spread of several major developments in human activities, all of which have made immense changes in mobility:

  • International air travel: important, in facilitating my rapid migration from the Caribbean to Western Europe, and later facilitating the work I did travelling between England/USA and other countries. My parents, born between 1929-1931 never made any use of air travel before 1961 and only used it a few times, after, including to return the Caribbean on vacation and eventually to emigrate, but also (for my father) to make the ‘reverse triangular journey’ from the Caribbean to west Africa and back. Air travel has also become much cheaper and available to many more places and no longer limited to a wealthy few people or a few major destinations. Distance is much less of a deterrence to travel.
  • International telephone traffic: less important in those early years as a migrant for keeping in touch with those ‘back home’; letters and telegrams did that, if at all. But, such calls were costly, or difficult to make. When I worked in the former USSR, for example, I remember having to ‘book’ time to make calls overseas and then taking my turn in a booth to be connected for my designated time. Visions of operators plugging cables into slots easily came to mind. I recall my parents calling from Jamaica after they remigrated in the mid-1980s and having to dial using an International Call Authorization System (ICAS) code (a 10-digit number that restricted access for long-distance calling). I remember international calls being expensive, prohibitively so I recall when I travelled to Uganda on business in the early 1990s and found that I was facing a several hundred US dollar bill for a few minutes talking to my HQ (all because the country had to reimburse international phone companies for a series of telephone frauds). But, international calling is no longer limited to cables stretched over land or under water, and the advent of cellular technology and the Internet have made calling as easier as hailing someone in the street. Yesterday, I explained to a lady in her 90s how to use WhatsApp; she already had it installed on her mobile phone, but did not really understand how it worked and what could be done with it. Free calling via such applications and Internet/WiFi access now makes distance again a trivial inconvenience.
  • Personal computers and the Internet: access to both has spread rapidly and changed much. I remember the absence of both when I was at university, without which students had to write either by hand, or use typewriters, and print documents on paper, and copy text via carbon, or photocopying, and send them elsewhere by actual mail, or later by electronic means such as a fax. I remember a document (several hundred pages) being sent the whole night and in the morning finding the fax machine had stopped because the phone line had been interrupted). Just in my lifetime, I recall a portable computer that was more the size of airline carry-on rolling bag and having to lug in home many nights to continue working on an important project. Hours spent typing my thesis and correcting mistakes with Snopake or White Out correction fluid, and carrying bulky documents are truly things of the past. I thought I’d arrived when I bought an electric typewriter. I couldn’t conceive then of a document existing in a form that was not solid, but somehow existing ‘in the ether’. Something that could be created and moved and never appear in any form other than visually or even as sound. Yesterday, I explained to the same 90-year old lady how composing documents on the Internet works and how she can ‘carry’ her material around with her just by having access to a table she hopes to get. I showed her how to dictate a document and see her spoken words appear as text on a screen. Her eyes lit up. But, it’s the power of digitization that has made computing and the Internet powerful: information in digital form can be moved more rapidly than ever before and with little concern about its volume. My huge document sent by fax in the 1980s can now go as a digital package in seconds. Money flies around the world in nanoseconds and as mere digital and electronic entries and makes images of people transporting bundles of notes or piles of certificates seem ridiculous. These developments and once sound and images could be digitally packaged, then the world really shrunk.

These late 20th century developments have had bigger impact because of the 19th century developments caused by industrialization and its associated rapid urbanization. The world became a place of mass production and massive communities, which made personal interconnection harder because of the way life became less interpersonal. Fewer people knew how and who affected life’s changes. Digital information allowed that process to be reversed simply by making the sharing of information much simpler.

I tend to not get excited about things like use of social media, as I’ve yet to see many things that are fundamentally different to what existed before, only they tend to be more apparent than before and maybe some more amplified. Social media has created avenues of human interconnection that existed before (eg broadcast messages) but are now much easier to use and faster, which can have familiar downsides with verbal communication, such as misunderstandings because of crosses messages or misinterpretation of tone. Technology that now allies have us to send oral and visual additions to text, enhance the interactions but don’t alter then at their core. Those who prefer to be loud, remain so; those who’re quiet remain so, etc; those who wish to be silent or mere observers, can remain so.

Some platforms allow people to get more influence than they experienced before. Some give the illusion of empowerment.

Some of the concerns about social media reflect that we are presented visibly or audibly with more of our social ills (call that nastiness). I’ve yet to see worse bullying than I knew as a boy when children teased each other, or adults taunted each other and worse. I’ve yet to hear of anything worse than having one’s head put down a toilet and having it flush while struggling and hearing the perpetrators giggle. The public verbal nastiness of the 45th president is perhaps the most widely displayed set of bullying many people see, and it’s interesting not least for the ways that supporters do what enablers do so well–explaining it away, with actions that often amount to ‘victim blaming’ personified. Bullying does not have to go beyond the psychological, but I have yet to see the equivalent on social media of anyone clubbed over the head with a crowbar. What I do see is lots of people who are perhaps naive about what goes on everyday in the world being surprised that these things are now appearing right in front of their eyes our under their noses. That’s not to excuse any actions, merely to give a different context. While I grew up in working class areas of London, I’ve spent my life mixing with middle- and upper-class people. Bullying (including its niche areas, such as racism and sexism) knows no class boundaries.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)