Generation which?

Where you stand on the tech time-line will position you as a Christian, and as a pastor, and will have an influence on what your church assumes or is surprised about.

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I’m deliberately using a fair amount of first-person stories in these posts, and I’ll be doing more as we go through. You need to know that I’ve grown up with technology change, adapted and adopted along the way, and generally lean towards being an early adopter. I’m not thinking about the challenges we are facing for the first time, or even the third. That might reassure you, or it might warn you that I’m likely to be more friendly to tech than you might be.

But the main reason I’m telling the stories is to position myself on a timeline, for your benefit. It’s been said that if you can’t remember something directly, it didn’t change you. You just assume it. I don’t remember Kennedy’s assassination, for instance, or the assassination of Martin Luther King. I know about them, of course, and they have helped shape my sense of place in history, but I never experienced the visceral shock that my elders did. On the other hand, I do remember the people with pickaxes standing on the Berlin Wall, Mandela’s release, 9/11, and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Each time we thought, ‘This changes things.’

Where you stand on the time-line will position you, too, as a pastor, and will have an influence on what your church assumes or is surprised about in technology. Do you remember the Millennium bug? Steve Jobs launching the iPhone? Did you have to ask what machine Peter Quill danced to? This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia; it’s trying to help you to identify yourself, and your likely reactions to the opportunities and challenges we’re trying to work through.

Here’s a rough, quick timeline, and the usual terms used. I’ve kept this narrow, because we’re only really interested in the developing relationships to technology.

Boomers

The ‘Boomers’ were the first generation with that kind of a nickname. Born after the second World War, between say 1946 and 1964, the babies in that ‘boom’ produced a generation of increasingly affluent, socially flexible teenagers. It’s not hard to find studies about them and their influence, and in many ways it is the work on them that has made it possible to think about writing about successive generations too. There’s a good case to be made that the 1960’s was the most significant decade since that War, and we are still living with the aspirations and blunders of that time.

Two contrarian traits mark their continuing influence. First, they are technologically positive. That is, growing up post-war, they wanted to see the world an increasingly better place, and saw shiny technology as the solution to that. Even the threat of nuclear annihilation was answered by a race to better weaponry as the answer. Second, though, they are the generation which grew through the social disruptions of the 60’s. To caricature, the world was seen through the lens of Woodstock, social drug use and easy sex. The world relaxed for them. It chilled.

Those traits can fight. Technological positivity can lead to a hard corporate culture, of the kind often characterised in the Wall Street of the 80’s. Chill and you drop out. But when they marry, you have the early days of computer creation, called the ‘Homebrew Computer Club’,[1] hobbyists, accused of stealing software by Bill Gates,[2] with Jobs accused of stealing intellectual property, like the mouse or the desktop,[3] even flying a pirate flag over their offices.[4] And if that’s the story of early Apple, consider the story of the early web, and the optimism over open-source software, and the sharing of information and knowledge, and even Google’s famous unofficial motto, ‘Don’t be evil’.

If that sounds more Mac than PC, more Apple than Microsoft, you’re right. This is simply an observation: Apple’s famous, funny adverts comparing two characters ‘Mac’ and ‘PC’, one in jeans, t-shirt and longer hair (aka ‘Steve Jobs’), the other suited and corporate (aka, ‘Bill Gates’) achieved several things simultaneously, tapping into a perception but also several realities. The intended perception was that Apple products were used by ‘cool creatives’, PCs by ‘stuffy companies’ like IBM, or Microsoft. It’s only a perception because – ask any geek – what goes on inside the box is pretty much the same. So this was clever positioning. On the other hand, this is not just about the aspiring customer: Jobs actually had been the dirty, smelly, barefoot hippy, and Gates is still the nice buttoned-down nerd. Jobs was the pirate, and Gates was the policeman. What’s more, the cultural narrative – up to today – has been to favour the pirate over the policeman, the 60s over the 80s, the creative over the corporate. It’s a narrative that still rings true, at least for me and many others at the checkout: PCs do corporate, Apple does corporate and creative.

As the cultural wave from the 60s continues to roll, Apple seem much better positioned to surf it. Remember, this is not an ad-break, but an observation: Apple has become a hugely successful company both by telling the culture a narrative it wants to hear, and by being able to do so about itself, with considerable authenticity. Apple, as a cultural artefact, is worth thinking about.

Gen X 1965-80

Pity the generation that followed the Boomers. They could never be as cool, because the costs of the drug use, the sexual liberty, were too high. Even their music pales by comparison. But they gained their identity from a 1991 novel by Douglas Coupland, Generation X.[5]

But they are important, precisely because they stop the sense of progress. The anger against the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Kennedy and King, was replaced by wider economic uncertainty, and so Gen Xers knuckled down to work.

Gen X grew up with tech alongside them, and were the first crop to know early computers in their bedrooms, and calculators in their schoolbags. One common bond between them is the strong memory of the ’scree-waw’ sound of a modem.

Gen Y or millennials 1981-near 2000

Having labelled one generation ‘X’ (and there are any number of stories about what ’X’ meant), it was inevitable, if lazy, that the next cohort should be labelled ‘Generation Y’. Much more tech savvy than their predecessors, because they had earlier access to better, cheaper machines, they started to wear that badge too: sometimes called N(for ‘Net’)-Gen, or D(for ‘Digital’)-Gen, the one that stuck was that they are ‘digital natives’. They belong in the digital world. [6]

Gen Z born from mid 90s – early 2000s

As we can see, there’s no precision about years in these scheme, because it’s much more about shared experiences. Gen Z are the ones now emerging into adulthood, who have always known high speed digital access, and treat it as standard. Before this, there was a science fiction aspect to dreams about what computers could do. We could imagine one that could speak, like H.A.L in 2001, A Space Odyssey, but the reality lagged. Gen Z, though, know Siri and Alexa, and talk to their machines. ‘Hey, Siri – open the pod bay doors.’ Isn’t that normal? 

iGen 2005-current

And the latest crop of humans have found their label before they leave school. The defining object in the label is the mobile phone, and the defining content is social media. 

To process..

Where do you position yourself on the timeline? And how does that define your attitude towards tech? Are you an early adopter? Do you notice tech changes, or are they hidden from you? 

This is an adapted excerpt from @church: is online, off limits?

UK readers, now available on a Kindle near you!

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[1] Walter Issacson Steve Jobs (London: Little, Brown, 2011), 62.

[2]For the wonderfully angry letter, see http://www.digibarn.com/collections/newsletters/homebrew/V2_01/homebrew_V2_01_p2.jpg

[3] Isaacson, 94-7.

[4] Isaacson, 144.

[5] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus, 1991).

[6] https://marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.)

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