My 11-year-old son, like all 11-year-old sons, thinks his Dad is incredibly, risibly out-of-touch. He mocks me for using words like “video” when I mean “DVD”, for preferring CDs to free downloads, for watching TV on the television instead of on the laptop, and for wearing my shirt with one top button undone when obviously it should be two.
But what the poor boy doesn’t yet realise is that the last laugh will be on me. Whereas it took me three decades to become the embarrassing fuddy-duddy I am now, he and his nine-year-old sister are going to be past their best in less than 10 years. Such is the weird side-effect of our fast-accelerating technology: you’re past it by the time you hit 20.
This phenomenon of the micro-generation gap – where 16 year-olds sneer at 19 year-olds for being oh-so-square, Daddy-O – came to light six months ago, in a widely publicised report written by a teenager on work experience at Morgan Stanley. Teenagers, revealed Matthew Robson (then 15), in a report named How Teenagers Consume Media, use their laptops as radios (streaming music from, say, Last FM so as to avoid adverts and DJ prattle), get round high cinema prices by watching pirated DVDs, prefer Facebook to Bebo, and never use Twitter, which they consider a hobby for old people like Stephen Fry.
The last two points came as an especial surprise to us oldsters, who imagined that teenagers Tweeted at least as regularly as we did, and that Facebook was more of a student-age thing while people of Robson’s age preferred MySpace. But we can hardly be blamed for failing to keep up with each tiny micro-trend: not when a new one seems to turn up every couple of years.
“People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences of technology,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project told The New York Times last week. “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”
I’ve noticed this even in the tiny gap – exactly two years – between my younger children. Girl (9) is totally smitten with her Nintendo DS, as are most of her schoolfriends. Boy (11) considers that particular games console so impossibly uncool he won’t even borrow it. For him the only device worth having is an Apple iTouch, just like all his friends have got. This, I get the impression, has less to do with the joy of playing the games themselves than the matchless pleasure of running up huge and pointless bills downloading new apps from iTunes.
Before Boy and Girl came along I used to get all my techno advice from my stepson, Jim. But at 23, Jim is starting to seem dangerously passé. The other day we were playing on our new joint Christmas present to ourselves – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – on his Xbox, and wondering why the gameplay seemed to end after so few levels. After further inquiry Jim found the answer. “Hey, things have changed,” he said. “Nobody plays games on their own any more. They fight other people. On the internet.”
This is confirmed by research from Pew. Teenagers are much more likely to play online games than are twentysomethings (78 per cent versus 50 per cent), and also more likely to send instant messages (68 per cent versus 59 per cent). Which makes Jim as much a prisoner of his generation as I am of mine. Like so many kids of his era, he takes enormous pride in his ability to write text messages at high speed, because that’s what people born in the mid-Eighties trained themselves to do. When they hit their early teens and got their first mobiles, texts were the affordable alternative to phone calls, as well as the best way of communicating without being overheard by your parents.
For teenagers now, though, texting has been largely superseded by instant messaging – as Stephanie Lipman, a 17-year-old Londoner, explains. “I did text for a while, but instant messaging is so much better – like a constant stream-of-consciousness. You don’t have to bother with ‘Hello. How are you?’ or any of that. You just have this series of conversations with your friends which you can add on to when you’re in the mood.”
As Stephanie says, she just happened to be the right age for the right trend. Like most of her friends she subscribes to BlackBerry Messenger. When she was younger, BlackBerries were things that only businessmen had, but she came of age just in time to catch the tipping point for their transformation into the must-have teen accessory.
And what of the even-younger generations? According to Mizuku Ito, of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, they’ll make less distinction between online friends and real friends, and will be more discerning about what they choose to take from popular culture. And according to Larry Rosen, a California professor, they’ll be better at multi-tasking: his research has shown that 16 to 18 year-olds can perform seven tasks on average in their free time (texting, checking Facebook, watching TV, etc), whereas people in their early 20s can only handle six, while those in their 30s perform about five and a half.
My own prediction, from watching my 9 and my 11 year-old in action, is that kids will give up on conventional television. Boy and Girl now watch all their programmes via the internet on laptops, so that they can see exactly what they want when they want: Girl goes for Horrible Histories or cookery programmes on BBC iPlayer; Boy downloads the latest episodes of The Simpsons from the US. No one showed them how to do this, and they’re not especially techno-minded: they just intuited it in that scary way children do.
Will they all abandon printed books and start reading everything on Kindle? Or will it be the next micro-generation that does that? And will there be some kind of retro backlash where, in a statement of difference, kids start gravitating back to books and old-fashioned texting, or even vinyl LPs for their superior, warm, analogue sound?
The truth is we just don’t know, and anyone who claims otherwise is talking nonsense. As The Spectator‘s techno guru Rory Sutherland, aka Wiki Man, points out, there’s not even consistency among age groups around the world. “For example, US kids were much earlier adopters of instant messaging than British kids, except in odd pockets like Cleveland, Ohio – where texting was huge. And in Japan eBay isn’t big, but Yahoo is colossal. And in Poland, they don’t Tweet, they Gadu Gadu, while in India and Brazil they prefer Orkut to Facebook.”
All we can say with confidence about future technologies is that they’re not going to be the disaster we Luddite oldies instinctively fear. (Remember the fuss about how texting was going to wipe out a generation’s literacy, thanks to abbreviations like gr8? These were largely an urban myth: hardly anyone used them, and those who did were shown by research to be children with the higher reading ages.) And that, in another couple of years, we’re going to find ourselves more passé than we could ever have imagined.