By Juan Ruiz
Illustration by Celeste Samaratunga
What is it that makes us different? A lot has been studied, particularly in the earlier part of the new millennium, of the inherent similarities between human beings. While there have been, and most likely will continue to be, numerous discussions and assertions about physical or cultural distinctions, whether they are significant or less so, it feels like the differences between individuals have become less salient than before. If this is the case currently, it is up for debate. We will have to wait and see if the social movements of the day work towards highlighting differences or minimize them in a sociopolitical sense. However, my main interest lies in the question: has any such approach been used in a generational sense? Are generations looked at in the ways that they are similar, just as much as in the way they differ?
Because difference is all we talk about. At least it appears that way. Countless articles have been written about millennials “killing” a certain brand, activity or technology.12 Adults are quick to judge younger generations for their seemingly outrageous behavior, despite the signs pointing to it occurring less and less (3). As British journalist James “Archie” Bland puts it, the phrase “the youth of today” has an inherently negative connotation, and the saying “back in my day” has become such a cliché and “meme-fied” to such an extent that any sincere use is met with ridicule. But where does this sentiment come from, exactly?
It is hard to pinpoint where the specific phrases came from, and it seems like they have been around forever. While writing this piece, a particular quote came up, rather interestingly: “[young people are] passionately in love with pleasure and violent games, easily duped.”4 While certainly more pompous, it is not too different from something my mother may say, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear similar stories from others. After all, politicians have recently sought to “resurrect” the spirit of lawyer Jack Thompson when arguing that video games often cause violence (5). Similarly, in 1871, the Sunday Magazine published the lines, “we think we are too busy for […] old-fashioned correspondence. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a talk over a real sheet of paper,” (6) something that could be easily be about texting and instant messaging today. So, it seems that the notion of “kids these days” has been around for a long while, even longer than most of us may have thought. George Orwell even commented on it, saying, “every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it” (7). In fact, this phenomenon is so prevalent that it has a specific name: Juvenoia.
My introduction to this concept came from Michael Stevens, an educational YouTuber who runs the channel “Vsauce” and hosts the show “Mind Field.” His video on the subject served as one of the main inspirations for this piece. Stevens describes Juvenoia as an exaggerated fear about the factors that influence younger generations (8). The video also mentions how this phenomenon came up naturally; parents, having been successful in reproducing, have an inherent interest in safeguarding their children and see things that they did not experience in their own upbringing as potentially worrisome. Nostalgia also plays a part in this, as people tend to have a selective memory about the past. When the attitudes and tastes of the youth appear to differ from, or outright question, those of the “mainstream generation,” Juvenoia becomes more salient.
A good way to look at this is to bring back the example of “millennials” killing brands earlier generations once held dear. The channel PolyMatter has a very interesting YouTube video on the subject. The video, called “Why Costco is cheaper than Amazon,” mentioned the so-called “retail apocalypse,” the apparent collapse of major retail stores over the last decade. The fact that once-massive companies, such as Sears or Toys R Us, have closed hundreds or thousands of stores, if not outright filing for bankruptcy, is played up as a sort of crisis—one that is blamed on Amazon as much as it is on impatient, anxious millennials. However, the video asserts that this is an oversimplified view. The retail companies mentioned (JC Penny, RadioShack, and Payless, in addition to Sears and Toys R Us) have something in common: “they suck.” Sears, the video claims, “tried to do everything” and ultimately did “everything terribly.” In the case of JC Penny, they eventually forgot about their core audience. Lastly, Toys R Us “thought the Internet was a fad” and failed to establish itself in the digital marketplace, let alone compete, until it was too late. The most poignant line—and the biggest reason why I decided to include this bit—was that “millennials didn’t kill your business, they stopped putting up with its 18th century practices" (9). This statement, and its additional evidence are important for looking at generational assumptions. Usually, the aforementioned idea of the propensity of younger generations to “kill” something is sort of abstract, at least in the sense that it is almost never explored in detail. It is spoken of in the matter-of-fact tone that many of us have learned to hate. If anything, situations like the “retail apocalypse” are being framed around millennials being less appreciative and unwilling to partake in traditions. The truth is that things are never that simple. As PolyMatter showed, there are a number of reasons for particular companies or entire industries suffering as Millennials and Generation Z come of age, and some of them, plainly, include just being bad and inefficient. If this is the case, why is there an apparent need to outright blame millennials for this decline? After all, how different is the situation of JC Penny or RadioShack to that of brands such as Montgomery Ward or Pan Am in the past?
Well, as with many of the examples mentioned in this piece, this likely stems from growing up in different circumstances. For many Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, grand malls and big retail stores were a significant part of growing up in the post-war boom or the 1980s, respectively. Millennials and Gen Z-ers simply do not have such an attachment to these places, having become much more accustomed to the convenience of online shopping and growing up during the financial crisis of 2008. In his Juvenoia video, Stevens also stated that people tend to remember the past abstractly and, therefore, often remember things being better back in the day. This can help us understand how older generations feel about changes in culture over time. A somewhat humorous example Stevens used to explain this point was music. He echoed a common criticism of popular music today, saying that the masses demand “sensational atavistic pablum” instead of “rational critical thought" (8). While saying this, he compared a segment of the song “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin with the chorus of the infamous “Baby” by Justin Bieber. The intricacies of the Led Zeppelin song definitely contrast to the blaring of the word “baby” over and over. However, as Stevens points out, different examples can be used to argue the opposite. By comparing a segment Led Zeppelin’s very own “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” containing lines very similar to those in “Baby,” and the song “Pray” by Justin Bieber, the tables are turned. You can look at any period in history and see both high art and simple work being made. While Stevens goes on to point out that Pop music in particular has become less complex in its structure, he argues that, after all, Pop is a specific type of music being made today and has developed that way to cater to its core audience. Criticizing popular music for sounding similar, Stevens argues, is like complaining that penicillin is used constantly to treat medical patients—both ignore the “sameness” of their goals. Besides Pop music, however, other forms of media have become increasingly complex in their execution over the years. It is not that younger generations crave simpler material, but rather that, as the amount of available media increases, people are able to access more of it—whether it is “amazing” or “simple.” What has contributed to this the most has, undoubtedly, been the Internet.
The increasing accessibility and overall expanse of content has allowed anyone to delve into whatever topic they like, no matter how niche or broad. The democratization of the Internet, the growing ability of the general public to access and contribute within the net (10), has allowed for a general culture to develop within it. This culture has allowed for generational differences to become clearer in some ways than others. Most definitely, however, it has largely sought to protect the online environment that it has grown up with more than previous generations.
A majority of the sources for this piece, if not outright created within the Internet, are accessible online. The ability to have quality online content, which is oftentimes free and safe from the overzealous eyes of censors and corporate advertisers, has essentially allowed all of us to largely run wild along the path of a number of areas of interest. This is why protecting the online environment has become an increasingly serious issue over the last decade or so. One of the first major cases regarding this issue was that of SOPA in late 2011. SOPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act”), while having the arguably noble goal of cutting down on internet piracy, had built-in mechanisms to heavily censor the Internet (11). This bill was met with intense protestation by the Internet-savvy public and growing web companies, such as Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, which effectively killed it when the drafting was postponed in January of 2012. More recently, “Article Thirteen” was a big deal. Article Thirteen, the European Union’s copyright directive, made websites liable for copyrighted content being “misused” on their pages, and, therefore, faced heavy backlash even outside of the EU because of the implication that it would affect the Internet beyond its jurisdiction. Perhaps the most tragically comedic twist to this affair was how a number of European Parliament members pushed the wrong button during the Article Thirteen vote (12), doing little to ease the worries of the public that governments are poorly equipped to deal with matters around the Internet.
Most recent, however, were the remarks by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a congressional hearing on Facebook’s prospective cryptocurrency—Libra. During her time to question Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerburg. Ocasio-Cortez chose to spend most of it questioning the company’s apparent unwillingness to vet advertisements that, in her view, were “based on lies,” and its use of conservative news outlets, which she claimed had “connections to white supremacy,” in the pool of fact-checkers for the social media site (13). While there is a case to be made that, at least, some of these measures come from a place of good intentions, examples of trying to legislate or control the Internet have rarely been beneficial to the general users.
Even before the period of uncertainty today, the Internet had an air of escapism to it—to the point that, as you might have guessed, it created plenty of worries in older generations. However, to the post-millennial generation, often called Generation Z, the Internet is much more than that. For starters, the technology was rather important in the differentiation of Generation Z as a particular group, as seen in the reasoning behind new generational guidelines from Pew Research—which see the Internet and the economic crisis of 2008 as events that affected the development of this generation particularly (14). Today, the Internet is where a majority of people interact with each other, it is where they get their news, and how an increasing amount of people navigate the world. After all, post-millennials don’t really know much else. This is a generation that, from looking at the memes, sees Millennials and Boomers as rather similar and holds them in contempt, while at the same time seeming to associate them with more particular attitudes than their age (15). A generation that is largely weary of political parties, politicians and corporatism—particularly when it relates to the Internet. The “weaponization of memes” is a funny concept, but has actually become an effective way for creative Internet users to share information and spread particular messages effectively and quickly. An example of this was the situation with the 2018 YouTube “Rewind” video.
The corporatization of YouTube has become a topic of discussion among the community, one that had been building up for years as individual users saw themselves disconnected from, if not outright harmed by, YouTube’s policies. Every change seemed to bring more confusion at best and anger at worst. This culminated with the Rewind video, which, supposedly, is a celebration of YouTubers and events on the website throughout the year, becoming the video with the most dislikes in the site. The video was seen as being emblematic of the disconnect between YouTube and the average of users, containing a number of safe internet celebrities—many of which were not actually known for YouTube content. The video was met with derision and mockery throughout the Internet, and a response from popular YouTuber Pewdiepie, titled “Youtube Rewind 2018 But It’s Actually Good,” currently has more than 66 million views. While there was some admittance of culpability on the part of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, the conversation quickly turned onto how to deal with “mobs” and the possibility of removing the “dislike” feature altogether—something which the YouTube representative called “not super democratic.”16 Similarly, score-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes appeared to have been deleting user reviews around the same time.17 In an era in which a significant amount of people feel like they are unable to foment any meaningful change, people are unlikely to surrender the most evident way they have to voice their general opinions—through their Internet—so this will likely continue to be a contested issue. Because of technology, members of Generation Z and younger millennials have been able to do more on their own in terms of attaining and spreading information, and will seek to maintain this state as much as possible as they become an increasingly influential group not only on the Internet, but the world at large (18).
Ultimately, there seems to be little to suggest generations are really different from one another. Sure, some things may be different, but, overall, they interact with the culture of their time and develop an identity in fairly similar ways. For the most part, and hopefully this translated well throughout the piece, it is the particular circumstances of the time in which they grow up that makes coevals so apparently distinctive from one another. Bruce Springteen’s “Born In the USA” would have been very dissimilar if it had been written at any other place or time, and people would have reacted to it differently based on their own experience. Thematically, however, there is something that must resonate with people in all enduring works—which is why it wasn’t beyond me to scoff at the assertion of one of my professors that “Shakespeare wrote about a very specific time and place.” Certainly, most stories are grounded on a particular setting, but that is irrelevant to whether its themes and stories about romance or drama, as played out as they have become over the centuries, speak of something that resonates with a significant amount of people. In any case, these things are figured out with time. It won’t be long till the next generation sees itself as better suited for the world, while they are blamed for cultural decadence. On and on continues the cycle, as every generation seeks to survive its own rodeo.
1. Taylor, Kate. “'Psychologically Scarred' Millennials Are Killing Countless Industries from Napkins to Applebee's - Here Are the Businesses They like the Least.” Business Insider. Business Insider. 31 Oct. 2017<https://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-are-killing-list-2017-8>
2. Lakritz, Talia. “12 Everyday Things Millennials Don't Bother Using Anymore.” Insider. Insider. 18 Sept. 2019 <https://www.insider.com/things-millennials-killing-dont-use-2019-9>
3. Bland Archie. “Kids Today s Aren't What They Used to Be - They're a Lot Better.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media. 31 July 2014. <https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/kids-these-days-arent-what-they-used-to-be-theyre-a-lot-better-so-why-the-fuss-9638027.html>
4. Wohl, Robert. “The Generation of 1914.” Google Books. Harvard University Press. 30 June 2009.
5. Draper, Kevin. “Video Games Aren't Why Shootings Happen. Politicians Still Blame Them.” The New York Times. The New York Times. 5 Aug. 2019. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/sports/trump-violent-video-games-studies.html>
6. A list of “historical complaints.” - “The Pace of Modern Life.” Xkcd. <https://xkcd.com/1227/>
7. “A Quote by George Orwell.” Goodreads. <https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/14793-every-generation-imagines-itself-to-be-more-intelligent-than-the>
8. Vsauce. “Juvenoia.” YouTube. YouTube. 1 Nov. 2015 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD0x7ho_IYc>
9. PolyMatter. “Why Costco Is Cheaper than Amazon.” YouTube. 25 Oct. 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7BycrGnaJA>
10. Strickland, Jonathan. “How Web 2.0 Works - Democratization of the Web.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks. 28 Dec. 2007. <https://computer.howstuffworks.com/web-202.htm>
11. Pepitone, Julianne. “SOPA Explained: What It Is and Why It Matters.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network. 20 Jan. 2012. <https://money.cnn.com/2012/01/17/technology/sopa_explained/index.htm>
12. Karlsten, Emanuel. “13 MEPs Pressed the Wrong Button On Crucial Copyright Vote.” Medium. Medium. 27 Mar. 2019. <https://medium.com/@emanuelkarlsten/13-meps-pressed-the-wrong-button-on-crucial-copyright-vote-f1ccbd2e3b0a>
13. Shultz, Alex. “AOC to Mark Zuckerberg: ‘You Would Say White Supremacist-Tied Publications Meet a Rigorous Standard for Fact-Checking?".” GQ. GQ. 24 Oct. 2019 <https://www.gq.com/story/aoc-grills-mark-zuckerberg>
14. Serafino, Jay. “New Guidelines Redefine Birth Years for Millennials, Gen-X, and 'Post-Millennials'.” Mental Floss. 1 Mar. 2018. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/533632/new-guidelines-redefine-birth-years-millennials-gen-x-and-post-millennials>
15. “30-Year-Old Boomer.” Know Your Meme. Aug. 2018. <https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/30-year-old-boomer>
16. EmpLemon. “Why You Should Like Dislikes.” YouTube. YouTube, 4 May 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdGbOT8NXnE&list=PLmwKk2-o6_cQnCmuhpie28eqxV3p7Wi7o&index=3&t=0s>
17. McGloin, Matt. “Now Rotten Tomatoes Deletes Captain Marvel User Reviews.” Cosmic Book News. 8 Mar. 2019. <https://cosmicbook.news/rotten-tomatoes-deletes-captain-marvel-user-reviews>
18. Stahl, Ashley. “Why Democrats Should Be Losing Sleep Over Generation Z.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. 11 Aug. 2017 <https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2017/08/11/why-democrats-should-be-losing-sleep-over-generation-z/#64ddec2d7878>