These young people, with their flared jeans and corduroy suits and "free love" and Beatlemania and hippies and Woodstock and "American Pie." Who can tell what kids today are thinking?
That's what Baby Boomers' parents were saying back in the '60s and '70s. The same generation that confounded their parents with flappers and dance marathons and goldfish swallowing and wing-tipped shoes found itself similarly confounded by the fads of their kids' generation. Today, Baby Boomers look at Generation Xers and Millennials with the same jaundiced eye.
As one of the older Gen Xers (born in 1966 — Gen x officially started in 1964), I live in a weird grey area between generations, old enough to understand the Boomer perspective while still genuinely a member of the Reality Bites cohort. So I have taken it upon myself to explain some of today's weirder youth trends, in a way that Boomers can understand.
Here are eight weird things younger people do that Baby Boomers just don't understand.
It's ironic that many Boomers have trouble understanding the Internet, since Boomers invented the Internet (Sir Tim Berners-Lee b. 1955; Steve Jobs b. 1955; Al Gore b. 1948). Generation Xers were the first to grow up with computers; but Millennials are the first generation to have the Internet inform every aspect of their lives.
One thing about the Internet that baffles the post-war generation is memes. When Richard Dawkins invented the word "meme" in the 1970s, it meant any cultural idea that spread through the population like a gene does through a population of lifeforms.
Today, a "meme" is a picture of a duck that gives life advice.
Basically, every day young people post to the Internet millions of photographs with text Photoshopped onto them. These text + image combos are meant to be funny, or thought-provoking, or otherwise impactful. Out of these millions of memes, a tiny, tiny percentage "go viral," and become immensely popular, leading to countless variations and copies. Users of sites like 4chan and Reddit create the memes; three days later they appear on Tumblr, five days later on Facebook, eight days later on 9gag, and a week after that they pop up on Good Morning America. Then they die, until someone revives them to be "ironic."
If you come across a meme you don't get, just hop on over to Know Your Meme, where every single meme in existence is explained, and the origin and history of each is obsessively mapped out. If doctors knew as much about cancer as this site knows about memes, we'd all be saved. Here are the most popular memes; if you don't understand Scumbag Steve or Overly-Attached Girlfriend, you're just not going to survive online.
This is a trend that Generation Xers started in the 80s, with Robotech and Akira and Maison Ikkoku; but it's Millennials who have really embraced anime and manga, turning them into a multi-million-dollar industry in the US with their own cable network. When Barnes & Noble has its own manga section, and Disney has a division devoted to dubbing the films of Hayao Miyazaki, you know anime has arrived.
Anime (pronounced ann ee may) is the Japanese word for "animation," and refers to any film or TV animation produced in Japan (or, today, non-Japanese animation in the same "big eyes small mouth" style). Manga means "comic books."
When anime first hit American shores in the mid-80s, domestic animation was in a horrible slump (The Great Mouse Detective anyone?), while the Japanese were producing beautifully-written, beautifully-designed, and (sometimes) beautifully-animated movies and TV shows that blew away anything produced here. Today's entire generation of animators, from Toy Story's John Lasseter to Avatar: The Last Airbender's Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, loves anime and has been influenced by it, creating America's current Animation Renaissance.
Some Boomers think all animation is for kids — this has never been true. Walt Disney and Chuck Jones were creating cartoons for kids, but always with adult jokes peppered in so whole families could enjoy them. Ralph Bakshi popularized the idea of animation specifically for adults in the 60s and 70s, as did the original Heavy Metal film adaptation. And in Japan, anime and manga have always been produced for a variety of audiences; one of the largest markets for manga is adult professionals.
Related to the anime explosion: young adult women love Sanrio. That's the company that creates Hello Kitty, along with a menagerie of other kawaii (Japanese "cute") characters. If you know a twenty-something woman, there's a good chance her body and her home are plastered in Hello Kitty, Dear Daniel, and Bad Badtz-Maru.
Like anime, cosplay (pronounced koss play) is a Japanese abbreviation of an English phrase, "costume play." Originally, cosplay referred only to dressing up as characters from anime, manga, and Japanese video games; it also included wearing some of the extreme fashion styles sported by Japanese teens, like Goth Lolita and Yamamba. Today in America, cosplayers still dress like Japanese characters, but any costume counts, with Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, and Doctor Who being especially popular.
You're probably wondering, what do these young people do while they're dressed up? At least on Halloween, you're going to parties or begging for candy, right? Well, cosplayers typically show up at anime, comic book, and video game conventions, or at cosplay-specific conventions and parties, where the whole point is pretty much to be seen and photographed in costume, and to see and photograph others. Also, places like Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district see hordes of teenage cosplayers every weekend, shopping in cosplay shops and eating anpan (Japanese sweet bean buns).
When done right, cosplay is very time-consuming and expensive. The best costumes are always handmade; and anime characters' costumes can be very elaborate. Often, obscurity is part of the appeal, and you most likely won't find a costume for your favorite character in a shop. Lots of young people have taken up sewing, leather-working, and fabrication to feed their cosplay habit.
If you're over 50, you probably associate tattoos with soldiers, sailors, and criminals. It was the Gen Xers who first decided that tattoos could be cool, and socially acceptable; a tattoo, even a visible one, is no longer death to a white collar career. In 2013, a whopping 40% or American adults 26–40 had at least one tattoo; the percentage of Millennials with ink was comparable. Only 11% of Boomers have a tattoo, and they probably got it in 'Nam. Tattooing generates $1.6 billion-with-a-"b" in revenue annually.
Despite the popularity, this is probably the one thing younger Americans do that most baffles their elders. That's because, apart from associating tattooing with criminals and the underclass, older Americans tend to be more religiously-affiliated, and Judaism and many Christian sects forbid tattooing. It's also painful (mildly or severely, depending on what part of the body the tattoo is on), and pretty much irreversible — laser tattoo "removal" pretty much just smears the tattoo into a giant scar. You can also pick up Hep C if your artist isn't using clean needles.
Because tattooing is so popular, a lot of people do it wrong, and a whole corner of the Internet is dedicated to tattoo regret. The artist screwed up my first tattoo, and that big black blotch is going to mar my right shoulder for the rest of my life.
On May 25th, 1977, the day that Star Wars hit theaters, I was an 11-year-old suburban kid — in other words, the ideal demographic. Adults at the time may or may not have liked Star Wars; but if you were a kid, you loved it. A misunderstood teen orphan escapes from his dreary desert planet home to save the galaxy with a charming rogue, a princess, and a gigantic dog-man as his sidekicks? What wasn't there to love?
If you were a Generation Xer, you were blasted with Star Wars marketing for most of your childhood. Kids in the '90s had Star Wars, but it wasn't as seminal to their experiences. Then the prequels came out. If you were an OG Star Wars fan, you hated hated hated them. But if you were an 11-year-old suburban kid when you saw The Phantom Menace, you adored it.
Half the words out of my mouth are Star Wars quotes, from "I have a bad feeling about this" to "will somebody get this big walking carpet out of my way." I can tell you difference between a TIE Fighter, a TIE Interceptor, and Darth Vader's TIE Advanced x1 — and that "TIE" stands for "Twin Ion Engines." I can tell you what planet Chewbacca comes from (Kashyyyk), and that his family members are named Itchy and Lumpy (no, really).
We didn't have a Great Depression or a World War to shape and inform our childhood experiences. We had the Battle of Yavin and the Galactic Civil War. The real world was full of gas crises, presidential scandals, and Wall Street malfeasance (you know, as opposed to today). Is it surprising that we clung to a piece of fantasy, and it continued to inform our adult lives?
Everybody likes to collect things. The difference between Boomers and the younger generations is in what kinds of things they collect. This article from The Onion pretty much sums up the situation. So does this one. [Note: some content on The Onion contains profanity.]
What do Boomers collect? Record albums, stamps and coins, antiques, art, crystal — things traditionally attributed an intrinsic value. Travel memorabilia that proves you visited a tourist trap, like plates, spoons, or snowglobes. Sports paraphernalia.
What do Gen Xers and Millennials collect? Toys, but toys that are still sealed in the original box. Simpsons figurines. Star Wars action figures and LEGO sets. Posters for bad movies. Video game cartridges for dead video game systems. Hello Kitty Swarovski crystals. Pricey resin statues of Marvel superheroes. As The Onion put it, "pop-culture detritus."
If a Boomer, as a child, really wanted that Red Ryder BB gun, and never got it, he would grow up and forget about it. Maybe he would buy one for his own kid, out of a sense of nostalgia. But if a Gen Xer asked Santa for a Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game and never got it, he ran out and spent his first real paycheck from his first adult office job to grab one on Ebay.
I personally knew a wealthy young music composer who had an entire room in his mini-mansion dedicated to Spider-Man figurines. I had a number of collections over the years, before I sold them to make room in my house. Most famously, I collected Star Trek toys, action figures, and collectibles — but only ones based on characters and props from the pilot episode. There were a fair number of these, believe it or not. I also still have, in storage, a large and expensive collection of toys, animation cels, and ephemera based on the anime series Ranma Nibunnoichi. Because why not?
But seriously, is there really any difference between spending thousands of dollars on Dodgers paraphernalia, featuring a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax, and spending thousands of dollars on Battlestar Galactica paraphernalia, featuring a Viper model signed by Katee Sackhoff?
If you're over 30 and own a smartphone, you've probably done some texting. You've said things like "I'm running late," "Let's meet at the theater," and "I love you." You probably spell everything out and use proper grammar and spelling, plus an occasional emoticon. But it would never occur to you to try to have a lengthy, substantive, important conversation via text.
If you're under 30, then you don't use your smartphone for anything as prosaic as voice communication. You text everything. You discuss relationship issues via text. You hit on strangers via text; and eight months later, you break up via text. This despite the fact that it's impossible to convey nuance or emotion in short typed bursts. You can't tell if someone is serious and sarcastic. Every delay in response takes on a hidden meaning. And meaningful communication is hobbled by trendy text abbreviations (did you know "143" means "I love you?" Because it's one, four, and three letters?).
It's been 138 years since Alexander Graham Bell, and today you can call any person anywhere on the planet using a piece of glass you carry in your pocket. And yet there is a whole generation of young people who would rather laboriously type out short messages on a little screen. Instead of, you know, talking. Can you tell this is the one Millennial fad I have no patience for?
Nobody understands twerking.