Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Kids these days

Kids these days
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This is my hundredth blog post. I’m sort of surprised that I’ve managed to write this many. I’m even more surprised that people like you read them and take the time to post such thorough and intelligent responses. I don’t think ideasonideas can be called a “new” blog any longer and this leaves me thinking.

Most nights, I put my son Oscar to bed. We read books, talk about our favorite animals, and I share music with him through YouTube videos on my iPhone. Some days it’s Ed and Steve in the bathroom, and on others we listen to Motorhead, but often we take-in “Wild Horseys”, as he calls it. Oz is a gorgeous boy—bright and full of curiosity. As such, most evenings are accompanied by many questions; few of which can I properly answer. What sticks with me after these talks is how everything is new to Oscar, and how large a gap there is between what he thinks I must know and what I actually do.

Fear of the young

Over the past couple of weeks, age – youth in particular – seems to have been a recurring theme amongst some of my peers. Perhaps this is something I’m attuned to for reasons I haven’t been able to identify yet. Maybe it’s a symptom of no longer being new to my vocation, but not yet (by any means) being a veteran. It could be that I’m just trying to figure out exactly where I fit; nevertheless, ideas surrounding youth have been floating about and they’re ones that seem strange to me.

I know folks who are convinced that the young only create drivel and that a great cultural wasteland is upon us. On the other hand, some of my peers seem stymied by the possibility that they are no longer relevant and are quickly being superseded by more skilled and technologically apt young designers. Both of these seem like somewhat rash over-generalizations to me; nevertheless, I keep wondering what leads so many to think this way, and what the “real deal” might be.

Dave – a designer down the street – has been in the design business since I was two. He’s a character and always brings interesting discussions to the table. We crossed paths recently, and although we only touched upon the topic briefly, he referenced what he believes to be a drought of good new music. He and I have talked about this before. While I feel that as much good music as ever (but it’s not found on the radio), he’s convinced that something is missing.

Similarly, he looks at the ads aimed at youth culture and feels like it’s all been “done before”. I don’t entirely disagree with this observation; however, I wonder if that’s perhaps not the point. I argue that almost every generation covers largely the same ground, but with its own subtle variations.

Skill comes with practice

While Dave seems to allude to something being lost, some of our other friends think they’re quickly becoming “last year’s model”. Last week @shelkie and I had lunch with another friend, who lamented how out-of-touch he feels when reviewing portfolios of young designers. He can’t believe the technical mastery that some newly minted designers have managed to achieve; in fact, it seems to makes him question whether he has a place in all of this. (He is, after all, in his thirties.)

I quickly protested his feelings of uncertainty. After many years of reviewing portfolios, I’ve learned that it’s not altogether hard for someone to parrot a style effectively. Depth in this field, however, is reliant on solving a multitude of diverse problems and amassing a broad range of experiences. Although it’s seemingly easy to do, a mid-career designer shouldn’t undermine their collected knowledge and expertise when faced by a new “look”. Styles come and go; mastery of one indicates some basic skill, but often little more.

Frankly, you’re an idiot if you believe that creative fortitude is the domain of the young, only to be weakened by age. While one may lose the ability to run as quickly or jump as high as years pass, creative dexterity should only improve and gain depth if practiced. Some might say that the enthusiasm held by young designers diminishes with time but I argue that such loss of vigor is only symptomatic of a less interesting mind. (I suspect Paul Rand was as vital and curious in 1992, as any new talent fresh out of college.)

A culture infatuated with youth

The thing is though, our culture isn’t as excited by age as we should be. Ours loves the new, as is evidenced in entertainment. It doesn’t matter that the Rolling Stones write songs as good (or perhaps better) than ever. Our lens is focused on new bands. Similarly, the seeming vacuum of middle-aged actresses working in Hollywood is disheartening. Somehow great actresses seem out of work by fifty, replaced by the likes of Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan. (Ugh.)

Of course, there’s some sense to all of this. First of all, the young come with some novelty, as we haven’t necessarily heard their stories before—no matter how short these stories may be. Additionally, new people (and things) photograph better. The sad truth is that ours is a consumer culture predicated on forced obsolescence. From a capitalist vantage point, there’s little room for the old. In order to keep the machine running, we need new models that keep people swiping credit cards and punching PIN numbers; similarly, we need to feature new stars in order to sell magazines, movie tickets and merchandise. This leaves us with less appreciation for products with a weathered patina and unique personality, or, for that matter, storytellers who’ve actually “sampled a few flavors”.

This leads us to the other great fallacy: that youth are somehow innately better suited to understand technology. Actually, there’s some truth to this, but it’s largely situational. The young do seem to adapt to texting, social networks and changing digital paradigms quickly, but this is in large part due to the time they have available. My generation was highly attuned to pop music videos, but not because we were somehow more innately disposed to short-form video than anyone else. We were just bored, and had lots of time to sit in front of the television.

Nevertheless, this notion persists—in part from those fearful that they’ll perhaps look silly in embracing new tools and ideas. A telling example is the 50 year old who says that they don’t “get” Facebook. There’s little with such a piece of software that’s out-of-grasp, or really needs to be “gotten”. Yes, there are apps, games, groups and a multitude of other things housed under that umbrella; but, for the most part it’s a digital cork-board that allows you to share photos and such—not a particularly big deal. The only thing that stands between any person and understanding a technology is their own resistance to trying something new.

Fresh eyes

Some might read this and think that I’m being dismissive of the young, but that’s not my intent. I simply feel that we have to carefully consider our prejudices regarding age – including those self-directed ones – and ask whether they’re rightly founded. Our wildly divergent views that either dismiss today’s youth as being culturally bankrupt, or that they are somehow imbued with knowledge inaccessible to the rest of us are both hazardous. In actuality, we’re all pretty much the same regardless of age… except for one notable thing.

The delight in being a parent is in getting to re-experience things for the first time. My son has never had a Slurpee. To my wife’s chagrin, I can’t wait to let him try one. Sure, it’s probably one of the least healthy things I could give him, but on a hot day, what better indulgence than a cup of sugar and ice? Whether it’s this, or his first movie, or the first time he saw lightning, I think I enjoy watching these things through his eyes more than I ever did for myself. This leads me to the one thing that the young have over the rest of us: firsts.

Oscar still has a great many firsts to look forward to: his first fall from a bike, first kiss, first night of driving around town with his buddies, first backpacking trip, and first concert. These may seem like clichés, but that’s only because these things already mean something to most of us. For Oscar (and his brother Ari) these are all experiences that he’ll taste for himself, coupled with an anticipation and fear that we sometimes forget. The first time is made somewhat remarkable as a direct correlation to the unknown.

Finding new firsts

I can download any movie I want, but there are few that really interest me. This is particularly true of comedies, which I once enjoyed greatly. As an adolescent, every comedy seemed fresh and clever; sadly, I find few today that leave me feeling as amused. Upon reflection, however, it’s clear that the comedies of the 80s really weren’t any funnier than current ones. It’s just that the jokes were new to me back then. More recent comedies seem bland and derivative not because they are any more so than those of years past; rather, I’ve heard the same jokes so many times that I can see the punchline coming.

The blame for this can’t be laid upon the movie; it’s once again a situational problem, and it’s one for each to address individually. There are still lots of “firsts” out there, but we have to dig a little deeper to reach them. Thinking that our inspirations will come from Hollywood movies, Top 40 radio, or for that matter, award annuals only limits us. It’s our laziness that keeps us going to the same buffet every day for lunch, thinking that the meals should change to entertain us. No, we need to find new pastures and embrace the possibility of the unknown.

Last week I listened to a podcast in which a trends analyst cooed at what a wonderful time it is to be young. She placed special emphasis on how this upcoming generation was somehow more interesting and special than any before it. This seemed like just the sort of thing you’d hear from a trends analyst: more mysterious possibilities to keep the marketing folks at Nike paying for overpriced “trends” data. Forgive me if I’m cynical, but I say it’s quite the opposite.

I think every generation is almost identical to the one that preceded it. Each one experiences a marginally different context that seems immediately significant, but in actuality is only temporarily so. As decades pass, we learn that high-tops, flannel shirts and SMS slang actually amount to very little. These little novelties are curious, but looking upon them to “define” a generation hardly moves beyond the brutally superficial. Universal truths, however, bind us all, even if our vision of them isn’t exactly clear. What are these truths? I think they include the need to be loved, the desire to feel connected to others, the hope that one is relevant, and an arm-full of other similar emotions that transcend any paper-thin trends.

We’re all young

The young are more like us than many of us choose to believe; they just have more firsts to come. (I think it’s fair that we envy them in this regard.) Meanwhile, it’s foolish to dismiss their contributions, or treat little sparks of talent with undue reverence. I posit that the young are just like us: scared and excited, confident and unsure, tired and invigorated, bored and curious. Perhaps the contexts are different, but thinking that we’re somehow different only limits us from possibilities. We need to lend a hand where they need it, and at the same time remain open to the new discoveries they might share with us.

In the grand scheme of things, we’re all children, with fewer answers than questions. It’s just that at some point we stop asking these questions. My son repeats the query, “Why?” at such a rapid rate that it often exhausts his mother and me; or becomes a joke. I now ask him, “Why?” back, which elicits the response, “Don’t say ‘why’ daddy!” The truth is though: I need to ask that question more than I do.

That’s part of what this blog has been about: me asking “why?” and trying to answer that question as best I can. Most posts, as a result, have become an exploratory space, and one I’m privileged to have stumbled upon. I write most of these essays knowing that there are holes in my logic, but I reason that this is alright. The posts are the beginning of a discussion, and those of you who participate and share your insights bring it to life.

Thank you for that! I look forward to another hundred of these!

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