Posted tagged ‘generations’

The generation game

August 11, 2009

Recently an academic colleague told me about how he had, during a lecture, referred to the TV show The Generation Game, and suddenly realised that nobody in his first year student audience had the remotest idea what he was talking about. This seriously shocked him – he could not believe that this cultural icon was unknown to his students. For heaven’s sake, he pointed out to me, the last series had only ended in 2001! Leaving aside for a moment that you couldn’t seriously expect anyone to watch a show hosted by Jim Davidson (Generation Game, 1995-2001) – the only real presenter was Bruce Forsyth (Generation Game, 1971-1977) – it had clearly not occurred to him that a 17-year-old would have been 9 when the show had its last run, and might not have been interested then or be able to recall it now.

A similar experience was reported by an American professor who was unable to get his students to see the 1992 US presidential election campaign as something relevant to their own lifetime experience, though it seemed something very recent to him. I suspect that many of us have been aware of those moments when, in talking with students, we shared some little experiences which we thought must make us look rather cool, only to see their eyes glaze over as they became aware of just how old we must be. And it was always so; hell, I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for the lecturer who in 1974 wanted us to think he was absolutely with it by mentioning the 1960s pop band, the Tremeloes.

Of course every older generation struggles when it wants to impress the next one, and it is no different for academics. However, academics have as perhaps the main ingredient of their profession the task of communicating with younger people, and may feel that they need to do it in terms that students can recognise as addressing their interests and concerns. Can this be done successfully? Does it in fact need to be done?

It’s hard to say. I remember that when I was a student we had some professors who were really quite endearing because of their obvious and complete ignorance of anything contemporary – the kind who would still call a radio ‘the wireless’. And there were others whose hard-worked-for trendiness was simply grating. But then again, we also appreciated the lecturer who made a genuine effort to listen as we talked about what we regarded as important and who even did a little bit of research on the things we mentioned.

In the end, I think the key issue is not to know about every aspect of youth culture (or whatever we might guess it is), but rather to have an open mind and try to understand what the next generation is interested in. For me, that has meant recently becoming acquainted with the rapper Eminem, in order to understand a little better why a group of students I spoke with liked him so much. And it has been a useful bit of learning: because yes, as I already knew, Marshall Mathers is somewhat foul-mouthed; but he also is a genuine poet with something to say.

So what is my advice? Don’t try too hard, and don’t think that you need to be someone you are not – that doesn’t particularly impress anyone. But it is important to understand what the generation we are teaching think and believe, and it is right to engage with that and to learn about it. But don’t ever think that what you felt was modern when you were young still feels that way now. Don’t ever be tempted to show your old photographs when you had outrageous sideburns and wore flares. Just be thankful that era is gone.

Talking about my generation

November 2, 2008

The other day I was sitting in a room with a group of young people, whose ages probably ranged from about 18 to 24. The discussion moved to music, and I was amazed when I was told about their favourite bands and musicians: they included Queen, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and of course the Beatles – in fact, every other name mentioned was around when I was their age. For a minute I thought about this: these musical acts were all 40 years old or so; and back in 1968, I certainly wouldn’t even have known the name (never mind the music) of someone who had been singing in 1928. How is it that the music of my generation has refused to die and is still being heard by young people today?

A friend of mine, who is about three years older than I am, has a theory that our generation has dominated the world for much of our lives. We introduced the Beatles, and with them, not just new kinds of music, but whole new ways of thinking. We started wearing longer hair, God help us we started on drugs, we pushed politics to the left and later to the right, we brought in new shops and supermarkets; and whatever we did, those both older than us and younger than us followed our lead.

It’s a beguiling theory, but probably not true. But then again, we do seem to have remained cool (or something that allows us to think we are cool) for longer and more persistently than any other generation. Others who came after us never quite managed it in the same way.

But then again, we’re growing older, and the generation that brought you the Beatles is about to start drawing pensions. And will we still be thought leaders then? I don’t know. But I do believe that we will be leaving things to those who follow in somewhat better shape than we found them, by and large. And while the Who, in that iconic song of my generation – My Generation – asked of the old establishment ‘Why don’t you just fff…fade away?’, I think that it may just about be possible that we’ll still be rebellious enough while holding on to our zimmer frames to ask that of those coming behind us, should they cease to show respect.