Your Brain: An owner's manual;
We don’t like their music, fashions or fads. Here’s why

April 4, 2007 | By Nicolle Sloane

If the mere sight of your 15-year-old daughter’s best friend’s butt crack hanging out of her “low-rise” jeans doesn’t alarm you just a little, then maybe you’re still young enough at heart to also appreciate the iPod, MySpace and a Justin Timberlake serenade.

Some good friends of mine are parents of teenagers. A few nights ago they invited my husband and me to their home for dinner while the kids, Katie and Joey, were at a costume party. When we arrived, Mom was absorbed in Katie’s laptop; in particular, she was trying to parse through the pastiche of party pics, teen slang and dazzling colors that is the girl’s MySpace page. Finally, she threw up her hands in resignation, “Don’t know what I’m supposed to be finding on here—it’s chaos,” she said as she poured herself another glass of wine. I give her credit for at least trying to understand what her daughter’s online shenanigans entailed.

I stood over her shoulder and then took the controls, browsing through Katie’s “friends” and contacts. It was interesting—almost frightening, actually—to see these young teenage girls looking so old. There were pictures of 16-year-old girls dressed eerily similar to Paris Hilton and her posse, and pop-ups of music and video programs that even I didn’t know how to use.

When Katie and her best friend came home dressed up in a mishmash of policewoman/playmate costumes, they stampeded through the house talking in a tangle of upspeak, disappearing into the family’s finished basement where they proceeded to have some sort of “conference call” with a boyfriend via the speakers on their cell phones.

Katie’s dad takes a fret-free, matter-of-fact attitude toward his daughter’s absorption in the ways of this new age. He remembers his own father’s gagging noises when he used to come home in dreadlocks reeking of hemp oil back in the late ’60s.

“My father thought I was a total goofball. He wanted nothing to do with the stuff me and my friends were interested in,” he said. “My father was into his Frank Sinatra. This is just another day in a different time. I can’t ridicule her or force her not to enjoy what is an essential part of her world. So, she listens to an iPod and likes the Dixie Chicks and spends a lot of time online. It’s part of her generation.”

The generation in question is what has become known as the Millennial Generation (or Generation Y or Generation I depending on who you ask). And it’s a whole different beast than what any Baby Boomer (people born between 1945-1964) or even any Gen Xer (people born between 1965-1980) ever experienced. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have an understanding of technology, but kids born after 1980 cut their teeth on computers, video games and the Internet. They’ve been entangled in technology since birth.

The Techno-generation gap

It’s been decades since there has been a “real” generation gap. You have to go back to the early days of rock ’n’ roll when the older generation responded in disgust to the new greasy, shaggy culture and the deviance that was said to inspire lustful thoughts in teenage girls.

But the people who grew up in the age of rock n’ roll are the Baby Boomers who today look with the same dismay at their own kids’ “deviance.”

Unlike Katie’s dad, many Baby Boomers have no desire to accommodate the current teen culture. They look in horror as their daughters try to emulate shallow idols like Paris Hilton. They don’t know—and most of the time don’t want to know—what Xanga or Flickr mean or entail.

“I don’t listen to that Slim Shady crap,” said Geoffrey Hendy of Denver while slipping a cassette of his favorite Led Zeppelin recording into his car’s cassette player. “My kids will listen to good old Robert Plant and like it. It’s good for them to listen to real music.”

“Right now I feel like I’m living in a different world,” said T.C. Frommer, who recently moved his family to Eagle to expose them to a more rural, natural way of life, “I guess I just have a sense of pride in my generation and I don’t like what I see in kids today.”

And Baby Boomers have a lot to be proud of. They invented not just the phenomena of youth culture—rock music, sexual liberation and political rebellion—but the very idea of youth as a separate realm of experience and knowledge. They leveled the centuries-old walls between the races and the genders, and they gave the world the Beatles, the birth control pill, and the environmental movement.

So, it’s no wonder they feel let down by what kids today are doing with all of that progress. “All these kids want to do, it seems, is get on the latest reality show,” Frommer said. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study found that one in 10 people ages 18 to 25 call fame the most important goal for their generation.

But these kids just may surprise us down the road. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of “Millennials Rising: The Next Generation,” what we are witnessing is the rise of the next “hero” generation. A parallel of their World War II-era grandparents, the Millennials are being hailed as the “promise generation, history makers who will define the new century.” Indeed, among this generation there are lower rates of violent crime, teen pregnancy and serious substance abuse and increased rates of community service and a desire to give back.

Neda Jansen, a longtime Edwards local, who has two teenagers, was surprised and pleased to hear this.

“But I still worry about this generation,” Jansen said. “I feel like kids these days are way too stimulated. They aren’t comfortable just sitting down and thinking; they always have to be hooked up to something, whether it is an iPod or their computer or their cell phone. Kids demand instant gratification. They don’t know how to be patient anymore or how to be alone.”

Why Old People Hate New Things

Some people think older people’s brains lose the cognitive ability to pick-up on new things, hence older people eschew anything new. But this is not necessarily true.

A recent study led by University of Oxford scientist, Dr. Nigel Emptage, showed younger brains may learn things more easily, but older brains may store information more efficiently.

The study looked at the nerve cell processes in young and old rats. Nerve cells communicate by sending signals through synapses. (Synapses are the tiny gaps between nerve cells, where chemicals released by one cell act upon another.) But some synapses are “silent” and are not activated when chemical signals are passed between cells.

The researchers found that silent synapses are more prevalent in young brains, and are called on when new memories are laid down. In older brains, there were fewer silent synapses, which the researchers believe is because they have been used up. This means older brains have to reuse the “un-silenced” synapses.

“The findings could help us understand the differences between how the young and old learn,” said Dr. Emptage.

“It might be the case that this is the reason infants are so able to store new information, such as language, but later in life, remembering things proves harder,” he said. “That might be because the way older brains have to store information is fundamentally different, using parts of the system that have been used already.”

But others believe the old vs. young struggle has less to do with physiology and more to do with emotions and psychology.

Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who has studied the technology generation gap phenomenon since 1993, has a theory: “Baby Boomers experience all of this technology as ‘new.’ To them, it’s a novelty. But to kids it’s been a part of their existence since they were born.”

“Technology—in fact, anything considered ‘new’—is a threat to an older person’s identity,” Shirky said.

Kids these days don’t see technology as an “added value” in their lives; they see technology as an expected convenience. They don’t remember a time when shopping on the Internet was NOT an option.

The average Millennial started using a computer at the age of three. And most of them sent their first e-mail by the time they were in kindergarten. They live on instant messaging. They have a MySpace page, and have probably posted videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr. Whether it’s cell phones, music players or the Internet, kids are interconnected today in ways their parents find almost unimaginable.

“The birth control pill was a new thing in the 1960s, right? And parents were shell-shocked when they found out their kids were taking a drug to prevent pregnancy,” Shirky said. “To parents in the ’60s, abstinence was the only way not to get pregnant out of wedlock. But today, parents actually go out and buy birth control pills for their teenagers.”

I told Shirky that my own mother cringes a little when I have an ultrasound done. She tells me all the time that they didn’t have ultrasounds when she was pregnant …and babies were born just fine. She thinks ultrasounds are dangerous. I try to reason with her but no matter what I say she’ll believe what she wants.

“That is because she is comfortable with the constraints of her generation,” Shirky said. “To her, an ultrasound is not a possibility, it’s a problem.”

Bridging the Gap?

Ignoring teens and refusing to accommodate their culture is essentially how parents are abdicating their roles as parents. Although they love and care for their kids and nurture their kids more than any generation ever has, many Boomers also have an “us vs. them” attitude toward Millennials as a group.

“The Boomers are not a liberal or conservative generation,” said Strauss and Howe, “They are an argumentative culture, a warrior generation that defines issues in terms of values and wants to defeat enemies. They stigmatize what they don’t approve of. They scream down those they don’t agree with.”

In my opinion, that’s a little harsh. I think all generations rely on the comfort of what they know. They’ve built their reality and they don’t want it to be disturbed. And in a few years, the Millennials will likely be disillusioned by their own kids’ youth culture.

“You see, you were never given the choice as a teenager to have a cell phone, or an iPod, or a MySpace page,” Shirky said, “Maybe if these things had been invented back in the ’60s or ’70s, you would have had to have them, too.”