Learning from the young

This summer my older son, Jamie, and I both upgraded our cell phones, and I was startled at how different our reactions were. Jamie cruised the aisles of the store scanning the details of new phones and zeroing in on one that met his mysterious criteria.

My trip down the aisle was more frustrating. I hadn't bothered to learn anything about the newest generation of cell phones – I suppose I had hoped someone would twitch some loose part in my old phone and hand it back fixed – so I stood frowning at the various models and tried to decide between them. Jamie finally picked up a phone and said, “This is the one you want, Mom.”

As we drove home, Jamie flipped open his phone, thumbed through the settings, texted a friend, and took a call, comfortable and upbeat with his new tool.

Karmic payback

When we got home a few minutes later, I pulled my phone out of its box and sighed. The instruction book was daunting and a weariness settled over me – karmic payback, no doubt, for all those times I laughed when my parents couldn't program their VCR.

“I can't do this!” I whined. “The learning curve is too steep!”

We both knew that I could do it – after a fashion and after a long time. I just didn't want to. Jamie picked up the phone and within a minute had it programmed.

“Thanks,” I said petulantly.

Jamie is 22, a recent college graduate who's grown up in a world of cell phones and GameBoys, DVD players and iPods. He'll probably never buy a landline phone. He reads the newspaper online and watches movies on his laptop while he checks his email.

I'm 30 years his senior. I have yet to master the thumb twirl necessary to call up iPod lists. My computer has aged out of several useful functions but I dread having to buy a new one and learning how to use it.

The two of us represent two different mindsets, not only toward technology – a land where Jamie is a native speaker but where my best hope is that I can learn enough vocabulary to get by – but in the events that have shaped us.

I remember the first time I recognized the different mindsets of different generations. It was December 1980, and I don't know if I was more stunned by John Lennon's murder or by the fact that none of my high school students at the time knew who he was. Were they kidding, I asked. Had they never heard of the Beatles?

“Oh, yeah,” one boy said. “I think my mother liked them – you know, when she was a kid.”

Since then I've often been caught up short by what my students don't know – not because they are poorly educated or indifferent, but because they are young.

This week Beloit College in Wisconsin published their annual College Mindset List, a way to help adults see the world through the eyes of rising college freshmen.

The world of the young

For example, the class of 2012 has never lived in a world without Harry Potter and karaoke machines, GPS systems and plastic Coke bottles. They were born in 1990, when a Bush was president and fuel costs were rising. Ever since they were babies they have had their fevers measured with ear thermometers. Windows 3.0 was launched the same year they were.

Growing up in a world without anyone offering to pump your gas at the station must change you somehow. So must growing up with Jay Leno instead of Johnny Carson, or always knowing who is calling without answering the phone, or being able to buy a bottle of iced tea from a vending machine.

Generational strengths

That may not be a bad thing, either. Jamie and his friends have a global sensibility that seems to come from living in a world made smaller by the ease of electronic communication. Because they are less parochial, they adjust to social and economic changes with more grace than their elders. When the world shifts beneath their feet, they aren't unduly troubled – all landscapes are relatively new to them.

Nor is the adult persistence of memory always a good thing. We fault young people for what they don't know while we believe that what we learned once must always be true. We forget that we have to keep learning, that our old attitudes and ideas might need an upgrade – the way we sometimes have to set aside our discomfort and turn in our old cell phones.