The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 8: The last 100 years of conversation

Howdy! Having pondered the last 1000 years of conversation in the previous episode I thought this month we’d zoom in on how conversation has changed over the past century. Taking a whirlwind tour through the generations, and throwing around some huge generalisations in the process.

Over roughly the last 100 years there have been seven generations, and my method is to sketch out each one in general terms and then try to say something more specific about conversation from my own interactions with them.

The Greatest Generation (born 1901–1927) and the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) – ‘The Traditionalists’

If you are Gen X/Y like myself then these were (or are) your grandparents. The main difference between the two generations is that the earlier one enjoyed the boom years of the ‘20s and then fought in the 2nd WW, where as the latter just got the Great Depression of the ‘30s and then grew up during the War. But they also had a lot in common, with rather Victorian ‘seen but not heard’ upbringings, along with considerable social and economic struggles which tended to make them keep their heads down, work hard, be thrifty and have a preference for rules, structure, authority, and security. These generations being characterised as ‘small c’ conservatives, who whilst often socially progressive weren’t exactly looking to ‘change the world’ in any wildly idealistic sense. Communication wise they were very much a ‘face to face’ lot, albeit with landline phones and the radio becoming increasingly common as well as more latterly the TV. Gender roles were also pretty traditional, albeit gradually changing as women entered the workforce and got better educated.

My own interactions with these generations (chiefly my grandparents) broadly reflect this description. The men being hard working, stoic, polite, bread winners and the women being house-wives with a serious hobby or part time job predominantly dedicated to the family. Conversation tending to be fairly formal, and ritualised, or otherwise practical, and usually about something of substance, often about ‘society’ and how it might be improved, or fixed. Education, and bettering oneself in that sense, was important, and material advancement, or consumerism, wasn’t of interest, no doubt regarded as trivial or crass. One also got the impression that conversation between husband and wife, in any very intimate or existential or exploratory fashion, was distinctly limited (to say the least), as one’s job was just to get on with things with something of a stiff upper lip. All of which may explain why one set of my grandparents divorced after the children left home, my grandfather having gone off with another woman behind my grandmother’s back, and the other side hardly talked to one another for their last 20 years, luckily living in a sufficiently large house to be able to avoid one another.

  • The Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) -‘The Countercultural Generation’

If you are late Gen X / early Y like myself then ‘the Boomers’ (products of the post 2nd WW baby boom) are your parents. They are often characterised as a radical generation at odds with their more conservative parents, with more experimental and rebellious attitudes to politics, work, money, sex, drugs, rock n roll and gender relations. Attitudes aided by an increasing level of affluence and education for both genders as the economy, aided by the State, grew after the 2nd WW, as well as living through times of upheaval and uncertainty, which included the likes of the Vietnam War, and the assassination of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But equally one can also see an element of continuity in relation to their parents, as the Boomers have also tended to be hard working, concerning themselves with security, and thereby where possible wealth, whilst maintaining a progressive social stance which aims to build a better world out of the struggles and hardships their parents faced. For all their apparent youthful idealism the Boomers were also at the forefront of building what has become the ‘Consumer Society’. The Boomers, communication wise, are also, like their parents, a distinctly ‘face-to-face’ generation, albeit also ‘landline natives’ who are a happy to chat on the phone, as well as put on the TV or more latterly send the odd email.

My chief interactions with the Boomers have been with my parents, and other people’s parents. In truth few of the Boomers I’ve met were exactly LSD tripping radicals who hung out with Jimmy Hendrix. But culturally, and conversationally, my parents are clearly far more open, and exploratory, than their parents were. With more of an inherent questioning of authority and whether, and why, the world is as it is. Equally though I’d say that my parents are more like an evolved version of their parents than a radical departure from them. My dad still being the professional bread winner and my mother being a bit more of a hobbyist with a focus on the family and a concern for society. Both are, like their parents, particularly concerned with improving, and fixing, society, with a sense of trying to build a better life and world (even if that’s sometimes rather hard). And there’s an inherent belief in both my parents that progress is possible, education being particularly important, but my father in particular also enjoys, and believes in, the material and technological progress that has been made over his lifetime.

Conversationally though I think my parents, and arguably their generation, do somewhat lack a more existential or emotional language with which to discuss matters. It’s all quite practical, or critical, but mostly ‘out there’ not ‘in here’. I think they also get a bit stuck when progress of one kind of another seems lacking, as if they’ve lived most of their life on an up-curve and they don’t really know what to do, or say, or be, when things seem to be flat-lining, or going backwards, or round and round. So whilst they are definitely a conversational improvement, in many ways, on their rather regimented, tight lipped, parents perhaps they are also a bit stuck in a conversational land which relies on the idea, and reality, of progress.

  • Gen X (born 1965-1980) ‘The Slacker Generation’

Gen X are characterised as self-reliant, resourceful, and industrious, with an emphasis on individuality and ‘ideas’, and thereby to some degree rebellion and alienation. If the Silent Generation grew up with the newfangled radio and the Boomers grew up with the newfangled TV then Gen X were shaped by the rise of personal computers. Politically they were the Cold War generation, with the threat of Nuclear War hanging over them, and conflictual relations between Labour and Capital, in the form of strikes and protests. They were the originators of ‘work-life balance’ and ‘working to live’ (as opposed to the other way around). Communication wise they are very much face-to-face and phone based, as well as email and more latterly texts to some degree. One could argue that their belief in ‘society’ and ‘politics’ in that sense tends to be rather fractured, with an emphasis on ‘the individual’ in something of a materialistic techno-wasteland characterised by conflict. The Gen-Xer thereby arguably veering either towards full ‘New-Age’ alienation or ‘80s style brash materialism, with the ’91 Iraq War being a prominent political event.

My interactions with Gen X have chiefly been through my neighbour and his arty inner London pals and acquaintances. These are obviously something of a peculiar subset of Gen-Xers, but the above general description is fairly accurate. As they all tend, behaviourally and conversationally, to be rather survival, and dominance, orientated as well as rather individualistic with an obsession about ideas, and in effect fashions and trends. They are also all a bit technological, but also on the whole alienated by Social Media and information overload, preferring face-to-face interaction. Conversationally though they all tend to be rather conflict orientated, and apocalyptic (reflecting that Cold War vibe), with rather extreme views and rather little faith in ‘society’ nor in ‘progress’, instead just seeing ‘authority’ everywhere which they have a problem with.

In comparison to the Boomers I know these Gen Xers do have a more developed existential language, and critique, which is more personal. But in my experience their existentialism tends towards warfare, and egotism, rather than being particularly constructive or enlightening. Being less concerned about progress of any kind they are perhaps better adapted for a world which is apparently decaying, or going round and round, than the Boomers. They also tend to be orientated towards self-gratification, including materialism, partly because they aren’t sure what else to believe in, or contribute to. Which isn’t to say that they don’t believe in community, or society, or politics, only that their attention span often seems to be a bit fleeting, with little sense that anything will really ever get any better. Their gender relations (and related conversations) also seem, to me, to be in a bit of a no-man’s land, with a simultaneous sense of equality, and camaraderie, between the sexes but also a sense of conflict and distrust.

  • Millennials (Gen Y) (born 1981-1996) ‘The last to grow up offline’

The Millennials differ from their Gen X cousins chiefly due to the fall of Communism, the Cold War and the influence of the harder Left across the globe, they being Personal Computer natives as opposed to early adopters, and also growing up in relatively stable, affluent times compared to the ‘70s. All of which was somewhat punctured by the events of 9/11 and then the financial crash of 2008. Even early Millennials grew up, more latterly, with the internet and so tend to be comfortable with digital platforms even if they aren’t wildly into Social Media etc. Millennials are the first generation to embrace hybrid, flexible and remote working and prefer communicating via Instant Message, text, email and mobile phone. They are concerned with doing a job with an organisation that has some kind of vision, meaning and purpose with regard to making the world a better place.

Given that I exist on the border between Gen X and Y my peers have mostly been early Millennials. I’d characterise ‘us’, culturally and conversationally, as a fairly mainstream generation with nothing very grand to kick against, coming of age as we did in the ‘90s and early-mid ‘00s when everything seemed to be going pretty well. We’re pretty comfortable with technology, and consumerism, and don’t have the Cold War and its conflicts and angst hanging over us. Nor do we have any particular angst, or vision, about how the world could be particularly better, or worse.

If anything I suspect that earlier Gen Y-ers are probably afflicted with a relatively minor sense of existential angst as to who on earth they are, or why, other than a version of their parents. There’s thereby some sense of looking for a meaning, or purpose, in the world, and in work. Later Gen Y-ers are probably afflicted with more of a sense of insecurity following 9/11 and then the financial crisis, and thereby exhibit a mixture of a search for meaning and also a concern about security and survival. I’d say that the relations between the Gen Y sexes are pretty equal, and non-conflictual, perhaps with an underlying mutual minor existential angst about who they are together other than a version of their parents. As most Gen-Y couples seem fairly content with just getting on being normal and reasonably successful, often with both working, the wheels only falling off if they start not to stand one another due in part to having no real idea what their lives are about beyond being a bit normal.

  • Gen Z (born 1997- 2012) and Gen A (born 2013-present) ‘Digital Natives’

Gen Z (and A) differ to Gen Y in that all they’ve known is the relative uncertainty, instability and techno-immediate nature of a post financial crisis, post-9/11, smart-phone-app, Social Media driven, world. A world in which climate change is an ever more immediate threat, the populist Right have risen around the globe (including the likes of Trump), and whilst capitalism is the only game in town it seems to be marked by a sense of chaos, and instability, as well as symbolic conflict between the Alt-Left and Alt-Right. The Consumer Society has also proliferated, and fragmented, in a way which Gen Y didn’t grow up with. Gen Z thereby seem more inclined to question everything (including their gender / sexual identity) whilst seeking security from their existential angst amongst those who agree with them. Their communicational habits tend towards video, voice and instant message, as they are smart-phone-app natives. They do like talking face-to-face, but prefer to do so in an in-depth and intimate fashion with people they know well who aren’t going to give them a panic attack. Like Gen Y they want a sense of meaning in work but are more concerned about security and some sense of personal progress and growth.

My interactions with Gen Z have mostly been with my cousins, or otherwise the odd (usually brief) younger girlfriend. On the whole the above picture, from my experience, is roughly correct, in that, behaviourally and conversationally, they tend to be quite like Gen-Y in a ‘Generation Normal’ kind of fashion. Albeit there’s more of a sense of angst, minor chaos and being a bit lost in a jungle of Social Media and information overload. Not long ago I went out with a  Gen Z woman for a bit and she was an odd mixture of in essence being a normal, upper middle class, university educated person but also rather extreme and ridden with existential angst about pretty much everything. As if she had a sense that the ordinary way of doing everything was no good, chiefly referencing her stable, comfortable but emotionally rather dysfunctional parents, and transposing that to a questioning of everything- capitalism, democracy (or the lack of it), history (mostly colonialism), gender, sexuality, property, money, ‘the couple’ etc.

One could of course just put this, conversationally speaking, down to youth, and idealism, which every generation suffers from to some degree. But equally one could argue that it’s taken 100 years to get round to realising that actually pretty much everything about the society we live in is a bit of a disaster, and we are doomed to spend the next 100 years (at least) talking about what on earth to do about it.

At any rate Gen-A are coming…. So what might be the future of life, communication and conversation? If my brief Gen Z love is any guide she was very much into in-depth, intimate, face-to-face conversation, as there was a sense that it grounded her, whilst keeping her mind occupied, amongst the spinning, angst ridden, chaos. But she was also hopeless, at least with me, where textual messaging was concerned. And I got the impression that she preferred communicating live, or not at all. Which suggests that as Gen-A are on the whole growing up with smart-speakers, and video-voice Apps on their phones, they may well be an increasingly Voice-Active generation…. Which could suggest, in some ways, that we are in fact going ‘back to the future’, with it taking 100 years to go from mostly face-to-face interactions to get back to mostly face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, interactions albeit now mediated by smart devices and not necessarily always with humans….

Yours, Conversation Man

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at . See you in episode 9…