Hey nineteen

I first became aware of the yawning information gap between my generation and Millennials on  Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was there, while taking a break at 15,000 feet, that I happened to mention the seminal TV character, 'Archie Bunker.' My son, Chris, and our climbing buddy, Stafford, both Millennials, responded with a resounding, “Who”?Confused-Man

In fact, the more we spoke about events of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the more I was reminded of the Steely Dan song, 'Hey Nineteen' (“No, we got nothing in common. No, we can't talk at all.”).

Since the dilly on Kili, I've encountered many examples of a twenty-something not knowing what I thought was pretty basic information about the people, places and things of my era.

In fact, my curiosity began to grow as I compared the information gap between Millennials and Boomers, and what I believed was the LACK of such a gap between Boomers and our parents (aka The Greatest Generation). While Millennials seemed stumped about many things that happened before 1990, my generation appears to know quite a bit about, say, Benny Goodman, the Sudetenland and Fibber McGee's Closet (even though we weren't alive to see or experience any of the above).

So, I put my hypothesis to the test. I asked Peppercom's Millennials if they knew about 10 people, places and things from my generation. I was pleasantly surprised overall, but positively stunned by the following:

– 80 percent had never heard of Glasnost (that would be like my generation not knowing about 'appeasement').
– 50 percent didn't know about the Iran-Contra Affair (easily the biggest political scandal to hit Washington after Watergate and before Monica Lewinsky).
– 90 percent had never heard of Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. ice hockey team that pulled off the biggest upset in Olympic history. Eruzione was the team's poster child, a media darling and appeared positively EVERYWHERE).
– 60 percent didn't know former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle (now, some may argue that Dan Quayle himself might have a hard time identifying 41's VP, but would Baby Boomers blank on Richard M. Nixon? Hardly).
– 40 percent didn't remember Bo Jackson, arguably the greatest, all-around athlete of the 1980s. (He was also the star of Nike's 'Bo knows' global ad campaign. Bo may know, but Millennials sure don't know Bo).

I'll leave it to sociologists, historians and other experts to explain why so many Millennials seem to know so little about so much that came before. But, it doesn't bode well since, as we know, those who don't learn the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.

So, what do you Boomer and Millennial readers make of all this? How about you Gen X types? Why does the information gap exist? Perhaps, even more alarmingly, will the coming generation be even LESS aware of the recent past than their Millennial predecessors? If so, Archie Bunker would undoubtedly have called them "meatheads".

23 thoughts on “Hey nineteen

  1. That really is amazing (and sad, since ‘The Graduate’ was such an amazing film). Speaking of now vs. then, I was just working out in my gym and happened to notice Robert DeNiro being interviewed on some TV talk show. I guarantee many, many more Millennials know DeNiro from his role in the lamentable ‘Meet the Fockers’ series than they do from his breakout performance in ‘Taxi Driver.’

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Eddie2pt0. Sarah Palin is a very sad role model, regardless of what generation she represents. I think Katie Couric’s finest moment with CBS came when she asked Palin to name some of her favorite magazines and books, and the VP ‘wanna-be’ totally blanked. That said, relying on Wikipedia as your information source is an invitation to disaster. How can you search for a person, place or thing of the past if do you don’t know it existed in the first place?

  3. I figured; now you should ask them, “who is Marlon Brando?” They might mention The Godfather if we’re lucky.
    This movie was required watching in my house, and I was born in the mid-70s. Reason being, my grandfather was the first International Longshoremen Association (union) VP. His obit actually made the NYTs.

  4. I remember reading a story a while back about Dustin Hoffman, who was making a public appearance in front of a bunch of college students.
    During his talk, he mentioned “The Graduate,” to which he received blank stares. The majority of the kids in the audience had neither seen nor heard of the iconic film which launched Hoffman’s career.

  5. This was a very interesting read. Just a few things I’d like to throw into the discussion:
    I hope I don’t step on any toes with this one – Repman, you mentioned you worry about Generation Y’s future leaders given this gap in institutional knowledge, but I already have doubts with Generation X’s current leaders. Case in point – Sarah Palin. During the 2008 presidential election, I was alarmed every time I read another news article along the lines of “Sarah Palin Didn’t Know Africa Was a Continent.” To expand on this further, take a look at Fox’s show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.” This game show, which predominantly features Generation X’ers relying on Millenials to answer history questions, shows that even Generation X might have this information gap issue.
    I’ll admit, I wasn’t familiar with quite a few of the topics on the survey, which led me to question why. I found msherman’s observation that we are more focused on the future than the past to be a large component. With a strong interest in technology, I’m always skimming through gadget blogs and WSJ to learn about the latest analyst predictions and leaks of upcoming consumer electronics. When the iPhone 4 was found in the wild months before its release last year, the media went crazy. Nearly all large news sources picked up the story, even before Apple confirmed the phone was indeed a prototype.
    Finally, (as mentioned already) we rely all too much on Google search. I think most of Generation Y would ask the question “why do we need to know this when we have Wikipedia at our fingertips?”

  6. Values today are totally out of whack and we have upcoming generations who measure success and happiness by degree of wealth and notoriety. Immediate gratification is pandemic and why worry about an education when some sophomoric stunt can go viral on YouTube land you on GMA.

  7. Thanks for the input, Allimrusso. But, it seems as if you’re blaming the system for your generation’s lack of curiosity about the people, places and things of the recent past. I don’t think intellectual curiosity can be taught. One either has a thirst for knowledge or not.

  8. You’re pitching a shutout so far, Lunch. Not one of our Millennials has ever heard of ‘On the Waterfront.’ That’s the equivalent of my generation never having heard of ‘Gone With the Wind.’ By the way, the latter title is a fitting one to describe Gen Y’s interest in the past.

  9. I really enjoyed the post and reading the discussion that ensued RepMan! My 2 cents touches on previously stated points, how do you learn the importance & significance of a concept/culture/history without being taught it? And I actually know someone that fits into the characteristics of wanting to know anything and everything- he also loves reading, AM talk radio and the Turner Classic Movie Channel.

  10. Thanks for the insight, Lunch. I think it’s a generalization though, since I have encountered some Millennials who are positively obsessed with learning anything and everything, including what happened before 1990.

  11. I think it’s a “me-first” type mentality of the younger generations. And, this mentality is growing larger with each passing era. If a 19, 25 or 35 year-old doesn’t know something or someone, it’s as simple as consulting Google to find out (after an exasperated sigh for having to do something that’s not fun and exciting). Now, what’s really sad, is that they aren’t learning to learn, they are “learning” something only because they are told to or required to.

  12. Thanks for the post, DSalazar. I don’t think ‘fault’ is the right word, here. It is what it is. I guess I’m more curious to know why there isn’t a greater thirst amongst Gen Y types to know more about what came just before your arrival on the scene. Without such knowledge, I don’t know how you’ll have the perspective to make informed decisions. Or, because you don’t know about things such as Iran-Contra, how you’ll avoid making similar mistakes when your generation assumes power.

  13. The fault not lies not in our stars but in ourselves eh, jmarkgreen? As I said in an earlier response, I didn’t intend to use the word ‘fault’. It is what it is. Is it Boomers’ fault that many Millennials have little knowledge of the people, places and things prior to 1990? Perhaps. Maybe it’s our mediocre secondary school system’s ‘fault’ as well. I’m not sure. Regardless, our country’s future stands to be the real loser.

  14. I’ve encountered the exact same mindset, Julie. Instead of being interested in a person, place or thing foreign to them, the average Millennial merely shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Whatever.” Recent case in point: I was discussing the plot of some TV mini-series with some Gen Y office types and used the expression, “Red Herring”. The phrase was greeted by blank expressions. When I explained it was a plot device used to distract viewers, their response was a collective shrug.

  15. About a year ago, John McCain’s 20-something daughter appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” to talk about politics, among other topics.
    During the discussion, one of the panelists disagreed with her and brought up a point about the Reagan administration to challenge her argument. Her response? Something to the effect of, “Oh, I wasn’t born then.”
    That seems to be the response of many a millenial that I’ve come in contact with. If the event happened before the year they were born, they don’t feel responsible for knowing anything about it.
    Sad, but true.

  16. Allow me to play sociologist for a moment and shift some of the blame to the Boomers (this is what the Millennials do best). Perhaps, in the rush to adopt and fully embrace the technological revolution, the Boomers failed to adopt the story telling and communication skills that lead to information sharing between themselves and the Greatest Generation.
    The Boomers seem to be caught in the precarious position of riding the internet and technological wave while holding onto the traditional values and simplicities that shaped their generation. It seems reasonable to believe that this could result in a breakdown in communication with Millennials as well as a lack of understanding of events, people, places, and things (nouns in general).
    Of course, there are breakdowns in family structure, over-prescription of behavior correcting drugs, increased acceptance of individuality, and other potential causes that I could address, but I have text messages to respond to, links to share via Twitter, and people to stalk on Facebook…

  17. I start to wonder where this gap comes from. Is it our parent’s fault? Or is it technology’s fault? It might be a bit of both. Maybe because we were so occupied with technology that our parents just didnt have the time to spend telling us about the past. That would mean that back then, because The Greatest Generation was less distracted with technology, parents had more time to talk to their kids. It would be interesting to find figures on time spent with family now vs 100 years ago. I think we would see a huge time gap.
    I imagine back then it was, “Mom whats this?” and Mom would answer, “Well my Mom told me that….”. Now-a-days I can not only get facts about “this” but also chat about “this” with people all around the world. If it was up to me, sorry mom, I would choose the internet. We all know how verbal communication can get a bit “fishy” (referring to the extra inches fish grow when stories are told about them)

  18. Excellent post. I would just like to add a few thoughts. First of all, I can’t speak for the rest of my generation, but I would guess that we millenials know quite a bit about the Greatest Generation as well. I know that I was taught a great deal in middle and high school about WW2 and the post war boom, but relatively little about 60s and 70s counterculture, with the exception of the civil rights movement. That said, while I didn’t know who Mike Eruzione was, I did know about the miracle on ice (that wasn’t part of the survey question). Growing up in the Adirondack mountains, I played regular hockey games on that very rink in Lake Placid. Lastly, ask me anything you would like to about Steely Dan.

  19. Terrific stuff, msherman. Thanks so much for weighing in. Information overload and the disintegration of the traditional family are certainly factors in Gen Y’s lack of ‘institutional knowledge.’ But, that shouldn’t excuse Millennials from knowing key people, places and things from the immediate past. I do worry about what lies ahead when our future leaders know so little about the past. And, trust me, when I was a twenty something boomer, I was all about what was next. I was just as obsessed about the future as you and your peers are today. I just happened to know more about what went before.

  20. I agree with Josh on the fact that information overload plays a large part in widening the gap. Generation Y has access to exponentially more information than the Boomers. I think the family dynamic also contributes. Boomers grew up in a culture that valued family time where it was normal for generations to share stories and experiences. Largely due to advances in technology, Generation Y grew up in a time where it’s normal to be texting and surfing the web while in the same room as family and friends. While Boomers value history, Generation Y is more interested in the future than the past. Rather than learning about the past that helped create their present, Generation Y prefers focusing on the future. While Generation Y’s obsession on innovation is leading to advances that never seemed possible to the Boomers, I think it is important for a generation to be as equally interested in the past so they can make better decisions about the future. Unfortunately, I believe the gap will only widen as new technology is introduced, and information overload continues to make it difficult to sift through which places, peoples and things are worth passing on.

  21. I have two theories on this. One is defending my Generation Y and the other is probably what most Boomers assume.
    Pro Gen Y- Current information is so much more available for this generation. We can learn about live events happening at any place in the world at the click of a button. Our basic desire for knowledge is more than fulfilled with current events. If we’re watching a television show, possibly “Modern Family” not only can we watch every episode ever produced with relative ease, we can also read up on all of the actors on the show and see what other things they may have done. Now, while the fact that Chris didn’t know that Archie Bunker was the lovable racist from “All In The Family” is devastating to me as someone who calls him a close personal friend; I can still see where he feels his time is better spent watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld” reruns.
    Pro Baby Boomers- Gen Y’ers are lazy and self involved. Much like as you said yourself that the Baby Boomers are “The Greatest Generation”, Gen-Y’ers also believe that they are the chosen ones, which really ticks the Boomers off. As a Gen-Y’er I freely admit that some of my peers are less than motivated to begin any sort of semblance of a real life. We rely on our family more than past generations and living at home into our late 20’s is perfectly acceptable. Now I moved out when I was 19, but most of my friends are still gingerly living at home at 25 and have no issues commuting into Boston everyday with a lunch that mommy packed for them. So it is possible that we don’t respect our past or any of the knowledge that comes along with it.
    But I don’t believe that’s the reason that the Iran-Contra Affair or Dan Quayle aren’t part of our knowledge. I think Gen Y’ers have information overload and are processing all we can.
    Although, not knowing who Mike Eruzione is, could very well be the most tragic part of our generation, as the Miracle on Ice was the crowning moment of hockey in the USA. It will never be beaten, it will never be matched. I can make no excuse for our generation for missing out on that tidbit of knowledge.