“Dig this guy cutting a rug out there like he’s Rerun or something.”
I’m standing at my company holiday party, chatting with a coworker next to the dance floor. He scrunches up his face in reaction to my comment. “Huh?”
Oh boy. Here we go again. “I said he’s cutting a rug — that means dancing — like the character Rerun.”
“Rerun of what?”
“Rerun. Rerun is a character. From the show What’s Happening!!”
“Oh. Right.” He punctuates his acknowledgment with a blank nod and smile.
I know this look. That’s him registering zero. I do a little Gene Gene the Dancing Machine shuffle to finish off the exchange as weirdly as possible.
I’m writing this piece from what I call the Pastless Present: a place where brilliant youth are reinventing our future but seem to be utterly unaware of anything has come before. More specifically, I work in tech. In fact, I’m a woman in tech, and I’m 42, which is kind of like being a unicorn tap dancing on a rainbow. I like to call myself the Wooderson of digital: I keep getting older and they just stay the same age. And as you might have guessed, my colleagues, with some rare exceptions, are men who fall under the Millennial/Gen Y umbrella.
Let me assure you that I speak firsthand, with clarity and kindness, when I tell you that this generation knows absolutely nothing — and I mean zip, zero, zilch — about pop culture from the past. Nothing. Not one thing.
Trivia is now a burdensome waste. It lives in the cloud, not in our brains.
It’s not that they don’t have a handful of points of reference. I know what they are. Memes, cat videos, Reddit, Star Wars, emojis, gaming. That’s pretty much the lot. But lean back in your chair in a meeting, pause and declare that “there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” and you’ll uncover 100% tabula rasa. They’re clueless. Nothin’.
Consider for a moment the sheer volume of cultural references are useful in the workplace:
You can pull a McEnroe.
You can tell someone to “Lighten up, Francis”
You can pull a Lenny and Squiggy “HELLO!” when you enter a room.
Perhaps channel Mr. Pink’s call for professionalism from Reservoir Dogs. (Imagine never having even seen the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs, by the way. Tragic, right?) I mean, of all things: “I love it when a plan comes together.”
This is useful stuff, folks!
As the heavens are my witness, I’ve said to a group of coworkers having lunch, “How about a little something, you know, for the effort,” and got blank stares. I ask you: What kind of people are we when we no longer quote Caddyshack?
I first uncovered this generational disability when I opened a can of seltzer in my office’s kitchen, tried to take a sip and spilled it all over myself. I turned to an engineer next to me. “This is when my drinking problem starts.”
He looked appalled.
For decades, these kinds of TV and movie references are what held Generation X together. Every one of them is like a secret handshake. There’s pride in always getting the joke, knowing the reference, responding in kind. It’s a wink — an acknowledgement of a shared experience: sitting on our respective living room carpets, rapt with episodes of Love Boat, The Banana Splits, Welcome Back Kotter and WKRP In Cincinnati. We all had nightmares after Mary Ingalls Wilder spontaneously went blind on Little House On The Prairie. (Srsly. WTF.) The squares may not always get it, but when I call someone soon to be nixed a “Fredo,” my Gen-X brothers and sisters know what I mean.
Why did this stop? We’re in an age where everything and anything under the sun is accessible online. There’s no need to struggle to remember things or question your memory. Google has the answers! Like, all of the answers! You can gorge yourself on pop culture. You can check every reference. You can be the most clever guy in the room. The thing is, I can tell you from experience that being the old Gen X stalwart with all the references at hand is generally considered to be a bit weird. Or rather, tremendously novel. “How do you know all this stuff?”
First people began to rest easy, knowing that they could retrieve anything if called upon — just wander over to Wikipedia. Then, one day, they just stopped. They stopped everything; no more gathering of info in their heads, and no seeking it out in the miracle of the internet, either. Trivia is now a burdensome waste. It lives in the cloud, not in our brains.
Yet I ask you, Generation X: What are they gonna say, man, when we’re gone? ‘Cause we die, when it dies, man. When it dies, we die. What are they gonna say about us? Are they gonna say, They were a kind generation, they were a wise generation? They had plans? They had wisdom? Bullshit, man!
There’s a bright side, though. If truly no one knows anything from the past,that means that there’s only the barrier of time between us and the inevitable second career of the Unknown Comic.
So we got that going for us, which is nice.