By Tom Robotham
Recently in a public speaking class I teach at Old Dominion University, I decided to show my students a YouTube video of a commencement address that Peter Dinklage gave to the 2012 class of Bennington College in Vermont. I’d had the good fortune of witnessing it in person, as it happened to be the year my daughter was graduating from the school. It was arguably the best commencement address I’d ever heard so I thought it would be ideal material for a group discussion of the elements of a powerful public speech.
Before I pressed play, I asked my students how many of them were familiar with Game of Thrones, the show in which Dinklage stars. To my surprise, not a single student had seen it—and many had never even heard of it.
I’d long since become accustomed to getting blank looks in response to older cultural references, from the Beatles to The Godfather. But Game of Thrones? I’ve never been an avid fan of the show myself, but most of my younger friends are obsessed with it. Moreover, it was nominated for a gazillion 2019 Emmy Awards and ended up winning Best Drama.
It did eventually dawn on me that many of my students were only 10 years old when the series debuted; their parents probably wouldn’t have allowed them to watch it even if the kids had wanted to. Gradually, the realization grew on me that my Millennial friends, whom I think of as representing the “new” generation, are already perceived as “old” in some cases, by members of Gen-Z, which demographers categorize as anyone born after 1995. Most of my students, in fact, were either infants on 9/11, or born after that fateful day.
I’ll acknowledge that I’m reflecting on this in part because it reminds me of how old I am. As someone who was born smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, I’m growing acutely aware that I will soon be part of America’s oldest generation. Even the youngest members of the Silent Generation—the one that preceded mine—are already in their mid-70s, and, needless to say, most of the WWII Generation has already died off.
My intention here, however, is not to grumble about today’s “kids”—not even remotely. On the contrary, the crop of students I have this semester is, by and large, the most engaged I’ve had in years. On the whole, they strike me as smart, diligent, respectful and serious about the prospect of trying to build foundations of learning that will support them in the future.
What they lack is anything that can be called a common culture.
This is not simply my impression. It is their impression as well.
In recent weeks I’ve talked with my classes—roughly 130 students in all—about this issue. I’ve kicked off the discussion by talking about one of the most iconic cultural phenomena of my lifetime: the debut appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show—an event witnessed by 73 million viewers at a time when the U.S. population was under 200 million. Nineteen years later a whopping 106 million people watched the final episode of M.A.S.H. No TV show would ever come close to matching that. But as late as late as 2004, when the cast of Friends bid their farewell, more than 52 million Americans tuned in to watch.
Millennials, who grew up in the age of cable and AOL chat rooms, and thus had far more entertainment options at their disposal, still stood on such common ground, to a large degree, with widely shared experiences like reading Harry Potter.
After citing these examples, I’ve asked my Gen-Z students if they can point to any comparable cultural phenomenon for their generation—any touchstone, in other words, to which most people their age can relate: a book, band, film or TV show.
In my most recent after-class conversation with two 18-year-old students, one of them quickly said, “Instagram.”
Fair enough, I said. But that’s a medium—a delivery system. I’m talking about content.
“Oh. Well, then, no—not at all,” she responded.
THE EXPLANATION for this seems fairly clear: It’s due in large part, if not entirely, to the atomization of mass media.
When I watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I had few other broadcast options. I could have tuned into whatever was on ABC or NBC. In New York City, we also had three independent stations, plus channel 13—the local “educational” (i.e, public broadcasting) channel. Smaller markets had even fewer choices.
Today, the choices aren’t simply broader. They’re unlimited, for all intents and purposes. YouTube alone offers at least a billion videos, according to several sources.
The question is, what effect is this having on our culture—and thus on the future of American society?
An optimist might point to the democratization of media. Today, there are fewer and fewer cultural curators—television program directors, powerful movie executives, radio deejays and the like. Moreover, anyone can become a producer and distributor of recordings or films.
Ironically, a pessimist might also point to this democratization. With the fading away of professional tastemakers, all things are equalized: the most inane YouTube videos can go viral and outpace—in audience attraction—the highest quality films, television programs or musical recordings.
Ever since the advent of television, of course, cultural junk has been in abundance, alongside quality programming. But professional critics used to guide us in our selections. The best of them were educators, teaching us to watch or listen with ever-greater discernment. Now—in an age in which anyone with a blog can be a “critic,” regardless of knowledge or writing ability—the professional critic has also lost influence.
Regardless of what you think about critics, the fact remains that any semblance of a common popular culture is rapidly disappearing. The commonality was always limited to specific generations, to a large degree—although it does occur to me that when I was growing up I was as thoroughly familiar with the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers as I was with the work of Sam Peckinpah, thanks to those aforementioned curators on New York City’s WPIX.
Today there’s no more common culture even within Gen-Z—no more Woodstocks or Harry Potters or touchstones of any kind. This may, in the end, prove to be a good thing—far be it from me to make predictions about the future of this country and humankind. But at the moment it does worry me, for their sake. I have a sense that members of this new generation are coming of age feeling more and more isolated from one another, as each drifts alone in the cyber-sea, struggling to make sense of the world.