- - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The generation gap has morphed into a generations gap. Like everything else in our swoosh, swipe, snap and selfie-obsessed world, the gaps multiply and separate with the speed of sound. What used to make up meaningful moral conflicts between parents and children, a guide to the future, have proliferated into “process differences” between various age groups, abetted by changes in swiftly changing values.

How you communicate becomes more important than what you say.

In the past adults called the shots and the following generation rebelled, and now it’s generations X, Y and Z rebelling against each other, exploiting the latest update of electronic trinkets. An anthropologist might recognize these conflicts as “tribal,” not generational.

Differences between social attitudes and fashion trends, moral perspectives and achievement goals have always created gaps between generations, but the separations leading to those gaps today spring mainly from the different means of communicating, rather than the content of that communication.

For Generation Z, the youngest adults among us, email is for communicating only with old people, “the digital equivalent of putting on a shirt and tie,” writes Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal. “Many of them used tablets before using laptops, streaming before downloads and chat before email.” They’ve moved on, and email is a relic for dealing with old fogeys.

We haven’t begun to calculate what this portends for future understanding, but lots of people are taking notes and asking questions. The implications on politics, and how we elect leaders, is profound. More than ever, the medium is the message.

The most threatened by these changes are those who have lost control of the means of communication. Aging seniors find themselves dependent on their children and grandchildren to bring them up to speed with the latest technology. Unlike the elderly in the past, who were the comforting wise old heads, dispensing their accumulated knowledge earned through long-life experience, the elderly today are toddlers on the Internet. They must rely on the technically competent teenagers to teach them how to use the latest updates of computers and smart phones. It’s an uneasy dependency.

Older tweeters in public life, up-to-date techies or not, have less trouble with the latest technology than with their own impulse to send hasty, damaging tweets for which they must apologize. Donald Trump, who rarely expresses regrets for anything he does, confessed to racing ahead of good judgment when he tweeted that unflattering photograph of the wife of Ted Cruz, next to a glamorous studio shot of his wife, a professional model. Heidi Cruz, campaigning for her husband, tells Megyn Kelly of Fox News that she was spared having to acknowledge it because “I don’t tweet.” (Isn’t that refreshing?)

Hillary’s problem with her emails might never have happened if she had grown up with the new technology. As a boomer, the message came to her late. In taking shortcuts for convenience, she made her official emails vulnerable to hacking, and now she’s paying the price.

Generations who grow up on short, informal, electronic bursts of communication confront hazards of a different sort. Sloppy writing habits of short texts, abbreviations and slang will make it difficult for them to find work that requires the discipline of carefully thought-out ideas, put down in neatly written form.

Educators observe that the new electronic mode of communication may be as radical today as the printing press was in 15th century. Instead of expanding the ability to read books, electronic communications run the risk of addicting the young to the medium. They’ll suffer self-imposed isolation in social situations, with the tiny screen the focus of attention.

David Denby, who visited three high school English classes for his book, “Lit Up,” observed problems for appreciating literature in an adolescent world saturated with mobile devices. By the time the screen-obsessed generation is 15 or 16 years old, “reading anything demanding and time-consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once.”

Neuroscientists observe that the brain in adolescence still has a genuine capacity to change, to expand for learning. They call age 15 the “sweet spot” for enlarging literary education, but can’t figure out how to develop and encourage an appetite for reading when it’s in constant competition with smart phones, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

A Pew survey last year reported that 92 percent of teens say they go online daily, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, but 1 in 4 say they go online “almost constantly.” If that doesn’t surprise, it should dismay. In one of the cruelest remarks in the sparring between the generations, one high school student, no fan of the printed page, told David Denby that “books smell like old people.” Not a good omen.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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