The Social Network (no, seriously!)

My buddy Michael has recently gone back to school for an undergrad degree in Social Work.  Chatting with me a few days ago, he remarked at the sheer lack of interaction between the students, who now are typically between the ages of 17 and 21.  “Nobody talks to anyone that they don’t know,” he said.  “They’ll just show up and sit and look awkward for the whole class.  You wonder how anyone meets anyone new.”

Now, Mike and I are both 31 years old, and what’s funny about this is that when I was 21 and 22 years old, I used to snicker at the thirtysomethings and older students who had decided to get their first or second degrees.  They were generally chatty, exhibiting a cheerfulness that made the rest of us look like a bunch of anti-social, stuck-up brats, always raised their hands and weren’t shy to challenge the professor on something he or she said that they didn’t agree with.  (I minored in Political Science: that happened a lot in my classes).

Looking to the other side of the age spectrum, I’ve always been amazed that it tends to be someone older who turns to talk to me while waiting for a bus or at the supermarket check out.  They’re not always that much older than me – maybe fortysomething or late thirties – but that’s usually the pattern.

Viewed together – the quiet undergrads hiding behind their laptops in lecture hall, the garrilous grey-hairs asking me about politics and writing while I pay for my milk and eggs – the picture seems obvious: as individuals, we seem to be losing the ability to connect with each other without using some kind of electronic device.

The Beloit Mindset List for graduates of 2015 shows that Cracked.com blogger John Cheese was correct when he said that the geek culture has not only brought its tech saavy to the mainstream, but also the social awkwardness that is part-and-parcel of being a nerd.  This generation doesn’t, for example, shop from retailers who lack a website, and have likely had a cellphone during their high school years.  Parents and educators frequently complain about their short attention spans and lack of empathy, usually attributed to their spending their formative years playing Xbox or otherwise not interacting with real-life children outdoors.

My generation – the first wave of Gen Y – shows some of these anti-social symptoms.  I know I definitely do: it’s a standing challenge for me to just walk up to people and say hello without any kind of external reason to do so.  This isn’t just about people skills, though, or just networking for one’s career.  It’s about building communities outside of the family you were born into, or the friends you made in class or at work.  Undergraduates don’t have to worry about this while they’re in school, but when they’re done, and they have to go into the world, what will happen?

This past August, I went on a date.  We met online, and she was 31 years old, so older than me by one year.  Though we didn’t have a second date, she did say something that stayed with me. Having lived in her own place in the Yonge and Eglinton area of Toronto for a few years, she said it was remarkably difficult to meet anyone.  The reason this stands out is because I have another friend who moved to the suburbs from Bloor and Spadina area of the city for that same reason.  There is just this paradoxical loneliness that you feel when you’re surrounded by thousands of other people.  Unless you move to the city with a core group of old friends, it’s remarkably difficult to make new ones.

Or so we’re led to believe.

We tend to give other people advice that we ourselves cannot follow.  I might tweet that there is a pretty girl at the cafe where I’m working on a manuscript or query letter, but can’t approach to say hello.  What do you think happens? Someone will tweet back “Just man up and go talk to her!”.  Intellectually, it doesn’t sound like a difficult plan: if someone else texted me that, I’d probably give them the same advice. But would I follow it myself?  (Not a chance, obviously…)

Interesting trivium that I heard from a friend: the 80s children – that’s me – grew up with one important rule, reinforced by parents, PSAs, teachers, and law-makers:  Don’t talk to strangers. My friend told me that this had two major effects: first, it actually led to a rise in child abuse at the hands of blood relatives and neighbours – kids were trained to run from people they didn’t know, but trust people they did, which made them more vulnerable – and it ingrained within us all a basic, unconscious rule: don’t trust people you don’t know.  Certainly, many 80s kids were saved from abuse and murder thanks to this idea, I won’t deny that.  Still, for the vast majority, you have to wonder at the impact the paradigm had on our social development.  After all, other kids were strangers, too.

Of all the skillsets that we don’t teach on a primary or secondary school curriculum, interpersonal ability has to be the most important one.  It’s just assumed that we’ll learn it on the playground, because that’s the way it’s always been.  Not anymore: more kids stay inside with their game consoles and their computers than go outside.  And when it is brought up as a potential new teachable, nobody wants to own it.  Like civics, basic spelling, and other subjects that tend to lose their funding when times are tough, teachers just assume the parents will impart such knowledge to their kids, and parents assume the same of their teachers.  But this buck-passing has to stop. This generation – mine and Gen Z, which is now just starting its first year of study at college – has the worst set of basic social skills in years, and it gets harder to make those connections when you’re out of school.

Gen Z can’t imagine how lonely it can be to be in one’s thirties.  Mind you, I’m one of the lucky ones.  My closest friends are still the ones I met while in university, and while I am lucky to have met numerous people at the jobs I’ve worked since, many of them I don’t see in person more than once a year, if that.  They exist primarily on my Facebook friend list.  The older generations – Gen X and the Boomers – still kick our asses when it comes to being able to just talk to people and make connections that don’t rely on an IP address or good cellphone reception.  Hell, members of the World War II generation – veterans and civilians alike – are even better than they are!  But each new generation seems to need more external excuses – a job, school, a dating site – to connect with each other.  The training wheels just stay on longer.

If we’re to continue to be a society that runs on iPads and Android phones, then one of at least two things needs to happen (or both).  Either we create and implement a basic curriculum for interpersonal skills starting in elementary school, or parents need to not raise these kids primarily on these devices.  Let them learn what it’s like to live unplugged for the first few years before we assimilate them into the iPhone collective.

Because as much as we may love this technology – I certainly do – we can’t have a totally virtual society.  What happens when the power goes out?  As much as the new generation is gaining talents that we never had, they’re also losing the simple skills that the old generation had in abundance.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to go up to someone and say “Hi” with ease and confidence?  To paraphrase one of John Lennon’s more famous quotes, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m sure I’m not the only one….

…Or am I just making a big fuss over nothing?  Are you one of those apparently rare twenty-to-thirtysomethings who can just socialize with anyone?  Let me know!

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One thought on “The Social Network (no, seriously!)

  1. As an interesting corollary to these ideas….I would be curious how many university newcomers would avoid having a residence roommate if possible. Former students expressed horror at the idea of sharing a room for 8 months with someone they had never met. On the other hand I had a room mate for 2 of my 3 years in rez. Hearing stories of the chapter house, where we were living 1 to a room throughout the 9 rooms, in the early 80s the house was home to over 25 guys!

    Which leads me to also wonder how things like rates of marriage (including common law)and separation/divorce will be affected.

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