Switching on to a new generation gap

As YouTube and Netflix replace the telly, we're losing a set of shared references between age groups

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

I was recently talking to an intelligent 24-year-old Cambridge graduate. The conversation turned to TV comedy, and I mentioned Vic Reeves. The graduate had never heard of him. Nor had she heard of Bob Mortimer. This would have surprised me, but it’s happening a lot. Not Vic’n’Bob specifically — anyone who was on TV more than five minutes ago. We now have the first generation to be culturally cut off from its elders.

Over the past couple of years I have met twenty-somethings who have never heard of The Two Ronnies, of Only Fools and Horses, who have never seen an episode of Alan Partridge. A friend encountered a mid-twenties graduate (also Cambridge) who loves University Challenge but had never heard of Bamber Gascoigne. Another has a colleague, in a senior backroom position, who had never heard of Smashie and Nicey.

This isn’t an old fart despairing of young turks just because they’re different. Every generation enjoys new stuff — that’s how it should be. ‘Young blood must have its course, lad,’ as Charles Kingsley tells us. The problem is that for the first time ever the youngsters don’t know the context through which their blood is coursing.

When I was growing up in the 1980s I liked The Young Ones, Smith and Jones, Spitting Image. But I was aware of the stuff that had come before them. Sometimes the old timers made me laugh (Tony Hancock, Ronnie Barker), sometimes they didn’t (Tommy Cooper, Harry Secombe). What counted, though, was that I knew they were there, had some sense of what they’d been like. It helped define the modern programmes more clearly, made you appreciate how revolutionary they were. Indeed The Young Ones spelled out that rebellion, in the scene where Vyvyan ripped through a screen showing the opening credits of The Good Life, complaining that it was ‘so bloody NICE!’ (For the record, I loved both The Young Ones and The Good Life.)

How has it happened? Why do those born in the 1990s know nothing, as the Spanish waiter they won’t have heard of used to say? Simple — theirs is the first generation that has never been able to count its TV channels on one hand. They choose from a billion programmes on a million channels — or, increasingly, they shun channels altogether, consuming their content entirely on YouTube, hopping from one ‘if you liked this…’ recommendation to the next. We’ve known for a while that this is splintering twenty-somethings: they often love programmes their contemporaries have never heard of. Andy Warhol, as someone has pointed out, was wrong about the future — it’s not that we’ll all be famous for 15 minutes, it’s that we’ll all be famous to 15 people.

But what we hadn’t realised until now is that the new technology would also splinter the generations, putting a gap between today’s viewers and their predecessors. In the old days, television was a box that sat in the corner of the living room, and everyone watched the same thing on it. Even when cheap portables came along and teenagers could watch Channel 4 in their bedroom, they still saw what their parents were watching on BBC1 downstairs when they went past them to retrieve unhealthy snacks from the kitchen. Looking in the Radio Times to see when The Tube was on, you’d see the names Sid Little and Eddie Large. If you had any sense you wouldn’t watch them, but you knew the names. Now, however, everyone is in a different corner of the room, earphoned up to their own device, existing in separate universes. They’re all wonderful universes, and I like many of them myself. It’s just that I know how they’re linked to the universes that went before, but the young don’t. It’s sad that this sense of growth, development — and sometimes of outright rejection — has been lost.

There are also practical difficulties. Conversations are becoming harder, because of all those references people don’t get. Already I’ve had to retire my Roy Kinnear anecdote (a pity, because it’s an absolute belter). Pub quizzes are getting harder to write, too. I regularly used to ask a question to which the answer, when you pieced together the clues, was ‘Don’t tell him, Pike.’ That episode of Dad’s Army was first shown in 1829, and by law had to be repeated on BBC2 every Saturday at 6.30pm. So the question was a banker. You could rely on everyone in the pub being familiar with the line.

Not any more though. Never mind not knowing who Arthur Lowe is, the yoot don’t even know what a channel is. The TV set is on the dump, and history is out the window.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mark Mason is the author of The Importance of Being Trivial and of quizzes at several London pubs including the Prince of Wales, Highgate.

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Show comments
  • Teacher

    My twenty something children watch bizarre things I haven’t heard of on Media portals I have not come across of on devices I can’t afford. A rum do.

    Nevertheless , the son watches old episodes of ‘Yes, Minister’ and the daughter watches something called ‘The Great British Bake off’, a contemporary BBC programme for the less expensively educated. So I think there is an element of ‘mix and match’ in the viewing of the young.

    • JimHHalpert

      You’ve had so many children you’ve lost count? It’s good to see someone doing his patriotic duty!

      • Teacher

        Ho ho. Could have done with a hyphen. Can’t afford punctuation with all these kids. And as for sense…

  • Ludo

    The old do nothing but pull the rug from under the young. Taking all the land, making young adults live with their parents or in sheds. The young owe them absolutely nothing.

    • terence patrick hewett

      Whinge, sob, sob.

      • Ludo

        As a child, it should worry you a lot more than it concerns me.

        • terence patrick hewett

          Actually I don’t do one-upmanship: what I will say is in this world you can’t win every battle: the trick is to win more battles than you lose.

          • terence patrick hewett

            But on a more amusing note shall we examine the average age of Tory and Labour party members

            Now the average age of Tory voters is 68 years.


            But the average age of Labour party members is rather more difficult to gauge: becuase it seems they do not wish to tell us

            14 years ago a Sheffield University study said it was 50 years


            Try and find some figures and you will search in vain: it seems they wish to give the impression that they are a thrusting young go-getting party: snort-snigger.

            If I may quote a gent from the Graun:

            “Sometimes the Guardian makes it very hard for us ageing, mainly white, inhabitants to put up with the continuing denigration thrown our way. Some of us have quite progressive ideas despite our age and ethnicity and would no more dream of voting for the Tories or Ukip than we would for the LibDems. If we are such an embarrassment, just say and we’ll go elsewhere and then you’ll be well and truly f*cked.”

    • davidofkent

      Your attitude will ensure that you will never achieve anything in life.

      • Ludo

        You could have fooled me.

        • UKSteve

          I would imagine that applies to 100% of people.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      So do the obvious, seek your fortune in the colonies.
      Jack, Japan Alps

    • Trofim

      taking all the land? The world’s still full of land, and the young, lucky for them, live in a globalised world and are free to seek their fortune wherever they want. When I was 18 you were only allowed to take £76 maximum on holiday and going to Spain was pushing the expenses of an ordinary person to the limit.

    • UKSteve

      Well I think you should stick to Ludo.

      If we don’t get a pension. you won’t either, because of the way the system works.

  • trace9

    But what about the wireless??

  • Richard

    With fewer and fewer cultural commonalities, the existence of a nation (as opposed to a country) becomes impossible. This fits nicely with the socialist dream of a flattened, faceless society that offers no opposition. We become consuming units, with no rallying points. Immigration, then, to boost the numbers of socialist-voting people, can be unopposed, because there is nobody left to oppose it, and there is no basis on which to oppose it. Labour never created the situation (indeed, it educated the youth to become morons and wannabe morons) but it does fit very nicely into their worldview.

    • I wouldn’t let the Left off the hook that easily.

    • Alex

      You do realise a nation-state is a fundamentally socialist concept? Isn’t the idea of everyone in an atomised bubble pursuing their own individual thing and never relating to anyone outside of it the distillation of the past half-century of right-wing thought? You know, where the elites take away power from people by cutting them off from each other so they don’t realise they are more powerful when taking collective action?

      • Richard

        The roots of the nation state lie in the tribal collective, in which people co-operated in order to achieve for their tribe. There were factions within the tribe, but most remained loyal to the tribe (rather like the Dominions electing to support Britain in the War). Those who weren’t were traitors and expelled or somehow vanquished. It was only socialist to the extent that the etymology of that word includes “society”. The acquisition of goods and bulging reticule were not a part of that ambition, and indeed the rise of capitalism changed the state into something other than the nation-state, turning it into a capital-state. In the capital-state, money accumulated in concentrations or knots around the wealthy, mirroring the concentrations or knots of political power around the political elites. The divide-and-rule strategy had gradually weakened by compromise with the non-elite in Britain, but economics exposed another dimension to this strategy of “cutting them off from each other” since people are far more perturbed in general by economic inequality than power inequality (see me through on this) which is what led to the rise of socialism, and particularly British socialism. A large degree of political emancipation had already occurred here, unlike in, say, Russia. The thrust of socialism in the UK was the destruction of money as definer of position, unlike the Continental version, which was doing two things at once (political power and economic power). In other words, the nation-state is not what we have had in Britain for a very long time, but bonds of kinship had given the illusion that that is what we had. For a long time the UK has been a capital-state, with ongoing battles between the capitalists and the workers. The Labour Party has sought to remove that difference, and in so-doing also destroy the capital-state.

        • Alex

          Much material to think on. Thank you for the response. However, I am still given to say that the nation-state is socialist, if by socialist we understand statist and centralised with the state as the only authority, which is what most people mean when they say socialism. If you look at the absolutist monarchies of kings like Louis XIV it is imposition of civil institutions such as French law, language and taxation on such naturally separate nations as Occitania, so as to consolidate the king’s holdings into a single polity represented by his person, and thus render the soil barren for any nobles who wanted to rebel.

          It is a gross oversimplification to call the nation-state the same thing as a collective tribal will. Tribes can only act harmoniously if they are under 150 people, otherwise you have to have a form of politics to establish power structures and civil institutions to ensure efficient use of resources and police people who would otherwise not feel instinctively connected to the tribe and would therefore tend to, say, steal stored food. You can nation-build and appeal to ethnicity, language and culture to do so, but it takes centuries to make it stick and a lot of coercion. A few repeats of Dad’s Army aren’t going to do much.

          The bottom line for me is that your assertion that socialists/left-wingers want a society which is atomised and without rallying points flies in the face of historical leftist movements. As far as I know all statist and republican countries, from Louis XIV to Stalin, have elevated the secular centralised state to the status of a religion and expected everyone to get behind it as a way of artificially and coercively building a nation. You get things promoted monopolistically for mass consumption by the government like Trabants and majority-language-only law and doing Shakespeare at school and the BBC and the Little Red Book.

          Surely individual pursuits and social atomisation, with some concessions to what we might call the neo-tribal idea of the family, the local community, the online fandom for Game of Thrones or other grassroots collectives negotiated on individual terms, are more the territory of the libertarian or laissez-faire right?

  • Freedom

    So true: my husband is an American (private) high school teacher, and he says that the cultural isolation of his students has become more pronounced over the past nine years that he’s been teaching (he was in finance before that). His first students still had an interest in WWII. The new kids have no interest in anything outside their social media, and they are very conformist within that. He sees a deadening of individuality, as the students more and more mirror each other’s opinions and seem the same.

    Glad it’s not me or my children (I don’t have any, which for the sake of my blood pressure and anxiety is just as well.)

    • Livia

      People have been saying similar things about upcoming generations since forever. They usually start to notice it just around the time they hit middle-age.

      • Freedom

        You know, I really don’t think so. I don’t think they have been saying that the latest group of young people are insular or culturally isolated. Nobody said that about MY generation (Gen X) or about my parents’ one (Baby Boomers). Or about their parents….

        Technology is a game-changer, because it connects people instantly as they could not be connected in the past, and because it allows them to live in a kind of exclusive bubble. My husband’s comments aren’t a generational whinge; they’re a simple observation. And as I said, it’s got worse or more pronounced within the span of under a decade.

  • Matt L

    I’m a 28-year-old American and I can say this phenomenon is much the same across the pond. My parents were born in the 1940s and I was raised with my parents watching a steady diet of “Turner Classic Movies” (our black-and-white re-runs channel). In comedy, I got a taste of Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Benny Hill, Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks. In drama, Spencer Tracy, Audrey & Katherine Hepburn (no relation), Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines, Rex Harrison, et cetera. I still had my own things: I liked Jim Carrey and Robin Williams movies, I liked the 1990’s Batman cartoon and Finnish Power Metal and Japanese Anime. However, I was at least familiar with what came before and could place it in context. I delighted in being the one kid in the audience to catch that backward looking reference aimed at the adult chaperons, but among my own generation I feel like Benjamin Button It’s not that I don’t know who Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart are, it’s that they think Robin Williams was that guy in those dark and serious movies like What Dreams May Come, Insomnia, and One-Hour Photo. This isn’t just precocious old-fogeyism, I feel like we’re turning into Goldfish (except apparently that bit about the 30-second memory is apocryphal, so we’ll be the only ones), and it’s definitely accelerating. Are we becoming less curious about what came before us? Are we less keen to let our children know who we are? Has technology become so conveniently distracting that parents no longer see the need to interact with their children?

    • Kenneth O’Keeffe

      My main problem is that I know who Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart are, and I really, really wish I didn’t! I’m terrified that having that entirely useless information in my head is wasting capacity that could otherwise be used more productively.

  • Kitty MLB

    Oh come on they show Only Fools and Horses and The Good Life
    every Christmas..and they’re still amusing. I am struggling to
    remember what I watched growing up..and I’m struggling..
    it wasn’t in the dark ages..this isn’t a good sign.

  • rtj1211

    There is nothing new about this you know. My generation, born in the 1960s, had little in common with our parents’ generation. They were born into the Empire, lived through a world war and had assumptions, however fallacious, that Britain and the British Empire was a benevolent and highly agreeable concept. My generation grew up through the disjointed farce that was the 1970s, learning the hard way the total rubbish being spouted to us as ‘education’ and knew, without needing to be told, that Britain was up the creek without an paddle in financial-, societal- and industrial terms.

    My parents’ generation had generous tax breaks on mortgages. My generation saw them phased out and endowment policies become a millstone. My parents’ generation had jobs for life, we were ‘downsized’, ‘rationalised’ ‘required to career shift’ as a matter of course. My parents’ generation believed that graduates had a right to superiority, my generation learned the hard way that it counted for zilch. The Empire bred top-down tribalism, my generation’s salvation was in building from the bottom up.

    The parents of today’s young are reasonably internet-savvy, it’s their parents who aren’t. The gap is between today’s young and their grandparents. The 50 year olds of today used email by 2002, had a mobile phone by 2005 at the latest and are au fait with tablets, if not with Java. We buy online as a matter of course.

    As for common experiences, there is still sport, there is still art, there is still music, there is still eating together.

    TV really is a most irrelevant part of intergenerational relations……..unless your interactions are so perfunctory, false and walking on eggshells as to make the term ‘relationship’ somewhat exaggerated………

    • Alex

      Growing up in the 1970s sounds rather strikingly like growing up today – hardly surprising really. This is a percipient comment.

  • UKSteve

    It’s horses for courses. For me, it was Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, Blackadder and Yes, Minister.

    These days you have Marcus Brigstocke, Jo Brand and Sue Perkins. Chronically unfunny, and the 6:30 comedy slot on radio 4 sounds like lectures on Marxist egalitarianism and multikulti advice.

  • Michael Pierce

    ‘Don’t tell him Pike’ lives! It came as a welcome relief
    from excessive boredom during a recent coach trip from Amsterdam to Calais and it
    still had an edge on the other antidote to ennui which we were offered, namely ‘The
    Two Ronnies.’