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The kids are all right | Chuck's World

 

October 10, 2019



I’ve been reading your mail for 18 years. I just realized that sounds sort of illegal. Let me clarify.

I’ve been writing this column for 18 years. A few weeks following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I met with the publisher of this newspaper.

We came to an understanding about small stuff, deadlines and word counts, and as I recall we spent maybe 60 seconds discussing a name for this new column.

There’s a lesson here about carefully considering even the smallest decisions, understanding that some of these choices will have consequences when they’re spread out over a bunch of calendar pages, but I have no problem with the name.

I just forget about it, until someone writes me a letter and mentions it.

So, I’ve been getting mail from you for 18 years. Sometimes these have been actual letters, handwritten and stamped, usually sent to the Beacon office and winding their way to me eventually.

Most of this, though, is email. It’s not a lot; plenty of weeks go by without anyone being inspired to send me a note. Rarely are readers angry with me, although one lady got upset about some disappointment I’d expressed about George W. Bush’s presidency.

She wrote me a brief letter to let me know she’d be initiating a grassroots campaign to erase my byline and end my stellar career in journalism. I think she must have gotten distracted.

But most of it is fun, just touching base and sharing stories. Over these 18 years, then, I’ve gathered a lot of anecdotal data about who reads newspapers these days, and who doesn’t.

I was 43 when this began, the parent of a teenager and an 11-year-old, the husband of a seminary student. This bewildered me, my children growing up in front of my eyes, my life changing in predictable, conventional, and inexplicable ways.

And high school students wrote to me, back then. It wasn’t overwhelming, just the occasional note from a younger perspective, but all sorts of people seemed to be reading the paper.

I haven’t heard from a younger reader in years, though.

I began this firmly in the Dad stage of life, but I’m in a different stage now, harder to pinpoint but definitely on the senior citizen spectrum. I can’t imagine why a teenager would read this column, and if they do, there’s certainly no compulsion to tell me about it.

Some of those original teenagers will still comment, although they’re now in their 30s, often with children of their own. They’ve usually moved away, and I suppose they check in every once in a while to see if home is still the same.

Anecdotal evidence is not data, I know. Still, readers often tell me their ages, so I have some sort of idea. I also understand the changes that have occurred in journalism over the past 20 years, so none of this is a surprise.

I suspect that, for many young people, reading a local newspaper is an archaic and uninteresting thing to contemplate.

I’m suddenly unfamiliar with contemporary teenagers, although it hasn’t been all that sudden. Friends my age are now mostly either focused on grandchildren or waiting for them to arrive. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to the lives of people born in this century who aren’t my grandson.

It’s the other ones I think about. The ones in high school when I began this column. The ones who are creating those grandbabies now. The ones who still reach out, occasionally.

We called them Generation Y back then, although the term “millennial” was already being tossed around. Their parents were mostly late boomers like me, people who became adults in the late 1970s and 1980s.

It’s no surprise that these cute names for large age cohorts have become lodged in our collective awareness. It’s convenient shorthand. The truth is more inconvenient.

A younger writer I admire speculated recently that when he reaches his 50s, older people will still be referring to younger ones as millennials. I take his point about inappropriate synonyms, if not his logic (millennials will be the older people in this scenario, obviously).

Still, I tend to get riled up if I hear someone around my age using “entitled” or “participation trophy” in a reference to this age group. These are my kids you’re talking about. They didn’t ask for the trophies, and their sense of self isn’t based on an engraved piece of junk.

It’s based on fighting an endless war in the names of the rest of us. It’s based on entering adulthood as the economy was crumbling and rents were rising, burdened with debt from a higher-education system they didn’t create and a future that looks increasingly warm (not in a good way).

“Millennial” is not a synonym for “youth,” in other words; the oldest of this group are going to turn 40 very shortly. They are the grownups now. They are our movie stars. They create the technology we use every day. They are the future as well as the present.

And they might be the last age group to have a memory of reading a newspaper regularly, although they certainly follow current events. They just might not be as interested in the trivia of a 60-something, although, again, sometimes they write. They know who they are.

And they know there are no trophies. Stop saying that, please.

 

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