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Our Rapidly Changing Culture

Recently a friend commented on a book he was reading by saying, “It feels dated because the author refers to books and writers that were popular when he wrote it back in 1986. The principles in the book hold up, they are timeless, but the reading of it made me feel old.”

This is a great reminder for every author if you are writing a contemporary novel or a non-fiction book. Of course there is no way to avoid this completely (unless you decide only to quote Shakespeare or the Puritans…which creates a new set of communication problems). However you can try to be aware of our rapidly changing culture.

A Generation is only Twenty Years Long

In Biblical studies it is generally understood that a generation is 40 years. In modern times it is 20 years or so. Google.com isn’t even 20 years old yet, but has changed a generation (it was founded on September 4, 1998).

If you are a writer, you can no longer assume that your audience will understand your cultural references. In a mere six years, today’s 18-year-olds will be adults…possibly with families and jobs and children…they will be reading your books and articles.

You will only be six years older.

The bestselling products of today will be a footnote in twenty years.

November 1997 the #1 novel in the USA was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

The bestselling music acts of 1997 included Jewel, Toni Braxton, Puff Daddy, R. Kelly, Spice Girls, Hanson, and Third Eye Blind.

The #1 grossing film was “Titanic” follewed by “Jurassic Park: Lost World” and “Men in Black.”

And, in 1997 Steve Jobs returned as the CEO of Apple, the company he helped launch, after it merged with his company NEXT.

The Beloit College “Mindset List”

Every year Beloit College creates a “Mindset List” which reflects the culture that the incoming Freshman class have grown up experiencing. It helps their faculty know how to relate to these incoming students. Click here for the Mindset List for the graduating class of 2021. (Don’t fail to read the discussion guide that goes along with each observation. Click here.)

I read this list every year and wonder at the speed of our cultural changes.

The college graduating class of 2021 was born in 1999. Think about it …

For the class of 2021 Zappos has always meant shoes on the Internet.
For the class of 2021 eHarmony has always offered an algorithm for happiness.
For the class of 2021 Justin Timberlake has always been a solo act (he will turn 40 the year they graduate).
For the class of 2021 Bill Clinton has always been Hillary Clinton’s aging husband.
For the class of 2021 they are the first generation for whom a “phone” has been primarily a video game, direction finder, electronic telegraph, and research library.
For the class of 2021 they are the last class to be born in the 1900s, the last of the Millennials —  enter next year, on cue, Generation Z! 

There are 60 observations in this year’s list.

Earlier Mindset Lists illustrate things even more dramatically. For this generation of future readers:

“Star Wars” turned 40-years-old in 2017.
MTV has never featured music videos.
Czechoslovakia has never existed.
They have never used a card catalog to find a book.
Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.
The Green Giant has always been Shrek, not the big guy picking vegetables.
They have grown up with bottled water.
Operation Desert Shield, aka “The Gulf War” (1990-91) happened almost a decade before they were born.
What does it mean to dial a phone? You push a few buttons on a square pattern.
Google is a verb.
They’ve only known them as a NBA team called the Washington Wizards…not the Washington Bullets.
Smoking has never been allowed on a US airplane flight.
Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.

Also, for these incoming Freshman, 9/11 happened when they were two years old. Pause for a moment and try to remember what major world changing event occurred when you were two or three? Then ask if it really changed the way you saw the world. Of course it didn’t…you were two. The parents were effected but the student was not. This means we have a new generation of readers who were only tangentially affected by 9/11. If you refer to the “new” war on terror be aware that it is no longer “new”.

Plus if you refer to a disastrous hurricane…remember that Katrina happened in 2005. Sandy was in 2012. Ivan in 2004. Andrew in 1992. Each reference could quickly date your material if you are not careful.

Novels set in the Vietnam War era are now being classified as “historical fiction.”

So, the next time you visualize the audience to which you are writing, realize that they don’t think like you, process information like you, or see the world the same way you do.

With all this change it is comforting to know that our Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

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