What if 60 year olds ran around saying things like, “That’s totes-amaze-balls!” or “She’s hella cool”? What if college kids still said, “Far out, dude!” or “Gnarly, man!” without meaning it in an old school ironic way?
It’s a little awkward to imagine the older generations using the jargon of the young… but not as awkward as it would’ve been 20 years ago. Here’s a prediction: 20 years from now, language will be far less generationally Balkanized, and this shift will bring about the end of the generation gap as we know it. Here’s why I think this:
Language gets shared across networks
Language evolves. It’s always changing, never static. And one of the strongest ways for a group to identify itself is for it to develop its own, modified language.
Networks and age are no longer as correlated as they once were
Historically, networks were largely bounded by age. School kept us segregated by age. Career paths and age were strongly correlated. So when we modified the language, those changes tended to spread within our groups to other people our own age. But those age-restrictions are breaking. Social media lets us communicate with anyone. Schools are mixing classes to create tracks based on ability. Corporate America is more and more project based. This blurring across age groups provides new pathways for language to travel. Suddenly, it’s as if we all have access to an older brother to teach us all the words we’re not supposed to know, and a younger brother to share them with, too.
The story continues: pop culture has gone meta.
For Gen X, pop culture was still a shared experience. We all saw E.T. on the same weekend, and we all saw the same version. No mash ups. Come Monday, an entire generation went to school saying “E.T. phone home” in the same, Speak-and-Spell robovoice.
Since then, pop culture has become a meta concept: the idea is the same for everyone, but the experience isn’t. For example: Facebook is a shared experience, but no two people experience it quite the same way.
The resulting fragmentation of our experiences provides all sorts of new paths for language to evolve.
Age is just one of many ways we organize ourselves these days. And with this flexibility comes changes in how we share language… which in turn makes us think differently about who we identify with (because, again, we tend to identify with people who talk the same as us). All of which means, we may be seeing the end of the generation gap as we know it…
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.