What do you know and when did you know it? | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Oct 05, 2016

A guy once walked up to Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, Tip. How have you been?”

O’Neill, not exactly someone who minced words, said, “Look, young fella. I meet a lot of people in my line of work and can’t remember everybody’s name. How about you come up to me and introduce yourself first?”

The guy smiled and nodded, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, Tip. I’m Robert Redford.”

This is a funny anecdote about celebrity, maybe, or maybe something else, but it’s not funny at all if you don’t know who Tip O’Neill was, or who Robert Redford still is.

I’ve been interested in generational theory for a while now, although not in a fancy-pants way. In a functional way.

You can look up generational theory. It’s a real thing. You’ll see the names Strauss and Howe mentioned a lot.

And while it’s all very fascinating, particularly the Strauss-Howe stuff, it feels a little like astrology, which might actually teach you something about the cosmos if you really work at it. The rest, of course, is just pretend.

As is generational theory; that is, the idea that we belong to a particular club in which we all, more or less, have shared experiences that have shaped our lives. The obvious arbitrary nature of this makes the whole thing fascinating speculation, but just speculation.

But I think about it a lot, and for practical reasons: I wonder about references. I wonder who knows what, who remembers what and who isn’t interested.

I read a story last week in which a young person was interviewed about voting for a third-party candidate and asked if he/she worried about a “Ralph Nader” effect on the election.

To which our young person responded, appropriately, “Who’s Ralph Nader?”

That’s what I worry about, or at least question, whenever I get in the mood to reflect backward.

I’m sort of rescued from a sad fate, throwing out dozens of dated references, by demographics: The people who might be clueless about Ralph Nader aren’t the ones, mostly, reading newspapers.

But from time to time, I find myself interacting with other human beings in the real world. I’d like them to understand what I’m referring to. I’d like to not appear as though I sprang from some ancient culture, long since dead.

I’d like people to understand my jokes.

As interesting as it is to read the theories, particularly the Strauss-Howe book “The Fourth Turning,” I think I see the flaw. Strauss-Howe and others tend to measure generations in roughly 20-year increments.

I have a new way. I made it up all by myself.

Since we already tend to generalize decades (the 1960s, the 1940s, etc.), I say we skip the clever names and just focus on high school.

It’s hard to argue that these are formative years for most of us, since we enter as shapeless blobs of acne and leave as legal adults, ready to vote or serve.

What happens in the world is viewed through our teenage prisms, sometimes politics and other current events but mostly culture. This is where the references are hatched, unknown a decade before and fading quickly by the next.

So here’s my new plan: Anyone who spent more than two years in high school during a particular decade belongs to that generation. This is also arbitrary, but at least it’s a more manageable group.

This seems much more effective than the 20-year collections, which really make little sense.

In some models, both George W. Bush (age 70) and Barack Obama (age 55) belong to the same generation. It makes more sense to me to say that Bush is a 1960s and Obama is a 1970s.

If you straddle two decades, such as Stephen Colbert (born in 1964, also considered by some to be a Baby Boomer), who began high school in 1978 and graduated in 1982, you are called a “Colbert.”

As in “I’m a 70s-80s Colbert.” Write this stuff down.

Again, this is astrology. Your results may differ. And not everyone fits neatly into the cultural milieu of their high school years.

Some of my favorite films were made decades before I was born, and I tend to prefer music from the 1960s when it comes to pop. But this is the nature of artificial constructs: They work well in certain situations, not so much in others.

My takeaway is to buck conventional wisdom and dismiss the idea that we have short memories. We just have specific memories, frozen in the cerebral cortices of teenagers.

If anything influences the people we become (and I have my doubts in these general terms), it’s those.

And then we gather new ones, and process, and try to integrate with our formative years, and some of us do better than others, but I still suspect most of us are solidly grounded in our eras.

I’m not sure it matters all that much. Don’t know Ralph Nader? It’s OK.

But if you decide to branch out, discover what happened before you were around, and what’s happening now that may be slightly off your radar, well. You could go all the way.

That’s a quote.

From Howard Cosell, whom I imagine no one much under the age of 45 remembers, which I believe makes my point. He was a famous sportscaster.

He was also an Aries, if that helps.

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