Anatomy of an Internet Joke

In the old days people would tell you jokes and anecdotes in person, but in these modern times they send them around in emails.  I got one the other day that sparked my interest,

A stunning senior moment

Apparently, a self-important college freshman attending a recent football game took it upon himself to explain to a senior citizen sitting next to him why it was impossible for the older generation to understand his generation. “You grew up in a different world, actually an almost primitive one,” the student said, loud enough for many of those nearby to hear.

“The young people of today grew up with television, jet planes, space travel, man walking on the moon. Our space probes have visited Mars. We have nuclear energy, ships and electric and hydrogen cars, cell phones, computers with light-speed processing …and more.”

After a brief silence, the senior citizen responded as follows:

“You’re right, son. We didn’t have those things when we were young …….. so we invented them. Now, you arrogant little shit, what are you doing for the next generation?”

The applause was amazing ……

Since I’m slightly old, at 56, a big smile came to my face at the end, and I thought “Yea, for the old guy.”  But after I closed the email and went back to work I started thinking about this little anecdote.  The freshman wasn’t wrong, so why should he be the butt of the joke?  Kids today are different, and they grow up in a much different world than us baby-boomers, and much more different than my parent’s generation.  The difference between any two or three generations is always going  to be startling.

My grandmother, who was born in 1881 and died in 1972 saw a lot of changes, having been born before the car, electric grid or airplane.  My mother was born in 1916, and my father in 1920.  I assume the senior citizen of the story was maybe from the 1930s or 1940s, older than my generation, but younger than my parents.

So why was the senior so angry at the freshman?  As I get older I hear more resentment of the young.  I wouldn’t mind being young again myself, but I don’t hold it against them that I’m not.  I think this story is popular, because I searched on “Now, you arrogant little shit, what are you doing for the next generation?”  at Google and got 34,600 hits.  A lot of people are quoting it and thinking it funny, but I’m not finding many people commenting on it.  I think we need to examine the story more closely.

First off, why the anger?  Are older people, boomers and older generations, threatened by the current generation?  I see old people all the time that have adapted to computers, cell phones, iPods and the Internet, but for those that haven’t, are they angry at the young for leaving them behind?  Don’t we expect the young to surpass us, and go out and discover new stuff?

The young Freshman was right, the world of 2008 is extremely different from anything before 1990, and especially before 1980.  Is it his fault that the older generations don’t stay current.  Kids are all the time talking to me about fantastic music groups and movie stars that are unknown to me, but on the other hand, I can mention William Powell and Kay Francis, and their faces will go blank.  It evens out in the long run.

And can the senior at the game really take credit for inventing all that stuff?  I never invented anything.  And a lot of that tech was invented by people before the baby boomers.  Would that senior feel that my generation didn’t do anything either?

We don’t know the full context of the story.  Was the freshman being rude to the senior?  Was his tone really arrogant?  Or did the senior just read that into the situation?

I bring this up because there’s a lot of humor going around the net at the expense of various groups, much of it political.  Conservatives make fun of liberals, and liberals make fun of conservatives.  If you ask the people making the jokes they will say it’s all in fun, but if you’re on the receiving end, it feels like hostility.  I wonder how Sarah Palin feels about the jokes about her.  Or how Obama feels about jokes about him?

This senior moment story is pretty minor, but at the core of it is anger, and I think a lot of people think it’s funny because of resentment towards the young.  Later the same day after reading this humorous anecdote I read about a 12-year-old boy inventing a 3D solar cell.  The point of the senior moment anecdote is patently false, the young are always inventing new stuff.  Every generation has its slackers and heroes.  So why the, “my generation is better than yours,” routine?

One reason could be because the older generations don’t like all the tech stuff and hate having to deal with it.  They might prefer the good ole days of vacuum tube radios and vinyl LPs.  They might prefer mail with stamps over email.  They might prefer Ed Sullivan to Chris Rock.  Life might have been nicer with 3 channels of television as opposed to hundreds.

Maybe the old are just envious of the young.  The freshman was the same age as the football players the senior was paying to watch.  Maybe the freshman was with a beautiful young girlfriend, and the senior felt jealous at not being young himself.  Even at 56 I would feel envy for their youth.  Could the attitude of the freshmen have made the senior, and all the people who enjoyed this joke, feel they were over the hill, and the angry retort made them feel better?

Now, if you are from my generation and older, and you meet a kid that points out how backward you are and how you’re out of touch with modern times, are you going to use the same line as this senior did?  Or will you say something different?

The senior could have wisely said, “So, kid, how are you going to feel in a few years when a younger person tells you what you told me?  And you maybe surprised how quick you’re find yourself in my place.”

Or he could have smiled and said, “It’s easy to be 19, let’s see how you do at 75.”

Or maybe the senior could have done what my Uncle Jack did to me.  I was 13 at the time, but the same trick will probably work with someone 19.  I had arrogantly told my Uncle Jack something, this was around 1965, and the generation gap was starting to widen, and he replied, “Ok, smarty, I’ll tell you what.  Write down everything you just said and put it in an envelope, and in five years we’ll open it up and I’ll give you five dollars for everything you list you still believe.” 

I refused to do it because I was so confident in my beliefs that I didn’t think it worth my time.  Later on, when I was 18, I remember that incident and realized that my uncle wouldn’t have lost any money on the deal.

Wisdom is not calling the younger generation arrogant little shits.

Jim

One thought on “Anatomy of an Internet Joke”

  1. Honestly? I think most of them don’t spend enough time around younger folks. Yeah, the 18-to-21 set (the demographic I see the most, aside from professors who can range in age from late 20s to 70+) can be thoughtless, distracted, lazy, undisciplined, and I swear, they should just go ahead and make jeans and flip-flops the official uniform at my university. On the other hand, I just described myself at 18.

    And you know what? Most of these kids are great. They’re smart, creative, funny, and nice. Okay, there are times when I wish I had a nice long pointer to whack on the desk (I mean, I know library instruction isn’t the most interesting thing in the world but TRY to stay awake–it’s only polite!), but the sheer number of them who genuinely want to make the world a better place make me hopeful.

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