Prior to the technology explosion, people within generations used popular cultural touchstones as a way to share and relate to one another. With current entertainment so diversified, what was once used to connect us may now serve to divide.
I use a lot of popular cultural references in my work. I do it not only because it’s fun for me, but also because it helps me connect in a meaningful way with my audience. I first discovered the benefit of using pop culture when I became a professor. Standing in front of a classroom consisting of 20 or so unsmiling faces on the first day of a new semester, I realized that I needed to do something to get them relaxed and excited about being there. People fear the unfamiliar, and smiling (not to mention laughing) is one way to calm them down and speed up the learning process. So, when I came upon a name on the roster no one answered to, I said (in my very best monotone), “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller.” My imitation of the boring teacher from the 1980s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off got the hoped-for laughs and things seemed to go smoother from there.
The same use of pop culture works equally well in counseling sessions. The connection provided by references to pop culture is the only reason why I begrudgingly read the Twilight series and saw some of the movies. It did help me relate to some of my adolescent (and, surprisingly, adult) patients because we had something in common that we could discuss. I was no longer just The Psychologist but also a person who read the same books they did and understood how they related to the material. This is one reason why bibliotherapy works so well.
The popular culture connection is useful on a personal level too. Whenever I meet people who are roughly my age, we can at least talk about shows, music, and books that were well-liked when we were growing up. Just ask any of us who grew up in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s to sing the themes from The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island; to recite dialogue from The Breakfast Club, Footloose, Top Gun or The Princess Bride; or if we listened to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. I’d be willing to bet we could also sing the Oscar Mayer song, repeat the lines from Mean Joe Greene’s Coca-Cola ad, and know that Mikey liked Life cereal.
Popular cultural touchstones give us a way to bind ourselves together as generations. This was very easy to do in my youth, when we could watch only three or four television channels, listen to music mostly through radio and LPs, and see the few movies Hollywood put out. Whenever my friends and I got together, we had all watched and listened to the same things. However, it is much, much harder to do that today. In the United States, the average home has 118 television channels, all kinds of music can be found in various places (e.g., iTunes, YouTube, radio, DVDs, music channels), and movies abound. Compare the 940 movies made in 2011 to the relatively paltry 197 movies made in 1985. Clearly, not everyone is listening to and seeing the same things anymore.
While sometimes I celebrate the diversity of the music scene, a channel for every possible interest, and the explosion of movies for all tastes, I also wonder how a generation so divided can ever connect with one another. And it’s not only the lack of shared popular culture; it’s also the disconnection that comes from constant use of electronics. For example, at a recent Little League baseball game, I saw four preschool age children lined up in chairs, each with their own cell phone. In a previous age, the kids would have been playing together or talking to actual people, but they were lost in their individual games. And that is just one small example. I could give hundreds of others, ranging from kids ignoring their families to text at meal times, to the watching of movies on extended trips. When my family used to do long car trips, we talked, played car games, and sang. Those are some of my favorite memories.
Although I get that the electronic babysitter can sometimes be a gift to beleaguered parents (and I am certainly guilty of using it myself), I worry what this will mean for generations of the recent past, present, and future. In addition to missing the shared popular culture, the electronic generations are missing out on genuine interactions and social skill development. As a result, they may struggle to find their shared identity, and figure out how to come together when an uncertain future dictates that they need to do so.
I do not envy them this task and I’m not really sure how to help them. However, it could be that, despite all the challenges, the lack of shared popular cultural touchstones may not bother them much. Perhaps the all-information, all-entertainment all-the-time group will succeed beyond my wildest dreams. I would like that. Maybe they even know something I don’t. If they could, perhaps they would quote Ferris Bueller back at me and say, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
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