By now, you’ve heard the buzz: If you were born between 1977 and 1983, you’re not a Gen-Xer or a Millennial, you’re a Xennial — a somewhat witty portmanteau for people who grew up with analog technology but came of age with the internet. They remember collecting AOL disks, counting down their free hours, and asking, “A/S/L?” in anonymous chat rooms. They played the Oregon Trail game in elementary or middle school computer class; they remember when their family finally moved beyond dial-up.
If we’re naming generations now, this Xennial birthed three members of the Prime Generation.
My kids have never known a world where they couldn’t get what they wanted, when they wanted it. Roughly contemporaneous with the Obama Administration, and the beginning of No. 45’s, the Prime Generation got their baby gear from — wait for it — Amazon Prime, with free two-day shipping. Need a NoseFrida, a Snappi, or a Moby Wrap — all nigh on impossible to find before 2009 — as soon as God and the postal service could provide? Amazon Prime has your back.
Now, if you need a new fidget spinner or last-minute birthday present or some shade of bowtie impossible to track down in your small town? Amazon Prime, baby. Two-day shipping. We get packages from Amazon every other day at least — for me, for my husband, for the kids. They stalk the mailman.
But it’s not just Amazon that gets them their fix. My kids grew up on Netflix and Amazon Prime instant video. It started as a way for me to control their media intake — I wasn’t beholden to whatever was on cable at the time I happened to want them watching TV. And I was that crazy, stingy mom who had issues with every cartoon on the market. They started with Yo Gabba Gabba! and every dinosaur documentary known to mankind because they were all right there. Xennials had to wait and stalk the Discovery Channel (back when it was actually about science). My kids whine that this one doesn’t have enough Spinosaurus and flip to another. They spent weeks and months watching hardly anything but David Attenborough’s Planet Earth.
And then I caved on cartoons. They watched new stuff — Amazon’s original Puffin Rock — and old stuff I picked out, like Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. They watched Dinotrux and Justice League and Batman: The Animated Series. This generation won’t have the unified media experience previous ones did because the kids can pick and choose so randomly among their likes and dislikes. They can watch every single show LEGO puts out or ignore everything but the movies. Their media experience also depends on what Mom and Dad are willing to pay for: We bought one season of Paw Patrol, and that’s it, moppets.
Because of all this, my kids literally do not know what commercials are. When we watch actual TV and they come on, my sons are baffled. “What’s this?” they ask. “When is [blank] going to come back on?” This is in most ways good; they aren’t begging for whatever toys manufacturers are hocking the hardest. But it also means they’re disconnected from the weird local commercials that populated our childhoods. Car dealerships, ice cream shops, furniture stores — we knew the local ones because we saw them on TV. We could sing their familiar jingles. Now kids only know the businesses their parents frequent, likely the big chains. Ahem, Target.
Music is the same way. We shell out for Spotify, so we have access to almost everything ever recorded in the history of ever, and if it’s not on there, we can find it on YouTube. Some days, we want to listen to Hamilton in the car. Other days, the kids demand the genius mashup “Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans,” which I have to play off YouTube. Whatever they ask for, it’s there.When my 3-year-old is screaming, for example, we put on “Yellow Submarine” because that’s his song, and it will quell those tears.
I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like for my generation if our parents could use Bluetooth technology to play our favorite songs without commercial interference or that classic radio static. That would have blown my mind. It still kinda does.
The only problem with this designation is that it only encompasses a certain, though large, demographic. Amazon Prime costs $99 annually or $10.99 a month. Their video service is $8.99 a month. Netflix costs anywhere from $7.99–11.99 a month. Spotify is $9.99. Pandora is $3.99 a month or $36 a year. This doesn’t count the astronomical cost of the devices you must have to run all these services. You need a TV and home internet plan, plus a Roku or Fire Stick or whatever TV streaming device you prefer. I run Spotify off my iPhone — and burn my data plan in the process, which costs even more money.
Nope, parenting the Prime Generation isn’t cheap.
Basically, what’s described above is your experience if your parents can manage to pay for it. A good number of people can’t. According to the Pew Research Center, 13% of Americans don’t use the internet, and 19% of those cited cost as the reason. Of those surveyed, 77% have smartphones, so yes, that means 1/3 of our population don’t use a smartphone to meet all of their immediate needs, and cost is generally a factor in that as well.
Clearly, my kids are lucky. I know this. But they certainly aren’t alone, and they’re even in the majority. The Prime Generation, for the most part, has gotten what it wants when it wants it — pure instant gratification. This means that, more than ever, we need to make our kids slow down. They need small town parades, trails through the woods, long afternoons swimming, and time spent completely unplugged. So much of their life is shaped by media and the latest technology, by the shows they want to watch, the music they want to listen to, and the games they want to play. This is all well and good, of course, and we need to utilize technology to their advantage and ours because it’s just part of who we are now.
But, and this is a big “but”: They also need to get bored, they need to get dirty, and they need to make art. They need time off. They need a break. But will we give it to them, and will it be enough?