My Favorite Things: When Are You From?

Posted inCreative Voices

“When are you from?”

Now, that’s an odd question.

We’re all used to being asked, “where are you from?” but I’ll venture to guess that you’ve never been asked the other question.

But “when are you from?” is probably just as important as the more popular query. That’s because the cultural world into which we were born is a strong determining factor for all of our lives.

Take me.

I was born in the Bronx in 1947 (!). Like most of us, I am only partially aware of the effects of entering the cultural stream at that spacetime moment. It’s like the old joke about one fish asking another what water is… “what’s water?” the other fish answers.

That’s the impact our “when” and our “where” have on us.

This is what The Beatles meant when they said, “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.” They meant that “Penny Lane”— not just the street, but the personal and cultural background in which they grew up in Liverpool in the ‘50s and early ‘60s— in that specific place at that particular moment in time— was literally in their ears and in their eyes. Liverpool shaped what they heard and saw and how they heard and saw them.

Our “when” and our “where” deeply, invisibly, constantly, shape the way the world is for each of us. All of the taken-for-granted implicit assumptions we make about people and things and how the world works are heavily influenced by our spacetime origins.

This makes it very difficult to truly appreciate the way the world just is for someone who comes from a dramatically different spacetime moment. It’s pretty easy to accept that the world is different for people born in Mumbai than it is for someone from the Bronx. It’s a little harder to appreciate how different it is for two people from different “when’s,” even if they’re from the same “where.”

That’s particularly relevant now, because we live in a world shared by people born in seven different generations. They are:

  • The Greatest Generation (born 1901–1927)
  • The Silent Generation (born 1928–1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965–1980)
  • Millennials (born 1981–1995)
  • Generation Z (born 1996–2010)
  • Generation Alpha (born 2011–2025)

Think of the vast differences between the invisible, “Penny Lane”-based, taken-for-granted worlds that each of us in those seven generations lives in!

In America, we get some insight into those differences when we recognize that every new generation gets broadly criticized by its elders as soft, weak, lazy, disrepectful, or worthless.

These kids these days…

Those criticisms are a result of having dramatically different assumptions about how people should live in different parts of their lives. They’re founded on a belief (unexamined, like water for fish) that a 22-year-old in 2022 should be doing the same kinds of things as a 22-year-old in 1969. It’s the reason we so often feel/think/hear/say, “when I was your age…

It doesn’t take much to see the fallacy of this kind of thinking.

Think of it as the “unitary world fallacy.” That’s a belief that we all live in the same world, that the world I see is the world you see; that our worlds as 22-year-olds would/should be similar. Again, just a moment of reflection reveals just how wrongheaded that assumption is.

If the last few years of COVID have taught us anything, they’ve taught us that the world is not made of “facts.” We should now appreciate that what we typically think of as “facts” are the product of widely agreed-upon spacetime-based meaning-generating belief systems. We’ve learned the hard lesson that context is the key to meaning.

Being 22 in 2022 ≠ Being 22 in 1969.

We also implicitly believe that we contemporaries (all of us alive in the world today) came into our common spacetime cohabitation sharing roughly the same values, beliefs, preferences, and concerns. But, the worlds of 1969 and 2022 are dramatically different in those meaning-shaping domains.

A specific example. If you say the word “polio” to someone from my generation, the meaning is often deeply shaped by childhood experiences of the disease, sometimes even by knowing children who were infected and even disabled by the mosquito-borne virus. Images of children in “iron lungs” (large respirators that automatically control breathing for people who’ve been paralyzed) haunted us. Every summer of my life before the polio vaccine arrived in 1955 was filled with warnings to avoid areas where mosquitos were abundant. Some families kept their children indoors for entire summers.

On the other hand, Millennials/Gen Zs/Alphas have probably rarely given the polio virus much thought. The disease had been practically eradicated when they were from. They also were born into a world when vaccines themselves were rejected by a significant portion of Americans.

That’s why when those of us from different “when’s” hear about the current polio outbreak, we are likely to have very different reactions. We Baby Boomers and our elders are stunned that a disease we thought had been eradicated could reappear in our lifetimes. We (literally) can’t imagine a world in which not getting children protected from polio would be a choice made by responsible parents. But it is. We all (intuitively) know that even though Baby Boomers and Generation Alphas are contemporaries, our worlds differ dramatically.

If we want to communicate with others across these dramatic differences we need to commit to listening and understanding, and a resolve to refrain from reflexive “when I was your age…” criticisms, characterizations, and stereotypes of people from different “when’s.”

This is not a new challenge. David Bowie described it in his 1971 (!!) classic, “Changes,” when he said:

And these children
That you spit on
As they try to change their world
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

And, as the song says, when trying to truly understand what life is like for people from different “when’s,” we all must:

Turn and face the strange
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it…

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya.