By Matteo Di Maio
Construction on the Notre-Dame cathedral, which, almost two years ago, turned the Parisian sky black in a horrific blaze, began during the reign of King Louis VII in 1163. By the time it was completed it was 1345 — a whole 185 years later. A whole different king, Charles VII, was on the throne. Between them sat the reigns of 13 different other monarchs.
That is a long time for a society to remain dedicated to the same cultural enterprise. But it is hardly unusual, as long as you go back a few centuries; it took about 30 or 40 years to construct the US Capitol building.
These building projects are examples of how little meaning generational change used to have; the craftsmen on the Notre-Dame could pass their skills and dedication down to their children, confident in the assumption that the chisel or the hammer would change very little in the intervening centuries.
These days, technological change occurs monthly; millennials (those born 1981 to 1996) once accustomed to getting tech-help calls from older relatives, are now equally bewildered by the odd trends of the under 20s. As one self-help column declares in WIRED magazine: “When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade, it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own.”
How long do we have to go back in history before you could expect your children to live the exact same life as you? Perhaps it is the dawn of the 20th Century, before the war spurred 100 years of technological advancement out of the starting blocks. Those born during the post-War boom, which lasted until the 70s, enjoyed the sexual revolution, and lives better in almost every measurable metric than their parents’. But even they would be unprepared for the next 50 years.
As one English teacher at my school likes to point out, generations can now almost be segmented by their attention spans; their brains physically hardwired to different mediums. Novels give way to movies, which give way to TV episodes, which turn into 15 minute YouTube clips, which morph into 15-second TikTok rolls, Gen Z’s preferred entertainment method.
If you subscribe to the exponential change theory, even today, we sit on the cusp of a massive acceleration in technology; the point where the shallow curve gathers itself and points skyward. There are skeptics, and indeed algorithms already hold a lot of sway in our lives, but there is a broad consensus that this will be the decade Artificial Intelligence goes big.
So certainly the only guarantee an old craftsman could offer his children in this day and age is that the next 10, 20, 30 years will be unimaginably different from today.
The questions these changes prompt are myriad: What place does elderly wisdom have nowadays? How can we prevent generations falling further and further apart? There is an innate fear that comes from all of this: that history is moving too fast, that the things I value and trust will soon slip away to make room for some yet more unintelligible zeitgeist. How long before I become another out-of-touch older sibling, parent?
At the heart of this debate is: how much does technology actually change us? Are we the same old humans at the core, or are we physically different beings? Perhaps the role of the elder nowadays is to simply ditch culture — strange Gen Z dance moves, our seemingly incomprehensible internet slang — and burrow to the heart of the human condition. Some things just don’t change, and it’s only the experienced who can truly know what those things are.