Category Archives: Language

From Baby Boomers to the Boomerang Generation

Australian boomerangDiary date: 4th April, 1985

Back in 1985, I’m home from university for a couple of weeks and looking forward to seeing old schoolfriends again. My time off is spent in a blur of sport, reading, socialising and alcohol. These days, I’d be exhausted just thinking about it. But when my diary reaches the end of the holiday, I’m lamenting the lack of excitement, and reflecting that even though I only left my family for the first time a few short months ago, the break is already permanent. I already know that I won’t live at home again.

Fast forward to today, and no matter what your preference, your choice might not be quite so clear cut. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the number of adult children living at home with their parents has increased by 20% since the end of the nineties – with limited job prospects, stagnating incomes, rising accommodation and living costs, student (and other) debts, and relationship issues all playing their part.

As usual when something like this comes along, we’ve been busy inventing new names for what’s happening – largely as a means of pretending that we’re more in control of it than we actually are.

The winner so far is almost certainly the idea of the ‘Boomerang generation‘ – in which children leave home only to return to live with their family a few years later – which has the advantage of being a ready-made throwback to the original ‘Baby Boomers.’  The more folksy-sounding ‘twixters‘ has been mooted (originally by Time Magazine) but has never quite caught on, despite spawning an indie TV series of the same name. Then there are the usual silly acronyms such as the Yuppie-derivative, ‘Yuckies‘ (Young Unwitting Costly Kids), and the even more outlandish ‘Kippers‘ – Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings – which was coined by the Prudential in 2003.

In Germany, young adults still living at home may find themselves labeled ‘Nesthocker,’ (young birds that stay in their nest for a long time) and are said to be living at ‘Hotel Mama’ – a similar idea to the British ‘Bank of Mum and Dad.’

In Italy, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa – considered one of the founding fathers of the European single currency – caused a stir in 2007 by referring to stay-at-home children as ‘Bamboccioni‘ – conjuring up an image of clumsy, overgrown babies unable or unwilling to make decisions for themselves.

In Japan, the language sounds even less kind. A variety of cultural and economic factors have resulted in a large constituency of what have become known as parasaito shinguru –  Parasite singles.’

Whichever names eventually stick, given the scale of the changes since last-minute Baby Boomers like me flew the nest, it seems unlikely this shift is going to be reversed anytime soon.

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Ten reasons why a Kindle is more than just reading

Diary date: 29th March, 1985

I’d forgotten how much obligatory reading I used to have to do. In 1985, I was in the first year of my degree course in French and Scandinavian Studies (mostly Swedish, with a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure). I was never the fastest of readers, so by the time I’d got through Stendhal‘s epic Le Rouge et Le Noir (which, according to my diary, I bought today), the entire four-year course was all but over.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

These days, it feels like it would be so much easier.

Yes, I’m talking about my Kindle.

I haven’t read a physical book since I was introduced to my Kindle; but I’m not sure ‘read’ is really the right word – Kindling is an activity that feels different enough to deserve its own name.

Like everything else, Kindling comes with its good and bad points, so here are my top ten reasons why it’s great – plus another five that should reassure you that my love is not blind.

The good stuff

1. I can read faster on my Kindle.

I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but as a notoriously slow reader, I can tell when I’m motoring through pages at a decent lick – and my Kindle maximum is a darn sight higher than my standard top speed.

2. I never have to buy trashy airport novels or exceed my baggage allowance with loads of weighty books.

I have as much of the world’s literature as I can afford already in my pocket – and it will never weigh an ounce more, even if I do decide to buy Le Rouge et Le Noir at some point for old times’ sake.

3. I can try before I buy.

As someone from the old school of being morally obliged to finish a book once I’ve started it, sample chapters are a godsend and can save me months of heartache and frustration. I just wish my Kindle had been around before I bought The Da Vinci Code. There’s a few months of my life I’ll never see again.

4. I can concentrate on what I’m doing.

There’s nothing else really going on to get in the way of some serious reading, like dog-eared pages, coffee cup stains or distracting covers. The uniformity of the overall experience lets me hone my powers of Kindling to the max.

5. No one knows what I’m reading.

Embarrassing books or covers are no longer a worry in public places. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so, but you get the idea. ‘Nuff said.

6. I have a vague feeling of being part of something.

In a spooky way, I feel just a teensy bit connected to other books and other people. I can ignore both if I want to, but at least they’re there if I need them.

7. I Kindle on my own terms.

Font size and line spacing are suddenly up to me, not an anonymous typesetter somewhere. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

8. I can save my favourite bits.

Not just from one book, but from every book I read – and keep them all together in one place. I have no idea why I find this so cool, but I do.

9. I actually look up words I don’t understand.

In the past, I would almost never have looked up the meaning of a word I didn’t know in a dictionary – especially if I was cosy and warm and tucked up in bed. On my Kindle, I do it all the time and now know the meaning of crepitus , xenobiotic and of course, sciolism.

10. I can fool myself that my eyesight is not deteriorating.

Just adjust that font size and pretend it’s not happening. Who knows, it might not be.

The not-so-good stuff

1. Every book feels a bit the same.

There’s so little that obviously distinguishes one book from another – size, weight, colour, font, spacing – that I occasionally get myself all mixed up and start wondering why Jack Reacher is suddenly in Life of Pi.

2. You can’t easily flick backwards to check stuff.

OK, you can, but not easily or quickly enough for my liking, and especially not if you’re going back a long way and need to check the name of a minor soldier you last encountered 300 pages ago in War and Peace.

3. Pages don’t stay the same.

This is probably just me, but I remember a lot of what’s-happened-when in a book from the physical layout of the page. I’ll know for example that a particular scene happened a couple of pages after the start of the previous chapter, on a page with lots of dialogue and a long, solid paragraph at the bottom, and with a speck of mud-coloured dirt in the top right-hand corner. Kindling doesn’t give me these kind of clues, and if a bit of mud-coloured dirt is on one page, it’s on every page.

4. There’s no hard evidence of what you’ve read.

Finishing a book has always provided a moment of minor celebration and achievement for me, but somehow I don’t get the same buzz with my Kindle. Putting a completed book on a shelf somewhere has been like a rite of passage. All I’ve got now is a screen full of digital covers that only I ever see. My bookshelves are starting to look rather forlorn, and increasingly either out of date, empty, or filled with other stuff that’s probably even harder to dust. If I was in the bookshelf industry, I might start thinking about diversifying.

5. You can’t see what other people are reading and get inspired by it.

Watching someone absorbed in a book on the train and making a mental note to buy a copy is becoming a thing of the past. I can confirm that peering closely at fellow travellers’ Kindles to try and achieve the same effect is frowned upon and considered impolite, creepy and whatever else it was that woman said before she moved to the other side of the carriage.

Happy Kindling!

Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape. To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to  permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.

Sealed with a ‘x’

Diary date: 15th March 1985

On this day 28 years ago I was on a public payphone chatting to my mum and dad  about what I’d been up to at University. I seem to remember working hard and remaining relatively sober featured strongly in my account of what was happening, but there may have been other things that I chose not to share.

I even remember my mum suggesting – correctly as it happened – that I wasn’t really bothering with shaving too much because she could hear the crackle of my stubble against the receiver. ‘Lots of love!’ she said brightly at the end of the call, just as my money was running out.

These days I get more ‘lots of loves’ than I know what to do with. They’re nothing to do with popularity, just the pay-off line of almost every text message I receive. I can’t quite remember when it was that ending every communication with an ‘x’ (or ‘xx’ or ‘xxx’ – depending on how you’re feeling) became obligatory, but it clearly has. I even had one ‘xx’ from a colleague at work the other day – although he did apologise afterwards.

One of my daughter’s friends was explaining last week that she actually prefers texting to talking on the phone, specifically because of the ease with which she can add a kiss to the end of the message. ‘After all,’ she said – looking very exasperated – ‘how do you put a kiss at the end of a phone call?’

Is this on now or are you just watching it?

Diary date: 7th March, 1985

In between playing an awful lot of squash and revising fairly fruitlessly for a Swedish exam this week, my nineteen year old self seems to have spent a significant amount of time watching what might now be considered classic 80’s TV. Neighbours, Bullseye and Countdown all get a mention in my diary at one point or another.

TV options on a typical Virgin Media screen

Back then I had a small, portable black and white TV set in my room at university capable of getting BBC1 and ITV (or rather ITV1, as we have to say these days) on a good day, and BBC2 on a very good day. Channel 4 had been launched two or three years previously, but actually receiving it was still a distant dream. My remote control was a bamboo pole that just about reached the TV from my bed.

These days, we’ve got more channels than we have time to watch, and more ways of consuming them than we have time to understand. We’ve even got new ways of talking about what we’re doing. If you’d told me in 1985 that you were going to watch something on catch-up, or via live streaming, or that you’d been browsing online movies through your games console, I’d have thought you’d been reading too much William Gibson.

My favourite example of the way language adapts to new technology like this came the other day. I was sitting in front of the living room television and one of my children asked me, “Is this on now or are you just watching it?” Without me realising it, ‘watching’ something in our house has become a short-cut for viewing anything that is not currently being broadcast on a specific channel.

I guess we can’t complain that we weren’t warned about the pace of change when it comes to this kind of media. Back in October 2005, Bill Gates was clear that even TV technologies that seemed new at the time like Blu-ray DVDs would inevitably be the last of their kind:

Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything’s going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk. So, in this way, it’s even unclear how much this one counts.

The reality is that everything always counts at the time it’s happening. Back in 1985 – when I was angsting about Swedish exams and changing TV channels remotely with a bamboo pole – Bill would have been a busy guy. Later that year, Microsoft launched a new operating system called Windows 1.0.