The iPhone turned 10 back in June, and this fall Apple released its new iPhone X—supposedly packed full of futuristic features. Those events spawned a flurry of articles listing things that are becoming obsolete because of the smartphone. Landlines. Answering machines. Alarm clocks. Phone books. Camcorders. Point-and-shoot cameras. GPS navigation devices. Digital music players. Calculators. Road maps.
It’s true. I use my iPhone for all those purposes and more. In fact, the alarm clock on my nightstand is still blinking from the last power outage. I haven’t set it again because my phone’s ringtone wakes me every morning. And my outdated Garmin is sitting forlornly somewhere in the garage. My Google Maps app gets me everywhere I need to go.
But I can also remember life before smartphones—and before cell phones at all. That’s a mark of my generation, so-called “Gen X,” identified as those born between 1965 and 1980. Researching this month’s cover story on millennial farmers and attending my 25th high school reunion last month got me thinking about what defines my age group.
Those of us in our late 30s to early 50s are the “in-between” generation, bridging analog and digital. We made calls on rotary phones. Played records and cassette tapes. Watched over-the-air network television. Took photos with film. Used actual encyclopedias to do research. Plotted road trips with maps. Formatted term papers on typewriters. Wrote letters to faraway friends and family.
But we were also among the first to use cell phones and CDs and satellite TV and digital cameras and the internet and GPS and home computers and social media. I believe the knowledge of both worlds gives Gen Xers perspective that generations after us will never have. We appreciate the efficiencies and capabilities that technology has given us, but we also lament what we’ve lost in the process.
We are perpetually tethered to our mobile devices. People expect to reach us anytime, anywhere. We’ve become impatient because we’re used to instant gratification. Want to know something? Google it. We’re overwhelmed with information, TV channels and social media posts. No need to wait for the 6 o’clock news. We find out what’s happening on Twitter 140 characters at a time.
Of course, these generational labels assume that people born within the same timeframe can be characterized as a group. I found those assumptions tested as I talked with the millennials featured in this issue. It made me wonder if there really is a generation gap. Yes, today’s young farmers are driven and shaped by modern technology, which connects them to the world in ways past generations never dreamed of. They have unprecedented access to new ideas, solutions and opportunities, and they’re bringing those innovations to the farm—and their parents and grandparents—at a rapid pace.
For example, the millennial farmers I interviewed don’t know a world before biotech seed. They weren’t even teenagers when Roundup Ready crops debuted in the 1990s. They may never have to plant, fertilize or spray without GPS guidance. They don’t manually estimate crop yields or keep herd records on paper. If they need advice or supplies, their MFA representative is only a text away.
And yet, they are also tremendously traditional, proud to live by the values and work ethic that their families instilled in them. They’ve taken to heart the hard-learned lessons of their predecessors. None of the millennials I visited with felt “entitled” as their generation has been characterized. They weren’t handed the family farm. They went out and built their operations from the ground up, carefully and cautiously, determined to succeed.
And what about the children these farmers are raising? Apparently post-millennial kids are labeled as “Linksters” or “Generation Z.” They’re the first generation to be linked into technology from Day 1. Linksters will grow up with social media, smartphones and apps. The challenge of this generation’s parents is to ensure they also grow up with a sense of respect and responsibility.
So is there a generation gap? In agriculture, I’m not so sure. Sure, technology will continue to change the way these younger generations farm. They will see advances that I and my fellow Gen Xers—much less our parents and grandparents—never could have imagined. But the fundamentals of farming won’t change. It’s up to us make sure up-and-coming farmers and agricultural leaders understand where we’ve been in the past so they can make wise decisions about the future.