Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not the Same Situation: Just Ask Students

The situation comedy form has affected U.S. culture in a way that has not been widely recognized. The fact is, half of us are still walking around in a situation comedy trance, believing that nothing ever really changes from week to week. Situation comedy thinking colors the popular views of:

  • The Republican Party. It’s swimming against huge demographic and cultural trends and flirting with minor-party status, yet pundits insist the “political pendulum” could bring the Republicans back into power as soon as next year.
  • Style. Style watchers continue to try to catch the newest style trend, ignoring the fact that only a couple of fashion trends have caught on with the public in the last decade, and the latest trend has people not buying new clothes.
  • Television. The situation comedy genre all but disappeared from the TV schedule more than ten years ago, but many people still haven’t noticed the change or don’t think of it as a permanent change.

Situation comedy thinking affects the popular view of the economy too. It helps to explain the popularity of The Great Depression Ahead, a book that invites people to look at an 81-year economic cycle and imagine that the events of 81 years are happening all over again. Just like a situation comedy, nothing ever really changes. Yet people who miss the changes, the fundamental differences between 1929 and 2010, may not see the chance to avoid the looming depression.

There is, however, a group of people who can easily see how much things have changed. They do not automatically think of the present as a continuation of the past, because they see fundamental change happening on a daily basis. How do they see what the rest of us are missing? They are not subject to the situation comedy trance. This group consists mostly of students. If you take a survey of U.S. adults and ask the questions a certain way, you can get more than half to agree that a repeat of the Great Depression is likely. But ask a typical group of college students if they think the economic situation coming up in 2010 will be fundamentally the same as 1929, and they’ll look at you like you’re nuts. Or they’ll assume it is some kind of trick question.

It is not because they are students, or young, or idealistic, or any of the clich├ęs I have heard repeated over the years, that they see the situation differently. It is because they have not had widespread exposure to situation comedy television programs. The situation comedy gave way to reality shows and procedural dramas around 1997, so those who were 11 years old or younger at the time, born after about 1986, did not have much of a chance to absorb situation comedy thinking directly from the TV tube. They still could have heard it secondhand, but that’s not the same thing.

Without that cultural backdrop to color your thinking, it is impossible to see the world as essentially unchanged from week to week even as momentous changes occur all around you. That’s why, when we collect ideas on how to solve the current economic problems, it is essential to get the thoughts of people born after 1986. And if you are one of the people born after 1986, you need to realize that there is a sort of “mass insanity” that prevents most people born before 1986 from seeing the changes that occur from week to week as having any fundamental significance. When you see possibilities and wonder why people born before 1986 aren’t taking action on them, it could just be that they are not seeing what you are seeing.