What has shaped the Class of 2013?

Most students starting post-secondary studies at UBC this September were likely born in 1991.

They postdate the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the dismantling of the Soviet Union. They grew up with the Internet, compact discs, and mobile phones. They have come of age in a culture of activism unparalleled since the 1960s. They do not remember the Gulf War but have spent their adolescence in the post-September 11 world and the fuss over the pending millennium is a memory from childhood. Documentaries became cool in their youth, and the vivid personalities of Al Gore, Morgan Spurlock, and Michael Moore have introduced them to some inconvenient truths and unsettling perspectives. Peter Jackson introduced them to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Christopher Nolan to Batman.

The Canada of the 1991 generation is not so much concerned with old arguments over national unity as with new ones over education, health care, privacy, copyright, and Canada’s role on the world stage. Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert, South Park and The Simpsons are more likely to be their satirical filters of American culture than Saturday Night Live, and George Stromboulopolous and Douglas Coupland have provided a gentler, but still cool glimpse into the post-Web 2.0 world through a Canadian filter. Canadian teen pop music in their childhood and early adolescence spawned not a Lizzie McGuire or Hannah Montana analog, but bouncy, heavily eyelinered, punk-pop princess Avril Lavigne. While they were in middle school and high school, social networking exploded into being, and YouTube became the place to make, and catch, rising viral videos.

It is impossible to generalize about this generation. They have not necessarily contributed to the development of such pop culture juggernauts as the Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena, social networking, and reality TV, nor on the other hand are they necessarily enthusiastic about acoustic emo music, independent films, and skateboarding culture.

One of the most interesting phenomena I have observed is the way many approach retro culture: retro for them often means the 1970s or ’80s; too young to be nostalgic, they mine the artifacts of an age they never knew, and stare with fresh eyes at its TV shows, music videos and arcade games, refunctioning them as a rejection of the mass culture currently mass-produced for them.

While many embrace and quickly master a broad range of current communications technologies, many are deeply suspicious of over-reliance on technology and mass media. Indeed, they are often more apt to be an amalgamation of various passions, and after all, they have more ways of finding out about the larger world and participating in it than virtually all preceding generations of young adults.

Gisele Baxter is a lecturer in the Dept. of English who has met many first-year students in her 25-year teaching career. She comments regularly on popular culture and maintains her own online cultural commentary at www3.telus.net/gmbaxter/zone.html.