Janis came into my office, sniffling. “I have no idea what to do,” she said.
“Here,” I said, shutting the door. “Let me see it.”
“She keeps yelling at me, the woman,” Janis sobbed. “I tell her, GO AWAY, but she doesn’t understand.”
She handed me the smartphone.
“Yes,” I said, nodding sympathetically. “That’s not yelling. That’s a feature. It’s called Siri.”
I soothed Janis as I tapped the screen three times and solved everything that had been wrong.
“My kids won’t help me any more,” Janis said. “They say I’m hopeless. Am I hopeless?”
“No,” I said. But deep down, I thought: Possibly?
Janis is 60-years-old.
She struggled a little with Incompetence growing up, but not like this. Things worsened when her children moved out, forcing her to telephone them long-distance, from a land line, to ask which button would turn on her cellphone. For years now she has been begging at least one of them to move back into the basement, unsubtly forwarding all the trend pieces she can find on Millennial Insecurities and the Six Reasons Bushwick Is More Dangerous Than You Initially Suspected Because Those Hipsters Are Fighting a Hipster Turf War. (This is not very many, because she only reads articles online that have been forwarded by her mother or that she has already found in print, then Googled on a desktop computer.)
I suggested taking a computer class, but Janis seemed hopeful that the kids would “come around” and teach her how to make the microwave “less angry.”
This is becoming the norm for boomers. As they age, they enter what someone probably likes to call a “premature obsolescence.” And it rankles. They face challenges that my generation does not: having comparatively high employment at places where they do not understand the technology they are required to use. Being handed strange devices by people at work whom they insist on referring to as “mavens” and “gurus.” Having all their work periodically “eaten” by “the machine.” Occasionally reading articles that make them corner family members at dinner and say things like, “I don’t understand. Can’t you do this in The Cloud?” Referring to the Internet as “the World Wide Web.” Thinking it’s okay to use a tablet to take pictures.
Probably this is the result of being raised by parents whose idea of technology was an icebox and a washing machine. Possibly it is pride. It can’t be narcissism, because you are not allowed to be narcissistic if you’re over 30. (It throws off the writers of trend pieces.) I would not dare to characterize an entire population with a single adjective; that prerogative is reserved to people who write about millennials.
People often complain that boomers are loading millennials with the burden of lots of debt and their nostalgic 1950s Christmas, with all the music that implies. That may be true, but this is not their fault. It is how they were brought up: before the Internet.
My friends all report similar experiences with the boomers in their lives.
“My parents used to call me at college to ask me how to turn on the TV,” said one.
“I came home one Christmas and found out my parents had had a DVR for two years without realizing it,” said another.
Boomers, of course, resist this characterization. “We can handle this change too,” they say. “We handled All the Important Cultural Changes That Came Before, Changes That Were So Important That We Have to Dedicate Weeks of Anniversary Coverage to Them.” They sneer at the idea of being technologically incompetent. “I had a BlackBerry before anyone,” Dave says to the group when they get together at brunch. (Dave still has a BlackBerry.)
Maybe boomers are refusing to admit their age, as many 60-year-olds do. And maybe they will outgrow their technological incompetence step by step, over time, the same way they check their “webmail.” We don’t have data on what boomers will be like when they’re 130, though I have a good guess. Yet the fact remains: By picking up the phone every time they call to ask how the WiFi works, we are enabling them in a life of dependency.
Meanwhile, Janis is still figuring out how to turn her cellphone on and off. She gets through the day with a combination of frantic calls to her children about “the screen doing it again, and I don’t know how to make it stop” and the kindness of strangers. Janis is still alarmed when the Lady in the Phone starts screaming — but she’s a little less frightened of it now.