The age of relevance

My daughter has been waging a fresh battle to get Snapchat. Amy and I somewhat naively assumed we'd be afforded a slightly longer respite from this kind of battle. After all, we had been experiencing a period of relatively peaceful coexistence after the Great Instagram Campaign of November 2014, which resulted in a multipage Camp David-style social media treaty, enforced over the last year as if our kitchen were the Hague. (Sample line: "I will not pretend to be someone I’m not or exaggerate who I am in an attempt to make people like me or my posts.")

But here was another social media invasion on our shores. And unlike Instagram, which I already had some handle on, my knowledge of Snapchat was derived entirely from a Buzzfeed article entitled, "An Adult's Guide to Snapchat." Not a great place from which to begin a fresh round of negotiations.

Cut to a few nights ago: Amy and I are sitting under the covers, going undercover. We each download the app to our respective phones and set up our respective identities. (Amy, always a bit smarter about these things, registers as a twentysomething with an inscrutable screen name. I give my real name, my real age.) Then we start trading disposable texts, photos, and videos. (Note to those of you parents who try this at home: That feedback you hear is because Snapchat assumes you are not actually 3 inches away from the person to whom you are sending a live video.)

Despite the fact that I've spent the last three years building digital products, and am downloading and trying new apps with a fair amount of frequency, I found myself completely befuddled by Snapchat's user interface. I wondered aloud whether it was intentionally designed to repel anyone over the age of 20, kind of like those ringtones that students can hear but teachers cannot. 

"Am I just getting old?" I ask Amy. 

It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. And it's on my mind today, because my friend Patti told me that I had to keep writing this blog, but only if I stop referring to myself as "an old dog." 

It's hard to explain my relationship status with my age. It's complicated. I don't feel old yet, but I don't feel young anymore. And I do feel acutely aware that there is a road and it will end. It doesn't make me sad exactly, but it does make me want to live the next chapter with greater intention. And it makes me deeply, consciously grateful for each day I get, each conversation I have. I don't take time for granted anymore. I don't take people for granted anymore.

Snapchat did make my brain hurt, the way my father's new iPhone makes his brain hurt. But just as I was beginning to wonder if that signaled the true beginning of the end of my youth, I flashed back to a moment in 1994, on a sidewalk in the East Village, when Jennifer Baumgardner was trying to explain the World Wide Web to me. Jenny and I were the youngest editors at Ms. Magazine at the time. She was a year younger than me, and far more tapped into the zeitgeist, which is why she had thought to attend a World Wide Web workshop hosted by Echo NYC. "There's this thing called a home page," she said, and I could feel the synapses in my brain straining to make new connections in order for me to visualize what she was describing.

In 1994, the very concept of the Internet made my brain hurt far worse than the Snapchat UI. I was 25 then. Maybe it has nothing to do with age. Maybe this is just what happens to your brain when you try something new. 

After all, in some ways I feel less old now, at almost 46, than I did 10 years ago when all of my Gen X peers suddenly woke up and realized we'd been displaced as the "young ones." That's when a steady stream of thirtysomething leaders came to companies like mine in order to have consultants explain "youth culture" to them. I was one of those consultants, but I was also one of those Gen Xers, and I felt no more in touch with youth culture than my clients. I was simply better at making forays into Youthland and coming out with actionable insights.

Today feels different. I have an intimate connection with someone in every generation. I have family members, friends, and colleagues in their 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s, and 20s. I have a teenage daughter. I have friends and family with newborns, toddlers, big kids, tweens, teens, college students, and college grads. I am one degree of separation from every living age group right now, and I actually feel pretty in touch with their lives and needs.

So while I do sometimes feel creaky—yes, my muscles ache today from yesterday's surf lesson—I do not feel out of touch. I feel like I have entered the Age of Relevance, and I'm just getting started.

And unlike the Age of Innocence, the Age of Relevance need not have an expiration date. My cousin Pauline stayed relevant right up until the day she died at 108 in 2008. I remember the afternoon when I came out to her. We were sitting in her apartment in Chelsea and I was feeling scared even though I knew that as a vegan and a lifelong Democrat, she'd probably be more open to my sexual orientation than most centenarians. "You know, Julie," she said to me. "If what I read in the New Yorker is true, then it seems like most of the interesting artists, writers, and thinkers are gay. I think you'll be just fine."

I think the key to staying relevant is simply staying open—to new people, new ideas, and new experiences. And that's exactly what I'm trying to do here. I can feel the synapses of my brain working hard. Those muscles may ache a bit tomorrow, but it will have been worth it.