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More snapshots from the future

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One.)

In looking at generational changes, it’s important to put everything into context – what things have changed and what has stayed the same.

I’ve chosen to frame this discussion around middle class teen-agers in the U.S., an influential, trend-setting segment of American society. Experiences differ greatly depending on economic status, cultural upbringing, community, location, and family structure, so this is not intended to be an all-encompassing look at teenage life, just snapshots of generational differences.


1994 – America’s appetite for listening to all the lurid details of a sexual scandal had been growing. The scandalous Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas (1991), with Anita Hill offering riveting details about Thomas’ sexual exploits set the stage for a far more dramatic Monica Lewinsky scandal to follow in 1998.

Being gay was taboo. Porn was largely restricted, available only in printed form (Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse) and on VHS tapes (DVDs came later in 1997).

Fear of venereal disease turned teens into condom-carrying opportunists with most sexual encounters still happening in the back seats of cars.

Unwanted pregnancies were a problem, disdained by families and the community, and it was largely up to the teen to manage the details of her life.

2014 – Sexual scandals are still enough to get an elected official thrown out of office as in the case of Silvio Berlusconi or Anthony Weiner, but they are losing much of their draw as attention-grabbing headlines.

With the pervasiveness of the Internet, every teenager has discovered pornography and much of the mystery is now gone. To normal test-their-limits teens, online videos have become an instruction manual, of sorts, for experimentation. Sexting is now commonplace and services like Snapchat, where the image goes away after a few seconds, is a safer way to be momentarily provocative.

Being gay is not only accepted, but shown as normal on virtually every TV, book, or movie making the charts.

The hookup culture has made sex nearly as casual as kissing. Unwanted pregnancies are more likely to result in a child that is raised by parents, grandparents, and other family members. 

2034 – Salacious sex stories of the past will be viewed as boring news in the future. Video tabloids still try to use them to grab attention, but each year they seem to become less effective.

For teens, the Penthouse under the mattress or online porn has been replaced with a full sensory virtual experience. Their first sexual encounter is with the cyber-twin of a consensual partner or cyber-prostitute that costs money.

For teens, sex of this nature will come early and often, and most will be anxiously awaiting the next release of the new and improved super-enhanced experience.

Being gay is yesterday’s news and largely an accepted lifestyle choice.

With fewer and fewer children being born, teen pregnancies and having babies is now a status symbol among young women. Gone are the rigors of child rearing as family members and institutionalized childcare pool together to give them back much of their pre-pregnancy freedom so they can return to an active youth lifestyle.

Watching Television

1994 – TVs were large bulky appliances that take up a good portion of the living room. Virtually all of them were connected to cable television and a VCR. Bookshelves had as many VHS tapes of popular movies as they did books.

Watching normal broadcast TV is a syncopated experience with long and frequent ad blocks giving people time to “do things” during the commercial breaks. Parents who wanted their teens to do something typically received an, “I’ll do it during the commercial,” reply.

Even though VCRs allowed people to record a show for later viewing, few actually knew how to run their VCR, many of which still had a “flashing 12:00” that was later covered with duct tape or cardboard.

As a result, the schedule of TV shows drove the schedule for the entire household, with many planning activities around the times of their favorite shows.

Most hated to be in the room when a young guy had the remote control. Constantly flicking through channels to find something better, he’d typically settle on watching the second half of something he’d seen before.

Movies were typically remembered by the second half because few have ever seen the opening.

For teens, who all have their own smaller screen TVs in their room, the television also served as a game console. The hot new video games in 1994 were World of Warcraft and Myst.


The new fall lineup was always cause for excitement, as NBC, ABC, and CBS each dedicate what seems like a billion hours of ad time hyping each of their new fall shows.

Renting movies was also a popular option, causing many to make frequent trips to the local Blockbuster store to check out the latest releases. Late fees were common practice, and most renters learned quickly to both “rewind and return” promptly to avoid police-like fines and penalties.

2014 – Large cathode ray tubes of the past have morphed into today’s high definition flat panel displays. Screen sizes have mushroomed from 32” (a huge TV in 1994) to often 60” or larger.

Cable television providers went from offering dozens of channels to hundreds of channels, along with a DVR, and Internet connection, and a telephone landline that no one cares about.

Many TVs also get connected to either an Apple TV or Roku box for on-demand viewing of any show at any time. People who don’t mind spending the money can avoid commercials altogether.

The TV watching experience first involves finding the coffee or end table with 8-10 remote controls on it, finding the one that turns the TV on, followed by finding the surround sound remote to fire up the audio equipment, followed by finding either the Cable, Apple TV, or Roku remote, followed by finding the remote for your electric recliner.

The remotes are often mixed in with game controllers, an iPod, light dimmers, a cellphone or two, old reading glasses, and at least one remote that no one remembers what its good for.

Teens often have their own gadget caves with computers, TVs, game consoles, audio players, smartphone, and at least 37 chargers and cords connected to a single extension cord.

Teens will often try to do their homework with a TV on, while writing entries on Facebook, sending a Snapchat or two, and talking on the phone. As a form of limit-testing most are constantly testing the geek capacity for doing everything simultaneously.

2034 – Most houses are now designed around video surfaces with one room designated as the primary viewing center. Gone are TVs as an appliance and in their place are either projection walls or digital wallpaper.

Most video watching is now in life-like holographic 3D that doesn’t require any special glasses. However, most will choose to wear some form of heads-up display to enhance the experience.

Teenagers will be notorious for attempting to watch 2-3 shows or movies simultaneously while carrying on a quirky dialog with their friends.

Walking down the street, teens switch to music/game mode where the world as they see it is part of the game itself. Some games send players on eclectic treasure hunts, often getting them to stop at their favorite retailer to try a free sample and learn about the latest in-store special. Others will be less commercialized and more social-based, giving kids a reason to connect – “My game told me I should meet you.”

Many houses will be equipped with turn-on windows to either view the surrounding neighborhood or their favorite view of the ocean. Others will be designed around turn-on sky projectors shine the weather outside on the ceiling.

Final Thoughts

One of the major difference with teens over the past 20 years has been the technology. We’ve gone from big clunky expensive devices to things that most young people own and interact with all the time today.

With this introduction, I was hoping to set the stage for a more in-depth look into the personal side of teen life – past, present, and future.

Being a teenager has never been easy, but how we develop during these formative years is critically important to everyone’s future.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s missing and what still needs to be included. This is a hugely important topic with lots of facets, so please feel free to weigh in.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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