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The futurist: A look at teens -- past, present and future

How quickly we forget. Events of 20 years ago seem like a distant memory, but 1994 was the year when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, O.J. Simpson was arrested for killing his wife, huge massacres were happening in Rwanda and Sarajevo, and China got its first connection to the Internet.

Bill Clinton was president; the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Forrest Gump; and the world’s population reached 5.6 billion.

To put this year into perspective, this was before the Monica Lewinsky scandal (she was hired by the White House in 1995), before the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), and before the death of Princess Diana (1997).

It was also after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), after the Persian Gulf War (1991), after the Rodney King incident (1991), and after the Branch Davidian catastrophe in Waco, Texas (1993).

But most teen-agers weren’t talking about world affairs. Instead, they were far more interested in getting their driver’s license; listening to the music of Madonna, New Kids on the Block, Celine Dion, Coolio, or Prince; or going to the latest Jim Carrey movie.

More telling for these teen-agers was what they didn’t have yet. They didn’t have the Internet, email, smart phones, search engines, social networking, Sony Playstation, Apple iPods, or downloadable anything. Music, movies, and information came on CDs, cassettes, VHS, in cartridges, or in printed form.

But here’s one crazy detail you may not have considered. Many of the teens of 1994 are now the parents of teenagers in 2014. This is the group tasked with reinventing the rules of childhood in terms of screen time, cellphone curfews, social networking etiquette and more. But we’re just getting started.

Quick Overview

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 teenagers 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.

Changing Levels of Awareness

1994 – Heady issues for teens were Kurt Cobain’s suicide or watching a Jerry Springer interview with Lorena Bobbitt who was found not guilty for reasons of insanity for cutting off her husband John’s penis.

They were largely unaware of mass genocides happening in Rwanda and Sarajevo, because worldwide news coverage was still quite limited.

2014 – News has a way of finding you. Important topics have a way of entering conversations on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Skype.

The most influential sources of news for teens are humor-based shows like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, or The Colbert Report.

2034 – Anticipatory computing will make news very niched and nuanced, and focused on topics important to the individual.

Every choice a teen makes online will help define and redefine what information will enter into their own hyper-individualized newsfeeds.

Listening to Music

1994 – Music has a way of defining who we are and what we deem important. This was a year of big transition in the format of music as we began switching from cassettes to CDs. By 1993, annual shipments of CD players had reached 5 million, up 21 percent from the year before, while cassette player shipments had dropped 7% to approximately 3.4 million.

As a percentage of income, music was expensive and, at most, teens had access to a few thousand songs in their personal libraries. Purchasing music required a trip to Wal-Mart or the local record shop to find the latest hits.


Terrestrial radio broadcasts were a powerful broadcast medium, and all young people knew which stations were hip and cool. Casey Kasem’s best Top 40 radio show was wildly popular and helped define the latest trends in music genres and style.

Music tended to be more rigidly segmented into categories like pop, country, hiphop, jazz, and reggae.

2014 – Acquiring music no longer requires going somewhere. Virtually everything is downloadable or streaming. Every young person has millions of songs to choose from, and few want to be defined by a single category or genre.

The download revolution began with Napster, a controversial download-everything-for-free site in 1999. While the courts put a stop to the “free music” business model, the industry had shifted to change mode. Steve Job’s influence on the music industry began in 2001 with the introduction of the iPod and it’s accompanying library of songs on iTunes.

For most young people, purchasing music is far less important than subscribing to a personalized streaming service like Rdio, Spotify, or Apple Radio. With these services, the amount teens spend on music plummets to a fraction of what their parents spent.

2034 – Music players will have the ability to understand our moods and will pre-assess our reaction to music. With this information guiding the playlists, they will only serve up music that we react positively to.

Music will be used less and less to fill the air for a group experience. Rather, it will be channeled to us individually.

With this level of advancement, music will be used as a performance enhancing tool with many studies conducted around which music works best for situations involving heavy focus and concentration, running a marathon, or during sex.

Personal Computers 

1994 – This was the year of the Pentium processor and IBM clones. Large monitors are 17” CRTs that ate up most of your desk.

IBM ThinkPads, Dell PCs, and Compaq Computers were hot. Ten years after the original Macintosh, Apple introduced the Power Macintosh. After a three-year failed run, Steve Jobs shut down his NeXT Computer business, setting the stage for him to return to Apple in 1997. Amiga, Commodore, and Atari computers were still around but in their waning years.

Laptops were available but rather clunky and crude. The Motorola PowerBook and IBM ThinkPad were early leaders in portability.

CD-ROMS and Iomega Zip Drives made their debut along with the Apple Newton and QuickCam, a spherical eye-shaped webcam that brought pixelated greyscale video capabilities to the PC generation.

Since this was a year before Windows 95, most are running the Windows 3.1 operating system. Data was stored on 3.5 inch disks, the Internet is in its infancy and those who had the technology to connect were dialing in on a 2,600 baud modem. Telephone companies charges long distance fees if you could not find a local number to call into.

For teenagers, computers were still quite expensive, but young geeks had a way of amassing their own hodge-podge equipment that they frequently had to change motherboards on.

2014 – Desktop computers are currently in their waning years, replaced by the likes of iPad, Xooms, Kindles, Chromebooks, Nexus, Galaxy, and MacBooks. But smartphones now handle most of the heavy lifting.

Keyboards are becoming less important as tools like auto-fill and auto-correct make entries less painful. Voice input systems like Siri and Robin are finally gaining broader acceptance. Virtually everyone has had to learn to type with their thumbs.

Nearly all information is stored on cloud-based services like Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive.

For young people, the cost of technology has dropped an order of magnitude and most have smartphones and tablet computers as their constant companions. Being less careful with their equipment, a smartphone with a broken-glass front has become a universal symbol of teen technology.

2034 – The term “computer” itself is destined to become a distant memory, as computer chips will become invisible to users, imbedded in everything from clothing, to cars, and homes.

Displays will be uniquely imbedded in clothing, glasses, and alternatively projectable on virtually every surface.

Gone are the years of two-dimensional displays, and in their place will be interactive holographs that give a multi-dimensional perspective on whatever is being projected. Room-filling displays will be all the rage for company teams and group experiences.

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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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