I am a forty-something, which means I am out of touch with what passes for common knowledge among 18 year olds today. (Dodgy joke about keeping in touch with 18 year olds deleted in the interests of good taste.) Beloit College in the USA used to maintain a list for their staff, to explain what the world looks like to an 18 year old freshman: here's their 2006 list. It's heavily biased towards (obviously) American 18 year olds, but it got me thinking.
I write novels for adults. (And I'm not about to start writing YA now, for various reasons.) A typical novel takes 1-3 years from the initial pitch to the first publication, and stays in print for 5-10 years; this means that a gap of up to 15 years separates the initial conception from the final "new" reader.
Now, reading as a habit is something you either pick up in childhood, or never acquire. Then most adolescents stop reading as much. A small proportion then go back to it after their hormones settle down (sometimes a long time later), and these people will continue reading for the rest of their lives, as a rule. And they — if you're reading this, you're probably one of them — are the people who ultimately pay me a living. It's therefore a good idea for me to know what today's 18 year olds have grown up understanding about the world, because an 18 year old who's about to reacquire the reading habit today is probably going to be the 33 year old who picks up the last reprint copy of, say, "Halting State", some time in 2021.
So. In writing SF, I not only need to imagine what the future will be like — I need to anticipate what my future readers will enjoy reading. But, unlike the fictional future, they're here today. So I can meet them halfway by looking at where they've been ...
The year is 2008.
An eighteen year old today was born in 1990.
They don't remember Margaret Thatcher. John Major stopped being Prime Minister when they were seven. The huge political scandals of the last conservative government are history.
Labour are the natural party of government and fiscal prudence. They're also in favour of nuclear weapons, privatization of what's left of the public sector, and friends with George W. Bush (who is the only American president they really remember).
The Soviet Union, the East German Stasi, Nazi Germany, and Napoleon Bonaparte are all boogymen out of ancient history. The Apollo Project — wasn't that an old Tom Hanks movie?
They probably remember 9/11 vaguely, and all the grown-ups being very upset. They were ten at the time.
The Simpsons have always been on Sky.
Kylie Minogue has always been a singer.
AIDS has been around forever, but there are meds you can take to cure it [not true, but a common misconception among the young].
Every adult had, and has always had, a mobile phone. They've had one of their own since they were eleven.
The internet has always been around. Cable or satellite TV has always been around. CDs and DVDs have always been around (and are boringly bulky). Freeview has always been around. iPods have been around since they were ten. They've never seen a Sony Walkman, though they've probably heard old farts mention them. And what did the coffin dodgers do with those big black round things, exactly?
Nobody they know expects to ever hold a job for more than three years.
Homosexuality has always been legal. Abortion has always been legal. The morning-after pill has always been available over the counter. Handguns have always been illegal.
Nobody they know who is under 36 and not already a home-owner expects to ever be rich enough to buy a house. The average house costs as much as a helicopter or a high-ticket Ferrari.
They'll probably go to university, and come out of it with debts equal to two years' worth of their starting salary. (Roughly what somebody twice their age paid for their first apartment.)
Lots of people take antidepressants. Everyone slashes themselves; it's no big deal. (Statistics show a third of UK teens self-harm at some stage.)
They had their first drink when they were 11 or 12. They first had sex when they were 15 or 16. Only about 50-60% of them have passed their driving test yet, although 90% are planning to before they reach 20.
There have always been cameras in shops and schools and other public places, although there are more of them than there used to be. Old folks grumble about privacy, but really, you're being watched wherever you are. If you don't like it, get a hoodie.
Anyone got anything to add? I'm in a list-making mood this week.