Where were you on October 26, 1985?
(Think hard, this is important.)
In Hill Valley, California on that date, Marty McFly and his girlfriend Jennifer hopped in Doc Brown’s flying DeLorean and traveled thirty years into the future. “It’s your kids, Marty,” explained Doc Brown, “Something’s gotta be done about your kids!”
Our own kids might not appreciate it, but today’s date—October 21, 2015—is a milestone for those of us old enough to remember 1985. Today is the day Marty arrived in the future Hill Valley, to sort out his future kids in the movie Back to the Future II.
Facebook is all over this: Where are our hover boards? Hey, we really do have 3-D movies! The Cubs might actually win the World Series? No way!
For me, the significance of this date isn’t about whether I have a Black & Decker Pizza Hydrator in my kitchen (although, cool!) In the movies, the leaps through time happen in thirty-year increments (1955, 1985, 2015). Because I had my oldest daughter, Claire, when I was exactly thirty years old—this presented an opportunity that was too good to pass up. I could compare my daughter’s life at fourteen to my own, Back to the Future-style.
If I had travelled forward in time from October 1985 to today, my fourteen-year-old self might have run into my fourteen-year-old daughter.
When she got home from school yesterday, Claire made herself a snack—a microwaveable container of macaroni and cheese. If my fourteen-year-old self had seen this, she would have been gob-smacked. Forget about the astonishing convenience of an individually packaged meal that’s ready to go in three minutes, just the fact that she didn’t have to wait until dinner to eat would have been shocking. After-school snacks weren’t a thing in 1985, at least not at my house.
Once Claire finished her snack she sat down to watch TV until it was homework time. Back in 1985, the only TV I ever watched was Saturday morning cartoons (School House Rock!), and prime time shows my parents deemed acceptable for kids: The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss, and if we were really lucky, Murder, She Wrote.
When Claire sat down at the kitchen table to get her homework started (at least that never changes), she pulled out her school-provided iPad and got to work. She had a question about her English homework so she sent her teacher an email. Then she FaceTimed her best friend and they did Civil War flash cards with each other for half an hour. It was the only practical way for them to study together, since the friend lives twenty minutes away.
After homework she went on YouTube and found a video for a ukulele song she’s teaching herself to play. In 1985 if you wanted to learn the ukulele you’d have to move to Hawaii.
I’m pretty sure that when I was fourteen I came home from school, didn’t eat a snack, then spent the rest of the afternoon in my room. Now that I think about it, I might have spent some time on our computer, the Commodore 64. I remember making homemade greeting cards for friends that I would print out on the dot-matrix printer. That was the 1985-equivalent of birthday shout-outs on Instagram.
Homework, as best I can tell, is the one constant in the universe.
After homework, I might have gone to my best friend’s house. She lived across the street, of course, because if she’d lived further away we couldn’t possibly have become best friends.
The closest thing we had to awesome technology was the intercom system in our house. When it was dinnertime my mom would press the button on the main kitchen unit and call, ‘Dinner’s ready!’ and we’d all rush downstairs.
I talked to Claire about all this, once I returned from my stroll down Memory Lane. Her reaction wasn’t surprising—she couldn’t imagine a life without Instagram and texting and Google. She kept asking how I filled my time, without TV or the Internet. I must admit, I take it all for granted now. (I couldn’t remember what shows were on the air in 1985, so what did I do? I Googled "Top TV shows of 1985.")
The point is, we are the first generation to parent kids whose teenage experiences include all this technology we never had—and it’s hard. It takes a lot more imagination for one thing. When I struggle with my kids’ persistent reliance on their devices, I can’t think back to what my parents told me about how to balance my online life with my offline life. I have to make it up as I go.
Not everything is different, of course. The core of what they want—independence balanced with security, more connection with peers and less with family, validation of their ideas, and acknowledgment that they don’t always need to be told what to do—that’s all the same. It just manifests differently these days.
"Something's gotta be done about your kids!"
Social media, when it comes right down to it, is just a way to interact with friends. Now we’re not limited to friends who live in our neighborhood. Claire has friends in Australia. Her world is bigger (at school they Skype with kids in Barcelona during Spanish class) and smaller (about the size of her smartphone screen) than mine was at the same age.
It was surprisingly helpful to me, this little exercise in time travel. Really thinking about myself at fourteen forced me to look at Claire differently. She has better hair and better technology, but aside from that we have a lot in common.
The reason [Marty] sets the DeLorean to Oct. 21, 2015? It’s the day 30 years in the future when the Cubs are predicted to win the World Series. Bob Gale, who scripted the 1985 original with Robert Zemeckis, said that he tried to figure out when the final game of the Series would have played: “I did my homework as a baseball fan.”