Shirley Brice Heath, linguistic anthropologist, is the author of Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Family and Community Life and Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1983/1996) and professor emerita of English and dramatic literature and linguistics at Stanford University.
In recent months, I published a book about adolescents who let me hang out with them in the waning years of the first decade of this century. For most of these teens, I had done the same thing with their parents two decades earlier and their grandparents more than three decades ago. The teens of the 21st century were a special case. They laughed at the idea that I was actually writing a book! They argued that I should “just blog” or maybe “tweet,” since “nobody reads books.”
In spite of today’s teens’ discouraging words about books, I did publish Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Family and Community Life (2012). As I explained to the young 21st century pioneers, they would very soon be history, and history would, for at least the next few decades, need to be recorded in writing – particularly in books. Within the next decade, what they as today’s teens were doing as they read, wrote, watched, and performed with IT (internet technology) would be outdated. Facebook would evolve or even dwindle as MySpace had done, and new social networking means would emerge with more efficient and effective ways of connecting people, places, actions, and ideas on the internet. Teens today read, watch, talk, and experiment or perform when they want to know or do something. Their parents, in contrast, watched, talked, and relished trial and error.
Indeed across just the two generations represented by them and their parents, work and play, along with ways of talking, regarding written sources of information, and expressing ideas to others had changed right in front of their eyes. Uneasy with being confronted with the speed of change that now makes history, the teens gradually came to relish taking part in the research that went into my book. They digitally recorded their conversations with friends and sessions when friends worked together to create a film or research games on the internet. They learned to count parts of speech, tense changes, and hypotheticals in transcripts of their own talk and to compare these numbers with those from similar recordings their parents had made when they were teenagers. While their parents used past, present, and future tense in their everyday conversations, the teens of today tended to stick with the present tense, making it extend backwards and forwards through vocal emphasis, gesture, and facial expression. Their parents had lacked the fondness for adverbs that today’s teens found in their talk; when they listened to their own recordings, they heard actually, really, totally over and over. While their parents had occasionally used like to introduce a segment of a narrative, today’s teens found this word in their conversations “like everywhere.”
Immersed in a world of now, they have no need for stating conjecture. They just “do it, try it, go for it.” They spend relatively little time positing for themselves future selves and laying out steps along a pathway that they want to take in the coming years.
In short, Words at Work and Play eventually managed to work its way into the hearts and minds of the teens who populate the book. When their parents and grandparents read the book, they find much to celebrate about their own youth and more to lament about today’s teenagers. Yet the elders realize that such has been the pattern of transgenerational assessments for centuries. Harder for them to take is the realization that in past decades responses to economic changes lay largely within the control and conscious choice-making of individuals and families. Such is not the case today. The global economy exerts pressures that reach into nearly every aspect of life at the local level. Consumerism, entertainment, and material accumulation have overtaken saving, doing, and knowing.
In the words of one teen, this collection of stories is “too big to be on the internet.” Conjoined compliment and complaint, this description fits the book well. The volume’s narrative takes in thirty years of economic changes and ripples in parenting, working, playing, and talking. Families and communities now figure in the lives of children and young people in ways that only faintly resemble those of a decade ago. Where this kind of demand comes from and where the innovations that may result will take us constitute the essence of Words at Work and Play across three decades of family and community life.