Is the iPhone the Symbol Of Our Generation?


I don't have an iPhone — and no, that's not a coy way of conspicuously preferring one of its competitors in the Android or Windows markets. I don't have a smartphone at all. My mobile device, the Samsung-something, refuses to lock correctly, freezes without warning, and has a trigger-happy touchscreen.

But it has redeeming features, too — I know when someone's trying to call me because my phone will sputter an epileptic performance and shut down. It also greets my desire to call someone by sputtering an epileptic performance and shutting down. I should also note that it is not the case that I'm over 70, nor am I a self-righteous Luddite. Up until fairly recently, you could call me an early adopter. Some devices, like the Amazon Kindle, are fixtures of my life. So I can see the appeal of an iPhone — I'm the only one in my household without one. I just never got around to it. And I've found that makes me weird among my generation.

According to the Pew Research Center's State of Mobile America project, two-thirds of millennials (Americans aged 18-34) own a smartphone. From the outside looking in, an iPhone-less existence has given me perspective on the digital lives of millennials. Don't worry, this doesn't entail the cliched wonder of extolling the hyper-connected world — we get it! We are more connected, but more significant is the way in which we're connected. After all, young folks have always been looking for a way to be in close contact with their peers, entertain themselves independently, and take ownership of their social life. Up until the latest surge in iPhone users and more broadly, consumer electronics, the connector of choice was a Ford pickup.

In their piece for The Atlantic titled "The Cheapest Generation," Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann write:

"In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too. Even the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008."

The authors liken car ownership in the 1980s and 1990s to smartphone ownership today,and the function of these two devices for young people indeed have considerable overlap. Before consumer electronics were ubiquitous, connecting to friends required either a phone call or a drive over to a spot where the two or three or four of you could hang out. Smartphones take one of those connectors, the phone call, and amplifies its function to make moot the other. If you have a variety of apps and the ability to text or video chat, getting to the same physical space as your friends is less urgent. Even when you're with your friends, so too does the lure of mobile devices make their presence less urgent.

But there's another difference. Where a car might have signaled a level of success or independence beyond your peers (after all, not everyone could own a car), an iPhone is more symbolic of who your identity. Thompson and Weissmann cite a publicist to claim millennials want to be seen as "tech people." That doesn't quite seem to be the case. Sure, many of my smartphone-wielding friends are indeed techies — the type not only to download apps, but to develop them too. The vast majority of folks, though, seem to appreciate the technology without seeking the personality attribute.

If an iPhone says something about who you are, it tells others you're always moving.

The first sense in which that is the case is largely what it sounds like. To possess a smartphone means you're not tied down to a large device (like a laptop) or location. Take it from a person without one when I say that a mobile device makes you yourself more mobile. That you can work in any location, find food from anywhere, communicate on-the-go and entertain yourself likewise is big.

Second, attention becomes more mobile. With a universe of apps at your disposal, most every need imagined (and many hitherto unimagined) can be met. Sesame Street is on point here:

In this way, we become more sensitive to boredom. If you don't believe me, find any form of public transportation and look at what the plurality of folks are doing. Better still, leave your iPhone at home for the day and feel for yourself the pangs of anxiety. After you have a smartphone, it's not easy to go back to the life of waiting, with nothing to do, no app to use.

The way in which iPhones communicate a life on the move can go far beyond the phone itself. Because of the mobility imputed by smartphones, millennials no longer live within discrete stages. We don't just work at work, and we don't just play when we play. Having a device that facilitates an seamless transition between work and pleasure and public and private means our generation lives more in the continuum of these dichotomies than it does within one sphere at a time. We're always moving between them.

This is true of our future expectations as well. The 2011 survey commissioned by PWC titled "Millennials at Work" finds career paths to be on the move. In 2008, fully 75% of young workers expected to work for two to five employers in their life. Only 10% expected to work for six or more. In 2011, only 54% of young workers expect to work for two to five employers. The amount expecting to work for six or more is now up to 25%.

This is not to say the iPhone as a gadget escapes constant movement. Perhaps a metaphor for itself as a physical device, the planned obsolescence of smartphones means you can't stick with the same phone for too long. The medium is the message is the medium.

The most interesting question here is what direction the influence travels. Claiming what the iPhone says about our generation does not necessarily entail the iPhone is the cause for its symbolism. After all, I don't own a smartphone, but I'm very much emblematic of the described ethos. We have to wonder whether it's a generation of movers that generate the success of the iPhone, influencing its development through successive updates and releases to closer match the generation its serving, or whether the vision of Steve Jobs is actively shifting the lifestyle of twenty-somethings beyond the grave. It's uncertain we'll ever know for sure. Or maybe there's an app for that.