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 teenagers 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 teenagers 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.

NOTE:  Part two can be found here.

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.

Key influencers 1994

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% 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.

Typical teen geek in 1994

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.

Group dating is common among teens


1994 – America’s appetite for listening to all the lurid details of a sexual scandal had been growing. The scandalous Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas (1991), with Anita Hill offering riveting details about Thomas’ sexual exploits set the stage for a far more dramatic Monica Lewinsky scandal to follow in 1998.

Being gay was taboo. Porn was largely restricted, available only in printed form (Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse) and on VHS tapes (DVDs came later in 1997).

Fear of venereal disease turned teens into condom-carrying opportunists with most sexual encounters still happening in the back seats of cars.

Unwanted pregnancies were a problem, disdained by families and the community, and it was largely up to the teen to manage the details of her life.

2014 – Sexual scandals are still enough to get an elected official thrown out of office as in the case of Silvio Berlusconi or Anthony Weiner, but they are losing much of their draw as attention-grabbing headlines.

With the pervasiveness of the Internet, every teenager has discovered pornography and much of the mystery is now gone. To normal test-their-limits teens, online videos have become an instruction manual, of sorts, for experimentation. Sexting is now commonplace and services like Snapchat, where the image goes away after a few seconds, is a safer way to be momentarily provocative.

Being gay is not only accepted, but shown as normal on virtually every TV, book, or movie making the charts.

The hookup culture has made sex nearly as casual as kissing. Unwanted pregnancies are more likely to result in a child that is raised by parents, grandparents, and other family members.

2034 – Salacious sex stories of the past will be viewed as boring news in the future. Video tabloids still try to use them to grab attention, but each year they seem to become less effective.

For teens, the Penthouse under the mattress or online porn has been replaced with a full sensory virtual experience. Their first sexual encounter is with the cyber-twin of a consensual partner or cyber-prostitute that costs money.

For teens, sex of this nature will come early and often, and most will be anxiously awaiting the next release of the new and improved super-enhanced experience.

Being gay is yesterday’s news and largely an accepted lifestyle choice.

With fewer and fewer children being born, teen pregnancies and having babies is now a status symbol among young women. Gone are the rigors of child rearing as family members and institutionalized childcare pool together to give them back much of their pre-pregnancy freedom so they can return to an active youth lifestyle.

Watching Television

1994 – TVs were large bulky appliances that take up a good portion of the living room. Virtually all of them were connected to cable television and a VCR. Bookshelves had as many VHS tapes of popular movies as they did books.

Watching normal broadcast TV is a syncopated experience with long and frequent ad blocks giving people time to “do things” during the commercial breaks. Parents who wanted their teens to do something typically received an, “I’ll do it during the commercial,” reply.

Even though VCRs allowed people to record a show for later viewing, few actually knew how to run their VCR, many of which still had a “flashing 12:00” that was later covered with duct tape or cardboard.

As a result, the schedule of TV shows drove the schedule for the entire household, with many planning activities around the times of their favorite shows.

Most hated to be in the room when a young guy had the remote control. Constantly flicking through channels to find something better, he’d typically settle on watching the second half of something he’d seen before.

Movies were typically remembered by the 2nd half because few have ever seen the opening.

For teens, who all have their own smaller screen TVs in their room, the television also served as a game console. The hot new video games in 1994 were World of Warcraft and Myst.

The new fall lineup was always cause for excitement, as NBC, ABC, and CBS each dedicate what seems like a billion hours of ad time hyping each of their new fall shows.

Renting movies was also a popular option, causing many to make frequent trips to the local Blockbuster store to check out the latest releases. Late fees were common practice, and most renters learned quickly to both “rewind and return” promptly to avoid police-like fines and penalties.

2014 – Large cathode ray tubes of the past have morphed into today’s high definition flat panel displays. Screen sizes have mushroomed from 32” (a huge TV in 1994) to often 60” or larger.

Cable television providers went from offering dozens of channels to hundreds of channels, along with a DVR, and Internet connection, and a telephone landline that no one cares about.

Many TVs also get connected to either an Apple TV or Roku box for on-demand viewing of any show at any time. People who don’t mind spending the money can avoid commercials altogether.

The TV watching experience first involves finding the coffee or end table with 8-10 remote controls on it, finding the one that turns the TV on, followed by finding the surround sound remote to fire up the audio equipment, followed by finding either the Cable, Apple TV, or Roku remote, followed by finding the remote for your electric recliner.

The remotes are often mixed in with game controllers, an iPod, light dimmers, a cellphone or two, old reading glasses, and at least one remote that no one remembers what its good for.

Teenagers often have their own gadget caves with computers, TVs, game consoles, audio players, smartphone, and at least 37 chargers and cords connected to a single extension cord.

Teens will often try to do their homework with a TV on, while writing entries on Facebook, sending a Snapchat or two, and talking on the phone. As a form of limit-testing most are constantly testing the geek capacity for doing everything simultaneously.

2034 – Most houses are now designed around video surfaces with one room designated as the primary viewing center. Gone are TVs as an appliance and in their place are either projection walls or digital wallpaper.

Most video watching is now in life-like holographic 3D that doesn’t require any special glasses. However, most will choose to wear some form of heads-up display to enhance the experience.

Teenagers will be notorious for attempting to watch 2-3 shows or movies simultaneously while carrying on a quirky dialog with their friends.

Walking down the street, teens switch to music/game mode where the world as they see it is part of the game itself. Some games send players on eclectic treasure hunts, often getting them to stop at their favorite retailer to try a free sample and learn about the latest in-store special. Others will be less commercialized and more social-based, giving kids a reason to connect – “my game told me I should meet you.”

Many houses will be equipped with turn-on windows to either view the surrounding neighborhood or their favorite view of the ocean. Others will be designed around turn-on sky projectors shine the weather outside on the ceiling.

A dystopian view of teen life in the future

Final Thoughts – Part One

One of the major difference with teens over the past 20 years has been the technology. We’ve gone from big clunky expensive devices to things that most young people own and interact with all the time today.

With this introduction, I was hoping to set the stage for a more in-depth look into the personal side of teen life – past, present, and future.

Being a teenager has never been easy, but how we develop during these formative years is critically important to everyone’s future.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s missing and what still needs to be included. This is a hugely important topic with lots of facets, so please feel free to weigh in.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




17 Responses to “Life as a Teenager in 1994, 2014, and 2034 – What a difference a generation makes! – Part One”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://www.samsondesign' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jeff Samson</a>

    The 20th century attempted to screen what teens should be exposed to. Knowledge and experiences were allotted in controlled doses with age. Some topics such as sex were even controlled after maturity and marriage. Specific cultural, religious and educational organizations prescribed and monitored the content and structured the teens intake. It appears that this century is beginning with full frontal exposure and access to all information as soon as it is realized. The moment a scientific discovery, international incident or the cat next door does something amazing it is available to all. The assumption that teens can handle it replaces the nurturing of the twentieth century. The message from parents, schools and cultural organizations is being compared and evaluated by the teen in the context of everything. The question is not whether they will make the best decision but rather; will they become more capable in the long run. I experienced 4 generations of taboos this holiday weekend. Much time was dedicated to one generation tolerating another. The youngest just kept doing what they wanted to and as long as they were safe and fed no one seemed to be concerned. Great granddad now 93 had escaped a very nice senior living center for the weekend and decided to replace a perfectly fine mailbox at the family summer home. His kids, now in their sixties tried to deter him but the males soon joined him in the totally unnecessary project. It just so happened that two late 20 something couples had gotten engaged this summer so a lot of time was spent on the wedding plans by the mothers and grandmothers while the engaged frolicked on the warm beach not worrying about what was going to happen sometime next year. After all they have been virtually married for several years by now. In fact, they were irritated that the mothers and grandmothers kept asking their approval for the coming events. Where were the teens to be found? They were at the beach checking each other out and taunting one another in games with rules that were frequently ignored. There were about six from this family and about 9 more from neighbors. In the evening they talked about movies, teen heroes and their favorite food. Some poked and prodded one of the opposite sex and giggled but in general a certain amount of mutual respect existed except as directed towards the parents. This could have been a scene from the 20th century. Even when everyone attended the picnic disagreements were between generations but as a whole it was text book end of summer family event. The question is whether 4 generations spanning 70-90 years of difference and the introduction of the digital age will really make that big of a difference. It seems that the digital age allows families to be more in touch than ever while accommodating opportunities for separate activities and privacy with similar age groups. When the parents wanted the teens to return for dinner they simply called and when the teen wanted to know if they could go to the movie with the other cousins they called and they called to let everyone know they were safe. There is no challenge to the notion that things are different but sometimes it looks like opportunities and dangers are still in balance.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Jeff, You bring up some excellent points. I hadn't considered the evolving nature of control, but that's a major factor. Our electronic tethering allows more freedom in some respects, but more control in others. Tom
    • FuturistSpeaker

      John, Here's the reference: ...World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard Entertainment. It is the fourth released game set in the fantasy Warcraft universe, which was first introduced by Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_of_Warcraft Tom
  2. John N

    Okay, yes the world and the first Warcraft was created back then, but World of Warcraft specifically is an MMORPG and was released in 2004. But anyway, thanks for a great blog, I've been a reader for a long time.
  3. <a href='http://www.talkingpointz.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dave M</a>

    You didn't mention drugs. The drugs of yesteryear were simple and could be counted on one hand. Today, pot is legal - but tobacco is frowned upon.
  4. Christina

    The teenager picture is very sad. Let us work towards preventing this from happening. It is much nicer to be outside away from technology most of the time. It has a place in this world but should not become the world. Love and enjoy your writings Thomas. Thanks.
  5. Nick Hirsch

    I can't help but feel that there are a couple of missing elements here, not least that of socio-economic status. The teens that you describe in all three of these scenarios (past, present, future) are those who have grown up with access to these wonderful technologies. However, my experience working at the public library taught me one truly important lesson in this regard: the respective culture of those with and without access to new technologies seem utterly incommensurate. This was true in the 1990s, to be sure, but it seems to me that the gap widens every year, and I worry about what this means for both sides of this divide in access. I also think that teenagers are much more inclined to participate in physical reality than we condescending adults give them credit for. I think 3-D printers will become popular focal points of interaction, that teens, once freed from the constraints of the singular screen with singular viewing times (streaming having replaced broadcast for the most part), kids will naturally be inclined to enjoy each others' company and to participate in group activities, be they in person or across the globe. I also think there are a number of industries on the verge of collapse at this point (particularly media, music and film, etc), and we can not really predict how the drastic, immanent changes in the economics of data transfer will affect modes of consumption in the future. Most importantly, change is not unidirectional, and I think it's entirely possible that teenagers of the next generation will turn out to be religious ideologues who reject social liberalism entirely. Or they will give up on gender entirely and find new ways to make us all feel old and stuck in our outmoded conceptions of identity vectors. :)
  6. Larry Beck

    So you think there's cultural and social changes since 1994. Pity those of us who were teen agers in 1954. Some predicted we would experience debilitating culture shock. Mostly I/we have absorbed the change and still retained something at the core. The technology hasn't overwhelmed the humanity...Yet.
  7. Enrique Gutierrez

    Tom, What about Teens from a level of contribution and responsibility. I see my teens as more busy, greater pressure and responsible than was I. What will the future hold in terms of working age, will they have a college education earlier, will they have more adult responsibilities by 15? Just curious on your thoughts in terms of increasing pressure to contribute.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Enrique, Certainly there is no one universal description for teenagers today, and yes, many feel a great pressure to contribute. A total of 55% participate in volunteer activities each year, and millions more would be working jobs if they were more plentiful. At issue here is a growing level of awareness of what's happening in the rest of the world, and this creates a variety of feelings ranging from empathy, to privilege, to pity, to guilt. The communities that they're in are what helps them formulate a way to respond to those feelings. The better you are as a parent at positioning them in an action-oriented community, will help determine the next steps in their lives. Teen now have great opportunity to participate on the world stage. I'd suggest you help them to make it happen. Thomas Frey
  8. <a href='http://martydickinson.com/+' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Marty Dickinson</a>

    So, my 15yo son's kids will be teenagers at this future 2034 year...my grandchildren. I'd be curious what teenagers of that year think of their grandparents. Do they communicate with them? Do they respect them? Do they aspire to have a strong work ethic like those of their elders? Has the term "married" become a slang term used by teenagers only to identify people over 70? "See that dude over there?" "Yeah, he's soooo married!" What jobs will pay them what they need to sustain their lifestyle of said projection walls, turn-on windows and cyber prostitutes?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Hi Marty, Some great questions. 2005 was the first year in the U.S. when over 50% of women reported being single. We are certainly becoming a less married society. By 2034, it very well may be that the great grandparents spend most of their time raising young kids. Our lines of communication are improving in many ways - across generations, across country borders, across cultural barriers, across professions, and even across political lines. Contrary to popular myth, young people today are far more versatile at communicating than any past generations simply because they have more ways of doing it. When it comes to jobs, highly skilled job will always pay more, but the technology they're tied to will continue to change. As example, in a few years jobs like drone engineers, driverless car technicians, 3D print designers, and data analysts will be in high demand. But a few years later, that could all change. But for most of these jobs, the question everyone will be asking is, "Will they be here next year?" :-) Thomas Frey
  9. Kiro N.

    World of Warcraft was released in 2004, not 1994. Warcraft: Humans and Orcs was released in 1994. This might not seem like a big difference, but considering World of Warcraft was the first largely successful MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) and Humans and Orcs was only single player, I think it's important to make the distinction, seeing that World of Warcraft essentially introduced a new medium onto the market.

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