Storytelling is as old as human history. Traditionally, we have thought of all stories as having a beginning, a middle and an end. But it appears that the non-linear approach is becoming more common in the world today. The popular filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, exemplifies this approach in his movies. Back in 2000, his film Memento told the story of a man whose memory does not exist. The film’s events unfold in two separate, alternating narratives – one in color, and the other in black and white. The black and white sections are told in chronological order, and the color sequences are told in reverse chronological order. In Nolan’s most recent film, Inception, non-linear storytelling forces the audience on a journey through a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through many levels of dream invasion.
But this trend is not only true in storytelling and movies. The idea that there are definitive beginning, middle and end stages to an individual’s life is also shifting. People are now more likely to quit work and go back to school or retire and then take up a new career than ever before. As we have seen over and over again, life is less and less likely to follow a linear path. This will only become more common as the average life span grows longer. The move away from a linear life path for younger people is partially reflective of their expectations that you can invent your own story, choose your own endings, and not wait until the end for rewards.
It is possible that in the networked world in which we now live, and in which connections are now made in a web-like pattern as opposed to a straight line, we will continue to move away from linear narratives in many aspects of our lives. As children and youth, with their more malleable brains, develop in an increasingly networked world, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that they will be comfortable creating and functioning in a culture where non-linear narratives are the norm. If young brains start out processing information in a non-linear fashion, then it may be possible that growing up in a networked world will encourage the brain to stay with that sort of processing.
An increasingly non-linear path in the life cycle will add to the difficulty of raising a family, which is already increasing as a result of the incredibly dynamic culture in which we live. Individuals, lacking a norm or standard to compare themselves to at various times in their lives, will question if they are doing the right thing at the right time. In the workplace, boredom is likely to increase for those who can’t stick with a linear narrative. The gamer generation will require the re-framing of tasks so as to inspire them and allay their boredom and disinterest. This will present a challenge to managers unable to adapt to the non-linear approach. Schools, too, must make changes – the old methods of teaching do not reach, or prepare, students living in an increasingly web-structured world.
And just as all of us may be increasingly confused in the world in which we now live, confusion reigns in the lives of the young. But what is also confusing is the way in which we define “youth” in the coming economy. Up through the last half of the 20th century, adolescence was viewed as an important life stage that marked the transition years between childhood and adulthood. The modern life cycle came to contain multiple phases of youth: infancy, toddler, childhood, adolescence, late teens and early adulthood. What is emerging in the early years of the 21st century is a blending of these phases, and an extension of youth into what we might have considered full adulthood.
As the lines become increasingly blurred, absolute demarcations between populations and generations will no longer exist. Demographic variables will be increasingly hard to quantify – lines become more nebulous. Tangible definitions of household, income level, age, gender, race and ethnicity, employment status, religious affiliation, location, educational attainment, mobility, marital status, will all be inadequate for the nonlinear world into which we are moving.