December 2, 2013

It’s terrifying. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Janis (not her real name) came into my office, looking upset and sniffling. She refused the tissues I offered. “I have no idea what to do,” she said.

“Here,” I said, shutting the door. “Let me see it.”

“She keeps yelling at me, the woman,” Janis sobbed. “I tell her, GO AWAY, but she doesn’t understand.”

She handed me the smartphone.

“Yes,” I said, nodding sympathetically. “That’s not yelling. That’s a feature. It’s called Siri.”

I rubbed her back and soothed her as I tapped the screen three times and solved everything that had been wrong.

“My kids won’t help me any more,” Janis said. “They say I’m hopeless. Am I hopeless?”

“No,” I said. But deep down, I thought: possibly?

Janis is 60 years old.

Janis struggled a little with Incompetence growing up, but not like this. And it only worsened when her children moved out of the house, forcing her to telephone them long distance from a land line to ask which button would turn on her cell phone. She has practically been begging at least one of them to move back into the basement for years now, unsubtly forwarding them all the trend pieces on Millennial Insecurities and The Six Reasons Bushwick Is More Dangerous Than You Initially Suspected Because Those Hipsters Are Fighting A Hipster Turf War that she can find. (Admittedly this is not very many, because she only reads articles online that have been forwarded to her by her ninety-year-old mother or that she has already found in print, then Googled on a desktop computer.)

I suggested taking a computer class, but Janis seemed hopeful that the kids would “come around” and teach her what to do to make the microwave oven “less angry.”

And her case is becoming the norm for boomers. As they age, they enter what someone probably likes to call a “premature obsolescence.” And it rankles. They have to face challenges that my generation does not — having comparatively high employment at places where they do not understand the technology they are required to use. Being handed strange devices by people at work whom they insist on referring to as “mavens” and “gurus.” Having all their work periodically “eaten” by “the machine.” Occasionally reading articles that make them corner their family members at dinner and say embarrassing things like, “I don’t understand. Can’t you do this in the Cloud?” Still referring to the Internet as “The World Wide Web.” Thinking it’s okay to use a tablet to take pictures.

Probably it was years of being raised by parents whose idea of technology was an icebox and a washing machine. Possibly it is pride. It can’t be narcissism because you are not allowed to have narcissism if you’re over 30. (It throws the writers of trend pieces off.) I would not dare to characterize an entire population with a single adjective. That prerogative is reserved to people who write about millennials.

People often complain that what is wrong with boomers is that they are loading millennials with the burden of all kinds of debt and their nostalgic 1950s Christmas, with all the music that implies. That may be true, but before we saddle them with those labels, we should realize that this is not their fault. It is just how they were brought up: before the Internet.

My friends all report similar experiences with the boomers in their lives. “My parents used to call me at college to ask me how to turn on the TV,” my friend Queen Zygmar Of The Winds (not her real name) said.

“I came home one Christmas and found out my parents had had a DVR for like two years without realizing it,” another friend, Julio Unpleasantness (not her real name), told me.

boomers, of course, resist this characterization. “We can handle this change too,” they say. “We handled All The Important Cultural Changes That Came Before, Changes That Were So Important That We Have To Dedicate Weeks of Anniversary Coverage To All Of Them.” They all sneer at this idea of boomers as technologically incompetent. “I had a Blackberry before anyone,” Dave says to the group, when they get together at brunch. (Dave still has a Blackberry.)

Maybe boomers are refusing to admit their age, as many 60-year-olds do. And maybe they will outgrow their technological incompetence very slowly, step by step, over a period of decades, the same way they check their “webmail.” We don’t have the data on what boomers will be like when they’re 130, although I have a good guess. But the fact remains: by picking up the phone every time they call to ask how the WiFi works, we are enabling them in a life of dependency.

Meanwhile, Janis is still figuring out how to turn her cell phone on and off. But she gets through the day with a combination of frantic calls to her children about “the screen doing it again and I don’t know how to make it stop” and the kindness of strangers. Janis is still alarmed when The Lady In The Phone starts screaming — but she’s a little less frightened of it now.

(Of course this piece is ridiculous. Of course it’s a series of Boldface Anecdotal Evidence strung together into a contempt-dripping thesis. Of course The Technological Incompetence of the Middle-Aged is such painfully low-hanging fruit that people at the bottom of the Grand Canyon trip over it. Of course all this is true. But that’s never stopped anyone before.)

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.