A caller ID screen showing the word "Dad."
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Better than any moisturizer or old pair of pants that suddenly fit is the moment when you don’t get the reference that a person a little older than you just made. Every generation does it to the generation that preceded them.

“That must have been before my time,” we love to say, as if we’re wheeling the person into an old folks home.

It’s always a disheartening experience. A poor guy is talking about some old television show or band with unbridled enthusiasm, lost in a nostalgic reverie about this thing he likes so much, and the younger person has no idea what he’s talking about. They stare like a confused dog turning their head back and forth, and remark, as if thrusting a dagger, “That must have been before my time.”

The guy falls backwards a few feet, and a single tear comes to his eye. “Oh,” he usually only manages to respond.

When uttered or received, the line is akin to a woman mentioning she has a boyfriend or a guy announcing he’s a cop. It creates a sudden distance between two people and establishes clear demarcations and limits. In this case, one has been established as the old person, and the other as the young person. They can never go back to their earlier innocence.

Where Young and Old Find Common Ground

Everyone does it. I’ve heard 20-year-olds say this to 30-year-olds, and I’ve heard people in their fifties say this to people in their sixties. Sometimes it’s obviously sarcastic and done with the overt intention of ballbusting, but other times, it’s totally sincere and underhanded and said with a cold expression on the face.

The phrase is inherently odd because plenty of things happened before our time: World War II, the Spanish Inquisition, Jazzercise, yarn–but we all don’t take pride in not knowing about those things. Perhaps it’s a little different with pop culture.

Every generation loves annihilating the collective cultural experience of the previous one while canonizing their own. We all need to believe that our window of time is the most important one. That’s why, every ten years, people love talking about how the world’s actually going to end during their lifetimes.

It’s not because they really believe that; it’s simply ego in thinking that such a monumental event would have to happen during their lifetimes. It won’t. The world is going to go on, and people will see many beautiful sunrises and Apple updates long after you’re dead. Sorry.

The Good Old Days

Youth both causes us to over-romanticize pop culture we experienced while we were thin and cute and trample over other culture we didn’t experience because the world hadn’t yet been graced by our presence.

I’ve both said “That must have been before my time” to others and had it said to me. Once I was discussing Godfather II and a friend muttered, “Haven’t seen it, it was before my time,” adding that great topper, “I didn’t grow up with it.”

And I was like, “Yeah, I didn’t grow up with Godfather II either, but I have this ability to look things up that happened awhile ago.” Then I took him for a long boat ride and only I returned. He’d probably still be alive if he’d seen it.

You shouldn’t necessarily be proud of not knowing anything (for the most part), but don’t be too proud of obscure knowledge either, and understand that it’s silly to expect successive generations to relate emotionally to what you grew up with. Even if they do know the reference you just made, they’ll never quite care in the same manner.

This is all part of the reason I’m looking forward to the creation of perfect AI robots. They’ll never say something so cruel as “That was before my time.”

Instead, they’ll go, “I have the total knowledge of all human existence as recorded in the digital age, so yes mortal human, I did see that episode of Three’s Company.”

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Chason Gordon is a staff writer and editor for How-To Geek. His writing has previously appeared in Slate, Vice, Input, and The Globe and Mail, among others. He currently lives in San Antonio, but is on a month-to-month lease.
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