business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Say the following word to yourself: Mill-house.

Odds are, if you are above a certain age, you’ll think of “Milhous” the middle name of ex-President Richard Nixon. Below that age (and I don’t know the exact break here) you’ll think “Milhouse” Bart Simpson’s strangely bespectacled friends on what’s the biggest movie at the theaters these days.

And by the way, if when you read “Simpson” you though of the late Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, you’re in yet another demographic and seriously have to question why you are reading this column. (If you thought of OJ, you can hang around.)

The Milhous issue came up around our family dinner table after an outing to see “The Simpson’s Movie,” which, like it or not, is one of the better films I’ve seen in a while. Then again, I have a 17-year-old who took me to see the latest Adam Sandler movie and probably should have escorted me to therapy right afterwards.

I like to think my kids are pretty well read. They are both terrific students—one in college, the other high school—and know more history than most. Yet, when asked who the name Milhouse might be mimicking, they were stumped. (My wife, a fellow baby boomer, eagerly chimed in that she knew.)

It got me thinking about this emerging generation and all that they do and don’t know. Worse yet, it got me worried about what we simply assume they know that they never will. Every fall (trust me it’s coming out soon) Beloit College puts out a list of cultural icons that the incoming freshman couldn’t identify or relate to at all. This year’s freshman class, born in 1989, came into this world in the Presidency of George H.W. Bush and never in their lives knew that the Soviet Union was around and was supposed to be feared. They probably don’t remember when millions of people didn’t have I-Pods and when Apple was a computer company allegedly without a future.

Think about it in our industry. This year’s 18-year-olds can’t remember a time when Wal-Mart didn’t run lots of food stores and didn’t sell more things to eat then anyone else out there. They aren’t burdened with the strange belief that food is only purchased in supermarkets.

They don’t remember a time when natural food stores or organics were for “tree huggers” completely out of the main stream. Whole Foods and stores like it are pretty much everywhere.

Starbuck’s has been on every block they travel pretty much for their entire lives. For many of them, it’s a place where they hang out, whether or not they drink coffee.

Likewise, Internet shopping is and always has been ubiquitous. They probably can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t use it.

Not only has cable television been around all their lives, but the proliferation of channels and choices is also a constant. Who could live in a world without multiple versions of ESPN after all?

The problem is that many of us who they work for do remember all of this. We do remember differences and even a time when Milhous was an unusual middle name. And we get frustrated with those who don’t know what we know, when in many ways we should be listening.

In addition, these 18-year-olds are our future employees, shoppers and leaders. As Bart Simpson, who was born before these kids, would tell us: “don’t have a cow, man.” Just listen up. We can all learn a lot.

And, by the way, “The Simpson’s Movie” is terrific. Okay, it won’t many anyone forget “Citizen Kane” but you will laugh repeatedly and you will totally respect a movie that asks its audience why any group of people would pay to see something they otherwise get for free on television.
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