Entertainment People Garry Linnell: Younger generation can’t tell the time. But they’re lapping Boomers
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Garry Linnell: Younger generation can’t tell the time. But they’re lapping Boomers

The generational divide is more prevalent than ever. But should it matter? Photo: Getty/TND
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You shook your head, rolled your eyes, clenched your jaw and muttered that the whole thing was bloody outrageous.

You’re damn right, said someone else. Shocking stuff. How embarrassing.

You grimaced, sighed and wondered aloud what else could be expected these days.

The parents of those kids should be ashamed of themselves.

We were having lunch with a schoolteacher friend when things turned nasty.

She is in charge of a roomful of grade six kids, all of them on the cusp of puberty, secondary school and the most confusing and intimidating time of their lives.

She told us she had asked her students to tell the time on an analogue clock she had hung on the classroom wall.

Barely a hand was raised.

The kids stared at the clock face with that same mix of bemusement, wonder and bewilderment most of us experience when we look at Kim Kardashian.

They knew what it was. But the way its many parts were put together was confusing and hard to comprehend.

clock time
How do you even work? Photo: Getty

The teacher raised the issue during recent parent-teacher interviews.

She gently suggested to one father that he might like to display an analogue clock in the home so his son might better learn how to read time the old-fashioned way.

“Isn’t that your job?” he asked.

It was the wrong question, of course.

A fundamental skill like telling the time is surely up there with learning to count and read – as much the responsibility of a parent as it is a teacher.

But the real question that father should have posed was one I began asking myself not long after lunch ended and all my indignation and old man irritability had begun to fade.

Does it matter, anyway?

In the UK some school teachers have begun removing analogue clocks when they conduct exams because many students who have mastered calculus and geometry cannot work out how much time they have remaining to complete their test.

There have also been calls for classrooms to ban touchscreen technology like smartphones and tablets because increasing numbers of students are lacking the fine muscle control in their fingers to properly use pens and pencils.

Again, does it really matter?

This is where a little basic mathematics comes in handy.

Subtract all the usual generational angst among Baby Boomers about how younger people have it easier – and how they’re not being properly taught the life skills we learned back in the good old days.

Then add up the new skills that the digital revolution demands from anyone wanting to take advantage of the massive convenience and overload of information it provides.

What do you have left? A world where analogue clocks and lead pencils are fast going the way of typewriters, fax machines and free-to-air commercial television.

What is this? Photo: Getty

The biggest argument supporting the use of analogue clocks within academic circles is that they give us a greater awareness of the passing of time – a view supported by very little science and driven more by a nostalgic yearning for simpler times.

Yes, learning to read time on an analogue clock requires a child to master some fairly complex mathematical equations.

They must understand how 60 minutes can be broken into a dozen five-minute intervals and also comprehend concepts like “past” and “to”.

But are their lives any richer by learning to say the time is now a quarter past 12, rather than 12.15?

It’s a little like asking me if I miss the days of street directories before Google Maps came along.

The digital revolution means I can now navigate streets at night safely without trying to balance a heavy book on my lap and stopping every few blocks straining to see the street numbers of dimly lit houses.

It’s also brought an end to one of the greatest causes of friction in my marriage – my wife’s inability to understand left from right and north from south.

Just a few years ago a teenage boy asked me what it was like back in the dark ages before smart phones came along.

What happened, he asked, if I was running late? How could I tell my parents where I was?

It was simple, I explained. You walked into a booth, inserted a 20 cent piece in the rotary dial phone on the wall and called your home number.

His eyes misted over as confusion set in.

Dial? You put your finger in a hole and then … what, pulled the hole around?

How far did you have to pull it? And then you did that for every number? But how did it work?

I mumbled something about analogue technology turning my voice into electrical pulses and how atoms and molecules and The Force all combined to transport my voice to another location.

Truth was, I had little idea about how it worked and no interest in learning about the telephone’s secret inner workings.

Those phones were nothing more than simple pieces of technology, instruments to be used to convey information.

And like all technology – including the old analogue alarm clock that sat above my bed for years, its annoying ticking keeping me awake for hour upon hour – they have been superseded by something faster and better.

Besides, you don’t need a clock of any kind to tell you how quickly time is passing you by.

That’s what young people are for.

Garry Linnell was director of news and current affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine