Do you wear a watch? The answer to that question may depend on your age. You could say that watches are the new handkerchiefs.
I rarely iron. Nonetheless, when I was a young girl my mother taught me to do so and the first items entrusted to my care were my father’s handkerchiefs. I remember taking great satisfaction in watching a wrinkled piece of fabric turn into a tidy, pressed and folded square. Yet, the box of handkerchiefs my grandmother gave me when I was a young teen lay unopened in my closet for decades.
While disposable facial tissues are described in an account of 17th century Japan, in the United States Kleenex were introduced after World War I, slowly replacing handkerchiefs over the course of decades. While some very environmentally conscious individuals are urging a return to the cotton square, most Americans never think twice at the idea of grabbing a tissue from a readily available box.
I always wear a watch. I have a utilitarian one for every day and a dressier one for Shabbat and special occasions. However, that marks me as being of a certain age. An increasing number of younger people see a watch as an accessory—almost like a vestigial appendix. After all, with your phone never out of reach it is just as quick to glance at it as to flourish your arm. Receiving a special watch as a graduation gift has gradually become as obsolete as girls putting up their hair or boys transitioning from short to long pants.
And so it goes and quite correctly so. Items like buggy whips, corset lacers and roller skate keys that were once utilitarian become nostalgic remnants found in antique stores. The challenge is differentiating between “no-longer-needed” and “still-needed-but-no-longer-available.” In this vein, I read an article about students lamenting how unprepared they were for those university classes where laptops were banned. They had trouble physically handling hours of note-taking and some couldn’t read their own handwriting. In the same vein, grocery stores screech to a halt if there is a computer failure requiring checkers to compute the correct change in their heads.
I’m not immune to this. I am relieved not to be responsible for growing all my own vegetables and preserving and pickling them to get through the winter. I lack the skills that my ancestors had to sew all my family’s clothes or cobble our own shoes. I was not required to master Latin before graduating college. Not being experienced in some of these things and not being competent in others doesn’t make me feel deficient. Barring a complete societal breakdown, I don’t expect to need these skills (well, I probably wouldn’t need Latin at that point) so I spend my time honing others instead.
The natural reaction is to assume that skills that my generation no longer needs are marks of progress while the lack of skills among the next generation represents a problem. Rationally and responsibly evaluating what actually matters and what does not is a trickier proposition. As I am in the midst of a cooking jag for Passover, heavily dependent on my food processor to grate pounds of potatoes that my grandmother cheerfully grated by hand, my sympathies are stronger for the computer-dependent university students above than they might have been at another time of year.