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James Ferragut, Published October 11 2009

The ‘gap’ is more insidious

Donald Fisher died last week. Donald and his wife, Doris, founded a mom and pop store called The Gap in 1969. The only product The Gap sold was blue jeans. Owning a store that carried only one category of clothing was a new concept; it changed the business model of retailing. Niche retailing and niche marketing were born with The Gap. The Gap now has more than 3,700 stores worldwide.

Donald and Doris called their store The Gap as a reference to the generational gap between the baby boomers and their parents. Born in the 1950s, I was in the “gap.” As emerging adults, we were at war with parents, grandparents and the society they represented.

The war between the generations dwarfed the typical “teenager vs. parent” dynamic that had existed since time began. It made evening dinners at the Ferragut household volatile as my brother and I forced my dad to defend his work ethic, his post-World War II materialism and his pro-Vietnam War stance, while we lobbied for long hair and more freedom.

It took 20 years, but boomers changed politics, religion, entertainment, culture, societal mores and industry. We became the most dominant and powerful force in history. We changed the world, and we closed that famous gap in the process.

Now the “gap” is schmooshed so tightly a gap doesn’t exist. There is integration between generations. Kids and parents share the same music, movies, cars, toys and even wear the same clothes. Every day you can even see grandpas and grandmas wearing jeans, tennis shoes, tie-dye T-shirts with iPod buds in their ears. Forty years ago that “visual” would be impossible to conjure up.

There’s a different kind of gap now; it’s fragmenting us in a way that’s less obvious but more insidious. It’s not about generational differences; it’s born of the endless lifestyle options that are offered to us, from entertainment to food, sports and politics. You name it and we have 4,000 sub-categories. In 1970, the average grocery store had 12,000 items on the shelves; today 38,000. Take that change and apply it to magazines, digital entertainment, sports, you name it. We have thousands of options.

How can a culture stay integrated when its citizens are consuming information from 100 different sources based on individual preferences? How can a culture be united where there is no eye-to-eye contact because our chins are locked into our necks as we text while walking? How can you be a neighbor when you drive into your garage and walk directly into your house after work?

Today’s fragmentation gap is potentially more damaging than the war between the generations in the ’60s. The heart and soul on both sides of the generation gap war were always buoyed by a common foundation. Today, the emerging fragmentation gap is isolating and is splintering us into smaller and more impersonal segments.

I wouldn’t trade those heated discussions with my father at a noisy dinner table for a home that has five people entertained by 42 choices in five separate rooms. But, that’s just me.

Ferragut is vice president of marketing for a Fargo bank and a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.