Thursday, August 03, 2006

Is there a Generation Gap?

A discussion in the comments section of yesterday's blog entry has got me thinking about the concept of a "generation gap". The reader and I were ironing out our personal definitions of "work" and "leisure", and he included this paragraph in his response...

"There is little doubt in my mind that many of the differences result from being in a different generation. There are many who think that most of younger generation do not want to work at all, and would prefer having everything just handed to them (why not, it’s already there?”). Rather, sit around all day and watch movies or playing video games or sitting around discussing concepts (whether idle chat or otherwise). We see so many who believe that they deserve things just for being born, and expect to get them from their parents or from society without any input from their part. Those that do work, albeit a minority, see work time as a time to do non-work things (phones, games, conversation, e-mail, chatrooms); the result, less productivity in the same 40 hour week. Let’s just say that there are a lot of people getting paid for 40 hours, but only working 20-30 hours for their pay."

This elicited a counter-response that you can read simply by clicking on "comments", located below yesterday's "Leisure Ethic" entry. By no means do I mean to reduce this poster's articulate and considered opinions to this sole paragraph. But like I said, it got me thinking... which is a joy of this forum for me.

I don't encounter a lot of outside commentary on the generation that I was born into. This lack of interaction (about age-determined perspectives) with representatives from other generations isn't a recent development for me. I wasn't even aware that my age group had been ascribed an identity until after college, when I read 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Sure, there had been attempts to characterize this group as "slackers" and as gen-X'ers, but until this book I wasn't aware of what attributes these terms referred to. I hadn't really thought about the context under which this identity was formed. This book was definitely not a work of pure scholarship... indeed it employed a pop culture approach meant to be accessible to the population that the book took as its subject. But it certainly gave me a larger perspective from which to view American society during my lifetime.

The authors of 13th Gen were unabashedly sympathetic to the plight of X'ers. They pointed out that while the boomers inherited a prosperous society of almost infinite hope, the succeeding generation experienced, from a very early age, the cynicism and jaded outlook of citizens wrung through the failed experiments of a country in a marked decline.

The boomers got shiny new consumer goods, the fresh idealism of the first rock-and-roll bands, and a safety net that allowed them to reject authority while benefitting from the prosperity they inherited from it. They were born into a society flush with the successes gleaned from victory in the "Good War" and the efforts of "The Greatest Generation". Their leaders promised a "Great Society" that would forever eliminate injustice, prejudice and poverty. They developed a sense of entitlement never before experienced in American History. They would enter a thriving economy, and attain a material lifestyle that their grandparents and parents could only have dreamed of. When they hit their teens they tuned in and dropped out, indulging themselves in hallucinogenic drugs, utopian thought, and free love. Again... this wasn't the reality for all of the boomers, but it came to form their identity, no matter how sensationalized.

The X-generation was born into the disordered climate of social breakdown. Vietnam and the Nixon scandals had destroyed the naive idealism and security people derived from a government once considered worthy of the public trust. The OPEC-inspired oil crisis had led to a severe recession, crippling the economy and expectations of renewed prosperity. The women's rights movement had led to gender role confusion, and the resultant conflicts caused the disintegration of many families. Children were viewed increasingly as impediments to the individual evolution many parents were trying to pursue. Disgruntled and disillusioned Vietnam vets returned to the states, bringing with them their addictions and increasingly potent and accessible drugs. The idealism of 60's -era boomers morphed gradually into the selfish indulgences of the 80's -era yuppie lifestyle. Greed was good, and it was everybody for themselves.

What did boomer parents expect from their children? As X-gen'rs grew into adulthood, were they likely to wholeheartedly embrace the traditional American values that had so clearly been exposed as illusory promises, built on nothing but post-war boom? Were they supposed to believe that if they simply buckled down and did what they were told without question, then they would inherit what they had seen to be an ephemeral prosperity? Were they really expected to trust in their leaders' concern for them, despite the glaring evidence to the contrary? Had boomers justified their demand for X-er's to buy into the system that was built to favor the entitlement of the boomers themselves? Was the X-generation to believe, that against all evidence, there would be enough left over for themselves?

Perhaps the behavior that boomers now lament in the "younger generation" is understandable when one takes a broader view. I know virtually nobody in my cohort that expects to do better, in terms of material prosperity, than their parents did. Adherence to traditional values is perceived by many as "the sucker's way". Of course this generation is actively seeking alternatives. Whether it's a rejection of consumerist values, a self-indulgent resignation, or an unwavering skepticism toward politics and authority... I don't think the views of the X- generation should be that incomprehensible. People are largely a product of their environment.

Of course, it is a gross generalization to expect all members of a given generation to adhere to the philosophy and lifestyle of their cohort. But that doesn't mean that an age-group, progressing through the stages of life within a society, won't develop certain characteristics. And these characteristics are not adopted arbitrarily or at random.


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