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Do generations exist?

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The always interesting Louis Menand has a review essay on a couple of new books that try to analyze the differences, if any, between “generations.” He points out that the whole idea of a distinct youth culture is relatively recent, and is largely a product of the fact that until around the middle of the 20th century relatively few people even went to high school in the USA, let alone in Western Europe (where rates of high school attendance were lower for longer):

The discovery that you can make money marketing merchandise to teen-agers dates from the early nineteen-forties, which is also when the term “youth culture” first appeared in print. There was a reason that those things happened when they did: high school. Back in 1910, most young people worked; only fourteen per cent of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were still in school. In 1940, though, that proportion was seventy-three per cent. A social space had opened up between dependency and adulthood, and a new demographic was born: “youth.”

The rate of high-school attendance kept growing. By 1955, eighty-four per cent of high-school-age Americans were in school. (The figure for Western Europe was sixteen per cent.) Then, between 1956 and 1969, college enrollment in the United States more than doubled, and “youth” grew from a four-year demographic to an eight-year one. By 1969, it made sense that everyone was talking about the styles and values and tastes of young people: almost half the population was under twenty-five.

Today, a little less than a third of the population is under twenty-five, but youth remains a big consumer base for social-media platforms, streaming services, computer games, music, fashion, smartphones, apps, and all kinds of other goods, from motorized skateboards to eco-friendly water bottles. To keep this market churning, and to give the consulting industry something to sell to firms trying to understand (i.e., increase the productivity of) their younger workers, we have invented a concept that allows “youth culture” to be redefined periodically. This is the concept of the generation.

Of course the prototypical example of this in American culture is the idea of the Baby Boomers, who consist per the standard definition of everybody born between 1946 and 1964. This concept was originally merely a demographic observation — fertility rates were above three during those years — but it morphed into a very important cultural concept (30 years ago I knew a woman who was obsessed even back then with the idea that “the Boomers” were ruining America, to the point where she complained constantly about them, i.e. me. In a stunning upset, I tactfully restrained myself from pointing out that if she were four months older she too would be a Boomer).

On one level, the idea of distinct generations is ridiculous: the notion that somebody born in 1964 has more in common with people born in 1946 than with those born in 1967 or 1970 is obviously absurd on its face.

Nevertheless, we as a society have an apparently irresistible impulse to divide the population up in this way, even though a ton of social science research suggests that the idea of a distinct “youth culture” in terms of politics, ethics, etc. tends to be wildly overblown if not completely fictitious.

Again, the story of the Boomer “generation” is instructive. Menand reminds us of Yale Law School professor Charles Reich’s preposterous mega-bestseller, The Greening of America:

Reich had been in San Francisco in 1967, during the so-called Summer of Love, and was amazed and excited by the flower-power wing of the counterculture—the bell-bottom pants (about which he waxes ecstatic in the book), the marijuana and the psychedelic drugs, the music, the peace-and-love life style, everything.

He became convinced that the only way to cure the ills of American life was to follow the young people. “The new generation has shown the way to the one method of change that will work in today’s post-industrial society: revolution by consciousness,” he wrote. “This means a new way of living, almost a new man. This is what the new generation has been searching for, and what it has started to achieve.”

So how did that work out? The trouble, of course, was that Reich was basing his observations and predictions on, to use Mannheim’s term, a generation unit—a tiny number of people who were hyperconscious of their choices and values and saw themselves as being in revolt against the bad thinking and failed practices of previous generations. The folks who showed up for the Summer of Love were not a representative sample of sixties youth.

Most young people in the sixties did not practice free love, take drugs, or protest the war in Vietnam. In a poll taken in 1967, when people were asked whether couples should wait to have sex until they were married, sixty-three per cent of those in their twenties said yes, virtually the same as in the general population. In 1969, when people aged twenty-one to twenty-nine were asked whether they had ever used marijuana, eighty-eight per cent said no. When the same group was asked whether the United States should withdraw immediately from Vietnam, three-quarters said no, about the same as in the general population.

Most young people in the sixties were not even notably liberal. When people who attended college from 1966 to 1968 were asked which candidate they preferred in the 1968 Presidential election, fifty-three per cent said Richard Nixon or George Wallace. Among those who attended college from 1962 to 1965, fifty-seven per cent preferred Nixon or Wallace, which matched the results in the general election.

We are seeing the same kind of nonsense today, in the form of various claims, notably lacking both empirical support or theoretical coherence, that Generation Z (or whatever) is leading an ethical revolution against the materialism and decadence of their elders etc. etc. etc.

Menand also makes the good point that dividing history into prepackaged decades — the Sixties, the Eighties and so forth — is arbitrary and misleading, because history doesn’t work that way (For a long time I’ve thought that it would make more sense to describe “the Sixties” as the period between November 22, 1963 and August 8, 1974, rather than the literal decade).

One topic Menand doesn’t cover that I believe is a key to understanding why we seem so obsessed with dividing people and history into neat chronological cohorts is that doing so helps us wallow in nostalgia, which as I argue in a forthcoming book is one of the central emotions/experiences of our age. (We kicked around what could be called the politics of nostalgia with Rick Perlstein on our recent podcast — Rick is great on this stuff, in particular how he chronicles how compressed the nostalgia industry that arose in the 1970s was at the time: For example George Lucas’s American Graffiti treats the Modesto California of all of eleven years earlier as if it were some completely different era from the present. There are many other similar examples of this from those years).

The essay has a lot of other good stuff in it; and the general topic is one that seems increasingly important in the age of what could be called the reddening of America.

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