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The New Generation Gap

It isn't yet at a sixties boil, but the emerging conflict between fortysomethings and twentysomethings will help to define this decade


by Neil Howe and William Strauss

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to parts two, three, and four.)

"Among democratic nations each generation is a new people." -- Alexis de Tocqueville

TWO world views, reflecting fundamentally different visions of society and self, are moving into conflict in the America of the 1990s. A new generation gap is emerging. In the late 1960's the fight was mainly between twenty-year-olds and the fifty-plus crowd. Today it's mainly between young people and the thirty- to forty-year-olds.

In these gaps, the old 1960s one and the emerging 1990s facsimile, there have been two constants: Each time, the same conspicuous generation has been involved. Each time, that generation has claimed the moral and cultural high ground, casting itself as the apex of civilization and its age-bracket adversaries as soul-dead, progress-blocking philistines. The first time around, the members of that generation attacked their elders; now they're targeting their juniors.

From the archives:

"The Organization Kid" (April 2000)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks

"A Politics for Generation X" (August 1999)
Today's young adults may be the most politically disengaged in American history. The author explains why, and puts forth a new political agenda that just might galvanize his generation. By Ted Halstead

"The Class of '43 Is Puzzled" (October 1968)
While the rebels in the present college generation raised their voices and their barricades, men and women of earlier generations traveled back to campuses to raise their glasses in that long-standing late spring rite, the class reunion. By Nicholas Von Hoffman

"The War Against the Young" (October 1968)
"By repressing the rebellion of youth instead of understanding, we are in danger of losing the best of our natural resources—'youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope.'" By Richard Poirier

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "My So-Called Generation" (August 11-25, 1999)
Can there be such a thing as a Generation X political agenda? Who are these Xers, anyway—and who speaks for them? An interactive discussion featuring Tucker Carlson, Farai Chideya, Andrew Shapiro, Scott Stossel, and Ted Halstead, the author of The Atlantic's August cover story.

We're talking about Baby Boomers. Born from 1943 to 1960, today's 69 million Boomers range in age from thirty-two to forty-nine. Defined by its personality type, this generation is somewhat different from the group defined simply by the well-known demographic fertility bulge (1946-1964). At the front end, the grown-up "victory babies" of 1943 -- peers of Janis Joplin and Bobby Fischer, Joni Mitchell and Geraldo Rivera, Oliver North and Rap Brown, R. Crumb and Angela Davis, Newt Gingrich and Bill Bradley -- include the first Dr. Spock toddlers; the fiery college class of 1965; the oldest Vietnam-era draftcard burners; the eldest among "Americans Under 25," whom Time magazine named its "1967 Man of the Year"; and the last twenty-nine-year-olds (in 1972) to hear the phrase "under-thirty generation" before its sudden disappearance. At the back end, the grown-up Eisenhower babies of 1960 are the last-born of today's Americans to feel any affinity with the hippie-cum-yuppie baggage that accompanies the Boomer label.

The younger antagonists are less well known: America's thirteenth generation, born from 1961 to 1981, ranging in age from eleven to thirty-one. Demographers call them Baby Busters, a name that deserves a prompt and final burial. First, it's incorrect: The early-sixties birth cohorts are among the biggest in U.S. history -- and, at 80 million, this generation has numerically outgrown the Boom. By the late 1990s it will even outvote the Boom. Second, the name is insulting -- "Boom" followed by "Bust," as though wonder were followed by disappointment. The novelist Doug Coupland, himself a 1961 baby, dubs his age-mates "Generation X" or "Xers," a name first used by and about British Boomer-punkers. Shann Nix, a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests "posties" (as in "post yuppies"), another name that, like Coupland's, leaves the generation in the shadow of the great Boom.

We give these young people a nonlabel label that has nothing to do with Boomers. If we count back to the peers of Benjamin Franklin, "Thirteeners" are, in point of fact, the thirteenth generation to know the U.S. flag and the Constitution. More than a name, the number thirteen is a gauntlet, an obstacle to be overcome. Maybe it's the floor where elevators don't stop, or the doughnut that bakers don't count. Then again, maybe it's a suit's thirteenth card -- the ace -- that wins, face-down, in a game of high-stakes blackjack. It's an understated number for an underestimated generation.

The old generation gap of the late 1960s and early 1970s featured an incendiary war between college kids and the reigning leaders of great public institutions. Back then the moralizing aggressors were on the younger side. And back then Americans in their thirties and early forties (the "Silent Generation," born from 1925 to 1942) stood in between as mentors and mediators.

The new generation gap of the 1990s is different. It features a smoldering mutual disdain between Americans now reaching midlife and those born just after them. This time the moralizing aggressors are on the older side. And this time no generation stands in between.

What separates the collective personalities of Boomers and Thirteeners? First, look at today's mainline media, a hotbed of forty-year-old thinking. Notice how, in Boomers' hands, 1990s America is becoming a somber land obsessed with values, back-to-basics movements, ethical rectitude, political correctness, harsh punishments, and a yearning for the simple life. Life's smallest acts exalt (or diminish) one's personal virtue. A generation weaned on great expectations and gifted in deciphering principle is now determined to reinfuse the entire society with meaning.

Now look again -- and notice a countermood popping up in college towns, in big cities, on Fox and cable TV, and in various ethnic side currents. It's a tone of physical frenzy and spiritual numbness, a revelry of pop, a pursuit of high-tech, guiltless fun. It's a carnival culture featuring the tangible bottom lines of life -- money, bodies, and brains -- and the wordless deals with which one can be traded for another. A generation weaned on minimal expectations and gifted in the game of life is now avoiding meaning in a cumbersome society that, as they see it, offers them little.

For evidence of this emerging generation gap, take a look at a Fortune magazine survey earlier this year asking employed twentysomethings if they would ever "like to be like" Baby Boomers. Four out of five say no. Peruse recent surveys asking college students what they think of various Boomer-sanctioned moral crusades -- everything from "family values" to the "New Age movement." By overwhelming margins, they either disapprove or are remarkably indifferent. Recall the furious Thirteener-penned responses that appeared just after the media's celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock, or after the recent turn away from yuppie-style consumption ("Let the self-satisfied, self-appointed, selfrighteous baby-boomers be the first to practice the new austerity they have been preaching of late," Mark Feathetman announced in a New York Times essay titled "The 80's Party Is Over"). Notice the pointed anti-Boom references in such Thirteener films as Running on Empty, Pump Up the Volume, Heathers, True Colors, and Little Man Tate, or in the generation-defining prose of such emerging young writers as Coupland, Nix, Brett Easton Ellis, Nancy Smith, Steven Gibb, Eric Liu, Gael Fashingbauer, David Bernstein, Robert Lukefahr, and Ian Williams.

Already Thirteeners blame Boomers for much that has gone wrong in their world, a tendency that is sure to grow once Boomers move fully into positions of political leadership. Remember, these are the young people who cast their first votes during the 1980s, for the party (Republican) and the generation (of Reagan and Bush) that Boomers at like age loved to excoriate. More recently the end of the Cold War and the "Bush recession" have persuaded Thirteeners to go along with an all-Boomer Democratic ticket. But fortysomething politicians can hardly rest easy. This latest turn in what Coupland calls the "microallegiances" of today's young people also reflects a toxic reaction to what Boomers have done to the other party (even right-wing Thirteeners shuddered to hear the Quayle and Quayle "values" preaching) and a vehement backlash against the status quo (pre-election opinion polls showed Ross Perot's strongest support coming from under-thirty voters). Whatever economic and cultural alienation Thirteeners feel over the next decade -- and they will feel plenty -- will inevitably get translated into hostility toward the new generation in power.

If being a resented older generation is a novel experience for Boomers, and if life on the short end feels ruinous to Thirteeners, each group can take a measure of solace in the repeating generational rhythms of American history. About every eighty or ninety years America has experienced this kind of generation gap between selfrighteous neopuritans entering midlife and nomadic survivalists just coming of age.

Boomers

"SOMETHING strange is going on in the hearts of baby boomers," announced American Demographics magazine in a recent article heralding the 1990s. Around the same time, Good Housekeeping took a full-page in The New York Times to run an ad inspired by the Boomer marketing guru Faith Popcorn. The ad welcomed America to "the Decency Decade, the years when the good guys finally win. . . . It will be a very good decade for the Earth, as New Traditionalists lead an unstoppable environmental juggernaut that will change and inspire corporate America, and let us all live healthier, more decent lives," when consumers will "look for what is real, what is honest, what is quality, what is valued, what is important."

All across America, Americans in their thirties and forties are answering RollingStone's call to "muster the will to remake ourselves into altruists and ascetics." If, a decade earlier, twentysomething hippies evolved into thirtysomething yuppies, the new fortysomethings are now putting (according to the demographer Brad Edmondson) "less emphasis on money and more on meaning." How can this be? How can a generation that came of age amid the libidinous euphoria of People's Park now be forming neighborhood associations to push "alcoholics, drug dealers, and wing nuts" out of Berkeley parks and out of their lives? How can a generation that a decade ago went, as Todd Gitlin put it, "from 'J'accuse' to Jacuzzi" now be leaving the Jacuzzi for a cold shower?

Over the past five decades, as Boomers have charted their life's voyage, they have consistently aged in a manner unlike what anyone, themselves included, ever expected. They began as the most indulged children of this century, basking in intensely childfocused households and communities. Benjamin Spock mixed science with friendliness and instructed parents to produce "idealistic children" through permissive feeding schedules. To most middle-class youths, poverty, disease, and crime were invisible -- or, at worst, temporary nuisances that would soon succumb to the inexorable advance of affluence. With the outer world looking fine, the inner world became the point of youthful focus.

Their parents expected Boomers to be, in William Manchester's words, "adorable as babies, cute as grade school pupils and striking as they entered their teens," after which "their parents would be very, very proud of them." In 1965 Time magazine declared that teenagers were "on the fringe of a golden era" -- and, two years later, described collegians as cheerful idealists who would "lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world, and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war."

Hardly. Over the next several years Boomers discovered that they were never meant to be doers and builders like their parents. Instead, finding their parents' constructions in need of a major spiritual overhaul, even creative destruction, they triggered a youth-focused "Consciousness Revolution." Along the way, they became what Annie Gottlieb has described as "a tribe with its roots in a time, rather than place or race." That time was the late sixties, when the term "generation gap" gained currency.

The term was coined (and used most frequently) by the hard-charging dads of the "GI Generation," born from 1901 to 1924, a cohort reaching from Walt Disney to George Bush, whose 25 million surviving members today range in age from sixty-eight to ninety-one. Back in the heady days of what the historian William O'Neill has dubbed "the American High," the GI peers of John F. Kennedy made much of "gaps" -- missile gaps, science gaps, poverty gaps. Gaps were something they thought themselves quite good at building bridges across. But not this one. Beginning in the late 1960s the generation gap became a full-fledged age war.

The youthful Boom ethos was deliberately antithetical to everything GI: spiritualism over science, gratification over patience, pessimism over optimism, fractiousness over conformity, rage over friendliness, self over community. "STRIKE!" became the summons, the clenched fist the emblem, T-shirts and jeans the uniform, and "corporate liberalism" the enemy. Screaming radicals and freaked-out hippies represented just 10 to 15 percent of America's circa-1970 youth, but they set the tone. Off campus and at the other end of the political spectrum, a similar depth of anti-establishment rage welled up among blue-collar Boomers (who were twice as likely as their elders to vote for George Wallace in the 1968 election).

The GI-Boomer age war paralleled the Vietnam shooting war. It crested in 1969, along with draft calls and casualties. A couple of years later -- after Ohio's National Guardsmen killed four Kent State students, after student opinion turned solidly against the war, and after Congress amended the Constitution to allow eighteen-year-olds to vote -- Boomers began heeding the Beatles' simple "words of wisdom: let it be." The generation gap began to ease, in its outward forms at least, replaced by a grinding pessimism and a gray Boomer drizzle of sex, drugs, unemployment, and a sour (if less confrontational) mood on campus. In politics the Boomers settled in as more apathetic and more just plain illiberal than their rebelled-against parents could ever have imagined.

In the 1970s the GI-versus-Boom clash had a quiet denouement that has proved over time to be at least as consequential as the Boomers' angry demonstrations. No pact was signed, no speeches were made, but something of a deal was struck. On the one hand, Boomers said nothing as GIs then on the brink of retirement proceeded to channel a growing portion of the nation's public resources (over a period from the post-Vietnam peace dividend to the post-Cold War peace dividend) toward their own "entitlements." On the other hand, GIs did not object as Boomers asserted control of the culture. GI leaders (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush) continued to preside at the pinnacle of government, while their retirement-bound peers became America's first old people to call themselves "senior citizens." Millions of men and women who had come of age with the New Deal abandoned America's increasingly Boom-oriented work life, separated into their own Sun City peer societies, tuned in to their own "Music of Your Life" radio stations, and began strengthening the clout of what was already the most powerful generational voting bloc in the history of global democracy. No generation in U.S. history -- not even that of Jefferson and Madison -- can match the GIs' lifetime record of success at getting, holding, and using political power.

At the same time, Boomers -- who in the first days of the eighteen-year-old vote were expected to be a political powerhouse, sweeping candidates of their choice into the White House -- played the role of political siren, first tempting candidates, then luring them to their demise. It was not until 1992, two decades after George McGovern first begged for their votes, that Boomers finally showed more political clout than the aging GI peers of LBJ and Richard Nixon (and leapfrogged the leaderless Silent Generation, which may become the first generation in American history never to produce a President).

Along the way, the word "yuppie" -- a term of derision among others, of self-mocking humor among Boomers -- labeled a generation of supposedly sold-out ex-hippies. Introduced in 1981, the word referred to "young upwardly mobile professionals," a group that included only about one out of every twenty Boomers. But a much larger proportion fit the subjective definition: self-immersed, impatient for personal satisfaction, weak in civic instincts. Everything the yuppie did -- what he ate, drank, listened to, lived in, and invested for -- sent a negative message about GI-style culture and institutions.

Notwithstanding their affluent reputation through the 1980s, Boomers, especially those born in the middle to late 1950s, have not prospered. True, they are roughly keeping pace with the (Silent) generation just before them, at each phase of life. But were it not for the rising economic power of women (and the two-income household), they would be falling behind. Debt is a big problem: U.S. News & World Report says that roughly one fourth of all professional and managerial Boomers are "nebbies" (negative-equity Boomers) teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy. Yet amid these financial problems, polls show, Boomers overwhelmingly consider their careers better, their personal freedoms greater, and their lives more meaningful than those of their parents. They know they may not be America's wealthiest generation, but the American Dream lives on for them in the form of a finely tuned inner life -- which is one reason why aging GIs feel so little guilt about their economic condition.

Although 1990s-edition Boomers are no throwback to the 1960s, they see themselves as they did then (and always have): as the embodiment of moral wisdom. Their aging is taking on a nonapologetic quality -- prompting The New York Times to relabel them "grumpies" (for "grown-up mature professionals"). The idea of telling other people what to do suits them just fine. They do not inherently dislike government; they simply want to redirect public institutions toward what they consider a socially redemptive purpose. Addressing America's unresolved social issues, from crime and homelessness to health and education, Boomers are far more inclined than other generations to believe, with Jeffrey Bell, that "the setting of society's standards is, in the final analysis, what politics is all about" -- and to share Karl Zinsmeister's view that "genuine compassion demands that we forgo the comfortable, and ever so easier, responses of softness. "

Whatever the problem, the Boomers' solution could not be more different from that of their parents at a like age. Their call is not for the white-coated scientist but for the black-cloaked preacher. Their prescription is not a sugar-coated elixir but a purgative tonic. Recent exit polls show that the politicians who disproportionately ride Boomer votes are either reverends (Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, who in the 1988 primaries did better among Boomers than among others) or bearers of dark messages (Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, and Pat Buchanan, who did best among Boomers in the 1992 primaries).

To solve social problems Boomers don't look to technology and big institutions (as did the GI peers of JFK and Nixon) or to expertise and committees (as have the Silent peers of Michael Dukakis and James Baker). Rather, Boomers look to values -- the redemptive if painful resurrection of what Michael Lerner, the editor of the progressive magazine Tikkun, calls a "Politics of Meaning." Material abundance is not necessarily connected with such values, which is why even a severe recession could not dissuade the younger orators at the 1992 political conventions from talking less about GNP and housing starts than about moral standards and the state of America's soul (much to the bewilderment of over-fifty columnists -- and to the jeers of the under-thirty viewers of MTV's Like We Care).

In one jurisdiction after another, Boomers who once voted for Reaganomics are now engaging in what David Blankenhorn, of the Institute for American Values, calls "a debate about causes and cures," a debate about "what we are prepared to give up." They are pushing for the explicit exercise of public authority -- more taxes, zoning, schools, prisons -- as long as this authority moves America toward the lofty social standard that Boomers themselves have sanctified. Boomers are stirring to defend values (monogamy, thrift, abstention from drugs) that other generations do not associate with them. The leaders among Boomer blacks, once known for the Afro cut and the black-power salute, are bypassing the rusty machinery of civil-rights legislation pioneered by their elders and are preaching a strict new standard of group pride, family integrity, and community loyalty.

A generation that came of age in an era of "Is God Dead?" is immersing itself in spiritual movements of all kinds, from evangelical fundamentalism to New Age humanism, from transcendentalism to ESP. By a substantial margin, Boomers are America's most God-absorbed living generation. Six out of ten report having experienced an extrasensory presence or power, versus only four out of ten among older generations. Six times as many Boomers plan to spend more time in religious activities in future years as plan to spend less.

Values-gripped Boomers are enlisting on one side or the other of what the family-policy guru Gary Bauer has called America's "cultural civil war." Candice Bergen, Garry Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Paul Wellstone, communitarians, pro-choicers, over here. Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, "Decency Czar" Anne-Imelda Radice, Oliver North, evangelicals, pro-lifers, over there. Some Boomers are joining eco-crusades, while others who don't mind "playing God" with endangered species have opted for the Wise Use Movement. The hot new fads are "values marketing" and "non-ism" -- the art of advertising, and enjoying, whatever it is you're not consuming.

On both sides of the political spectrum Boomer politicians advocate stark, no-pain, no-gain "cures" -- like the Oregon Plan for Medicaid triage, or Dan Quayle's demand that limits be placed on jury awards for "pain and suffering," or Al Gore's call for stiff energy taxes, or Massachusetts Governor William Weld's notion that a ten-year prison sentence should mean 10.0 years behind bars, or Bill Clinton's proposal that "we ought to have boot camp for first-time nonviolent offenders." Boomer editorialists adamantly reject dickering with foreign tyrants, compromise on the deficit, mercy for S&L violators, welfare for anybody who doesn't work for it.

Critics can and do call Boomers smug, narcissistic, self-righteous, intolerant, puritanical. But one commonly heard charge, that of hypocrisy, ill fits a generation that came of age resacralizing America and has kept at it. Always the distracted perfectionists, they apply first a light hand, then (once they start paying attention) a crushingly heavy one. They graze on munchies until they figure it's time to diet, and then they cover themselves with ashes and sackcloth. From Jonathan Schell to Jeremy Rifkin, Charles Murray to Shelby Steele, Steven Jobs to Steven Spielberg, Bill Bennett to Al Gore, Boomers are still doing what they have done for decades: giving America its leading visionaries and wise men -- or, depending on your point of view, its preachy didacts.

It is in the shadow of such a generation that Thirteeners are having to come of age.

Continued...

The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to parts two, three, and four.


Copyright © 1992 by Neil Howe and William Strauss.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1992; The New Generation Gap - 92.12; Volume 270, No. 6; page 67-89.