A Much-Needed Gap

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Was there ever really a generation gap? Recent obituaries of the retailing billionaire Donald Fisher make me wonder. Fisher apparently called his clothing and music store The Gap with reference to that unstoppable 1960s concept -- the name actually was suggested by his wife as an alternative to his original "Pants and Disks." Significantly, he was an outsider to the garment industry and retail; his real estate background prepared him for all-important skills of store location.

As for that lower-case gap that inspired the stores, Fisher's career are reasons to reconsider the pop social science fixation on generational differences. First, in some ways contrasts within an age cohort may be greater than those between different age cohorts -- for example, in religious and political issues -- though the balance does change. Germans recognize a flakhelfer generation pressed into anti-aircraft and other combat service as teenagers in the later years of the Second World War, but apart from this military experience and ensuing controversies, what do Pope Benedict XVI and the novelist Günter Grass really have in common?Second, age boundaries are fluid except when laws (like those conscripting the flakhelfer born in 1926 and 1927) create sharper breaks. Usually the balance of attitudes and values is a continuum over time, but is treated in discrete units. Compare the color spectrum. Culture and language lead children of each society to recognize a different set of colors according to psychological studies, even though humanity perceives the same wavelengths through essentially the same eyes and brains. Generational differences also can be arbitrary ways to slice what's really smooth.

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Third, and the most relevant here, the culture of each "generation" is shaped by men and women somewhat older -- in the case of The Gap by a 41-year-old businessman whose 20 or so years' seniority over his customers did not impede his success. His own disappointment with the cut and fit of jeans in other stores was evidently shared by many younger people. Even the defining musical superstars of the 1960s and beyond weren't Baby Boomers themselves; John Lennon and Ringo Starr were born in 1940, Paul McCartney in 1942, George Harrison in 1943, and their legendary producer George Martin in 1926. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were both born in 1941. The leading orator of the Berkeley student revolt, Mario Savio, was vintage 1942, his German counterpart Rudi Dutschke, 1940. Even France's Daniel Cohn-Bendit (1945) doesn't strictly qualify; most definitions of the Boomer generation cited on the Web give 1946 as its beginning, reflecting the demographic bulge that is the name's original basis.

Speaking of California protest, whatever your opinion of Ronald Reagan's policies, his recalled comeback to a student spokesman while governor of the state is still the best commentary I know on generation gaps, even though I haven't been able to confirm it so far in another source; it might be applied to the "Millennials" and the Internet, too. When the student expressed doubt that his generation could be understood by people who had not grown up with space satellites, rockets, and computers, he says he retorted: "You're absolutely right. We didn't have those things when we were your age. We invented them."

Photo Credit: Flickr User Eleanore H. and LittleMissCupcakeParis


 




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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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