A Letter to the Young (and to Their Parents)
Thoughts about a generation that has reached adulthood—or should have—and was supposed to be the brightest, most gifted ever. What went wrong?
My dear children:
I salute you this way despite the fact that as the world has always reckoned these things you are no longer entitled to be called children. Most of you are in your twenties by now, some perhaps even in your thirties. Some of you have children of your own. Yet you are still our children, not only in terms of the technical definition of a generation, but because we are still so far from having closed our parental accounts with you. We are still so far, that is, from having completed that rite of passage after which, having imparted to you the ways of our tribe, we feel free to invite you to join the company of its fully accredited adults.
I am a member of what must be called America's professional, or enlightened, liberal middle class. Though you were once taken to represent the whole of your age group, it is no longer a secret that perhaps the most celebrated youth in historyyou, variously known as "our young people," "the kids," or simply "the young"—are none other than the offspring, both literally and figuratively, of this class. Not all of us, to be sure, are professionals. Some of us are businessmen or the employees of businessmen, some the employees of government, and some ladies and gentlemen of leisure. Yet it is as certain that we are members of a common groupsocial critics have taken to calling us, usefully if not precisely, the "new class"—as it is that you are our children. You, indeed, and our common property in you, are the primary means by which we make known our connection to one another. You all recognize this, of course, at least unconsciously (unconsciously is the only way most Americans permit themselves to know what they truly know about class). Thus you would have little reason to take in any way but perfectly for granted my preoccupation with you here.
This preoccupation, indeed, is a nearly universal one among the members of my class. Two women, barely acquainted, meet over a luncheon table. "How is your son X or your daughter Y?" one of them, in an ordinary effort at polite conversation, asks the other. With the reply, My son is in San Francisco, or perhaps, My son is in Arizona, or My daughter has left, school, or has returned to school, or has returned home and is thinking about what she might do—with whatever reply might be forthcoming, the two women will suddenly have come upon a common ground of empathy and interest. They may share nothing else, but between them now—with regard to what was once the most intimate, but has become the most readily available, of subjects—there has collected a whole unspoken but highly meaningful set of references. One of these women is telling the other what the other might, with only a minor adjustment of details, in turn be telling her: the children, having had every advantage pressed upon them, having suffered no hardship, beloved, encouraged, supported, sympathized with, heaped with largesse both of the pocketbook and of the spirit, the children yet cannot find themselves. The children are not, for some reason—may God please tell them what it is—in good shape.
A group of husbands and wives, old friends, spend an evening together. They have no need to ask one another the kind of polite questions asked by the women at lunch. On the contrary, they attempt to shut out the subject of children, for they have come together for a bit of fun. And in any case, they already know the answers. So-and-so's boy, he who once made his parents the envy of all the rest, handsome, healthy, gifted, well-mannered, winner of a scholarship to Harvard, languishes now in a hospital where the therapists feel that in another few months he might attempt a few simple tasks, and ultimately—for the prognosis is good—even hold down a job, provided it is not of the sort to make him feel too challenged or tense. Another of the sons of this group has lately sent a postcard to his sister announcing that he has taken up photography, and that as soon as he gets some work he plans to buy himself a piece of land and build himself a house on it. Yet another—his parents should be grateful by comparison with some others, they know, and are frequently troubled with the realization that they do not feel so—is in business; he has organized some friends into a firm of handymen and movers and, to his astonishment and theirs, the firm is prospering. So-and-so's elder daughter is living, unmarried, with a divorced man and looking after his two adolescent children, while the younger has just set off in pursuit of her third—or is it her fourth?—postgraduate degree. Someone else's daughter, who lives at home, has taken and lost or abandoned five jobs within two years, and now finds that she wishes to work only part time so that she might paint. Still another, married and the mother of two small children, has discovered a marriage encounter group. She and her husband, she says, wish to broaden the range of their relationship, and they believe that everyone, including their parents, ought to do the same. One couple in this group has a son in Sweden, where he exiled himself to avoid the draft. He writes to them weekly, demanding that they find some way to secure him an unconditional amnesty, for he wishes to return home; under no circumstances, he underscores, will he agree to submit himself to a term of compensatory public service. His younger brother has decided to give up farming in Vermont and enter law school. His parents, people of rather modest circumstances, are delighted to "lend" him the fifteen thousand dollars that will enable him to devote himself to his studies and at the same time provide for his wife and young baby; they have mailed him the proceeds of the re-mortgage on their house, and vacillate wildly between relief and the irrepressible gnawing fear that he may not, even yet, remain content. The sister of these two, a schoolteacher, participant in a long series of painfully inconclusive love affairs, has taken to spending all her free time on various projects for raising her consciousness to a full perception of the injustices that have been wreaked upon her. She has grown surly, neglects her appearance, and is in an odd new way touchy and difficult to get along with.
As you know better than anyone, these are not extraordinary cases, these women at lunch, these couples gathered for an evening's recreation, unable not to talk about their children. Such conversations are taking place in the homes and communities in which you have grown up, and they are taking place concerning you, or at least concerning a good many of the people you know.
Fundamentally, the question your parents have not dared address in so many words, either to themselves or to their friends—and yet cannot any longer keep hidden behind some false front of approving good cheer or resigned hopes for the future—is the question that must surely, at two o'clock in the morning, be growing upon some of you as well. It is, Why have you, the children, found it so hard to take your rightful place in the world? Just that. Why have your parents' hopes for you come to seem so impossible of attainment?
Some of their expectations were, to be sure, exalted. As children of this peculiar, enlightened class, you were expected one day to be manning a more than proportional share of the positions of power and prestige in this society; you would be its executives, its professionals, its artists and intellectuals, among its business and political leaders; you would think its influential thoughts, tend its major institutions, and reap its highest rewards.
But not all our expectations were of this nature. Beneath these throbbing ambitions were all the ordinary—if you will, mundane—hopes that all parents harbor for their children: that you would grow up, come into your own, and with all due happiness and high spirit, carry forward the normal human business of mating, home-building, and reproducing—replacing us, in other words, in the eternal human cycle. And it is here that we find ourselves to be most uneasy, both for you and about you.
Of course, you would see, or would claim to see, in this concern of ours for you, merely another confirmation of the leading attitude of the youth culture: that we are incapable of seeing you as you are. It has, after all, been a major assertion of the songs you sing, the books you read and write, the films you devour, that we are too bound up by our timid, sickly assumptions about life to open ourselves to the range of the new human possibility that you have engendered. And for a long time, we ourselves tried to believe in your explanation for our feelings. We permitted ourselves to be soothed and distracted by the idea that we were in the presence of a revolution, that you were not, as you might have seemed, displaying an incapacity to get on with your lives in an orderly fashion, but rather that you were creating a new kind of order, alien to and superseding our own.
This consoling deception about you came from many sources. Your professors, for instance, told you—they also told themselves and the rest of us—that you were the brightest, most gifted generation they or the world had ever seen. We should have been delighted. Why, then, were we not? For we were not—not you, not we, and least of all those who made the claim. You were surely bright and gifted—that was plain to see—but you seemed so infernally content to remain exactly as you were, so passive and resisting in the face of all the exciting possibility that the world around you ought to have represented to you. You were bright and gifted, but you were also taking yourselves out of school in numbers and under circumstances that first bewildered and then alarmed us.
The answer, we were told, was that you were too good to suffer all the uninspired, dreary, conventional impositions being made upon your minds and spirits. Your professors said that your indictment of your studies, and particularly of the institutions in which you were pursuing them, was a just one. It was your very wisdom, they proclaimed, which had brought you to make the indictment in the first place. Moreover, they hurried to abet you, those of you who managed to remain in school, in your demand to be taught only that which would reflect and deepen your own sense of yourselves.
Yet still you did not prosper—nor did we, nor did they. For as it happens, your indictment of your studies was not a just one. Nor could it have accounted for the malaise that you as students were suffering from. In any case, what your admiring professors did not tell you was that your attitude toward the university was helping to reflect and deepen their sense of themselves. In your challenge to the value of their work they found the echo of some profound bad conscience, some need to be disburdened of an unfulfilled responsibility to you. Thus the comfort of their self-abasing tolerance was cold comfort indeed. And what in the end—one may well ask—did it avail you?
Or take another case, in some ways a more important and interesting one: that of all the journalists and critics and commentators who spent the better part of a decade discussing you. They told you, they told themselves, they told the rest of us, that you were the most idealistic generation they or the world had ever seen. Everything about you, everything you did, was ascribed to an unprecedented new accession of idealistic zeal. You were the "constituency of conscience"; no longer willing, like your corrupt and self-serving elders, to countenance injustice. Some of these critics and commentators said you were actually a new breed of people, the result of a strange and wonderful new stage in social evolution. You had come, they told us, to lead our society out of evil-the evil of a rampant, heedless materialism that was threatening to infect the whole world with a frenzied quest for ever and ever greater wealth, up to the point of extinguishing life itself. You had come also, it was said, to bring to an end the mindless violence, lust, and greed that had sickened Western society through the long centuries of its ascent into technological splendor and spiritual squalor.
But if you were out to remake the world, you seemed on the other hand to be unsuited for its most rudimentary forms of challenge. Your philosophy of existence called for a level of private demand coupled with a regimen of self-scrutiny and self-expression such as, when acted upon, threatened fairly to blot out the very materiality of others; and you were taking yourselves off into rural, or urban—or simply psychic—wildernesses where you sometimes literally could not even be found, let alone followed. And above all, you seemed to find it difficult, if not impossible, to touch the world at just those tangents where its real work was being done and its real decisions being made.
It was your very superiority, said the critics and commentators, your very refusal to tolerate the cruelty and inhumanity of the acquisitive life which had brought you to turn your backs on it. What the pundits did not tell you was that their passionate advocacy of your attitudes was the material with which they themselves were attempting to forge a powerful and well-paid position in the world. Your hanging back from the contest, in other words, had become the stuff of their own determined effort to win it. No wonder they beatified you; and no wonder your anxiety persisted.
Finally, there was our deception, your parents' deception, of you, the most kindly meant but cruelest deception of all. We told you, we told ourselves, and we told one another that the socalled new style of life you were inventing for yourselves was some kind of great adventure in freedom. However we responded to it, whether with approval, anger, or anguished tears, we consented to call your expression of attitude toward us and toward the world we were offering you by the name of rebellion. You were indeed speaking in the language of rebellion, and making certain of its gestures. But if you were, as you liked to put it, busily intent on "doing your own thing," you were also continuing to allow us to pay your bills. No matter how high or far you flew, you and we together had seen to it that our parental net would be stretching beneath you—a financial net, a physical, and above all an emotional one. The truth is that your freedom, your rebellion, even your new "lifestyles," were based on a fiction, the kind of fiction that gets constructed between people who are, for their own separate reasons, engaged in denying the facts. We wrung our hands in the fictional pose of those abandoned, and continued to write out our checks and proffer the abundance of our homes and hands, no questions asked.
Were you dropping out of school or otherwise refusing the blandishments of prosperity, security, and privilege? That was because you were attempting to fulfill a need, quite murderously neglected by us and our society, to return to the sources of natural being. Did you appear, from our point of view at first quite mysteriously, to be turning your backs on the kind of striving for excellence in all things for which you had been so unstintingly and expensively brought up? That was because you were engaged in transcending the mean competitiveness to which everyone in America had mindlessly been made hostage, and were moving on to a new plane of gentleness and fraternal feeling. Did you seem to be getting dangerously attached to the use of drugs? That was because you were seeking to intensify the quality of experience; becauseunlike us, hypocritically engaged in our own use of alcohol and drugs to still the mind and deaden the emotion—you were daring to recover the passional and sensory world so long denied to Western man. Did your initiation into sex seem to us curiously uneventful and haphazard, without moment or weight? That was because you were freeing yourselves from our own crippling obsessions with sex, and restoring the process to its proper, inconsequent, exuberant animal function.
Such were the things we told one another, and tried to tell ourselves, about you for a long time. They were popular things to say; to speak otherwise branded us not only as enemies of the young but as enemies of all things virtuous in the liberal culture, of which the youth revolution had become a cornerstone. They were also self-flattering things to say, putting us, as they did, squarely on your side, and as such, on the side of all things new, daring, and open to the future. Above all, however, these ideas about you protected us, if only temporarily, from the sense of failure that had come to stalk us by day and by night.
Well, some of us may continue to say them to one another—though fewer every day—but none of us any longer says them to himself. And you? Some of you are still prone to go on as before, declaiming your superiority to the meannesses and the hypocrisies of the achieving society and your sensitive refusal to have a hand in its crushing of the human spirit (although those of you who speak this way are doing so less noisily than you once did). But what are you truly, in the privacy of genuine self-confrontation, saying to yourselves?
You are adults now—or should be—no longer in process of formation or unfolding, no longer in potentia, but fully here. Thus there are things to be observed about your generation on which the count is already in, things that can no longer be denied by us, that are the real and hard ground from which you must now proceed.
The first thing to be observed about you is that taken all together, you are more than usually incapable of facing, tolerating, or withstanding difficulty of any kind. From the time of your earliest childhood, you have stood in a relation to the world that can only be characterized as a refusal to be tested. This refusal was announced, sometimes literally, sometimes cloaked in the assertions of a higher creativity, in your schools. It shaped your attitude to play, to sports, to sex, to the reading of difficult books and the clarification of difficult ideas, to the assumption of serious roles within your families and communities, and to the consideration of possibilities for your future. It lent enormous impact to your experience of drugs, whose greatest seduction for you lay in their power to create the sensation of well-being with little or no effort on your part. Later, when you were either in or out of college, this refusal took on all the convenient coloration of ideology. The idea that the system was evil, and engaged in an evil war, provided cover for a number of your far deeper impulses to retreat from, or to circumvent, the demand that you take on distasteful tasks—whether to endure a bit of necessary boredom, or to serve in the army, or to overcome the anxieties of normal ambition. The word most frequently on your lips, in the days when you were said to be mounting your relentless campaign against evil, was "hassle." To be "hassled" meant to be subjected to difficulty of, from your point of view, an incomprehensible as well as intolerable sort. And everything, you assured us over and over again, everything we had either to offer or to impose upon you was a "hassle."
In the city where I live, which is New York, there are certain interesting ways in which a number of you have latterly taken to making your living: you are pushcart vendors, taxi drivers, keepers of small neighborhood shops that deal in such commodities as dirty comic books and handmade candles; you are house painters, housecleaners, and movers of furniture. Let us leave aside the larger social significance of this—in American history, at least, unprecedented—voluntary, downward mobility. In purely personal terms, all these unexpected occupations of yours have one large feature in common: they are the work of private, and largely unregulated, entrepreneurs—full of their own kind of woe, you have no doubt learned, but free of all that patient overcoming and hard-won new attainment that attend the conquest of a professional career. And they are free, most of all, from any judgments that would be meaningful to you as judgments of success or failure. Customers may irritate, and unpaid bills oppress, you as they do any private entrepreneurs; but there hangs over you no shadow of the requirement that you measure, ever so minutely and carefully, the distance of your progression from yesterday to today. In the pushcart—many-layered symbol!—is bodied forth the notion that you might, if sufficiently displeased, simply move on to some new stand.
The second thing to be observed about you is that you are, again taken as a whole, more than usually self-regarding. No one who has dealt with you, neither parent, nor teacher, nor political leader, nor even one of the countless panderers to or profiteers from your cyclonically shifting appetites, can have failed to notice the serenity—the sublime, unconscious, unblinking assurance—with which you accept their attentions to you. A thinker or a book with ideas to impart that you do not already understand and agree with is immediately dubbed "boring" or "irrelevant," and must immediately forfeit all claims upon you. For some reason, it seems never to occur to you that a failure to comprehend, to appreciate, to grasp a subtlety not already present in your own considerations, might be a failure of your own. (In this respect, you very closely resemble that Middle American philistine known to my generation as Babbitt, superiority to whom has been a prime tenet of your, as well as our, self-definition.) What is more important, no member of the so-called adult community appears to have been deemed by you too imposing, too intimidating, or merely too plain busy to be the recipient of those endless discourses upon yourselves by which you make known certain delicate daily calibrations of the state of your feeling. The thought that some attitude or experience of your own might be less formed, less distilled in the twin refineries of time and intellection, less valid, than those of your elders, even those of your elders whom you have elected to call master, seems never to have crossed your minds.
Thus the entire world of thought and art comes to you filtered through a single supreme category of judgment: has it succeeded or has it failed, by your own lights, to move you? To use your own parlance for this category of judgment, does it or does it not "turn you on"? Anyone or anything that leaves you unsatisfied in the way of private, self-generating response is remanded to obscurity. On the other hand, anyone or anything that touches or confirms what you already think and feel, no matter how lacking in any other virtue, is automatically important. Do you find yourselves peculiarly touched, say, by the songs of Bob Dylan? Well, then, he is among the great poets of the ages. Do you have a taste for movies in which the sound track has assumed equal significance with the images? Well, then, the true art form of the age has been discovered. Are you disinclined to do certain kinds of work? Well, then, the very nature and organization of society is due for a complete overhaul. In short, you, and only you, are the ultimate measure of all that you survey.
And the third thing to be observed about you—it is really in some sense a concomitant of the first two—is that you are more than usually dependent, more than usually lacking in the capacity to stand your ground without reference, whether positive or negative, to your parents. So many of your special claims on this society are claims not on the distribution of its power but on the extension of its tolerance; what you so frequently seem to demand is not that the established community make way for you but that it approve of you. Take the case of your conduct with respect to sex. You have, you say, created a revolution in sexual behavior, particularly adolescent sexual behavior. But this revolution is not something you have done, it is something you have requested your parents and schools and other parietal authorities to do for you. It is in the apartments that we have rented for you, in the dormitories that we have sexually integrated for you, and in the climate of toleration that we have surrounded you with that you have pursued, in all passive supplication, your alleged revolution.
Or, to state the case in the obverse, take the fashions in dress and personal habit that were so recently rife among you. Being children of the aspiring middle and upper-middle classes, you had been raised by your parents with the expectation that you would be well dressed; therefore you dressed yourselves in rags. (Indeed, a little noted feature of your sartorial fashion is how often it has been a kind of half-grown version of the games of "dress-up" played by little children in their mommies' and daddies' castoff finery.) You were raised with the expectation that you would be clean and healthy, after the privileged condition of the class into which you were born; therefore you cultivated the gaudiest show of slovenliness and the most unmistakable signs of sickliness. You were raised on the premise that you would be prompt and energetic, and reasonably prudent, and mindful of your manners; therefore you compounded a group style based on nothing so much as a certain weary, breathless vagueness and incompetenceenriched by the display of a deep, albeit soft-spoken, disrespect for the sensibilities and concerns of others. That the key to this entire assertion of style lay in an exact reverse translation of what your parents had taken for granted on your behalf is only one mark of how necessary we were in all your efforts to define yourselves.
Another mark of how necessary we were to your self-definition—only apparently a contradictory one—is that, withal, you were never so adamant, never so energetic, never so articulate as in your demands that we lend our assent to it. Not for nothing did you call the collective products of your search for group style and group meaning by the name of "the counter-culture." For it was a search that utterly depended on, and was positively defined by, that which it opposed. We had little cause to doubt that sooner or later many of you, having had one sort of fling or another out there in the wide world, would return home to us, either from time to time for a brief sojourn or for what in some cases seems to have become a permanent stay. Where but at home were you to find the true nourishment for your illusory sense of adventure? In overcoming us, it seems, has lain your major, perhaps your only, possibility for tasting the joys of triumph.
In any case, whatever you are lately in a mood to say to yourselves, it is such thoughts about you that inform and focus our own new mood as parents. Yet surely, if a whole generation of our grown children have been left with such a great deal to undo in themselves before they can take on what we all know, deep down, to be the essential requirements of membership in the adult tribe—surely, in such a case, no one's shortcomings and failures are better reflected than our own. If you have a low tolerance for difficulty, that is because we were afflicted with a kind of cosmic hubris, which led us to imagine that we were bringing up children as all our ancestors on earth before us had not had the wisdom or the purity of heart to do.
In the life we promised ourselves to give you, there would be no pain we had not the power to assuage, no heartache we had not come upon the correct means to deal with, and no challenges that could not be met voluntarily and full of joy. There can have been no more arrant disrespecters of the past, of the sorrows of the past and its accumulated wisdoms, than we members of the enlightened liberal community. And in nothing can our assurance of being superior to our own parents—wiser, kinder, healthier of mind and outlook, cleverer, more perceptive, and in better control of the dark side of our natures—have played a more crucial role than in the theories and practices which we brought to the task of parenthood. So we imagined, and taught you to believe, that pain and heartache and fear were to be banished from your lives.
If you are self-regarding, this is because we refused to stand for ourselves, for both the propriety and the hard-earned value of our own sense of life. Our contentions with you were based on appeal, not on authority. Believing you to be a new phenomenon among mankind—children raised exclusively on a principle of love, love unvaryingly acted out on our side and freely and voluntarily offered on yours—we enthroned you as such. We found our role more attractive this way, more suited to our self-image of enlightenment, and—though we would have died on the rack before confessing it—far easier to play. In other words, we refused to assume, partly on ideological grounds, but partly also, I think, on aesthetic grounds, one of the central obligations of parenthood: to make ourselves the final authority on good and bad, right and wrong, and to take the consequences of what might turn out to be a lifelong battle. It might sound a paradoxical thing to say—for never has a generation of children occupied more sheer hours of parental time—but the truth is that we neglected you. We allowed you a charade of trivial freedoms in order to avoid making those impositions on you that are in the end both the training ground and the proving ground for true independence. We pronounced you strong when you were still weak in order to avoid the struggles with you that would have fed your true strength. We proclaimed you sound when you were foolish in order to avoid taking part in the long, slow, slogging effort that is the only route to genuine maturity of mind and feeling.
Have you been, perhaps, the most indulged generation in history? Yes, but in many ways you have also been the most abandoned, by the very people who endlessly professed how much they cared.