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

The New Generation Gap

A quarter century ago kids called older people names. These days, the reverse is true. For the past decade Thirteeners have been bombarded with study after story after column about how dumb, greedy, and just plain bad they supposedly are. They can't find Chicago on a map. They don't know when the Civil War was fought. They watch too much TV, spend too much time shopping, seldom vote (and vote for shallow reasons when they do), cheat on tests, don't read newspapers, and care way too much about cars, clothes, shoes, and money. Twenty years ago Boomers cautioned one another not to trust anyone over thirty; now the quip is "Don't ask anyone under thirty." "How can kids today be so dumb?" Tony Kornheiser, of The Washington Post, recently wondered. "They can't even make change unless the cash register tells them exactly how much to remit. Have you seen their faces when your cheeseburger and fries comes to $1.73, and you give them $2.03? They freeze, thunderstruck. They have absolutely no comprehension of what to do next."

Amidst this barrage, Thirteeners have become (in elders' eyes) a symbol of an America in decline. Back in the 1970s social scientists looked at the American experience over the preceding half century and observed that each new generation, compared with the last, traveled another step upward on the Maslovian scale of human purpose, away from concrete needs and toward higher, more spiritual aspirations. Those due to arrive after the Boomers, they expected, would be even more cerebral, more learned, more idealistic, than any who came before. No chance -- especially once Boomers started to sit in judgment and churn out condemnatory reports on the fitness of their generational successor. To fathom this Boom-defined Thirteener, this creature of pleasure and pain -- this "Last Man" of history, driven only by appetites and no longer by ideas or beliefs -- you can wade through Francis Fukuyama's commentary on Nietzche. Or you can just imagine a TV-glued Thirteener audience nodding in response to Jay Leno's line about why teenagers eat Doritos: "Hey, kids! We're not talkin' brain cells here. We're talkin' taste buds."

Over the past decade Boomers have begun acting on the assumption that Thirteeners are "lost" -- reachable by pleasure-pain conditioning perhaps, but closed to reason or sentiment. In the classroom Boomers instruct the young in "emotional literacy", in the military they delouse the young with "core values" training; on campus they drill the young in the vocabulary of "political correctness." The object is not to get them to understand -- that would be asking too much -- but to get them to behave. Back in the era of Boomers' youth, when young people did things that displeased older people -- when they drank beer, drove fast, didn't study, had sex, took drugs -- the nation had an intergenerational dialogue, which, if nasty, at least led to a fairly articulate discourse about values and social philosophy. Today the tone has shifted to monosyllables ("Just say no"). The lexicon has been stripped of sentiment ("workfare" and "wedfare" in place of "welfare"). And the method has shifted to brute survival tools: prophylaxis or punishment.

This generation -- more accurately, this generation's reputation -- has become a Boomer metaphor for America's loss of purpose, disappointment with institutions, despair over the culture, and fear for the future. Many Boomers are by now of the settled opinion that Thirteeners are -- front to back -- a disappointing bunch. This attitude is rooted partly in observation, partly in blurry nostalgia, partly in self-serving sermonizing, but the very fact that it is becoming a consensus is a major problem for today's young people. No one can blame them if they feel like a demographic black hole whose only elder-anointed mission is somehow to pass through the next three quarters of a century without causing too much damage to the nation during their time.

To date Thirteeners have seldom either rebutted their elders' accusations or pressed their own countercharges. Polls show them mostly agreeing that, yes, Boomer kids probably were a better lot, listened to better music, pursued better causes, and generally had better times on campus. So, they figure, why fight a rap they can't beat? And besides, why waste time and energy arguing? Their usual strategy, in recent years at least, has been to keep their thoughts to themselves. On campus Thirteeners chat pleasantly in P.C. lingo with their "multiculti" prof or dean and then think nothing of spoofing the faculty behind their backs (they can't be totally serious, right?) or playfully relaxing with headphones to the racist lyrics of Ice Cube or Guns N' Roses. But among friends they talk frankly about how to maneuver in a world full of self-righteous ideologues.

Every phase and arena of life has been fine, even terrific, when Boomers entered it -- and a wasteland when they left. A child's world was endlessly sunny in the 1950s, scarred by family chaos in the 1970s. Most movies and TV shows were fine for adolescents in the 1960s, unfit in the 1980s. Young-adult sex meant free love in the 1970s, AIDS in the l990s. Boomers might prefer to think of their generation as the leaders of social progress, but the facts show otherwise. Yes, the Boom is a generation of trends, but all those trends are negative. The eldest Boomers (those born in the middle 1940s) have had relatively low rates of social pathology and high rates of academic achievement. The youngest Boomers (born in the late 1950s) have had precisely the opposite: high pathology, low achievement.

Again and again America has gotten fed up with Boom-inspired transgressions. But after taking aim at the giant collective Boomer ego and winding up with a club to bash Boomers for all the damage they did, America has swung late, missed, and (pow!) hit the next bunch of saps to come walking by. Constantly stepping into post-Boom desertscapes and suffering because of it, Thirteeners see Boomers as a generation that was given everything -- from a Happy Days present to a Tomorrowland future -- and then threw it all away.

Many a Thirteener would be delighted never to read another commemorative article about Woodstock, Kent State, or the Free Speech Movement. Or to suffer through what Coupland calls "legislated nostalgia" -- the celebration of supposedly great events in the life cycle of people one doesn't especially like. Thirteeners fume when they hear Boomers taking credit for things they didn't do (starting the civil-rights movement, inventing rock-and-roll, stopping the Vietnam War) and for supposedly having been the most creative, idealistic, morally conscious youth in the history of America, if not the world. Even among Thirteeners who admire what young people did back in the sixties, workaholic, values-fixated Boomers are an object lesson in what not to become in their thirties and forties.

Put yourself in Thirteener shoes. Watching those crusaders gray in place just ahead of you -- ensconced in college faculties, public-radio stations, policy foundations, and trendy rural retreats -- you notice how Boomers keep redefining every test of idealism in ways guaranteed to make you fail. You're expected to muster passions against political authority you've never felt, to search for truth in places you've never found useful, to solve world problems through gestures you find absurd. As you gaze at the seamy underside of grand Boomer causes gone bust, you turn cynical. Maybe you stop caring. And the slightest lack of interest on your part is interpreted as proof of your moral blight. No matter that it was the crusaders' own self-indulgence that let the system fall apart. The "decade of greed" is your fault. "Compassion fatigue" is your fault. The "age of apathy" has your monosyllabic graffiti splattered all over it.

What Thirteeners want from Boomers is an apology mixed in with a little generational humility. Something like: "Hey, guys, we're sorry we ruined everything for you. Maybe we're not such a super-duper generation, and maybe we can learn something from you." Good luck. A more modest Thirteener hope is that Boomers will lighten up, look at their positive side, and find a little virtue in the "Just do it" motto written on their sneaker pumps.

Like two neighbors separated by a spite fence, Boomers and Thirteeners have grown accustomed to an uneasy adjacence.

Another Tale of Two Generations

SOME time ago the fortyish writer Cornelia A. P. Comer published a "Letter to the Rising Generation" in this magazine, accusing people in their twenties of "mental rickets and curvature of the soul," of a "culte du moi," of growing up "painfully commercialized even in their school days." Blaming this on "a good many haphazard educational experiments" that had "run amuck" and ignored "the education of the soul," Comer asked, "What excuse have you, anyhow, for turning out flimsy, shallow, amusement-seeking creatures?" She went on, tossing insults like mortar shells:

The rising generation cannot spell...; its English is slipshod and commonplace.... Veteran teachers are saying that never in their experience were young people so thirstily avid of pleasure as now... so selfish, and so hard! ... Of your chosen pleasures, some are obviously corroding to the taste; to be frank, they are vulgarizing.... the bulk of the programme is almost inevitably drivel, common, stupid, or inane.
Responding to Comer, also in this magazine, the twenty-five-year-old Randolph Bourne defended his generation as a logical reaction to the "helplessness" of parents and other adults. "The modern child from the age of ten is almost his own 'boss,"' he observed, adding that "the complexity of the world we face only makes more necessary our bracing up for the fray." His defense went on:
We of the rising generation have to work this problem out all alone.... I doubt if any generation was ever thrown quite so completely on its own resources as ours is.... The rising generation has a very real feeling of coming straight up against a wall of diminishing opportunity. I do not see how it can be denied that practical opportunity is less for this generation than it has been for those preceding it.
Bourne did not waste the chance to express a growing twentysomething bitterness at the prim hypocrisy of people in their forties.
We have retained from childhood the propensity to see through things, and to tell the truth with startling frankness.... It is true that we do not fuss and fume about our souls, or tend our characters like a hot-house plant.... We cannot be blamed for acquiring a suspicion of ideals.... We are more than half confident that the elder generation does not itself really believe all the conventional ideals which it seeks to force upon us.... You have been trying so long to reform the world by making men "good," and with such little success, that we may be pardoned if we turn our attention to the machinery of society, and give up for a time the attempt to make the operators of that machinery strictly moral. We are disgusted with sentimentality.
It sounds like a typical Boomer-versus-Thirteener spat of the l990s -- like some argument you might imagine reading between William Bennett and Brett Easton Ellis. But the Comer-Bourne letters were published eight decades ago, in 1911.

Comer's "Missionary Generation," born from 1860 to 1882, had a life cycle that foreshadowed the Boomer experience. Comer's peers were raised in the aftermath of national cataclysm (the Civil War), indulged as children, spectacular as students, furious with soul-dead fathers, absorbed with the "inner life," unyielding as reformers, and slow to form families -- but, once they did, they were determined to protect their tots from the wildness of kids then in their teens and twenties. Likewise, Bourne's "Lost Generation," born from 1883 to 1900, began life in a most Thirteenerlike way: born in a time of social and spiritual turmoil, neglected as children, disappointing as students, pushed very young into a cash economy of throwaway urchins, and constantly bossed around and criticized as a "bad kid" generation. Whatever age bracket the young Lost entered, they felt it had been somehow ruined by those who preceded them.

In 1911 the generational clash between Missionary and Lost was just getting started -- that is, it was about where we see the relationship between Boomers and Thirteeners today. But within a decade the clash grew far more strident, became a major defining element of the national mood (putting much of the "roar" into the 1920s), and triggered wide-ranging moralistic policy responses, from Prohibition to a sudden crackdown on immigration.

No one can say for sure where the Boomer-Thirteener generation gap is heading. But by looking closely at the experience of these antecedent generations, we have at least some basis for predicting what could happen in the decades ahead.

The Missionary Generation

LET'S start with missionaries -- a generation that today's GI seniors remember as the aging "wise men" who presided over the Second World War, as elders who possessed a social respect and cultural influence vastly exceeding what GIs themselves have at the same age. Yet the generation of Franklin Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Henry Stimson, Harold Ickes, and Bernard Baruch was far more recognizable as Boomerlike when young. They had enormous egos and an undying fixation on self-discovery, values, and moral confrontation. This was also the generation of Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan, of Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, of W.E.B. DuBois and Upton Sinclair, of angry muckrakers and violent Wobblies.

Missionaries grew up in a world of orderly families and accelerating prosperity, and among adults who were more enthusiastic about science and industry than about faith. Older generations felt themselves to be living in a rapidly modernizing era whose main shortcomings were ethical and could someday be remedied by the young. From the first modern image of a gift-toting Santa Claus to the first amusement parks, from lavishly funded public schools to new women's colleges, the world was, for Missionaries, a hothouse of adult attention. W.E.B. DuBois remembered his boyhood home town as a "child's paradise," Jane Addams how her girlfriends had been "sickened with advantages." Likening this Little Lord Fauntleroy style of child nurture to the Dr. Spock 1950s, the family historian Mary Cable has described this "long children's picnic" as "a controlled but pleasantly free atmosphere."

Thunder struck when these kids came of age. Armed with self-discovered principles, they rebelled against the very Santa Claus complacency and Horatio Alger materialism in which they had been raised. In the workplace they triggered anarchist violence and labor radicalism. In the countryside they enlisted in populist crusades. In the cities they indulged in food-faddism and raged against elder-built political machines, horrified by what George Cabot Lodge found to be "a world of machine-guns and machine-everything-else." On college campuses tens of thousands of affluent students joined Jane Addams's settlement-house crusade. "As for questions," Lincoln Steffens recalled, "the professors asked them, not the students; and the students, not the teachers, answered them." Overseas they spread the Gospel worldwide under the banner of the motto "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation." They saw themselves as having reached an apex of human consciousness, a zenith of civilization. Maybe they were right -- but their arrogance did not go unnoticed by people of other ages.

During Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, as they entered what might be called their yuppie phase, Missionaries shrugged off a weakening economy and tried to get on with their personal lives and careers. Pioneering the invention of autos and airplanes, they joined technology to their individual inner aspirations. By that decade's end the bombs and riots they had triggered in their twenties had become something of an embarrassment to forty-year-olds showing an increasingly prudish bent.

Having perfected their inner lives, Missionaries zealously began taking on the outer world. During and after the First World War they rose to positions of power over the very institutions they had attacked in their youth. They pushed a vacillating elder President into a "war to end all wars," and then used their growing political clout to turn the brief emergency to moral purposes. The constitutional agendas of the drys and the feminists (both of which quickly triumphed) were just part of a generational crusade against a flood tide of decadence and injustice, which the Missionaries saw pouring into the cities, splintering society, and threatening the nation's small children. While Senator Andrew Volstead led the legislative crackdown on alcohol, Senator Francis Harrison led the crackdown on drugs, and a Missionary-led Congress put a virtual halt to immigration. Federal movie censor William Harrison Hayes pushed a Code of Decency against torrid love scenes on camera; Ku Klux Klan leaders tried to "Americanize" the heartland; Henry Ford encouraged workers toward "thrift, honesty, sobriety, better housing, and better living generally"; and the nation's first vice squads started hunting down younger bootleggers.

In Confessions of a Reformer, Frederic Howe explained that

early assumptions as to virtue and vice, goodness and evil remained in my mind long after I had tried to discard them. This is, I think, the most characteristic influence of my generation. It explains the nature of our reforms, the regulatory legislation in morals and economics, our belief in men rather than institutions and our messages to other people. Missionaries and battleships, anti-saloon leagues and Ku Klux Klans... are all a part of that evangelistic psychology... that seeks a moralistic explanation of social problems and a religious solution to most of them.
Only later on, entering old age, did Missionaries mature into the craggy personas best known to history -- those whom H. L. Mencken called the "New Deal Isaiahs," those white-haired champions of social regimentation amid economic collapse and a global war against fascism. But that was just the last act in a series of crusades that commenced as soon as Missionaries reached midlife and were able to join their preachiness to political clout. And what was the first and most obvious target for their crusades? None other than the young Lost Generation at which Cornelia Comer had aimed her letter.


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

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