The generation gap is back.
Vanity Fair is certainly correct when it writes: “at many newsrooms and media offices, and in the culture at large, this is a moment of generational conflict not seen since the 1960s”.
A report from the Pew Charitable Trust argues that diversity lies behind the new generation gap, which pits a “mostly white baby-boom culture” against a more globalized, multicultural ethos among the young, which is reflected in a cultural divide in attitudes toward immigration, race, gender, and sexuality.
Too often, the very phrase “generation gap” results in gross generalizations and grotesque stereotypes: about a tech savvy, social media addicted, psychologically fragile, economically challenged Generation Z, oversensitive to slights and slurs, preoccupied with self-esteem, mental health, and unconscious bias, and prone to favor restrictions on speech that might make any group feel uncomfortable, offended, or excluded.
In fact, many of the attributes associated with today’s students resemble the cryptic prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi: Our students, we are told, crave structure yet also desire flexibility, want to be autonomous but also like to work in groups, seek feedback but also expect positive affirmation.
But we do need to recognize that the academy, like the business, media, and tech worlds, has generational gaps along multiple dimensions, demographic, economic, and attitudinal, and that it’s on senior faculty to address these gaps.
There’s the gap between tenured faculty and their more junior colleagues, many without tenure or the prospects of tenure. There’s the gap between faculty and students in terms of ethnic and racial composition and life experience. Then, there are gaps in language (think gender pronouns) and in familiarity with youth culture.
Given how obvious the generation gap is today, it comes as a surprise to realize that as recently as 2006, New York Magazine pronounced the Generation Gap dead. With middle-aged adults looking, talking, acting, and dressing like 22-year-olds, the magazine declared, “there is no fundamental generation gap anymore.”
Reports of the gap’s death soon proved to be grossly exaggerated. Within a decade, authors like Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in The Rise of Victimhood Culture and The Coddling of the American Mind decried political correctness run amok and disparaged those young people who increasingly demanded safe spaces and trigger warnings.
The new generation gap differs greatly from its 1960s predecessor. It isn’t about dress or hairstyles or drug use; it is, as Brigid Delaney wrote in The Guardian, about “about language and battles over inclusivity, diversity and power structures.”
By the mid-2010s, a new vocabulary became widespread on campuses and in the media. Neologisms like cisgender, intersectionality, mansplaining, microaggressions, non-binary, safe spaces, toxic masculinity, traumatizing, trigger warnings, whiteness, and woke began to appear frequently in The New York Times.
These terms, drawn from an interlocking assortment of postmodern, critical, and Neo-Marxist theories, treat interactions and institutions as arenas of power and privilege; lay bare the power of discourse to injure, offend, and marginalize; deconstruct categories and norms (for example, those involving gender and sexuality) that conceal complexity, reify abstractions, and obscure inequities; and problematize concepts (like consent or whiteness) previously treated without sufficient nuance.
Too often, this new vocabulary is dismissed as a cynical power play, a weapon wielded in various struggles for dominance and influence, and an attack on objective reality. In fact, it represents a cognitive, moral, political, and epistemological revolution — which pays close attention to how society affects how we know and what we (think) we know and which treats perceptions, lived experience, and felt emotions seriously.
Thus, identities are now viewed as culturally constructed, which in no sense implied that these were not real. In fact, what makes them deeply felt is precisely memory, personal experience, and the “residues” of past experience: inequalities, power differentials, enduring disparities, cultural stereotypes, socialization, and deep-seated cultural assumptions.
By unmasking issues of power and privilege unduly ignored, a younger generation has exposed inequities that were, for far too long, uncontested; forced issues, like sexual harassment, into the public domain; challenged previously undisputed assumptions about sexuality and “normality”; and put institutions, including colleges and universities, on the defensive.
“Every generation revolts against its fathers.” Lewis Mumford’s quip certainly speaks to this historical moment, when many aging Baby Boomers are stunned to realize that their generation has become an object of disdain, and when a new generation of college students quite rightly sees themselves as a cultural avant-garde, striving for a language, narratives, and politics that speaks to the incredibly diverse yet precarious world they inhabit.
How, you might ask, can we speak of today’s youth as a generation, given deep partisan, ethnic and racial, gender, religious, and regional divides? The answer is that irrespective of those differences, youth today does share a common vocabulary, popular culture, and, above all, set of historical experiences.
We sometimes think of generations as caricatures or cultural stereotyping or products of Mad Men-like executives in the business of promoting products and services to ever narrower market niches. But the concept speaks to a fundamental truth: That a cohort of people often share certain shaping experiences, economic or developmental challenges, childrearing patterns, and cultural touchstones, which, in turn, breed a distinctive outlook and leave a lasting imprint on behavior and attitudes.
The notion that society is divided into distinct generations is an old one. In their sermons, the New England Puritans drew a negative contrast between the founding settlers and the rising generation, which had supposedly strayed from their elders’ religious faith. The Romantic movement gave added impetus to the notion of generations, contrasting “fuddy-duddies” and “old fogies” (pejorative terms for the older generation) with the vibrancy and creativity of youth.
But it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when a French lexicographer defined a generation in 1863 as “all men living more or less in the same time,” that a recognizably modern use of the word generation emerged, partly reflecting the rise of military conscription, in which young men were called into military service by age.
The influence of Darwinian evolution was apparent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century argument that the clash of generations was one of history’s driving forces. It was the German sociologist, Karl Manheim, who, in a 1923 essay, advanced a formal theory about the origins of generational consciousness and the role of generational cohorts as agents of change.
It is easy to dismiss the concept of generations as itself a glaring oversimplification. After all, diversity based on gender, class, ethnicity, and politics makes any sweeping generalizations problematic. The politics of an age cohort generally vary widely. In the late 1960s, more young people supported the conservative Young Americans for Freedom than the leftwing SDS.
Only rarely are generations clearly delineated, in the way that the Baby Boom generation of the 1950s and early 1960s was, reflecting the depressed birthrates and delayed marriages of the 1930s, the disruptions of World War II, and rapid post-war economic growth. Also, generationally defining events—such as the deprivation, skewed sex ratios, delayed schooling, in Europe following World War I and II — are unusual.
Despite their enormous diversity—in terms of race, geographical residence, gender, ethnicity, education, and class—it is not wrong to speak of today’s young people as a generation. They have confronted certain shared experiences, from the seemingly never-ending war on terror to the Great Recession, the most divisive presidency since Richard Nixon’s, the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protests.
They’ve had to wrestle with the impact of certain widely shared generational experiences, notably their parents’ high divorce rates and slow economic growth, and increasing levels of economic inequality and volatility, which have bred pessimism about stable relationships and upward economic mobility.
As a historian, I am reminded of the late 18th century, that period of sturm and drang when youth was first recognized as the driver of societal and cultural transformation and when literature began to see the transition to adulthood as life’s supreme drama.
It’s up to us, their professors, to do all we can to help this new generation prepare for its “rendezvous with destiny.” We can do this best, I think, by reimagining our courses and our curriculum.
That will require us to design classes that tackle the issues that are much on our students’ minds, involving societal and global inequities, climate change and sustainability, public health, and the ethical, economic, and political issues posed by new technologies and the information economy. We also need to do more to ensure that they acquire the skills, credentials, and experience they need to thrive in a volatile and uncertain economy.
Most important of all, we must engage forthrightly in conversations that need to take place involving values that our own generation held dear — free speech, academic freedom, tolerance, and nuance — even as we heed the wisdom of Bob Dylan’s refrain: “Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command…. For the times they are a-changin’.”
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin