We’ve Been Here Before: Generational Angst

When did I become so old?  The exact moment must have happened some time ago, but a recent blog post by a self-identified “Millennial” has certainly helped to crystalize the realization.  My first reaction to this scathing Jeremiad was surprise; I’d assumed that no one under the age of thirty was capable of writing that was not either all capitalized or devoid of capitalization entirely.  The gist of the post is that the author finds herself none too pleased about sitting atop the smoldering ruins of our recession wracked society and wishes to register her frustration with the previous generations (the ubiquitous “Baby Boomers” and the way cooler sounding “Generation X”.)

Her lament begins and ends with the plea: “Quit telling us we’re not special.”  Between these two bookends is a litany of offenses made against the Millenials by their predecessors; much of it is an indictment of shoddy parenting.  The part that makes me feel as though my childhood art probably graced the walls of a cave is that it reminds me very much of how I felt in my early adulthood.   It is a youthful angst that seems simultaneously absurd and profound.  How can anyone so young understand what it really means to make your way in the world?  How can they see earlier generations but “through a glass darkly” and without sympathy or understanding?  I was that ignorant. I am ignorant still; the only difference is in the specific incomprehension of this moment.

What is so striking to me is how differently an earlier generation responded to the crisis of newly minted adulthood.  Political considerations aside, look at the following excerpt from the 1962 Port Huron Statement, a manifesto of the New Left:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people–these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

What makes the Port Huron Statement different from the “Lament of the Millenials” is the sense of personal responsibility.  The gears of human society were grinding on to the backdrop of a Cold War, racism, and poverty.  These facts, hidden to these untroubled children of the 1950s, become the front and center problems they intended to take on as young adults.  The sense of confidence and competence is astonishing to me.  Recriminations of earlier generations are minimal; what criticism they do offer is directed at the so-called Old Left, which they see as disillusioned and sterile.  Sure, this is more or less the same generation put on display in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.  But along with the feckless and fictional Jim Stark came the reality of Charles SherrodTom Hayden, Mary Elizabeth King and many others.

How can those of us who “know better” not admire the youthful enthusiasm of those willing to attempt the impossible?  The authors of the Port Huron Statement acknowledged their youthful idealism and pressed on with a blueprint for participatory democracy that informs the #Occupy movement some fifty years later.  Members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were among those who fought against entrenched power employing brutal and even lethal force in support of racial segregation.

We who have come after benefited from what earlier generations have done.  We’ve also inherited their failures; the wreckage of the Baby Boomers’ youthful idealism is not an easy thing to miss.  I’m not sure how much of the wide-eyed-enthusiasm-to-remake-the-world was left for generations maturing amid Watergate, post-industrial decline, oil-shocks, and the soul crushing popular culture that gave us Hee Haw and Welcome Back, Kotter.

The jury is still out on the Millennials, who have barely begun to take their places on society’s grand stage; but I remain hopeful that many will find their way to the Promethian fire of youthful idealism that every generation should claim as its own.

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