Generation Gap

May 21, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers today’s generation gap.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: A word of affection for the current generation of young people, unthinkable, I know, to say anything kind about the young. At least, it has been unthinkable since the 1960’s when youth was associated with abrasiveness. Young women screamed obscenities, young men grew beards. Don’t trust anyone over 30; they did not. The corresponding reaction was that nobody over 30 trusted them. That, oddly, includes themselves, who are considerably over 30 now.

A funny thing happened on the way out of the 60’s: First, the kids hated their elders, then their elders hated them more. That sentiment did not go away, even after the Vietnam War did. Older people no longer like younger people, and they haven’t liked them very much since. The in-your-face kids of the 1960’s, the greed is good kids of the 1980’s, what was there to like? The answer is much more than met the eye.

But by 1970, the lines were drawn. Hardly all the kids of the protest years were unlikeable, and the kids of the 1980’s were simply following a beckoning business boom. Now, in the 1990’s, it is quite evident, if one bothers to look, that the crop of young people is both likeable and admirable. I get to see a fragment of this generation at Long Island University’s Southampton College, where I teach writing. The students are bright and alert, so are most students, always and everywhere.

What sets this generation apart is their decent modesty. They behold the future with respect and sensible caution. They favor order over chaos. They do not believe that the world was created for their entrance. Why is it important to notice this about them? Because young people need older people, it is ever so, and for the past 30 years older people have left the children high and dry. Time was when employers would seek new blood not solely to advance the company but to advance the young. There were proteges and apprentices and youngsters to take under your wing. Now, it is every fledgling bird for himself.

See Dick and Jane try to find a place on the ladder. See them stride in well dressed fright along the avenues. Take an application. Don’t call us. Youth is accepted as part of the economy, the lowest and most overworked part, but not as part of the country. Maybe the elders are too scared about their own mix to watch out for anyone else’s, but then who are the young going to look to for help?

A generation gap was perceived and institutionalized in the 1960’s. Today the Gap is a clothing store, and the distance between generations is a chasm. The consequences are plain as daylight. Public education lies in ruins. Youth of every color, rich and poor, are neglected by their parents. More Americans than ever are choosing not to have children at all.

Meanwhile, grown-ups wear jeans and tread the stair master in an effort to become the youth they ought to attend to. Bad policy, bad culture. A lot of fond attention is being paid us older folks these days; how spry we are for our ages, how agile our minds, how sound our health, how cosmetic our surgery. Nothing wrong in that, except it smacks of the same irritating self-consciousness we were attacked for ourselves when we were young. Out there these days too is a pleasant, worthy valuable generation of young people who are alone, wondering how to live in the world–like everyone else.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.