The author was a 42-year-old Yale Law School professor named Charles Reich, and the article was an excerpt from his book “The Greening of America”, which, when it came out, later this that year went to No. 1 on the Times bestseller list.

Reich had visited San Francisco in 1967, during the so-called Summer of Love, and was amazed and excited by the flower power wing of the counter-culture – the elephant-legged pants (au about which he raves in the book), the marijuana and psychedelics, the music, the lifestyle of peace and love, everything.

He became convinced that the only way to cure the ills of American life was to follow the young. “The new generation has shown the way for the only method of change that will work in today’s post-industrial society: revolution through consciousness,” he wrote. “It means a new way of life, almost a new man. This is what the new generation was looking for and what they started to achieve.

So how did it go ? The problem, of course, was that Reich based his observations and predictions on, to use Mannheim’s term, a generational unit – a small number of people who were hyperconscious of their choices and values ​​and considered themselves to be in. revolt against bad thoughts. and the failed practices of previous generations. The people who showed up for the Summer of Love were not a cross-section of sixties youth.

Most of the young people of the sixties did not practice free love, did not take drugs, or protest the Vietnam War. In a 1967 poll, when people were asked whether couples should wait to have sex until they are married, 63% of people in their twenties said yes, almost as in the population. general. In 1969, when people aged twenty-one to twenty-nine were asked if they had ever used marijuana, eighty-eight percent said no. When asked the same group if the United States should immediately withdraw from Vietnam, three-quarters said no, much like the general population.

Most of the young people of the sixties weren’t even particularly liberal. When people who attended university from 1966 to 1968 were asked which candidate they preferred in the 1968 presidential election, fifty-three percent answered Richard Nixon or George Wallace. Of those who attended college from 1962 to 1965, fifty-seven percent preferred Nixon or Wallace, which matched the general election results.

The authors of “Gen Z, Explained” make the same flawed extrapolation. They generalize on the basis of a very small privileged group, born five or six years apart, who inhabit like-minded island communities. It’s good to try to find out what these people think. Don’t call them a generation.

“I don’t know about you, but I really miss the stampede. “
Caricature by Liza Donnelly and Carl Kissin

Most of the millions of Gen Z may be very different from the scrupulously ethical and community-minded young people in the book. Duffy cites a survey, conducted in 2019 by a market research firm, in which people were asked to name the characteristics of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (1981-96) and Generation Z. The top five characteristics attributed to Generation Z were: tech-savvy, materialistic, selfish, lazy, and arrogant. The lowest ranked characteristic was ethical. When Gen Z were asked to describe their own generation, they came up with an almost identical list. Most people born after 1996 apparently don’t think as well of themselves as “Gen Z, Explained” students.

Either way, “explaining” people by asking them what they think and then repeating their answers is not sociology. Contemporary university students have not invented new ways of thinking about identity and community. These were already anchored in the institutional culture of higher education. From day one, students are made aware of the importance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, collaboration, all of the virtuous things that the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” attribute to the next generation. . Students can say (and some say it) to their teachers and their schools: “You do not respect these values”. But values ​​are shared values.

And they were in place long before Gen Z entered college. Take “intersectionality,” which “Gen Z, Explained” students use as a way to refine traditional categories of identity. This term has been around for over thirty years. It was invented (as the authors note) in 1989, by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. And Crenshaw was born in 1959. She’s a baby boomer.

“Diversity”, as an institutional priority, goes back even further. He was instrumental in the affirmative action case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in 1978, which opened the constitutional door to race-conscious admissions. It was three “generations” ago. Since then, almost all selective colleges have worked to achieve a diverse student body and brag about it when they are successful. College students see themselves and their peers in terms of identity because of how the institution views them.

People who went to college in an earlier era may find this accent a distraction from student education. Why should they constantly be forced to reflect on their own demographic profile and how they differ from other students? But look at American politics — look at world politics — over the past five years. Are not identity and difference important things to understand?

And who creates the “youth culture” anyway? Older people. Youth have the power to act in the sense that they can choose to listen to music or wear clothes or march in demonstrations or not. And there are definitely some basic stuff (bells, actually). In general, however, young people have the same degree of agency that I have when buying a car. I can choose whatever model I want, but I don’t make the cars.

Failure to recognize the way the fabric is woven leads to a distorted social history. The so-called silent generation is a particularly scandalous example. This term came to describe Americans who went to high school and college in the fifties, in part because it draws a practical contrast to the baby boom generation that followed. These baby boomers, we think, were not silent! In fact, most of them were.

The term “Silent Generation” was coined in 1951, in an article by Time– and therefore was not intended to characterize the decade. “Today’s generation is ready to comply,” the article concludes. Time defined the silent generation as those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight, that is, those who entered the workforce mostly in the 1940s. Although the dates of birth of Times Silent Generation was from 1923 to 1933, the term has sort of migrated to later dates, and it is now used for the generation born between 1928 and 1945.

Who were these silent conformists? Gloria Steinem, Muhammad Ali, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Noam Chomsky, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Jean King, Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Berry Gordy, Amiri Baraka, Ken Kesey, Huey Newton, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol. . . Sorry, am I boring you?

It was people like these, as well as even older people like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Pauli Murray, who were active in the culture and politics of the Sixties. Apart from a few musicians, it’s hard to name a single major figure from this decade who was a baby boomer. But the baby boomers, most of whom were too young then to even know what was going on, get the credit (or, equally unfairly, the blame).

Mannheim believed that the great danger of generational analysis was the elision of class as a determinant of beliefs, attitudes and experiences. Today we would add race, gender, immigration status and a number of other “prerequisites”. A woman born to an immigrant family in San Antonio in 1947 had very different life chances than a white man born in San Francisco that year. Yet the prototype of the baby boomer is a white male college student wearing striped elephant legs and a peace button, much like the Gen Z prototype is a high school student with pocket money and an account. Instagram.

For some reason, Duffy also adopts the conventional names and dates of postwar generations (all of which are from popular culture). He offers no justification for this, and it slightly obscures one of his best points, which is that the most formative period for many people does not occur during their school years, but once they leave school. school and enter the workforce. This is when they face economic and social circumstances that are critical to their lives, and where factors such as their race, gender and the wealth of their parents make a particularly pronounced difference to their chances.

Studies have always indicated that people don’t become more conservative as they age. As Duffy shows, however, some people find that coming of age is delayed by economic circumstances. This tends to differentiate their responses to survey questions on things like expectations. Eventually, he says, everyone makes up for it. In other words, if you base your characterization of a generation on what people say when they are young, you are doing astrology. You attribute to the dates of birth what is really the result of changing conditions.

Take the baby boomers: When those born between 1946 and 1952 entered the workforce, the economy was booming. When those born between 1953 and 1964 entered it, the economy was a trash fire. It took longer for young baby boomers to start a career or buy a home. People in this kind of situation are therefore likely to register in surveys as “materialistic”. But it is not the Zeitgeist that makes them so. It’s just the business cycle. ??

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John R.

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