Tag Archives: generational differences

Do We Still Share the Same Culture?

[This piece written in 2019 asks whether different generations in the United States still share the same culture.  I was pessimistic then.  My argument that the young could afford to be more self-involved has not aged well. There is now ample evidence that the young are stressed, mostly from the long Covid nightmare, an economy with high costs for basics, and the trauma of a court that has taken away health options for women. These days being indifferent is less of an option. But one issue remains: Can we find “common narratives” in an era where cultural markers favor the young and where partisanship runs high?]

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What happens when the media that have been traditional touchstones to the culture no longer matter?  What follows if there is a withering of once common narratives?

When we wonder why we are such talkers and texters, look no further than our natural desire to find meaning in the words and faces of others.  While most communication thinkers would accept that we are islands of consciousness, most also come to the view that our social nature gives us the urge to affiliate with various sorts of tribes. Beyond the family, most Americans seek connections with affinity groups organized around schools, religious institutions, work settings, or various avocations. Beyond that, we count ourselves as members of the same culture: less firmly now, perhaps, but it is still a piece of our identity.

Cultures typically share a language, a political history and sets of foundational stories. They are the common property of all. But what happens if the media that have been the traditional touchstones to our collective selves no longer matter to the society’s newer members?  What happens if there is a withering of our common narratives?  One sign of our weakened sense of affiliation are the 1800 big and small American newspapers that have shut down in the last fifteen years.  Many communities are now news deserts cut off from the nation, and often their own communities.

Concerns like these are frequently raised because, while we have the technical means to easily share our culture, we are less inclined to visit its various precincts.  There are more interesting distractions to pursue.

When I was still actively teaching my students were mostly south of 20.  And though they were pleasant and easy to work with, it was increasingly apparent that we came from very different places.  At times it seemed as if we both flew in from different countries to spend some time together.  To be sure, we spoke the same language, but the forces that shaped us and and govern our interests are partly alien to each other.

Mine is the older country of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, the civil rights struggle and stunning leaps into space. We expected to meet future spouses in college. Even today our older selves still celebrate great cars, packed bookstores, jazz virtuosos and film and television benchmarks that are more sanguine than dystopian. Many in my generation also seek a daily connection to the national news cycle and, hence, to America’s sagging civil society.

At the same time, my country has also been hell-bent on the dream of affluence. It’s been somewhat less generous toward the young than those of the previous war generation, who benefited from a boom in schools, a vast transportation infrastructure for growth, and ways to provide access to college for veterans and the expanding middle class. Baby boomers vote in larger numbers, keeping a thumb on the government-services scale that favors the old over the young and poor.

The challenge is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have held together the culture.

By contrast, the young come from a country freed from many of these old cultural markers and some of the bigotries that went with them. That’s expected, and a welcome part of the gift of idealism that is the birthright of the young.

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Theirs is a nation of ‘digital natives’ organized around screens and represented more by personal media and fragmented video on-demand.  They mostly ignore the more centralized broadcasting of major networks. In addition, for the members of this country, devotion to a marriage partner can wait, while all-consuming devotion to the smartphone comes sooner. The device trades in artifacts of the self rather than the full self. It also feeds off the attractions of celebrity as a measure of self-worth.  This is expressed in terms of media markers, where a phone is a gateway to attention that can attract “followers” at a distance. The effect of the ubiquitous online discourse encourages much more interest in the “now” rather than a delayed-but-better “later.”

Of course I’m generalizing beyond what any individual case would allow. And it would be unfair to conclude that younger Americans don’t value social capital.  Many are generous with their time if asked to work for social justice causes.  But social connections are no longer created around shared discourse about the nation’s political problems.  Looming obstacles of the workplace and an independent adulthood matter more. The hollowing-out of the middle class now feeds a generalized discomfort among the young about finding a secure place that can yield the kinds of comfort levels known by their parents.

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have previously held together the culture. Generational differences are a given.  But the atomizing of experience that is common in peer to peer media shifts our energies toward the personal and away from the political, which is traditionally the realm of core questions about how we should live as a society.  So we have to ask: are we still living in a shared cultural space if we don’t share the same stories?

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Looking Back on a Younger Self

No one abandons the memories of their late teens. They are an inevitably distorted, but tempting maps for finding a way back to our younger selves.

I’ve spent a long career with college undergrads, most of whom are at the end of their second decade. It seems natural to have an interest in how they have adapted to our times.  I reached the similar age of 20 in 1966:  then as now, an increasingly stormy time for the nation.  Even with almost two generations separating us the differential is not as big as it might seem. Since I work with them almost every day, their lexicon is not so alien;  we bridge the gaps that remain without a translator for me or a museum docent for them.

Among other thoughts, I have questions. Was my sense of disorientation like what so many of my current students seem to experience?  Was I as indifferent to the value of given subject as some of them seem to be?  And did I see myself as swimming against the strong current of American culture? Comparisons are inevitable, some tilting in their favor, some in mine.

To their credit, they seem comfortable around each other. And many are better writers and surprisingly at ease when placed in demanding job settings.  Their more visual minds also pick up what older adults might miss. Their imaginations are triggered by images of people and things. But it also goes the other way; ideas that should dance on the printed page are less likely to captivate.  Many struggle to get beyond screens and think abstractly.

This is a very different world than the fraught 1960s. The prejudices that passed as norms and oppressed many Americans have receded. There can be no question that the ethnic and racist rancor of my generation has not fully abated. But for these college students, social justice is a starting presumption, not just an aspiration.

There is also a new focus now that was hardly named a generation ago. Interestingly, because the stigmas associated with mental health challenges have diminished, the anxieties that often come with this comparatively young age are now named and clinicalized. Students will talk more freely about their bouts of depression or anxiety, often using them to beg off fixed deadlines.

And no generational divide seems sharper than that which separates “digital immigrants” from “digital natives.”  My students are the latter. The presence of the internet for most of their lives has turned their knowledge base into levels of awareness that can be impressively wide but also quite shallow. Most seem to have opted out of keeping up with the nation’s civil life.  Too few seek out real journalism or know what it is. To be sure, they scan a lot of headlines.  But fewer read for news they need to know.  Fewer also read the required readings in their courses, or the prodigious output of America’s best writers. These days, library books tend to remain on the shelves. A celebrity followed on Instagram will likely draw a crowd on campus. But it can be hard to fill seats for a speech by a seminal author or thinker.  These patterns are reminders that the long-form media that beckoned in the analogue era of mid-twentieth century America has fewer contemporary counterparts. Once in dorm rooms, books and record albums were piled high on wood shelves separated by concrete blocks. Texts from previous courses were sometimes saved and re-read. I recall choosing my major and maybe my life track because of one assigned book brimming with interesting ideas:  Murray Edelman’s The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1864).

To be sure, my undergraduate knowledge of the Korean War or the contents of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were hazy at best.  And my early education in Colorado skipped virtually any discussion of human rights.  With my peers I didn’t much notice that my campus in a state rich with Latin American influences was mostly a haven for middle class whites.

It’s also interesting that in the older era, parents and family life tended to recede. Indeed, parents often hoped that a campus might be a place their son or daughter would begin to find their own way.  By contrast, the links are now stronger for many of my students; smartphones remain permanently open to frequent conversations with family members who may be off site, but are rarely out of mind.


The epidemic levels of anxiety and depression on American campuses unfortunately makes perfect sense.  

There are other significant differences, many triggered by my transitional status as a mostly clueless Sophomore who had transferred to a California campus. Over that year I clung to a few constants as way-points in a new region:  a functioning car, a new girlfriend, weekends spent on the rugged coast north of San Francisco, and maybe a Saturday night band job playing at a wedding or dance.

Most of all, I recall that I could also count on a sense of foreboding that returned on Monday mornings. It hung over me and all of my male friends who also had low numbers in the national military draft. The smaller the number, the more the fates favored your chances to be selected in this lethal lottery. The draft constantly trolled for college-aged men that Pentagon fantasists sought to stem the red menace in Southeast Asia. News that a person had been summoned into the Army could land in our mailboxes as casually as a flyer announcing the next fraternity mixer.

America was still two years away from the national meltdowns of 1968 when Kennedy and King were assassinated and our cities were in flames. But a burgeoning anti-war movement easily coaxed apolitical sons of the suburbs like me into contempt for the Johnson administration and the escalating Vietnam War. The iconoclastic warnings of Stokely Carmichael, Jane Fonda and Jill St. John got our attention.

In 1966 we could not know that 58,000 Americans would eventually perish in this useless quagmire. Easily a half million more were left with permanent physical and mental scars. The “shooting bloody” footage that turned up on the CBS Evening News and elsewhere confirmed our worst fears.  Life in the U.S. could be perfect if we were lucky,or ‘pulled strings’ to survive this national nightmare.

The prospect of being sucked into it left me anxious to the point of not eating. So the epidemic of students today reporting bouts of depression makes perfect sense, though the causes are different. Just paying for school is one contemporary source of worry.  In the 60s the states funded public higher education at a much higher rate. Where I paid $126 a year for tuition at Cal State Sacramento, my current students at a “best buy” state school now pay about $16,000, before adding the costs of room and board.  Chronic debt spooling out to the horizon is its own form of a low draft number.

Our fully professional military these days seems to be Donald Trump’s preferred form of statecraft, leaving most Americans queasy over the abandonment of a long-successful doctrine of ‘soft power.’  It’s one of the ways the nation has lost its way.  Add in the decline of worker benefits, long-term job security and decent middle incomes, and youthful optimism for the future is bound to wither.

I’ve had the same career in the same place for 47 years. But my students’ working life is likely to take more turns than a road in the Sierra foothills. And we can add some other destabilizing factors. Online pictures of fame and material success dog them endlessly. Yet there are fewer spiritual anchors or relatives who have escaped hard times. Younger audiences in 1967 knew why The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock was in a funk. My student’s taste for dystopian videos and films suggest even a less firm sense of place. What has replaced the American Dream that motivated young adults through most of the 20th Century?  Is there still the promise of a secure future after sixteen years in one classroom or another? To be sure, a baseline of can-do optimism can still be found, but many seem less certain than my younger self of what ‘the good life’ should look like.