There is a timeless tension between the young and the old. It is
biological, cultural and eventually, political as well.
In the Old Testament Book of Joel there is a famous passage which
reads “The old will dream dreams, and the young shall see visions.”
This circumstance is played out generation after generation, again and
(When we have advanced artificial intelligence sufficiently, I suppose
it will also occur between generations of robots!)
The tensions become most evident in that period of transition when the
young are taking over from the old, and is usually most immediately
visible in a society’s politics. Less clear by then, cultural change has
already taken place --- although the old are slow to perceive it, and
when they do, they invariably complain about it.
I bring this up because we are now in a period of significant
generational change in the U.S., and it is making itself known in U.S.
politics more and more in each recent election cycle. Certain
commonplaces about the young are being upended, including their
frequent past habit of not participating in voting in elections.
The question that inevitably arises, especially for the old, in such a
period is “What do the young want?”
As an older person, I doubt that I can fully answer that question, but I
think I have a few clues.
I said that the old usually complain about what they perceive the young
doing, but the real complaint is almost always the other way --- they
young usually find the behavior and actual values of the old to be
unsatisfactory. The classic irony, of course, is that the old --- as parents,
teachers and role models --- created the very expectations for the young
that they themselves do not practice or fulfill. The old, in fact, sow the
inevitable disappointment in, and rejection of, their time of ascendancy.
But my assertion is not an exact or always predictable phenomenon.
A generation of Americans endured the economic depression of the
1930s, and its global precariousness of totalitarian violence. They and
their young then made a remarkable response (which then was labelled
“the greatest generation”) that saved democratic capitalism initially
from fascism, and subsequently from communism. This generation,
when W.W. II was over, then inspired in its young their own idealism
while (understandably) indulging in a national wave of materialism as
a response to the economic deprivations of their own youth.
The result was a generation bound to reject the previous generation’s
acceptance of military duty, its later materialism, and its legacy of
emotional and sexual repression. But when the new generation took
over, in a much more complicated technological and demographic
world, these predispositions failed to provide solutions that met
expectations. The younger U.S. generations now have little but mixed
messages and stalemate as a cultural and political inheritance.
On the other hand, an enduring part of that inheritance is a rich
tradition of freedom, representative democracy, entrepreneurship,
technological innovation and global compassion --- not any of which
should be sneezed at nor apologized for. If the response of the young
is to throw out the senior generation with its bath water, we have a
very serious problem, Houston --- and Topeka, Atlanta, Denver, Duluth,
Cleveland, Salt Lake City, Brooklyn and elsewhere.
There is a difference between what we want and what we get. A nation
starved and numbed by economic depression had little desire to fight
in foreign wars in 1941. A nation recovering from war in 1968 had
little desire to get into another. Circumstances, if the truth be told, are
The question then becomes “What are our circumstances?” We must
first answer that before we dream any more dreams or wonder what
visions our young think they see or want.
We are surrounded on all sides, I think, by those who tell us what
they want (and demand), but who is telling us where we truly now are?
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.