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Talkin’ ’Bout Some Generation

By Nicholas S. Racheotes

Unless you’ve been a houseguest among extraterrestrial relatives in a distant galaxy or have been immunized against American pop culture, the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock has flooded your consciousness this year. Who played, who didn’t, who should have—and the Who did. Standing for the millions of us, sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation, the audience managed to get us labeled as the Woodstock generation. Side note: with no disrespect to those who survived the rain and mud of the two World Wars, I tried to ask George Washington, Alexander of Macedon, and Genghis Khan which one they considered to be the greatest generation, but I couldn’t find them on Facebook.

The big question, which sophisticated Millennials and post-Millennials must contemplate because I said so, is, “Does labeling generations obscure more than it explains?” In Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel The Robe, the hero, Marcellus (Richard Burton in the movie), is traumatized by witnessing Christ’s crucifixion. Now and then, he cries, “Were you out there?” From this, we might imagine that a generation identifies with having witnessed a defining event. Remind me how many patriots froze with Washington at Valley Forge (one of the most inappropriately named landmarks in US history). Bringing matters up to date, how many stuck-in-the-sixties Woodstockers couldn’t wait to get a warm shower after three days in Bethel, New York? Most of the Woodstock generation wasn’t even at Woodstock. So, the answer to Marcellus could have been, “No, none of us were out there!”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the so-called fin de siècle, the labelers across Europe had an unplowed field day writing about the decadence besetting Western civilization. Here, I’ll spare you the sophomore reading list except to say this scribbling was covering pages while Einstein was discovering space-time, modern genetics was being refined, and more people were living longer. That statistic is proof—between eighty and ninety proof, that is, given the alcoholism prevailing among public intellectuals of those times—that decadence is in the eye (and the glass) of the beholder.

My personal favorite among labels is branding the college-age Americans of the 1950s as the Silent Generation. Let’s see—campaigning for racial equality, rallying against nuclear weapons, speaking out in favor of elevating women above being “the second sex,” and condemning the exactions of global communism somehow doesn’t sound passive to me.

My personal favorite among labels is branding the college-age Americans of the 1950s as the Silent Generation. Let’s see—campaigning for racial equality, rallying against nuclear weapons, speaking out in favor of elevating women above being “the second sex,” and condemning the exactions of global communism somehow doesn’t sound passive to me.

Let’s increase the flow of the current and turn to our Millennials. I’m confused as to what the term even means. Since the Greatest Generation, we supposedly have had these generational designations:

Baby Boomers: born 1946–1964 (54–72 years old)
Generation X: born 1965–1980 (38–53 years old)
Millennials: born 1981–1996 (22–37 years old)
Post-Millennials (Gen Z): born 1997–present

If I weren’t running out of space, I’d have a few things to say about Generation X for being kissed off by the arbiters of labeling. Instead, while the Who are promising that this is the last of their unending farewell tours, we’ll t-t-talk about this g-g-generation. By word association, post-Millennials have been participation trophied, helicoptered, overfed, indulged as no prior generation, undereducated, and permitted to live in a virtual reality created by the heroes and villains of social media. They don’t watch baseball because it’s too slow and they download musical porn, which their elders can’t understand because it’s too fast. They’re privileged and passive. They might not even be trusted to run a warming planet, beset on all sides with dangers imaginable and unimaginable. What is the defining event with which they associate—9/11, the advent of texting, or Alexa, everyone’s imaginary friend?

These put-downs fly, or should I say drone, in the face of what hasn’t changed over twenty-five centuries. Given the number of them who serve in the armed forces, what makes anyone think that post-Millennials do not value freedom and valor? What convinces us, as those of the fin de siècle convinced themselves, that things have deteriorated? Our youth still believe that “…the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger,” and that when doing good, “we are unlike others; we make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favors.” When Pericles was saying these words to the Athenians in the midst of war, he wasn’t talkin’ ’bout “getting back to the garden.” Instead, like the best in all generations who got us here, he was talking about cultivating the garden we have. In the end of one age, which is the beginning of the next, we needn’t “cause a big sensation” by putting down the next generation.

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the rest of the Western world.

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