Mini coverIt’s no coincidence that the aged figures on the road sign resemble their own Victorian parents (apart from the woman’s skirt length and lack of a hat). Until the mid-20th century respect for elders usually meant living by their social manners and moral codes. Many of today’s older people, including some 1930s-borns, turned down marriages or careers if their parents disapproved. In contrast, by the late 1960s older teenagers were gloomily expected to defy any adult they didn’t trust.

The generation gap of the late 20th century was in itself nothing new. In 1911 ‘A Letter to the Rising Generation’ in America’s Atlantic magazine claimed that new educational schemes, libraries, newspapers, cheap magazines, telephones, trains, loss of faith and “continuous vaudeville … and moving picture shows” had changed the young. “Long generations of your fathers hold their breath”, warned the writer, “watching to see achievements from certainty rather than faith.” An undergraduate called Randolph Bourne wrote back that “Pastors, teachers and parents flutter aimlessly about with their ready-made formulas…” and that the older generation should try to understand new aspirations.

Bourne’s message will have hit home in the United States. His irreverent letter might not have been published but for its appeal to the national dream – the pride in youthful progress which was fast putting America ahead in the world. No other response could have stood up against Cornelia Comer’s widely held belief that science was eroding faith and family values.

The culture passed down in most advanced countries by long generations of traditionally minded fathers received its first hatchet blows in the pioneering new-world freedom of America and Australia during the early 20th century. It liberated – or cut the lifeline of – generations of younger people in the decades after World War II. A glance at the struggle to safeguard ancient cultures in undeveloped countries today gives an idea of how rejection by the bulk of the young gradually weakens that society’s interdependent beliefs.

For various reasons some young people in any generation happily stick with tradition. This can be a matter of genuine agreement on values, but it may be fear, or a cry for love where there seems to be none. Parent-pleaser Jimmy Carter (1924) says he was “so hungry for a word of praise .. and more words of love” that when his farmer father died young he carried on, with that old sense of being judged by past generations, trying to please him. He made the farm so successful that he was able run for governor of Georgia. In 1977, still a Southern Baptist like his father, he won the US presidency. Not until 2000 would he quit the church of his forebears, objecting to its intransigence on homosexuality and female equality.

As with most of the changes now transforming later life, the widespread shrivelling of parent-power began in the USA immediately after World War II. Indulgence, freedom to question rather than take on faith, and most crucially pocket money, brought the most striking surge of rebellion against adult values ever seen. Teenagers and young adults envied and copied the young of the United States. Mick Jagger (1943) remembers that when he was still at school in 1958, “Everyone was dreamin’ about America”. But did technicolour clothes, records, cola-cola and rock n’roll mean that everyone also despised adults’ values? When John Lennon (1940) left for art school with jeans on under the well-pressed trousers his Aunt Mimi made him wear, was he making an ideological protest?

Blue “jeans pants” had been American service issue working overalls, so like the duffle coats which were originally naval uniform they were strong and practical for a fit young generation.But wearing them could also have been part of a backlash against the wartime spirit disliked by 1930s-born soon after the conflict ended. Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s fictional sixteen year-old in The Catcher in the Rye was already muttering in 1945 that every other adult was a “phoney”, a “secret slob”, a “snob”, a “crook” or a “sad” loser. Even his loved older brother D.B. was a war-glorifier:

“He was in the war, too – he landed on D-day and all. What gets me about D.B., though, he hated the war so much, and yet he got me to read this book A Farewell to Arms last summer. He said it was so terrific.”

But Holden Caulfield’s generation, older than the drop-out beats who first rejected the American dream, tended at least overtly to accept their establishment’s ways. A new, independent culture-change lies in the move from muttering to open revolt by a large enough swathe of the population to be called a social shift. By the late 1950s this happened across the USA, Europe, Australia and South Africa, abetted by a consumer boom that fed youth tastes by marketing products adults abhorred. Fathers winced at drainpipe trousers and dangling ties, while mothers gave up the struggle to make their daughters wear white gloves and little hats on Sundays.

By 1960 America dominated the youth of the modern world. That year, Hyland’s song ‘She wore an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini’ came out, toppling Helen Shapiro (1946) from high in the hit charts because, she says, ‘little girls in frills were not wanted any more”.

This was perhaps the one time the new old have ever all sung the same tune. But until they left school the only impact they could make was through confidence and pocket-money power. Thelma Veness’s 1956 survey of British school leavers found ordinary teenagers full of experimental drive, saving for youth-only holidays and travel. Many were “Potentially highly mobile”, some planning to emigrate to America, Australia, New Zealand or other European countries. When asked what they thought their chances were of getting what they wanted in life, very few of either gender from any kind of school were pessimistic.

On leaving school growing numbers started a training or job on their parents’ advice, only to abandon it for something else. Quitting a job if it didn’t suit was seen by most older people as spineless, and a waste of a safe job. But in the booming economic climate of the time it was a relatively risk-free thing to do. A national culture starts to unravel in such conditions, as people in developing countries discover when their children leave for well-paid work in towns, and came back as often contemptuous strangers. This was not unheard of in the strictest pre-war family, but often resulted in a son or daughter only alluded to with disgust.

Gradually, with so many 1940s borns intent on doing their own thing, the most traditional parents begin to buckle under their fearless and flexible drive. Richard Branson (1949), in 2005 seventh on the British and Irish Rich List, was born into a family of bankers, doctors and lawyers. His father expected him to follow suit, but his mother begged her husband to let him leave school early and use his entrepreneurial wits. “Bringing him up was rather like riding a thoroughbred horse,” she said later. “He needed guiding, but you were afraid to pull the reins too hard in case you stamped out the adventure and wildness”. Joan Branson’s response marked a watershed. If parents wanted their children to have anything more to do with them the old authoritarian attitude must crack.

Not everyone under thirty in the 1960s rebelled or left home, but being a parent or teacher would never again have the same power. America’s Dr Spock was blamed for giving parents foolish ‘permissive’ advice. The state was charged with removing education, medical care and moral judgement from parental control. All this, plus the popular demeaning of the father figure had, wrote social historian Christopher Lasch, “undermined one of the principal sources of social cohesion” – the family. Yet some older adults loved the youthquake, and drew as many of the young into their dreams of transformation as they could. Bertrand Russell, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Tim Leary, Che Guevara, Quentin Crisp, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and others were all Pied Pipers of some kind.

Even gerontologist Robert Butler, a champion of the old, supported honest, maybe drastic self-direction. Protesting at “how punitive society can be toward those who evolve new life styles”, he believed that “experimenters are likely to represent the life styles of the future”. Ageing itself is now experimental, due partly to the greater longevity which resulted in the McCartney generation often reaching retirement age with both parents still alive.

So how do they get on with those aged parents now? Did the gulf in values lead to a total rejection of them along with their ideas? On the whole, having little in common doesn’t bring terminal alienation as it did with earlier generations. Love seldom carries the conditions of duty it still does in traditional communities; the right to self-fulfilment is accepted, and lip-service no longer passes for respect. Well into the 1960s speaking the name of a family rebel or ‘black sheep’ or admitting kinship with someone of ‘bad blood’, shocked the old, but disagreements now tend to rumble on without communication blackouts. This isn’t because the new old have revived traditional values. There are parent-pleasers among the new old where attitudes really coincide, but the boomer vanguard are rootedly of the post-war youth culture, so this is rare. Children’s author Jacqueline Wilson (1946) has exposed in an autobiographical novel her fiercely strict parents’ unhappy and unfaithful marriage. Airing this on BBC radio she cheerfully admitted that if her self-righteous and snobbish mother happened to be listening in, the older woman would ‘kill her’. Yet despite this, and the fact that this same mother had not read one of Jackie Wilson’s hundred published novels because “I’m not a child, am I?”, their relationship survives.

Many older boomers resent their “burden of responsibility …. for their aging and frail parents”, and say they don’t expect their children to care for them that way. In any case, many don’t think their own grown children will be living nearby. Some would rather their parents turned their savings and assets into retirement-home fees than demand that they fetch, carry and nurse. ‘Popping in’ and festive get-togethers will continue, but so will the “intimacy at a distance” preferred in 1992 by the European old and their offspring alike.

There may be more genuine love between the new old and their parents due to more distance, lower expectations and less pretence. Before domestic cruelty became a crime, parents who’d passed on their home to the younger family were often abused, with widowed old men or women sleeping in cupboards and deprived of food. Today there may be less brutality, partly because in most rich countries there’s less need to share a home. But there’s also less pretence over letting the world know what a burden the old can be. In 2004 a seriously ill eighty-two year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease was removed from his retirement home in Alicante and abandoned in a British hospital casualty department by his daughter, who flew back to Spain. Another daughter, reading reports of this in the paper, told a reporter she was “considering” visiting him in the home where social services had put him.

Independence culture has worn away the obligation and emulation inseparable from the appeals to higher judgement which in the past reduced people to pawns in a saga more significant than themselves. The clash reached its height after a world war started and sustained by that very conviction. Independence culture among today’s young – serving soldiers who challenge the rules of the armed forces, for example – suggest there will not be another such generation gap for many decades to come.

Quotes and references

“Letter to a Rising Generation”. Wallach, Glenn. Obedient Sons. The Discourse of Youth and Generations in American Culture, 1630-1860. Amherst. University of Massachusetts Press, 1997, p.154.

Jimmy Carter: ‘Peanut farmer to peacemaker’. ‘theface’ in The Times, 27 May 2008; CNN 20 October 2008

Mick Jagger: Schofield, Carey. Jagger. London, Methuen, 1983, p.14

John Lennon: BBC Radio 4 ‘The Archive Hour’, 3 December, 2005

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. [1945] Little, Brown and Company, 1979, p.182

Shapiro, Helen. Walking back to happiness : my story. London : HarperCollins, 1993, p.89

Veness, Thelma. School Leavers: their aspirations and expectations etc. London, Methuen 1962, pp.43, 149

Hamblett, Charles and Deverson, Jane. Generation X: Today’s generation talking about itself. London, Gibbs & Phillips, 1964, pp.9, 72

Bower, Tom. Branson. Fourth Estate, London, 2000, p.14

Lasch, C. Haven in a Heartless World :The Family besieged. N.Y. Basic Books, 1977 pp.173, 179 and 189

Butler, Robert N. in Shanas, Ethel (Ed.) Aging in Contemporary Society. London, Sage, 1970, pp.123-4

Laslett, P. ‘The emergence of the Third Age’, in Ageing and Society 7 (2) 1987 p.141

Wilson, Jacqueline. Publication interview for Jacky Daydream. ‘Front Row’ BBC Radio 4, 22 Feb. 2007

“Burden of responsibility”: Mellor, M. Joanna and Rehr, Helen, Eds. Baby Boomers: Can My Eighties be like my Fifties?’ New York, Springer, 2005, pp.3-4

“Intimacy at a distance”: Walker, A.and Maltby, T. European Commission Survey, Ageing Europe. Open University Press, 1997, p.26

Elder abuse: Family and inheritance : rural society in Western Europe, 1200-1800. [1976] Eds. Goody, J. Thirsk, J. and Thompson E.P. Cambridge University, Press, 1979, pp.98, 175

Dad with Alzheimer’s: The Times 13 November 2004

Independence culture among the young: ‘Generation Y speaks – it’s all us, us, us.’ Michelle Harrison interviewed on the Henley Centre’s research into youth attitudes, The Sunday Times 4 February 2007

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