The generational gap is a term popularized in Western countries during the 1960s referring to differences between people of younger generations and their elders, especially between children and their parents.
Although some generational differences have existed throughout history, modern generational gaps have often been attributed to rapid cultural change in the postmodern period, particularly with respect to such matters as musical tastes, fashion, culture and politics. These changes are assumed to have been magnified by the unprecedented size of the young generation during the 1960s, which gave it the power and inclination to rebel against societal norms.
However, sociologists also point to institutional age segregation as an important contributing factor to the generational divide. Those in childhood phases are segregated within educational institutions or child-care centers, parents are isolated within work-based domains, while older generations may be relegated to retirement homes, nursing homes, or senior day care centers. Social researchers see this kind of institutionally-based age segregation as a barrier to strong intergenerational relationships, social embeddedness, and generativity (the passing down of a positive legacy through mentoring and other cross-generational interactions).
Some interventions resulting from intergenerational research have proven successful in bridging the generation gap. Examples include multigenerational music groups, or programs bringing "bookend generations" (elders and preschoolers) together in intergenerational daycare centers where the elderly mentor the young. Researchers find that positive relationships built between unrelated children and elders in these settings tend to be generalized to relationships within the family at home.
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: baby boomers vs. the older generation
In 1964, 17-year-olds made up the largest age segment in America. By 1965, it was determined that half of the American population was under the age of 25, with 41% being under the age of 20. As a result of the population growth, the younger generation held more influence over advertisers and American society was forced to response to the sheer mass of the postwar baby boomers. It has been accepted that the generation gap was a product of both the widespread demographics and a predominantly white cultural zeitgeist that exalted novelty and shunned convention in spheres ranging from music to fashion- as well as youth's perception that adults were hopelessly "out of touch" with new ideas.
From a transformation of the dating system (going steady and early marriage became the norm, as opposed to the "rating and dating" trend that was fashionable before the war), to the new medium of television gaining widespread popularity and often portraying teenagers as juvenile delinquents. 'JDs' followed the standard black leather and denim jeans look set by Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One. The widespread adoption of rock and roll also helped emphasize differences between parents and teenagers. Despite the apparent bliss of the GI Generation, popular movies such as the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause- with its portrait of a highly dysfunctional, sexually repressed, postwar suburban families- and bestsellers such as the 1956 book The Organization Man-which displayed a deary portrait of the workforce conformity- suggested that not all men and women found happiness in the post-war American society. Rock was loud, rhythmic, and energetic. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the new music "a corrupting influence". Holden Caulfield, the hero of J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, was a literary embodiment of teenage angst and alienation further fueling adults' perception of teenagers as rebels.
Unlike their parents who were scarred from the social-economic hardships of the Great Depression and the deep sacrifices of World War II, the Baby Boomers were characterized with risk-taking enthusiasm and cocky self-assurance. Aided by the benefits of the GI Bill, many World War II veterans who hoped to find independence from the stress of the cities and seek better locations to raise families were able to move into new suburban homes with better living conditions. By the early 1960's, 3 out of 4 young American students graduated from college admissions soared. In contrast, less than half of all Americans were able to make to high school graduation as late as 1940. By achieving greater success in education, a vast share of the boomers were able to earn higher levels of income then their parents and immersed in their own youth culture, outside of the demand of full time jobs and family responsibilities, longer than any group of young people the world had ever seen. Wealthier than any generation before them, and raised by parents who had an unprecedented amount of disposable income, several young boomers were able to live quite lavishly.
The boomers would become the first generation to be raised on television. Network broadcasts began in 1947, and by 1960 almost 90% of American households had owned a television set. Barbie dolls, which were introduced in the late 1950s and advertised on children's television, became the constant companion of tens of millions of baby boom girls. Moreover the postwar introduction of inexpensive vinyl records and cheap hi-fi created a massive music industry geared towards younger people. In 1953, Chicago resident Hugh Hefner founded Playboy, a magazine which aimed to target males between the ages of 21 and 45. Featuring cartoons, interviews, short fiction, Hefner "Playboy Philosophy" and - most crucially - half-naked female "Playmates" posing provocatively, the magazine became immensely successfully. In 1960, Hefner decided to expand his enterprise and opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago. The private clubs, which expanded in numbers throughout the 1960s, offered relaxation for its members, who were waited on by Playboy Bunnies. Hefner's influence would represent a growing change in America's attitude towards sex.
In addition to rise of magazines such as Playboy, the changing attitude towards sex would also be shown in films and literature as well. On November 22, 1960, a British jury agreed that D.H. Lawrence's controversial novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was not obscene or detrimental to public morals. The next day, publisher Penguin Books distributed 200,000 copies of the complete version to great success. Similar cases in the United States in late 1950s and early 1960's helped usher in a new era of literacy freedom and sexual liberation. Director Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaption of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita raised eyebrows for exploring the controversial topic of pubecent female sexuality, especially since the title character, a young "nymphet" whose age was raised from 12 in the novel to 15 for the film, was involved in a sexual relationship with a middle-aged man. Although the film did not contain explicit sex scenes, the content and acting were very suggestive and Lolita's box office success was another early sign of the changing attitudes towards sexual behavior.
The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the spread of college activist organizations, the War in Southeast Asia and the rise of the counterculture and hippies during the mid and late 1960s with diverging opinions about the draft and military involvement in Vietnam as well as the use of drugs were significant topics of the generation gap of this era. Free Speech Movement activist Jack Weinberg claimed during a 1965 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that students in the movement "don't trust anyone over the age of thirty." Soon afterwards, Weinberg's phrase spread in media outlets across the country and became widely accepted among college students nationwide, though it was also accepted around this time that the main source of the generation divide was centered around the issues of civil rights, poverty and student rights. During the early days of the Vietnam War in 1965, a vast majority of younger Americans showed support for military intervention in Vietnam. During the years 1966 and 1967, however, opposition to the war became widespread among younger Americans as the military draft escalated.
Following the violence which occurred during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, the student rights movements exploded. At the University of Berkeley, California, leftist students lead by Mario Savio protested the teaching faculty's decision to limit their right to advocate for civil causes on campus and formed the Free Speech Movement (FSM) to enforce their demand for more speaking rights. Soon after the rise of the FSM, similar student activist organizations-such as the University of Michigan's leftist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the right wing Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and the prominent pro-civil rights Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)- would see a dramatic rise in membership as well.
With help from the Higher Education Act of 1965, enrollment into higher education increased significantly and the young student rights advocates had largely achieved their goals for greater campus political advocacy rights. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965- which added to the success of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and fulfilled the voting right goals of the Freedom Summer- the main focus of student advocacy shifted from civil rights and more towards the anti-war movement. Seeking to build on his success, Savio sought to gain more speaking rights beyond advocacy and soon lost influence among his Berkeley peers. With division greatly growing within the FSM, Savio resigned in April 1965 and group soon dissolved. Many former FSM members, however, would soon unite behind campus advocate Jerry Rubin and form the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC). Along with poet Allen Ginsberg and psychologist Timothy Leary, Rubin would be regarded as one of the most influential figures among America's youth during the years of the anti-war demonstrations.
Though not allowed to participate in either the military draft or military combat action, women of this generation would sympathize with the objectives of the Women Strike for Peace organization and would join the male youth in anti-war protests. By 1967, female objection to the Vietnam war would dramatically increase among women in both generations, especially those who had male relatives who were drafted into combat, and several would unite in their efforts to stop the draft escalation by joining Women Strike for Peace protests. In addition to their support for several of the ideas held by many men of their generation, several young women also sympathized with feminist literature and rejected the traditional belief that women should not seek careers in employment and should instead focus on getting married, finding careers as housewife mothers and dedicate their life to managing their family's home. Many younger women also opposed the older generation's objections to abortion and federally funded day cares.
Attitudes towards traditional marriage customs would start to differ among the older and younger generation as well. As the Vietnam War escalated in late 1960s, many young men and women sympathized with the ideas of the growing New Left movement and opted for free love over marriage, which many younger people worldwide felt was a symbol of the capitalist culture that advocated war. Though originally printed in the Vietnam War's early days in 1965, the slogan "make love, not war" became widely known among younger people worldwide after famous celebrities such as Beatles lead John Lennon and his future wife Yoko Ono used the phrase to denounce traditional culture. An evocative photo of a young couple kissing at the barricades of May 1968 Paris became an overnight icon of popular New Left sentiment. Though opposed to free love, many feminists also opposed the institution of marriage as a symbol of male dominance and pointed out the inequalities of wedding, family life and divorce in their criticism of marriage.
Despite the paycheck and employment rights women gained from the American Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the British Equal Pay Act 1970, feminists in the Western World alleged the biggest inequality of marriage was related to the assumption that women could not receive the same amount of equal pay as their husbands due to their tradition roles as the main providers of domestic work and care for their household. In 1966, US Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, a Republican from Michigan, revealed that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was created to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and insure job integration, had received one-third of its complaints from women who alleged they experienced job discrimination based on sex and that the EEOC declined to take action; Title VII outlawed job discrimination based on race, color, sex, creed or national origin. EEOC staffer Frances Cousens acknowledged the accuracy of the report, but also justified the EEOC's actions and stated "Complaints about sex discrimination... diverted attention and resources from the more serious allegations by members of racial, religious, and ethic communities." In retaliation, 28 women led by the influential feminist Betty Friedan launched a major fundraising drive and to form the non-profit National Organization for Women (NOW). Formed in November 1966, the group sought to achieve greater rights for women, especially in the field of employment, and members elected Friedan to be the new organization's first President. In 1967, the group would successfully persuade US President Lyndon Johnson to sign an Presidential Executive Order expanding the scope of Affirmative Action-a US Department of Labor policy enacted by US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to encourage strong action against employment discrimination based on race, color, creed or national origin- to include employment discrimination based on sex. and another victory was won in 1968 when the EEOC issued revised guidelines on sex discrimination, making it clear that the widespread practice of publishing "help wanted" advertisements that use "male" and "female" column headings- which NOW protested against- classified as a form of sex employment discrimination and thus violated Title VII.
Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique- which targeted middle class housewives who lived in the American suburbs- would be widely credited with sparking the beginning of the second-wave feminism movement which inhabited the minds of younger women across United States. The main point of Friedan's argument for ending the tradition housewife role centered around her allegation that she was a depressed suburban housewife who dropped out of college at the age of 19 to get married and raise four children; However, it was later acknowledged that Friedan had fabricated many details about her background, as she had graduated from Smith College with a Latin honors degree in psychology in 1942, married her only husband, Carl Friedan, at the age of 26, mothered only three children and had worked as a freelance journalist for various news sources since 1943.
In addition to paycheck fairness, feminists also alleged that divorce laws were too weak and that traditional wedding customs, such as having fathers "give the bride away" and recommendations that wives take the last name of their husbands, made weddings unfair to women as well. Despite the rise of anti-marriage journalist Gloria Steinem and other feminist advocates who denounced any suspected form of male chauvinism, the belief that marriage should be abandoned divided women in the younger generation as well. Though a large share of young women were united through the belief that it was necessary to abandon traditional housewife roles, several also did not agree with the feminist belief about marriage. While greatly focused on finding work, younger women were also more interested in gaining rights to abortion and greater child care access. Though The Feminine Mystique would sell five million copies by 1970, Friedan herself would also lose influence among younger women as members of NOW were divided and were unable to agree on how to push for the group's ultimate goal of winning the signature of a Presidential Executive Order which would require the EEOC to take tougher against job discrimination based solely on sex. Many in NOW, including several of the organization's senior members, eventually turned against Friedan sided with arguments from the group's African American members that the vast number of impoverished racial minorities, whether male or female, were in more need of employment opportunities then the vast number of white housewives who resided in the middle and upper class.
Despite the overwhelming student support for allowing women to protest for popular youth causes, younger college men were less interested in advancing women's rights, arguing that issues such as racism were a bigger problem. It was acknowledged that male chauvinism was widespread among young men in prominent student advocacy groups such as the SDS. Many feminists would use the chauvinistic example of how free love was practiced in the SDS to characterize it as a symbol of male dominance rather than individualist freedom. With opposition growing among younger women, the free love practice would virtually phase out during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite free love's decline, many feminists and gay liberation activists would still oppose traditional marriage.
Despite differences, however, many in the younger and older generations would eventually find common ground on certain issues, such as the growing acceptance among both older and younger women towards supporting both the end of US intervention in Vietnam and the use of birth control pills. Shortly after the Food and Drug Administration legalized the first such pill in 1960, it was documented that over half-a-million women had purchased these pills in the first year alone and by 1964, birth control pills would be credited for playing a major part in ceasing the post-World War II baby boom period. In the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, the US Supreme Court ruled that laws depriving married women of birth control pills violated their constitutional right to privacy and thus could not be legally enforced. Soon afterwards, birth control pills became a common household product and following the 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling, the right to use birth control pills would also be allowed among ever-growing number of unmarried American women as well. On November 1, 1968, film censorship weakened when the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the Hays Code with the motion picture rating system. By this time, the generation gap towards acceptance of sexual liberation had dramatically decreased and many graying adults enthusiastically adopted the youth-centered sexual mores.
During the mid-1960s, the divided opinion between older and younger Americans over the issues of civil rights, women's rights, poverty, student rights and the Vietnam War spread to issues such as the legalization of "soft drugs" such as LSD and Marijuana. Sympathizing with the rhetoric of luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, many younger Americans argued that since it was legal to drink alcohol, it should also be legal to smoke less addictive marijuana; marijuana was outlawed nationwide under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In 1969, the FBI reported that between the years 1966 and 1968, the number of arrests for marijuana possession, which had been outlawed throughout the United States under Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, had increased by 98%. Despite acknowledgement that drug use was greatly growing among America's youth during the late 1960s, surveys have suggested that only as much as 4% of the American population had ever smoked marijuana by 1969. By 1972, however, that number would increase to 12%. That number would then double by 1977.
The cover of Mad Magazine No. 129 by artist Norman Mingo, dated September 1969, showed a split Alfred E. Neuman, the "old" Alfred on the left wearing a "My Country: Right or Wrong" lapel button, and the "young" long-haired Alfred on the right with a "Make Love Not War" button, and the cover statement "MAD Widens the Generation Gap."
The popular 1970s TV situation comedy All in the Family focused on the generation gap. In the program, a conservative-minded middle-aged man, Archie Bunker, repeatedly quarrels with his staunchly liberal daughter and son-in-law.
Despite the vast media coverage that was given to the anti-war protests and the counterculture lifestyle, it was also accepted that the majority of younger Americans did not support either and were part of a non-protesting "silent majority" who wanted mainly just Socioeconomic stability throughout the country and an a honorable peace settlement to end the Vietnam War. The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a November 3, 1969, speech in which he said, "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support." A Gallup poll conducted showed that 68% of Americans supported Nixon's view.
The growing distrust the younger generation had towards sources of authority was also solidified following the Watergate Scandal. The scandal occurred after a group of "plumbers" were caught after they broke into the Democrat National Committee's (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. to repair telephone wires which had been illegally bugged. Further investigations linked the burglary and the DNC wiretapping to US President Richard Nixon and several people in his administration. The scandal resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction, and incarceration of 43 people, dozens of whom were Nixon's top administration officials. After the US Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender audio tapes which proved his role in masterminding the burglary and wiretapping, the embattled President resigned, though he would avoid trial by receiving a pardon from his successor Gerald Ford. As a result of the Watergate Scandal, the question authority mantra remained embedded in younger adults even as the generation gap began to close by the late 1970s.
Despite maintaining firm support for the expansion of civil rights and continued skepticism towards authority, the optimism and widespread enthusiasm for change which had fueled much of the baby boomer population during the mid 1960s and early 1970s faded at a rapid pace as attention diverted more towards the economic woes which were brought during the 1973-1983 stagnation period. By the early 1970s, student protests died down in due to the 1971 passage of the 26th Amendment(which fulfilled the objective of the "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" philosophy held by many younger Americans and allowed any American citizen who was at least 18 years of age or older to vote in any federal, state or local election within US boundary lines), President Nixon’s de-escalation of the war, the economic downturn, and disillusionment with the powerlessness of the antiwar movement. By 1978, the economic pain felt by the stagnation years had virtually wiped out the cocky optimism among America's youth which had resulted from the now defunct post-World War II economic boom and the goal of ending poverty-which served as one of the most important youth ambitions during the 1960s- had become widely non-existent to non-impoverished boomers as economic interests shifted away from fueling anti-poverty programs through taxing and spending and enhanced government regulations and more towards tax deductions, deregulation and spending cuts during the late 1970's. During the 1980s, both marijuana and LSD use declined rapidly and would not rebound to the levels seen in their upswing years. During the Reagan years, a more conservative ideology began to replace counterculture among several boomers.
Distinguishing generation gaps
There are several ways to make distinctions between generations. For example, names are given to major groups (Baby Boomers, Gen X, etc.) and each generation sets its own trends and has its own cultural impact.
Generations can be distinguished by the differences in their language use. The generation gap has created a parallel gap in language that can be difficult to communicate across. This issue is one visible throughout society, creating complications within day to day communication at home, in the work place, and within schools. As new generations seek to define themselves as something apart from the old, they adopt new lingo and slang, allowing a generation to create a sense of division from the previous one. This is a visible gap between generations we see every day. “Man's most important symbol is his language and through this language he defines his reality.”
Slang is an ever changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend in society at large. As each successive generation of society struggles to establish its own unique identity among its predecessors it can be determined that generational gaps provide a large influence over the continual change and adaptation of slang. As slang is often regarded as an ephemeral dialect, a constant supply of new words is required to meet the demands of the rapid change in characteristics. And while most slang terms maintain a fairly brief duration of popularity, slang provides a quick and readily available vernacular screen to establish and maintain generational gaps in a societal context.
Every generation develops new slang, but with the development of technology, understanding gaps have widened between the older and younger generations. "The term 'communication skills,' for example, might mean formal writing and speaking abilities to an older worker. But it might mean e-mail and instant-messenger savvy to a twenty something." People often have private conversations in secret in a crowded room in today’s age due to the advances of cellular phones and text messaging. Among “texters” a form of slang or texting lingo has developed, often keeping those not as tech savvy out of the loop. “Children increasingly rely on personal technological devices like cell phones to define themselves and create social circles apart from their families, changing the way they communicate with their parents. Cell phones, instant messaging, e-mail and the like have encouraged younger users to create their own inventive, quirky and very private written language. That has given them the opportunity to essentially hide in plain sight. They are more connected than ever, but also far more independent. Text messaging, in particular, has perhaps become this generation’s version of pig Latin."
While in the case with language skills such as shorthand, a system of stenography popular during the twentieth century, technological innovations occurring between generations have made these skills obsolete. Older generations used shorthand to be able to take notes and write faster using abbreviated symbols, rather than having to write each word. However, with new technology and keyboards, newer generations no longer need these older communication skills, like Gregg shorthand. Although over 20 years ago, language skills such as shorthand classes were taught in many high schools, now students have rarely heard of or even seen forms like shorthand.
Another phenomenon within language that works to define a generational gap occurs within families in which different generations speak different primary languages. In order to find a means to communicate within the household environment, many have taken up the practice of language brokering, which refers to the “interpretation and translation performed in everyday situations by bilinguals who have had no special training”. In immigrant families where the first generation speaks primarily in their native tongue, the second generation primarily in the language of the country in which they now live while still retaining fluency in their parent’s dominant language, and the third generation primarily in the language of the country they were born in while retaining little to no conversational language in their grandparent’s native tongue, the second generation family members serve as interpreters not only to outside persons, but within the household, further propelling generational differences and divisions by means of linguistic communication.
- Achievement gap
- Digital divide
- Income gap
- Inter-generational contract
- Intergenerational equity
- List of Generations
- Marriage gap
- Moral panic
- Student activism
- Student voice
- Transgenerational design
- Youth activism
- Youth voice
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