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
By 1965, it was determined that half of the American population was under the age of 25. 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. 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.
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. 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.
The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 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.
During the mid 1960s, the divided opinion between older and younger Americans over the issues of civil 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 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 1970-1980s stagnation period. 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. 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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