One of the most corrosive trends in modern America is that of generationalism. By this term, I mean the tendency to divide up the body of the American people into different generations – Millennials, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, etc. – which are then set against each other or otherwise encouraged to isolate themselves from those of different ages and experiences than themselves. Typically this involves encouraging people of one generation to despise – usually for superficial reasons – those in other generations. The older generations look at the millennials and think they’re all a bunch of lazy whiners living in Mom’s basement. Millennials look at the older folks and see helpless dinosaurs who couldn’t use an iPhone if it meant saving their own lives.
Obviously, there has always been the interplay of youth versus old age for as long as man has walked this earth. The aged have often been mystified by the willingness of youth to disregard experience and good sense, while the young have often been exasperated by the strictures placed upon them by their elders. This is a fact of human existence that we can find all the way back in Old Testament times and even earlier – archaeologists have found Sumerian clay tablets detailing just this strife between a father and his son.
However, modernism’s encouragement of generationalism is a different creature from this earlier human experience. For most of human history and throughout traditional societies, whether Western or otherwise, there was still a fundamental unity between the young and the old. It was always assumed that while the young would sow their wild oats (formalised, for example, in the Amish Rumspringa), they would eventually then settle down to learn from the experiences of their elders, who would pass on the torch of civilisation to the up-and-comers who would successfully take that torch and pass it on when they grew old themselves. People were aware of different and successive generations, but these were not matched against each other. Quite the opposite – each generation was taught to follow that which came before, taking on the responsibilities of manhood and civilisation when their time came. In medieval Europe, a 15 year old young man was already apprenticing to learn a trade or working on the farm. He was not viewed as someone who was to be treated differently than his elders. Indeed, he was already pretty much an adult. Our forebearers had no time or patience for teenage angst, and nobody would have gotten away with acting like a very special snowflake.
The origins of modern generationalism, I believe, may be found in the rise of consumerism in the Anglosphere and Western Europe, especially from the beginning of the 20th century. As the industrial revolution led to the mass production of cheap consumer goods, consumer advertising techniques (which are remarkably similar to political and wartime propaganda) began to focus less and less on touting the quality, durability, and usefulness of products, and more and more on feelings and social status to be accrued through the purchase of a product. Consumerism became less about improving the objective quality of one’s life, and instead became an outlet for the exhibition of social adeptness and the ability to “stay ahead” of trends. As American and Western societies became more technologically advanced and wealthy throughout that century – even despite the intervening wars – possession of cheap lifestyle-enhancing goods ranging from televisions to personal computers became more widespread. Hence, their possession, in and of itself, largely ceased to define the purchaser socially, so another outlet was needed to create that sense of social savvy.
This outlet was the artificial division of the mass of consumers into relatively arbitrary categories centered about the age groups of these consumers. Each age group was convinced that certain goods and technologies were “their” distinctive marks. High end sports cars were for middle aged men (i.e. the “mid-life crisis,” itself largely a creation of modern society’s obsession with dichotomising the value of youth versus age), stereos and LPs were for the younger folks. The advertising for products built on these arbitrary divisions, and further reinforced the same sort of trends in music (the youth were “supposed” to like rock, older folks were “supposed” to like big band, etc.), clothing, and other cultural signalling factors as the decades rolled on. Each generation became defined by what was “in” during its formative youthful period.
Mass consumerism encourages social democratisation because it allows the individual to define himself by his things and by his individual social standing (which, as we saw above, depends on the ability to buy the “right” things). As a result, people become self-absorbed attention-seekers. Jerry Springer and Lindsey Lohan would simply not be possible in a genuinely traditional society. Long gone is the sense of worth which comes from finding one’s place in the community and society as a whole, and valuing that worth on the basis of one’s contribution to whole, rather than simply to oneself. Instead, the members of a generation are galvanised to seek out only the approval of their own age group, and that for the purpose of advancing themselves personally in the esteem of their own cohort. Every one else becomes “stupid kids” or “old geezers.”
These impressions of distinctive uniqueness led to, and continue to lead to, a fundamental disconnect between these generations which has inhibited the ability of older generations to pass on their experience to those succeeding, while making these younger generations less likely to even be willing to receive such instruction. After all, what does Grandpa have to teach me when he doesn’t even know what Waze is?
This trend is, of course, most apparent in those under 30 because they have been the most consistently indoctrinated with this consumerist mindset, though older generations are most certainly not immune to it as well. Each generation, indeed, is encouraged to focus upon its own “formative experiences” which set it apart from the others (e.g. Baby Boomers – Vietnam, Gen Xers – the economic boom of the 1980s, etc.). Each has its own distinctive technologies, its own peculiar life ambitions, and all the rest, as the graphic (above) illustrates.
Generationalism tears down the vital social function embodied by old age, that of passing on the traditions, mores, and standards of a culture. When that disconnect becomes a widening chasm – as it has been in the West for decades – it throws open the door for the introduction of all kinds of societally destructive trends. In the 1960s and 1970s we saw the rejection of traditional Christianity in favour of dabbling with eastern mysticisms which taught a vastly different worldview based on pantheism and nihilism. Today, we see an increasingly technologically dependent adolescence which rejects, and indeed often barely comprehends, anything which does not fit into its post-American technoglobalistic worldview. One gets the feeling that today’s teenagers are just one EM pulse away from being completely helpless.
I will admit to being at a loss to see how this trend can be reversed en masse. We know what needs to be done, which is to step back from the consumerism, step back from the generational isolationism, and step back from the idolisation of self through the acquisition of social signalling based on the fulfillment of peer-group expectations. How to do this when you have an all-pervasive consumer-industrial complex which possesses complete control over the propagandistic elements of modern communications is quite another matter. Perhaps the best place to start would be to try to salvage the salvageable – protect our own children from these trends and inculcate in them both a respect for previous generations as well as the desire to receive the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the millennia prior to our own decade. Teaching them a deeper curriculum than what they’ll get in the typical public school setting would go a long way towards doing this. Bringing them up within a religious setting where they receive actual teaching, instead of marketing and shallow pseudo-doctrine, will also prepare them to resist the zeitgeist when they leave our nests. For the rest of society, we must simply seek to reach the reachable at the demotic level – one on one as we try to undermine the nearly monolithic message being spewed out by he consumerist propagandisers. A simpler life, a simpler way, will have its attractions to those who can be encouraged to really give it some consideration. Let’s be the agents of change for a return to those simpler ways.