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The real chaos of the ‘new normal’ Finally, a meaningful generation gap is emerging

That mewling, toddler-esque Gen X-er, Matt Hancock (Celebrity SAS)

That mewling, toddler-esque Gen X-er, Matt Hancock (Celebrity SAS)


November 1, 2023   6 mins

“Generation gap” is a term that trips neatly off the tongue, often used to describe banal differences between older and younger people in matters of cultural taste, approaches to work, political opinion, and myriad other features of social life. Just yesterday, The Times added sex to that list, telling us that Gen Z, compared to their elders, are “turned off” by it.

In reality, generation gaps are very rare. The UK’s last experience of one was during the Sixties, when the “cultural revolution” that consumed Western Europe and North America led to an explosion of books and articles trying to make sense of the apparent gulf between the generation that won the war and the kids growing up in the peace.

In my years researching generational conflict, I have cautioned against overheated claims that we are living through a period of strife between younger and older people: for instance, the argument that the Baby Boomers have taken more than their “fair share” of society’s wealth and are bleeding young people dry with their triple-locked pensions, or that the Sixties generation are to blame for climate change, with their record of hedonistic consumerism and careless globe-trotting. I was firmly opposed to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and wrote considerably about their deleterious impact on young people. But I could never buy the line that these restrictions were designed to protect the old at the expense of the young. It wasn’t Grandma in charge of health policy, after all, but that mewling, toddler-esque Gen X-er, Matt Hancock.

Yet as we stagger through the unfolding permacrisis of the 2020s, I perceive a true generation gap emerging — possibly as seismic as the Sixties upheaval. This goes far beyond the everyday friction that exists between different generations, as young people struggle to find their place in the world and older people struggle to guide them in a reality that is constantly changing. It is about the gap in which we all find ourselves, between the “normal” we grew up with and the chaos that we find ourselves navigating now. This is not the “new normal” confidently predicted by those who thought lockdowns would change the way we worked forever: in many ways, what is striking is how much it feels like the “old normal”, as if the lockdown experience has been memory-holed. But we know, deep down, that something quite fundamental is changing.

Generation gaps, such as those evident in the period between the First and Second World Wars and during the Sixties, emerge when there is a distinct and rapid shift in the social order. Such occurrences throw established norms, values, conventions and institutions into disarray, without a consensus about what new form of order should replace them. Those in authority find themselves contested, while newer potential forms of authority jostle tetchily for position. Caught in the eye of the storm are young people coming into adulthood, who are trying to make sense of themselves and their place in a society that is palpably at odds with itself.

The tensions involved in integrating young people into the social world during periods of rapid change have long been a staple of “generation question” in the social sciences. An insightful collection published in 1963 brought together contributions from the sociologists Talcott Parsons and S.N. Eisenstadt, psychologists Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim, Kenneth Keniston and others, in a properly interdisciplinary discussion of what Karl Mannheim, back in the Twenties, had termed “the problem of generations”. Mannheim observed how periods of accelerated social change give rise to distinctive forms of generational consciousness, in which people on the cusp of adulthood develop a very different orientation to the world than that of their elders. This temporal dislocation can result in a schism between the generations, as young people, being closer to the problems of their time, “are dramatically aware of a process of de-stabilisation and take sides in it”, while “the older generation cling to the re-orientation that had been the drama of their youth”.

Friction between generations is therefore both the product of wider social and cultural conflict, and helps to cause it. Here, “generation gaps” mark a break in continuous time, forcing an abrupt re-evaluation of how we understand our society and what we can take for granted. And as every parent of teenagers will be sharply aware, the conflicts don’t stop at the front door. Because generations also operate at a family level, these tensions invariably also arise from, and bleed into, conflicts between parents and children. Back in 1940, the sociologist Kingsley Davis identified “the rate of social change” as one of the key variables in the production of “parent-youth conflict”. Within “a fast-changing social order”, he explained, “the time-interval between generations, ordinarily but a mere moment in the life of a social system, becomes historically significant, thereby creating a hiatus between one generation and the next”.

It is this sense of “hiatus” that seems to characterise the historical moment that we are currently experiencing. After decades of stasis, in which the collapse of communism led Fukuyama to contend that history had reached its “end”, we seem to have entered a period of dramatically destabilising social change. From international conflicts escalating abroad to the “culture wars” ripping Western nations apart at home, the old order is clearly unravelling, but what comes next is far from decided. The historian Robert Wohl described the First World War generation as “wanderers between two worlds” — a century on, to some extent, it feels like we are walking in their shoes.

Of course, we are living in very different circumstances. But even if our present culture wars don’t claim the physical casualties of a military conflict, we shouldn’t underestimate their destructive trajectory, or the level of destabilisation revealed by vicious battles over questions such as “what is a woman?” Nor should we deny that young people, as in any conflict, are on the front line — either propelled there by dramatic idealism and a desire for change, or deployed as cannon fodder by the elites running the show.

But there are some important ways we can make this less bloody. First, we should be very clear that young people are socialised into, and come to live by, ideas that are not their own. The spotlight has recently fallen on the aggressive promotion of contested statements about gender ideology, racialised thinking, and climate emergencies by schools and universities, leading to concerns about the blurring of the line between education and indoctrination. It would be naïve to think that kids coming home fluent in the language of LGBTQIA+, or distraught that forest fires herald the imminent end of the world, are divining an enlightened new reality of their own accord. These ideas are being taught, rather than conceived.

Yet as young people grow into adulthood, they do start thinking for themselves. They are not passive recipients of indoctrination, but alive to both the internal contradictions and wider criticisms of the things they have been brought up to believe. The positioning of student activists as the “voice of a generation”, whether for better or for worse, misses the fact that, as Kathleen Stock has argued, many university students “tend to be sensitive, curious, idealistic but not fanatical, and genuinely want to understand the world. But they also want to play — with ideas, with jokes, with each other.” Precisely because they are growing into adulthood during a period of cultural strife, young people from all walks of life are absorbing a range of ideas and making them their own.

A second bulwark against outright generational conflict is the existence of some friction between the generations. For all the Zeitgeist pushes young people to reject the advice and guidance of their elders, they are crying out for it — not least as something to argue against. Children have always pushed boundaries, in order to work themselves out; yet parents and teachers are increasingly warned that boundaries threaten a child’s self-esteem and identity, and that what they should be doing instead is affirming how children feel about themselves. Though presented as an act of compassion and understanding, the culture of affirmation is better understood as the rationalisation of neglect. Shying away from their responsibility to guide their children, adults place the full burden of their children’s fleeting choices upon their immature shoulders. It’s easy to flatter ourselves that we are being nicer, kinder adults by avoiding confrontation, but confrontation is sometimes exactly what the young need from us.

We must remember this as we seek to address our new generation gap — our sense that the world is shifting. In times of both chaos and stasis, society is always a mess of people with diverse ideas, experiences, and personalities; life in communities does not conform to the shrill dichotomies of the online culture wars, and our physical, everyday interactions counter the relentless cultural pessimism of the current political moment. In the midst of a punishing cost-of-living crisis, escalating international tensions, crumbling infrastructure, a health service on its knees, and an education system fatally wounded by its lockdown-imposed gap year, we are surrounded by people trying to make things work. Exhausted doctors, nurses, care workers and teachers demonstrate levels of professionalism and commitment that never make the news; railway staff fighting replacement by machines act as a daily reminder of why people do the job better. Parents carry on having arguments with their kids, showing that they care enough to be unpopular.

Life in the hiatus goes on; and if it feels that we are biding our time until the next disaster strikes, maybe that’s no bad thing. It reminds our children that this strange temporal dislocation is a storm that we will all have to weather — and that this new generation gap is not unbridgeable, provided we remember to keep a foot in both the old world and the new.


Dr Jennie Bristow is a sociologist of generations and author of Stop Mugging Grandma


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Nell Clover
NC
Nell Clover
5 months ago

I take issue with the authors claim of “an education system fatally wounded by its lockdown-imposed gap year” and “Exhausted… teachers demonstrate levels of professionalism and commitment”.

For the record, the only reason UK schools closed during lockdown was because those “professional” teachers demanded it and one politician (Sturgeon) capitalised on this. The UK government and the parents didn’t want the schools to close, but faced with the chaotic prospect of teachers refusing to work there was no option but to organise a planned closure.

Likewise, the re-opening of schools was chaotic because those “professional” teachers protested and many were reluctant to return. Despite being paid throughout, when the schools opened up it was obvious most teachers had made no preparation so the dislocation of education continued for a further term. Even now in 2023 Ofsted is finding schools still using the school closures of 2021 as a reason why today’s curriculum planning is incoherent.

Meanwhile, shop workers, transport workers, nursery workers and many others managed to turn up to work and get on with their jobs just fine throughout without any demands or grievances.

This actually highlights a problem with this article. The observations of the generation gap are that of the academic middle class and its obsessions and neuroses. The class that most writes about itself. So whilst the written record of lockdown is one long paid holiday sitting at home binging on Netflix and Amazon purchases, for a large majority of people that wasn’t the case. Likewise, the written record of previous generation gaps is unrepresentative of most people’s experience then, and today’s writers analysing a future generation gap are similarly biased.

Last edited 5 months ago by Nell Clover
Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I run a cycle shop in South London. We were busier than we’ve ever been during the pandemic.
I was grateful to have the work. A lot of my friends – my mate Mark who is a black cabbie, my brother who is a stage technician – lost their entire livelihood overnight.
Myself and the 3 other staff were directly exposed to 300+ people a day for months and none of us got sick.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Were you vaccinated?

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Clearly not, since the vaccines didn’t arrive until spring 2021 for most people, so everyone had been through two lockdowns before getting one.

po go
PG
po go
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

But teachers SHOULD HAVE been guided by actual experts instead of power tripping science bureaucrats who silenced experts with wisdom (Bhattacharya) other their own ego’s opinion (Fauci).

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I quite agree about which class of workers has had it the worst since we deliberately ruined the economy in 2020: it was the private sector, which simply absorbed the colossal job losses almost entirely voicelessly. Freelancers in particular, who simply had to stop work with no compensation, many of them ending up bankrupt. I’m a freelancer and got lucky with a contract that had me working from home throughout the pandemic, and it took me some time to realise exactly how lucky I was.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
5 months ago

What is telling in this article is that it only really talks about generational change in the educated class.
What about White Van Man? What was his equivalent in the Sixties?
Or suppose we take another look at Michael Apted’s “Up Series” people. What about the arc of their lives, and the rather dismal life trajectories of the three working-class girls that we first saw in “Seven Up?”

Arthur G
AG
Arthur G
5 months ago

I think of them more as the “credentialed class”. From what I can tell a University degree no longer convey much in terms of actual education.

Bernard Hill
BH
Bernard Hill
5 months ago

“…the culture of affirmation is better understood as the rationalisation of neglect.”
Probably the most salient point.

T Bone
TB
T Bone
5 months ago

Some 90% of the “generational change” is always just subjective nonsense piled on top of empirically established truths that cyclically repeat over time. The Tytler Cycle shows this over time with the collapse of empires caused by loose fiscal policy where currency is debased by politicians handing out resources in return for maintaining and expanding their own power.

Today’s social changes may be precipitated by the sense of entitlement created by economic growth but they are cyclical. The rapid technological advances and dramatically more comfortable quality of life mean less adversity. Less adversity means less coping ability and so we develop a material rich but spiritually depressed culture. The depression is then eased by a Self-Love ideology that turns the privileged man into a victim. He becomes full of grievance and desies to tear down anything and everyone aspiring to thrive in existing conditions. The “sysyemic conditions” become the ultimate boogeyman. Nothing can be the fault of the individual “oppressed by social conditions.”

Generational gaps will exist wherever one generation is radically more entitled and less grateful than the last. But at some point, the cycle will revolve and as material conditions decline, a sense of reality will set in and petty entitlements like “affirmations” will be replaced by stronger virtues that are necessary to deal with the present reality.

And to my original point, I could have just repeated that quote about Weak Men Creating Hard Times but I recognize as humans we seek to maximally understand the world to the best of our abilities. As we understand it through more and more granular analytics, we often overcomplicate things. The over-complexity often adds error to basic truths that have a cascading effect and regress society. Truths that were obvious to people that lived thousands of years ago get dismissed as archaic. But if we can be humble and interrogate our own views, we sometimes get the analysis right. When world leaders actually understand History and become determined not to repeat those errors of entitlement, we finally get something resembling “progress.”

Last edited 5 months ago by T Bone
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago

In effect, each successive generation is a new wave of barbarians being born. If we don’t successfully socialize, teach and civilize them they will tear everything down around them.

Geoffrey Barker
GB
Geoffrey Barker
5 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Great point

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
5 months ago

In my own Boomer life, I have Millennial and Zoomer family and friends who collect vinyl and listen to albums I first listened when I was 13, because, in their words, “music today sucks”. No argument there, but many of these same young people lock themselves away from each other using the tech my generation invented, and then wonder why they have, again in their words, “so many mental health issues”.
The fact is, young people of every era (well, probably beginning in the early 20th Century, since life before then was largely brutal for people of all ages), fall into fads and fashions, seek the approval of their peer group, and look for reasons to claim misery. The sheer number of people of Millennial and Zoomer ages feeding themselves into to maw of the “mental health industry” is staggering. Normal rambunctious boys were fed Ritalin all through the 90s and 2000s; girls were made into neurotic Prozac gluttons. Now, it’s Adderall, pronouns, and “therapists”.
Since the “generation gap” was a goofy plot device for silly Sixties movies like “The Impossible Years” and the relentless cover stories of my mom’s Time and Newsweek magazines, I bother to think about it now as much as I did then. It’s only a matter of time and necessity that people grow up and out of it. Something about turning thirty . . .

Dionne Finch
DF
Dionne Finch
5 months ago

I’m Gen-X with a Millennial daughter and three Gen-Z sons. My daughter is woke as can be but my three sons are actively anti-woke. From what I hear through my sons, their generation is pushing back hard on the gender ideology/cancel culture ways of their slightly older peers.

Bernard Hill
BH
Bernard Hill
5 months ago

“…the culture of affirmation is better understood as the rationalisation of neglect.”
A cruel but acute analysis, of the motherhood fostered by feminism.

Alex Carnegie
RC
Alex Carnegie
5 months ago

I find myself feeling increasingly sympathetic to the horror my grandparents felt in the 1960s at the antics of the young. They were genuinely convinced that many of my generation would die of overdoses, that the survivors would all be deaf given we had discovered amplifiers and our offspring – if any – would probably be semi feral given the rising rate of divorce and the imminent collapse of stable family backgrounds. At the same time, we operated on the basis of “never trust anyone over 30” and dismissed them as anachronistic Edwardian fossils useful only as fodder for the humour of Monty Python.

Now we distrust anyone under 30 and are convinced that Gen Z are doomed to march in conformist lockstep towards an Orwellian world of intolerance and thought crime having been irretrievably damaged by social media in their early teenage years and academic enthusiasts for critical theory based approaches during their university days.

I draw two conclusions.

1/ It may not be as bad as we fear just as things turned out better than my grandparents expected.

2/ No one over thirty has a vote in the outcome. It will be settled by Gen Z, Gen Alpha and their successors. If one wants to forecast the future the best bet is to monitor the attitudes of Gen Alpha who may diverge from Gen Z.

The drug fuelled idealists of 1968 were soon replaced by the equally hedonist but more egocentric narcissists of the 1970s – such as myself – who were less interested in Revolution than self indulgence – and had worked out which stimulants could be taken safely. Maybe something similar will happen this time.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

One can always argue on the lines you optimistically suggest, except that there are too many polarizing institutional upheavals taking place which create a permanent generation gap nowadays.
For one thing the culture wars have permanently upset the traditional institutional bastions of family and faith.
At least in vast swathes of the non -Western world as mine, the generation gap is also becoming sharply cleaved on class lines.

Prosperous, upper middle -class and elite society youngsters, exposed to foreign education and lifestyles on Western campuses or on domestic elite arenas similar, are very different from more traditional and nationally moored peers.
In my younger days of the 80s and 90s that same divide merely reflected in the choice of music, cinema, apparel and main lingua franca.
Today the gap is between two starkly contrasting Weltanschaungs.
I find myself to be more in synch attitudinally with a poor, non- English speaking Zoomer than a smart Woke counterpart from both my own generational set or Gen Z youngster.
And that’s where the culture wars have led us- by dictating that we give up a blend of old and new in favour of a drastically altered ” new” zone.
The generation gap I fear is here to stay, with a class dimension.

Howard Jones
HJ
Howard Jones
5 months ago

I LOL at ‘ It wasn’t Grandma in charge of health policy, after all, but that mewling, toddler-esque Gen X-er, Matt Hancock.
Much better way of saying ‘total wx@kr’ if I am reading correctly between lines.

Malcolm Powell
MP
Malcolm Powell
5 months ago

I have a few specific examples of what I see as the generation gap
·        young people spend exorbitant amount of money on second rate coffee in trendy coffee shops. Older people won’t do this.
·        Young people are worried about climate change but want to spend their time flying around the world. Older people just enjoy the flying and don’t worry about climate change
·        Younger people order fast food deliveries online (at extortionate cost) whereas older people will drive to collect food and may pay by cash
·        Older people support Israel, but younger people support Palestine
·        Younger people are much more woke (LGBT, race, empire) than older people
There are probably many others.
I think the view is that younger people will be much less affluent than their elders in years to come. How will they afford their lifestyle

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
5 months ago

“…the culture of affirmation is better understood as the rationalisation of neglect.”
A cruel but acute analysis, of the motherhood fostered by feminism.

Clare Knight
CK
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Short-term memory loss? You’ve said that before and it doesn’t get better by repeating it.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
5 months ago

This article raises quite a few very important points. Sociologists often get a “bad press” and sometimes it’s deserved, but here’s an example of social analysis that really does add value to our potential for understanding ourselves and our societal divisions, through the prism of generational change. There are others, such as migration and technology, to be thrown into the mix.

The idea that each generation seeks to understand the “gap” between itself and the next through the prism of it’s own experience of youth and the “gap” that existed as it came into adulthood is, i think, perceptive.The generation arising in the Sixties, of which i’m one, is the classic example as we’ve reached our biological sixties. I can easily recall how aghast my parents generation, having fought and sacrificed itself during WW2 were at what must’ve seemed like my generations’ determination to overthrow the peace. Is the schism any different now? Different in kind, yes, but essentially having the same idealism. This has become magnified and distorted through the massive leap in information tech.

What matters, ultimately, is the next generation being able to build their own new world, bravely, to continue the process of human existence and exploration of an ever-expanding universe. In that sense, it’s a spiritual quest, of the human spirit. The quoting of Kathleen Stock’s assertion by the author regarding the students she encounters is essentially a positive one. Above all then, generational change perhaps reveals an often hidden determination to keep going. The birthrate may be declining, but despite that causing economic problems i’d contend it’s for the best, to allow future generations to make a more sustainable demand on resources. The conflict we’re involved in right now might well centre around that point, with all its myriad manifestations.

Tyler Durden
TD
Tyler Durden
5 months ago

The main thesis to entertain is the reordering of the symbolic system for young people who’ve grown up on the Internet. It’s almost as if in digital interactive media they experience a second ‘mirror stage’ in the broad Lacanian conception, re-entering a separate universe of language and cultural meaning. At its most harmless, it’s a little like adopting the fantasy identity of a video game avatar as one’s gender. At worst, it is generating psychosis and too much mental violence at risk of overspilling.

jane baker
jane baker
5 months ago

I was a little kid in the 1960s and a young adult in the early 1970s. Just my sort of bad luck. All the bouncy innocent fun of popular culture in the early 1960s (I wanna hold your hand,I wanna be Bobby’s Girl,Like a rubber ball you’ll come bouncing back to me bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy),all that had gone,everything had turned sour,all the movies out were dark and nastily sexual(I didn’t watch movies but I read the film reviews which made me glad i didn’t watch movies),and I was constantly being told (not me personally of course I knew that) in magazines,tv,pop songs,books all the time that my parents didnt understand me. I knew this wasn’t true but enough water wears away rock so when I had sex (just the once) thus doing something they thought was not a good idea and they were right I found out that my parents were my best friends and they knew perfectly well what was what. Academia has been trying to ressurrect “the generation gap” for some years now but they can’t do it via popular culture any more now that three generations go to rock concerts,grandmas and Grandpa’s go to Glastonbury and Pink Floyd fans are 80. So they are taking the economics route but even that is tricky. You don’t hate your Grandma even if she has that Boomer wealth and security. Anyway it means YOU dont have to support her AND she might leave you her house,so I really don’t think this latest attempt is going to work either.

Clare Knight
CK
Clare Knight
5 months ago

I’m so glad I’m on the way out of this world. I feel so sorry for young people and when I see children I say to myself you poor little things you just don’t know what’s in store for you.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
5 months ago

The writer might benefit from reading the 4th turning. Feels more like a cyclical pivot than a generation gap.