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July 02, 2003

Generation Gaps

Friedrich --

There's something zeitgeisty happening that puzzles me. For about 15 years, I've been hearing from friends who are parents about how hard their kids work at school, and about how overbooked kids these days are generally. Homework, "enriching" activities, appointments, lessons -- ach, you have no idea! Being a kid these days, it's like having a career!! Plus, I'm so jealous of the way kids are being taught these days!!!... And on and on.

Parents will be proud of their kids and boring on the topic of their kids, and I don't mind making allowances for that. But presumably these parents have also been at least semi-accurate when they talk about homework and activity loads. So for the last five years or so, I've been waiting for these amazingly well-trained, enlightened, accomplished new young creatures to show up in the neck of the culturebiz where I work. Looking forward to it, really -- educated kids, what's not to like about the idea?

So, where are they? The young people showing up on my radar screen don't much match what I was prepared for. They do seem to share certain characteristics; they genuinely seem to be a cohort. They're often bright and quick, as well as eager, attractive and groomed. They're accomplished in the sense that they know how to handle a Palm Pilot and basic office software. They know how to network, they wear stretch fabrics well, and they know where to shop for interesting eyeglasses. A few of them seem capable of writing peppy emails, at least when they aren't being too curt and abrupt.

Capable careerizers and button-pushers, in other words. But they also seem to have no background in anything. They've got no history, no science. And god knows nothing cultural, at least in the trad-culture sense; they don't know literature, art music, theater or dance. They don't even know old movies -- to them, movie history begins with "Pulp Fiction." They probably aren't any more clueless than we were, but they have a different attitude towards their cluelessness than we did. Basically, they see no prob with it at all. When informed that there's something they really ought to bone up on, they look at you pityingly -- it's as though you're the clueless one. To them, it's all contempo pop cult, all the time. And if it ain't on the Web, it doesn't exist.

I'm certainly grateful that they're a lot more pleasant than the Get-Outta-My-Way, Gotta-Be-a-Billionaire-Before-I-Turn-30 Gen Xers, the most unappealing generation ever. And I admire their placidity and cheerfulness. (Maybe ignorance really is bliss.) But, as I say, I'm puzzled. What was all that homework about?

Perhaps you -- a dignified observer of the scene, an accomplished businessguy, and a responsible and enlightened daddy of a certain age -- can explain this to me. Have all the educated kids gone into other fields? But a bizperson I know who's responsible for doing the hiring at a boring corporation tells me that the kids she's seeing can barely manage to put together a resume. Or perhaps it's what I suspect -- that, although the kids did indeed work hard, what they were taught was nutrition-free.



posted by Michael at July 2, 2003


Man, what a generalization. "contempo pop cult"?! I dig your writing most times, but whenever you venture into commenting on the younger generation, you end up sounding the "kids these days" note. Old fogey!

Posted by: zod on July 2, 2003 1:35 PM

Hey, if we oldsters can't amuse ourselves making snarky overgeneralizations about young people, what other kind of fun can we have?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2003 3:17 PM

I would point to zod's comment as evidence of the accuracy of Michael's posting. However, Michael, they do seem to be retro without being aware of it--"man", "I dig your writing..." and "old fogey" sounds like an faux version of a beatnik---sort of like Bob Denver on "Dobey Gillis." (And THAT was even before my time, but I am aware of it...). Think zod knows who Jack Kerouac is?

Posted by: annette on July 2, 2003 4:00 PM

No, annette, I don't know who Jack Kerouac is. My cultural horizon is about two years out, so I also don't know who this Bob Denver or "Dobey Gillis" is, as well. Let's stick to what the kids know, okay? Please don't mock my lack of socio-cultural awareness.


Posted by: zod on July 2, 2003 4:57 PM

David Brooks had a piece on this a few months back in the Atlantic. He visited Princeton and found the students earnest and overbooked but undereducated (though he did not put it that way), just as you describe. I trust the same thing is happening in high school, or at least it appears to me.

Part of it, I think, is cultural: the kids have been taught, in a zeitgeisty sort of way, that nothing matters, there is no truth, all learning is a form of legitimizing oppression, etc. and they say "forget about it." Instead, they pad their resumes, study career-related courses hard and focus on getting a job in a boring corporation. Learning, or art, for its own sake? What's the point?
Part of it is also a negative reaction, I think, to their parents 60s nostalgia: things really meant something then, man! But then the kids see their parents as regular middle-class people, or "selling out" or whatever the phrase its, and the world (in their eyes at least) is not noticeably better. Youthful rebellion is then just another cultural style, with no more meaning than any other.

The other half of that, of course, is the commercialization of that rebellious style by corporate America, which I think is the real difference between now and 20 or even 10 years ago. Everything is so heavily branded, and marketing and corporate imagery so omnipresent, that nothing that does not fit within that framework can have any real value.

Sorry for the long post.


Posted by: Gerald on July 2, 2003 5:27 PM

Gerald, That's my impression too, though I wish I'd been able to put it as wonderfully as you have. Many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2003 5:30 PM

Hey, so I missed rich by 30 and am now going to shoot for rich by 40. Is it our fault that the boomers (our cursed parents) sucked up all the oxygen? I don't think of myself much as a Gen Xer, but as a "Child of the Information Age" (it technically started in 1971, the year of my birth...oh and that's in quotes because if I ever write an autobiography, that's the title, copyright me as of a while ago :-)

The cohort you're describing is the first to come of age once the Information Age had already firmly started, and they've been exposed to SO much information from so many different sources, that of course they have no idea what to think about anything, and are so overwhelmed by the present that they don't have time for the past.

History? What? seems to be their reaction.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 2, 2003 5:35 PM

Actually, I would make a different stab at explaining this issue. For all their education, I don't think kids have been exposed to very much history. I wasn't exposed to much that much as a kid, but I think I got far more than my children have. I wonder if the fact that history is so not P.C. that the timidity of textbook writers has made it easier to just avoid this subject.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 2, 2003 6:16 PM

There was an article in the paper about a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright going up for auction here in Cincinnati. A photo accompanying the article showed the bidders, a bunch of Gen-Xers spread out around the living room in shorts, baseball caps, basically wearing whatever. The bidding started at $800K but the home sold for around $400K, which was only the average price for a home in that neighborhood. The guy who bought it was some dude who said "Yeah a buddy of mine said it he might buy it off me for $500K." So he wasn't interested in the home, he was just following his course on "Buying and Selling" or whatever.

Reading this I was struck by the passing of time, kind of stunned how there could come a day when the leading figures and issues of the 20th century would be forgotten and the people who remembered and cared were gone. I had always taken for granted that there would be someone talking about these things, someone older and more authoritative. But now I don't know what people will be talking about 20 years from now. It made me feel a little sad, and older. But it's also exciting, that there's this growing cultural vacuum I can take a part in filling. And I think change will be in the direction of traditional culture, getting back to basics, relearning what makes culture and society work.

Age-wise I guess I'm also on the extreme end of Generation X (b. '71). I think the Gen-Xers who weren't totally smothered and twisted by their Boomer parents can still make an important contribution to the next phase of our culture. But it may have to wait for the preening, future-be-damned, always the center of attention, Boomers to get off the stage and release their desperate infantile grip on the spotlight.

Posted by: Crackpot Matt on July 2, 2003 7:48 PM

Here's a link to the article:

Or can I make it a cool link ?

Posted by: Crackpot Matt on July 2, 2003 7:58 PM

Zod--No, I won't stick to what kids know---first of all, that would limit the subjects considerably, and secondly---THAT's exactly the problem. Too much of that has already been done. I'm actually too young for Jack Kerouac, too, so why do you suppose I know him? Because people didn't limit conversation to only what I knew, so I didn't have to ever feel bad (or ever learn anything).

Posted by: annette on July 2, 2003 8:57 PM

I'm going to toss my rural, small town perspective in here. Our small school is mandated by the state to teach a "progressive curriculum of reading, language arts, science, social studies and health." They are also required to have 870 educational hours per school year. I figured it out one day and if you teach 5 hours a day for however long the year runs you will be fulfilling that requirement. But schools are also dealing with some of the "issues" kids are coming to school with so my kids get drug and alcohol prevention programs, peer acceptance programs and more of the same ilk. Hard academics isnt stressed because the expectation is that most of the kids wont go on to college anyway.

They also have things like keyboarding starting in 1st grade because, lord help us, everyone knows that computers are the way of the future.In HS they require two credits of computer training. No matter that most of what a 5th grader is learning about computers will be totally obsolete by the time she hits the job market after she goes to college. No matter that typing something and then running spell check has replaced the dictionary and learning to spell.

They also have to use what textbooks are on the market and if you've actually looked at any of them lately, they spend so much time explaining every single viewpoint that they never seem to get to the hard facts. Math texts have so much stuff in them to make them entertaining it's difficult to find the explanations of how to do the math amongst all the balloons and sidebars.

Plus sports is practically mandatory in a small school while music, art and drama are seen at least by our community as extras.

No one reads--my kids practically introduced Harry Potter to the librarians. the kids they hang with can, however, discuss the latest episode of Survivor and talk about the various cheat websites for the computer games they play. They cant teach Shakespeare as it was written because the kids dont "get" the language so they used "American English" versions to teach "Romeo and Juliet" to my Freshman son last year. I was horrified.

I think the whole issue is much more complex than just blaming the parents. We have changed what we want schools to do and we have changed how we parent our kids and you are seeing the difference in real-life economic ways.

Posted by: Deb on July 2, 2003 10:55 PM

I think Deb makes an excellent point. But she alreayd made her point and I am not going to belabor it.
I am sorry you had a bad experience with "my" generation. I can only hope you would try again. As I do not know any billionaires, so perhaps I am a failure, but I do know a lot of people who took, and take, art and dance lessons, english and music courses, cooking and languages. But you know, it is markedly easier to do these things if one has a job, and for that a certain amont of careerism is required.
I found it to be true that if you *always* have a problem with some sort of a general situation then it is most likely you who has a problem, and not the situation that presents it.
Ask yourself how you have you learned the things you are proud of knowing and at what age? Now think of the reasons why a 20-yeard old may not [yet] know them, or care to know them. I can think of plenty different ways this cookie might crumble. Perhaps you learnt old piano tunes from your parents, and they did not get that chance. Do you really expect smoeone to think that Gershwin is great if they have never heard him because their boss tells them so?
You seem to have a very wide range of knowledge and interests. Is that really true for all the people who work with you? Your bosses? Peers in the industry? I will be incredibly surprised if you tell me that with the exception of the new young dolts you keep receiving everyone you know has been a receptive to suggestions, intensely cultured and brightly interesting person since the day they turned 21.
Coming back to the subject of education though, I would also like to do some arithmetic. Taking one elective a semester you can end up with a very cursory and half-forgotten overview of introductions to music, art history, history, physchology, economics, etc. How much are you going to really rememeber after that whirlwind? Is it really worth doing vs. getting an extra major or minor on your "padded" resume? Do you want to live on your parent's couch because instead of double-majoring in finance and accounting you majored in English? And yet, most students choose to compromise and take at least some classes for themselves. I see it as a good thing. In 1950 a college degree pretty much guaranteed a job until retirement. In 1970 it guaranteed a job at graduation. Today, it guarantees a large student loan. By and large, college education is vocational, and it is time it got publicly admitted. Nor is it the student's fault that they are required to run the system's gauntlet only to be informed upon its successful conclusion that they suck, they learnt nothing (but apparently were taught everything) and really things just are not the way they used to be, but somehow it is their fault.
Finally, let me say that whenever you review a book or a movie here I give serious consideration to enriching my cultural life with it. I am sure that if you couch your suggestions as well in conversations as you do on this forum you get a lot fewer blank stares.
Sorry for a long post.

Posted by: Con Tendem on July 3, 2003 2:58 AM

Hmmm. These kids today!

My first point (a small quibble): I think it's important to remember that the U.S. is a vast country, with vastly different educational experiences across the spectrum. Articles that generalize about the quality of "U.S. education" very often describe "the education that my friends' kids in my white upper middle class East Coast neighborhood receive." And those generalizations are of limited use in describing the education a child gets in a public school in El Paso (which may be poor), or in a homeschool environment (which may be excellent). Waiting for a wave of kids with a set of identical characteristics received from an identical educational experience to appear in your workplace is an exercise in futility.

My second point: Expecting intellectual maturity from kids fresh out of college is naive. Most school teaches--and has always taught--conformity of thought. There is a right answer when the teacher asks you "What does this poem mean?" You give the right answer, you get the high grade. After 16 years of this, it can take a while for even the brightest students to shake off the desire to please, to say whatever they think you want to hear.

Those who do think about history and culture will, as always, educate themselves, and once they've gotten away from school habits, might even have something interesting to say. But that takes time.

And in that regard, I think things are actually improving. The number of intellectually stimulating people (having discussions like this one!) I meet has increased exponentially because of the internet. In the past, you had to become a college professor or join a think tank to hang out with other people interested in science, history, or the arts; now you just look for the right websites.

And the popularity of science and history channels on cable is evidence to me of a real intellectual hunger out there, even among people who might not have gone to college.

Posted by: emjaybee on July 3, 2003 10:17 AM

I'm in a weird position, demography-wise, to comment on this--I was born in 1963 to parents who remember the Great Depression and were married after WWII, so technically I'm a boomer. On the other hand, I effectively missed the 1960's; Forrest Gump left me completely cold. Somehow we picked up most of the attitudes and values of our parents, without the typical boomer rebellious or the quest to be everlastingly young. So I don't really fit into any of the usual classifications. My wife is in the same position; she says we belong to the Sesame Street generation.

All that said, and despite being a good student and getting good grades in history and literature, I'm sure I didn't have any sophistication in *anything*, or any real historical awareness, until my late twenties or early thirties, when I started reading history on my own.

That's assuming, of course, that I have any sophistication now. :-)

Posted by: Will Duquette on July 3, 2003 11:11 AM

As a boomer, I remember my grandmother telling me in no uncertain terms in 1968 that my generation was 1) illiterate (because we hadn't read James Femimore Cooper) 2) couldn't add 3) useless 4) lazy and wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. She may have been right. I sometimes think the 20 somethings I deal with at work are unschooled, but then I dig back in my closet and read my college papers and realize I remember myself as being SO MUCH MORE intelligent and perceptive than I actually was. Perhaps you do too. In closing, I have come to the conclusion that no generation is as smart as it thinks it is, and no generation is as stupid as it's forebears think it is. Cut them some slack. Boomers need to seriously get over ourselves.

Posted by: Rebecca on July 3, 2003 11:39 AM

The grownups these days!

Upon graduating from a small, liberal arts college and entering the workforce three years ago, I was shocked not at the quality of output from my fellow college-graduates, but from the older people in the office. A lot of men and women approaching (or in) their middle ages seemed to feel that, as they had achieved a certain level of employment, they did not need to learn new skills, to stay up to date with the evolving industry, or to actually work while they were at work, all the while commanding a high salary and a lot of vacation time.

Tough economic times hit over the past few years and most of these people were laid off. Now, the salary-cheap and hardworking college graduates outnumber those over thirty while the boomers are bitching about being out of work, and somehow feeling as though their 401K investments were a God (or government) granted right to a long retirement filled with travel, health care, and Florida sunshine. Somone should give these grownups a lessons in economics!

Posted by: Duke Sutton on July 3, 2003 12:57 PM

Michael: Once again I'm stumped. Exactly who are you talking about? Where are you running into these kids? How exactly is your "observation" different from the observation your parents' generation made about yours? I'm sure you'll be able to come up with a number of reasons why this next generation is somehow completely and totally different from every single generation of human beings before it.

In all seriousness, the issue of history is a real one (even if I doubt that American young people have ever been really down with history: the counter-culture of the 1960s certainly had a pretty weak grasp on the facts of the past). We need to stop making school about building self-esteem and more about building character and instilling values. Unfortunately, this means throwing away the leftist-inspired relativism that is at the core of the philosophies that quide almost all of the social services (education, corrections, assistance).

Posted by: JW on July 3, 2003 2:28 PM

My feeling, based on unscientific observation and amateur sociology, is that the most striking generation gap is between the Depression/World War II generation and their Boomer kids. One point is the lack of a clear break in popular music since 1955. Some musical pundits date the beginning of the Rock Era to the moment "Rock Around the Clock" hit Number One on the Billboard chart, the first rock song to do so. Everything in pop music before 1955 seems to have fallen off the edge of the event horizon (you don't seem to hear "Standing on the Corner, Watching All the Girls Go By" or "How Much Is That Little Doggie in the Window," much these days do you?). Our parents from the Glenn Miller generation couldn't stand the new stuff -- they called it "Yeah-yeah-yeah" music. (I've spotted references to that refrain in cartoons and such ten years after "She Loves You" was off the charts, like it somehow summed up the whole genre of music that older people didn't know any more about than they had to.)

But since 1955, there has not been any such clear break. Pop music has evolved, certainly, and kids today may find old rock songs old-fashioned, but they don't reject them outright the way we did Eddie Fisher and Patti Page. Our generation in turn doesn't dismiss the music kids are listening to now the way our parents did. (Two possible caveats: a recent revival of interest in swing, and the emergence of rap as the music the parents can't stand. Rap IS a major departure from the way pop songs have been done since 1955...)

It's interesting to listen to the local oldies station and hear little kids calling up and requesting songs that first came out before their parents were born. ("Could you pway 'Spwish Spwash I Was Takin' a Baf'?") This stuff is as far back in time for these kids as the '20s would have been for us. Farther!

And the other side of the coin might have been my 20-year high-school reunion in 1989. The DJ hired in to spin platters played current stuff, not nostalgic oldies from the '60s. And nobody minded! People nearly 40 could get up and dance to "We Built This City on Rock & Roll" without a second thought (and Grace Slick was older than we were!). My mother's 20-year reunion would have been about 1964. There probably would have been a riot if the DJ had tried to play Beatles tunes, so if there was a DJ at that event, he probably played it safe and stuck with Glenn Miller...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 3, 2003 4:16 PM


I dont really want schools to instill values or build character. Your values and character traits may not be the ones I want my kids to learn. That's MY job as the parent. The problem is that we have allwed schools to become parents as well as educators and I dont think they have the resources or wherewithall to do it effectively. You cant teach values to large groups of people because it's something learned best in as situations arise in personal experience.

I would like them to teach writing, history, literature, math, core science and a basic understanding of the arts so that when they go out into the workforce they can at least function on an entry level of expertise. I'd be happy if my high schooler could punctuate a sentence, place the Civil War in the correct decade of the correct century and tell me a few facts about why Jefferson is an important figure in American history.

Posted by: Deb on July 3, 2003 5:08 PM

They've been taught to pass exams better, is all. And exams are a crappy indicator of actually knowing stuff. That's it.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on July 3, 2003 5:59 PM

Check out Odious and Peculiar for a literate, witty, historically informed blog by two twenty- somethings. Subjects include but are not limited to : opera, martial arts, politics,poetry, eating, odd biological facts, and river rafting.

Posted by: Stephen Bodio on July 4, 2003 10:06 AM

I've recently graduated from an "excellent" high school populated by pampered upper-middle class children. Most people know next to nothing about intellectual/cultural topics that are not directly addressed in school. They did spend hours on homework, much of it rather fluffy in content, and little of it requiring deep thinking.

Even though many of my classmates were extremely dilligent, often spending upwards of 4-5 hours a night on homework, it was usually done to achieve some other purpose than self-edification. Many of the most successful overachievers claim to enjoy every subject. A friend of mine who will attend Harvard listed of a dozen or so subjects that she "loves." Yet from a cynical perspective, their passions are forced, conjured to increase their scholarly motivations. They claim to want to know, yet really, they're simply padding their futures.

Posted by: michelle on July 14, 2003 12:45 PM

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