Today’s Generation Gap Is Not The Fault Of The Young


By Wayne Allensworth

You baby boomers out there will remember the “generation gap” of the 1960’s-70’s, that invisible psychological barrier between many, but far from all, parents and grandparents and what was called “the younger generation.” We had what was known at the time as “a failure to communicate.” Whether it was race, religion, Vietnam, the role of the state, religion, or, most of all, sex, the most privileged and well-off members of the boomer cohort (the “gap” was not as pronounced among the working class) rejected the mores of their parents. Elite college campuses gave us a preview of “wokeness,” and we even saw ersatz Bolsheviks, such as the so-called Weathermen, carry out terrorist attacks against “the Man.”

Day-to-day, it was the cultural assumptions and practices that were still largely extant in my boyhood world that came under vigorous attack: watching your language in mixed company, simple patriotism, respecting your elders, taking your own side in a fight, or saying a prayer to start the school day. Most people paid proper respect to the nation’s then-dominant Chrisitan religion, even if they honored its strictures only in the breach. Some things were done, others were not. Other subjects were better left alone.

We simply assumed that the aim of growing up was to marry, have a family, and perpetuate that web of human connections that made life tolerable, even fulfilling. As I look back, it was less of a restraint or burden on us than a sun that warmed us no matter how bitter and cold the world seemed at times. That cultural bricolage was still largely unchallenged and deeply ingrained in us in our corner of the world, even as the revolution began openly and in earnest all around.

Not that the hippies were all wrong. Some things needed to be questioned, like the American government acting as the world’s policeman, or a barren life of corporatized consumerism. What did “success” really mean? What was “happiness,” and how does one achieve it? Some of us did harbor an ugly animus toward blacks (and vice versa, by the way). As I grew older, I came to understand that everyone had their reasons, reasons which were not easy to ignore or erase. Sorting out the rights and wrongs in life was far more complicated than one might think. Paradoxically, doing right was less difficult than knowing what was right. I learned that the best place — really the only place —  I had an opportunity to do some good in the world was where I lived, interacting with the people around me, my family, friends, and neighbors.

Yet the fundamental truth about the New Left’s spoiled campus rioters was that they were arrogant, sanctimonious kids with just enough education to believe they were a lot smarter and more worldly than they actually were. A mind might be a terrible thing to waste, but a little “higher” education might be more dangerous than none. These days, the “education” enlightened Americans harped on as a panacea often amounts to little more than indoctrination. Over time, I learned that formal education needs to have some solid experience underneath it lest we fall into an unbounded world of abstractions that ignore some important and elemental truths about the human condition. That world of abstraction is what Iain McGilchrist has warned is the very one sided, stilted version of reality of the brain’s Left Hemisphere, a view that is dominant today. That picture of reality is strongly bolstered by LH-skewed economic, political, bureaucratic, and educational structures — structures that promote those whose minds are attuned to denial of not readily definable values and judgements that are absolutely necessary to human sanity. The LH, geared to materialism, reductionism, and utilitarianism, cannot easily classify those judgments and values, so it rejects them. Call them the old virtues. Their “home” is the Right Hemisphere and its holistic, experiential grasp of the complexities of our lives.

Here’s a story that partially illustrates the psychological sea changes we have undergone in my lifetime. My father was perhaps the least abstract-minded person I ever met. He was a carpenter by trade, a carrier of the folk wisdom that the cult of “education” was teaching us to disdain. One day, Daddy’s pickup, his work vehicle, had a flat tire. So, what did this child of the Depression and WWII era do? He took off the flat, broke down the tire himself, patched it himself, aired up the tire himself, tested the patch for leaks in an aluminum tub, and put the tire back on. My younger brother and I watched this in astonishment.

To us, all that work didn’t make much sense. My brother noted that Daddy could have taken that tire to a filling station and had it fixed for a couple of bucks. My father was having none of that. As far as he was concerned, that was a couple of bucks that would remain in his pocket. His values taught that you should never have anything done by someone else that you could do for yourself. Anyway, doing the job himself gave him a sense of purposeful accomplishment. And that makes a certain sense, too. In utilitarian terms, it would have been more efficient to take the tire to a filling station. In Wild Bill’s world it was more, dare I say, honorable, as well as satisfying, to save a couple of bucks (still real money in Daddy’s mental world), and feel like you’ve done something. The time and effort spent was a reaffirmation of the old values.

My parents had married young and went about the business of living that was as old as humanity. The business of carrying on. Of building a life, a family, making friends, taking care of the old folks, and looking forward to their children carrying on in the vital cycle of life, love, death, and more life. A cycle of weddings, births, holidays, workdays, family gatherings, and the inevitable funerals. Of prayers and lamentations, the joys and sorrows that are the things that make a life, a family, a nation, and humanity itself. Any individual personality cannot flourish in an atomistic, fragmented free for all, one that lacks readily identifiable boundaries and rights of passage that embody our individual consciousness in flesh and blood interactions, lending us a sense of meaning and thus, of hope. It is no accident that the ancient Greek notion of the underworld was one of free floating, disembodied spirits, lacking direction and hope. A purposeful existence requires something of each of us. We have to lose our lives, to make sacrifices and act selflessly to be, to have a meaningful life. That can’t happen outside the web of social support and obligations that is human community, and that is exactly what a free floating “liquid modernity” of fractured human pixels lacks. It makes us psychologically unstable. It foments the madness we see around us.

In their fundamental essence, people today are no different than they have ever been. The people of my father’s generation were not inherently better than the rudderless young people I see all around me. It’s not those young peoples’ fault that they lack any ingrained sense of the old values we took for granted. Some of the wildest dreams of past radicals are now becoming possible thanks to technology. Our young people have been raised not so much by their parents as by the vast, technologically enhanced postmodern Zeitgeist. An enticing, dense web that captures them. Be all you can be. Break down barriers. Dissolve the traditional roles and restraints of family, country, religion, and even serious friendship, because those things require something of you, and requirements are restraints on our “choices.” It’s a world that does not acknowledge ultimate truth, sees “freedom” as the lack of any restraints, those boundaries I mentioned above that previously channeled the trajectories of human lives, that gave us a star to navigate the shoals and currents of our existence. It is fundamentally materialist. It’s nihilistic in that it lacks any notions of constant truths or connectedness with others that requires something of us. It focuses only on hedonic notions of “happiness,” a treadmill of pleasure seeking and “self-realization” that annihilates all that previously gave us a chance to be fully realized personalities. The necessary boundaries that made us human are being dissolved.

Today’s version of the generation gap seems to be a gaping chasm. Our young people, and not only them, have a mental framework that classifies all decisions as “choices.” We get to choose everything. There are few, if any, absolutely required obligations. But even that term, “obligation,” might mischaracterize what I mean. I grew up not only with a sense of obligation and duty, but also of simply fulfilling the part I was meant to play in the flow of existence, the steady, developing drama of life. I can’t think of anything that is more indicative of the pernicious and destructive idea of our lives as merely a series of “choices” than the anti-natalism that seems built into our artificially produced “culture.” Children, after all, are a huge responsibility and the current Zeitgeist casts responsibilities as restraints on self-realization. And that’s a bad thing. Having and raising children is quite a brake on self-realization — if you view self-realization only in the context of a nihilistic culture. Yes, taking on the responsibility of raising children is a burden. But it’s a cross to bear whose yoke can be paradoxically easy and therefore fulfilling. Male and female he made them, and the fulfillment of the man as husband and father, protector, and the woman as wife and mother, nurturing spirit, is self-realizing in the most profound sense.

Think of everything you could give someone. Life outweighs all of it. It’s a chance to be. There are no guarantees, but with no such chance, there is nothing and nothingness. I often think of God fulfilling his nature and developing his personality through creation. It was his nature to give that gift — that chance — and when we give it, we take part in the grand miracle of life and being. There is nothing else that can even come close to that.

I don’t know what else to do in our grotesque circus world than to try and be a good example. To try and live out the flow of life as best I can in accordance with truth. Maybe somebody will see and learn. If we are fortunate, maybe those somebodies will be our young people. The gravitational pull of virtue is within us, just as much as is its opposite. Given a chance, the fractured formation of a human and humane life can regenerate as much as the starfish generates new arms that have been lopped off. The first step is to see what is missing.  

Without that, we are heading for superficial “self-realization,” the dead emptiness of the whited sepulcher. The freedom of the hopeless tomb. Open your eyes. Those with ears, let them hear.   

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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