Commentary Magazine


The Non-Generation Gap

During the month of May, following upon the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State, it appeared that the United States might be faced with a sudden revolt approaching the magnitude of that in France two years earlier. Not surprisingly, there was a corresponding increase in the volume of talk about the young and about the famous gap which presumably separates them from their elders in the universities, in the government, and in the country as a whole. Yet from the willingness of faculties to cancel examinations and to allow students to gain course credit while engaging in political activity, it should have become apparent to everyone to whom it had not already been apparent that on the American campus, at least, no great gap exists between the generations. But what of the society at large? There too, in our opinion, the idea of a generation gap is misleading, for the basic divisions in American society show up less clearly in any examination of the differences between the young and their elders than they do when one examines the differences within the younger generation itself. Thus, for example, in 1968 there were hundreds of thousands of young people who rejected both Nixon and Humphrey because they were too “conservative”; and there were hundreds of thousands of young people who rejected both Humphrey and Nixon because they were too “liberal.” Another kind of example has been noted in the two top money-making films of 1968, The Graduate and The Green Berets, films which posed sharply antagonistic values and attracted different multitudes of young people.

Karl Mannheim has suggested the term “generation-units” to describe groups which fall within the same temporal generation but which have disparate identities or visions. At the present time young people in America are clearly divisible into three such generation-units—units, moreover, among which serious conflicts of ominous potential for American society are now brewing: those who renounce modern Western society; those who, far from renouncing it, desperately want a piece of its action; and those who as desperately want to keep the—often tenuous—piece of the action they have. Needless to say, these groups are not firm; there is much drift, and the variety of commitment is considerable, with most of the youth population not actively engaged at all. Nevertheless this uninvolved majority tends to gravitate toward one or another of the activist positions which together describe the sharp intra-generational conflict facing American society.

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The first group, the proponents of renunciation, may not be the most significant in many ways, but it is certainly the most spectacular, and it is the mound on which the myth of the generation gap has been built. Many reasons, some obvious and others less so, have been advanced to explain the special qualities of this particular group, which is drawn, of course, from the elite of the college-going population. The renouncers, it is suggested, occupy a marginal position in society, caught as they are between the security and status derived from their families and the obligation to find a status of their own. Like all marginal types, they suffer from peculiar insecurities, but for that reason they also have a special capacity to discern the imperfections of society. They are freer than other members of their own generation, as well as their elders, to act without concern for consequences. They are footloose, in between engagements so to speak, and they have considerable amounts of energy to burn. The easy communication that exists on university campuses makes it possible for like-minded students to find one another. Out of their new awareness as members of an intellectual community, out of their detached and advantaged position, students are better able than most to recognize the inconsistencies around them, and can better afford to be offended by them. Sometimes their horizons are limited to the institutions that are closest at hand, the universities themselves, as was the case throughout much of the 19th century; in periods of broad social ferment, however, like our own, the whole world and its problems become their concern.

For a time there was a tendency, abetted by the mass media, to believe that the renouncers were the dominant, or the only “cutting edge,” generation-unit of the youth of the 1960′s. But over the past few years, another significant group has come to the surface. This less-publicized group is identified by the support it gave George Wallace in the Presidential election of 1968. Both the Gallup and Harris polls reported, in a number of pre-election surveys, that a quarter of the younger (under thirty) voters favored Wallace, as compared with a fifth of the older voters—an age difference that held up in both Southern and non-Southern states. Post-election surveys indicated that in the Northern states there had been a 13 per cent Wallace bite into the vote at the twenty-one- to twenty-five-year-old level, compared with 3 per cent at the fifty-plus level. The same pattern obtained at all educational levels: a higher proportion of younger voters than of older voters were likely to have voted for Wallace, regardless of whether they were grade-school, high-school, or college graduates. But, of course, a disproportionately small number of Wallace voters in general were college graduates. As a matter of fact, a Yankelovich-Fortune poll taken a month before the election indicated that 25 per cent of those in the eighteen to twenty-four bracket who were not in college expressed a preference for Wallace, as against 7 per cent of those attending college. One of the social conditions of the intra-generational gap is already apparent in these data.

It is necessary to recall that the Wallace movement was, in its own way, as much a “political skin” as the New Left—more expressive, that is, than instrumental politics. In this particular instance, what the movement gave voice to was not merely racism but backlash, which can be defined as an attempt on the part of a disaffected segment of the population to recover a status which seems to be slipping away. Indeed, all right-wing extremist movements throughout American history have arisen against the background of economic and social changes which resulted in the displacement of some population groups from former positions of dominance. In each case—whether it be the Know-Nothings of the 1850′s, the revived Klan of the 20′s, or whatever—the backlash movement identified its “enemy,” which in reality was social change, as one or another ethnic group (Irish, Catholics, Jews, blacks) that became invested with the role of “displacer.” But, by and large, it is not racism or ethnic bigotry that creates backlash political movements; rather, it is the backlash against displacement that creates, activates, refreshes, and politicizes bigotry.

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The relations between the Wallace movement and the American workingman is a classic case in point. Working and lower-middle-class whites, as much popular journalism has recently noted, are currently suffering from an acute sense of displacement. Hard surface problems contribute to the discontent—inflation, taxes, crime, public disorder—but, in the words of a special Newsweek report: “. . . the middle-American malaise cuts much deeper—right to those fundamental questions of the sanctity of work and the stability of the family, of whether a rewarding middle-class life is still possible in modern America.” Behind it all is a sense of powerlessness, of diminishing social and political status. This disaffection is felt no less, and in some way more, intensely by working-class youth. Sociologists William Simon, John H. Gagnon, and Donald Cams comment:

Now, as the post-industrial society advances and changes, the possibilities for working-class youth to recognize themselves in the emerging images of man have significantly lessened. They may well be looking to society for some sense of confirmation as to who they are and who they might become, and they may be looking increasingly in vain. Part of the problem has been the failure of the society’s cultural middle men, its intellectuals, even to begin to recognize this population. . . . [These] anti-establishment intellectuals may be hard to distinguish from the establishment itself. . . . For working-class populations, particularly the young, these anti-establishment groups have become the establishment, at least to the degree that they set the tone for the surface imagery of our times. And, for example, much is said of the crisis of the colleges and the ghetto schools, both apparently requiring growing investments of society’s resources. Does anyone for a moment think that the quality of education in the working-class schools in this country—both public and parochial—is any better? That the slaughter of human potential and sensibility is any less severe? Or that a crisis of identity equal in magnitude to that of the children of the affluent middle class or those of the ghetto is not going on among the youth of the working class? . . . For him [the working-class young person] racial integration (and the disruption of community life that he feels, not without justification, must follow) is part of an organized effort within which agents of government, the mass media, and even the church are conspirators. Thus he too becomes anti-establishment, but for him it is a liberal establishment, and before it he feels increasingly powerless. . . .

It was from among this generation-unit that George Wallace drew his disproportionately youthful support. Wallace also received considerable backing from such sub-groups as union members and the police. Samuel Lubell, in a number of pre-election commentaries, noted that older unionists, recalling the economic gains which they had achieved under previous Democratic administrations, tended to be for Humphrey. Younger members, however, took trade unions and prosperity for granted, and were more prone to defect either to Nixon or to Wallace on issues of taxes, integration, crime-in-the-streets, and the like. A private national poll of union members, conducted before the 1968 national conventions, found that the younger workers were strongly inclined toward Wallace. A New York Times reporter discerned the same pattern among the police:

“What we’re seeing, I think,” said a police lieutenant in Lower Manhattan, “are dissident youth on the police force—like around the universities. They’re exploding. They’re fighting back against what they consider an intolerable situation. Just as there’s a New Left on the campuses, there seems to be a New Right among some younger men in the Police Department.”

The lieutenant and several other police officials who were interviewed . . . stated [that the New Right] was largely composed of men in their 20s who feel—perhaps more strongly than older men—the frustrations of being a policeman: hostility from some segments of the community, overt attacks in slum neighborhoods, the belief that political leaders are preventing them from enforcing the law forcefully enough, a persistent conviction that the police are abused in the courts while criminals are “coddled.”

Another journalist, reporting on the emergence of a militantly right-wing organization of New York police, the Law Enforcement Group (LEG), suggests that it symbolizes “a strong swing to the Right among . . . young policemen in particular.” LEG is largely composed of younger policemen (one-third of New York’s force is composed of men under thirty), while the “traditionally conservative Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) . . . [is] dominated by older men. . . .”

The youth factor has worked to produce a far different picture of police-leftist friction from the one commonly held. Rather than a confrontation between generations, between young radical demonstrators on the one side and wide-beamed, middle-aged cops on the other, what emerges is a clash of contemporaries. In their own way, the young police officers on the Right are as unhappy with the current state of affairs in America as are their opposite numbers on the Left.

In addition to the two youthful generation-units we have considered so far—those pursuing a course of total renunciation of traditional society, and those seeking to preserve and intensify traditional social norms, whose promise they feel is being stripped away from them by change—there is still a third major unit, consisting of those who want to change the traditional society just enough so that they can get into it for the first time. This last group still includes the bulk of black youth. All polls indicate that at least three-quarters of “embittered” black youth are appalled not by the system, but by their failure to get into it. They want an industrial American society that is rich and powerful, but also one in which the money and power relationships will have been drastically changed. They are joined in this aspiration by radical ideologues, white and black alike, with their super-rationalistic concepts of how this can be achieved.

There are thus two major gaps, or axes of polarization, evident among American young people today. The first is an axis of value, one of whose poles is renunciation, the other acceptance. Both the backlash youth and the radical youth, including a substantial part of the black youth, occupy the pole of acceptance together. The second axis is an axis of interest: how power and wealth are to be distributed. One pole of that axis is occupied by the backlash youth; the other, by the radicals.

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Any attempt to estimate the relative sizes of the three shifting generation-units must be frankly cavalier. The survey material would put 10 per cent of the youth population, at most, out on the renunciation-pole. For example, the extensive 1969 Yankelovich-CBS survey of 4,000 youths, aged eighteen to twenty-four, established five “types,” among whom are “revolutionaries,” who held to the whole of a five-belief index affirming that the American social system is “too rotten for repair,” that destroying property and assaulting police were justifiable tactics, and so forth; and “dissidents,” who held to one or more of these beliefs but not to all of them. A little less than one per cent showed up as “revolutionaries” and a little less than 10 per cent as “dissidents.” Almost all the “revolutionaries” were college students. About the same proportion of both college and non-college youth scored as “dissidents.” But there are clear indications that the “dissidents” among the non-college youth do not represent the same strain as they do among the students. In answering questions about whether American national interests are worth fighting for, or whether civil disobedience is ever justified, the students responded in an ideologically consistent way; that is, the “dissidents” were consistently more negative on all questions than those scoring as more conservative. However, the responses of those not attending college were less consistent. For example, a much higher percentage of the non-college “dissidents” felt that the United States should fight to defend its national interests, and that civil disobedience is never justified, than did the non-college “reformers” who generally answered the questions more “conservatively.” Many of the most bitter among the radical youth—those who just “want in”—probably scored as “dissidents.” Over a quarter of the non-college “dissidents” were non-white.

In any case, most of the young people polled clearly did not end up in the renunciation camp. The non-college youth scored consistently less liberal than their college counterparts, but both groups contained large majorities who still give credence to the traditional American verities. For example, 72 per cent of the college youth and 82 per cent of those not in college believed that “competition encourages excellence”; 56 per cent of the students and 79 per cent of the non-students agreed that “hard work will always pay off”; three-quarters of the former and 87 per cent of the latter thought that “the right to private property is sacred.” A number of other 1969 surveys, using a variety of research techniques, by Gallup, Roper, the College Poll, Psychology Today, and Harris, each reported comparable results. Thus, a Roper poll of college seniors indicated that over three-quarters thought that American political and business institutions were basically sound. Less than 10 per cent were “very critical.”

The Yankelovich-Fortune poll divided the college population into two parts: those who said they were going to college for practical, personal reasons; and those who were going to college “to change things rather than make out well within the existing system.” The latter were called “forerunners.” They were mostly majoring in the liberal arts and came from relatively well-to-do families. The survey indicated that about a fifth of the “forerunners” felt a “sense of solidarity and identification” with the New Left. On the other hand, the vocationally-oriented “practicals,” who form the large majority of college students, responded to value questions more like the non-college youth than like the “forerunners.” When asked whether more emphasis is needed on “law and order,” 91 per cent of the non-college youth, 78 per cent of the “practicals,” and 39 per cent of the “forerunners” answered “Yes.” The survey also revealed that 11 per cent of the college students and 21 per cent of the non-students held a coherent set of beliefs about the general need to preserve rather than change or reform matters in the society, which placed them well to the Right of the “moderates.”

There is undoubtedly a “generation-gap” within each of the three tendencies—renunciatory, radical, or backlash—but politically, at least, the more significant fact is that the basic direction of the younger generation is in most cases the same as that of their parents; they go with the parental grain rather than against it. This is a standard finding of studies seeking to probe the comparative political stances of parents and their activist children, whether members of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) or Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Kenneth Keniston concludes that the New Leftists are largely “red diaper babies”—that is, the offspring of present and former radicals. Samuel Lubell reports: “Easily the most important single stream was the sons and daughters of one-time Socialists, Communists, and other Leftists.” Richard Flacks finds: “Activists are more ‘radical’ than their parents; but activists’ parents are decidedly more liberal than others of their status. . . . [The] great majority of these students are attempting to fulfill and renew the political traditions of their families. . . . Activism is related to a complex of values, not ostensibly political, shared by both the students and their parents.” Richard Braungart sums up the results of many surveys: “The overwhelming majority of leftist students come from liberal-to-radical families.” Steven Kelman has even argued that generational political continuity explains some of the differences between the 50′s and the 60′s. (“One of the most important reasons for the growth of the New Left in the 60′s is the fact that the children of young adults of the 30′s, a radical era, have now reached student age. The silent generation students of the 50′s were children of the 20′s, a conservative decade.”) And it should be noted that the alienated students who come from conservative backgrounds tend to be non-activist drug-using hippies, not political radicals. The liberated scions of conservative wealth charge their fathers with hypocrisy for consuming large quantities of alcohol, while rejecting drugs; the scions of affluent liberalism charge their seniors with hypocrisy for expressing vehement verbal or literary anti-establishment views, while living like other privileged Americans and not taking any risks to eliminate social evils.

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As for the other end of the political spectrum, the pattern of a youthful shift to the Right was first detected in the South. Most studies of racial attitudes conducted during the 1950′s among Southern whites had indicated that racial prejudice was correlated with age—the younger a group, the more likely it was to have liberal attitudes. This pattern apparently changed during the early 1960′s. Two surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found “a singular inversion among the two youngest age groups in the South.” As Paul Sheatsley of NORC reported:

Unexpectedly, the very youngest Southern adults (aged twenty-one to twenty-four) have lower Pro-Integration Scale scores than the twenty-five-to forty-four-year-old group. . . . We suggested elsewhere that the current group of young white adults in the South have grown up and received their schooling and formed their attitudes during the stormy years which followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools. It is they who have been most immediately exposed to the crises and dislocations brought to the South by the Negro protest movement.

Similarly, the young generation-units we have been discussing—the backlashers, the angry blacks, the renouncers—have each been growing to consciousness in their own bitter period of contention. And these three groups—each of them passionate, institutionalized, and polarized—are developing a common anti-democratic political style which could persist unseasonably. The New Left weekly, the Guardian, in reporting on a meeting of the National Youth Alliance, the overtly racist offshoot of “Youth for Wallace,” noted the similarities between the extreme Left and Right in this fashion:

Contemporary commentators often lump the extremes of Right and Left together. Indeed, despite obvious differences there were striking similarities exhibited at the Taft [Hotel] meeting:

Leaders hit hard at the establishment, the liberals, and their elders for botching up the country. “We are more anti-establishment than anyone,” [Vice President] McMahon said.

The alliance had harsh words for the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. “For fifty years our parents and grandparents have allowed themselves to be tricked into fighting wars for others,” read a policy statement. The alliance attacked the “criminal politico-economic system of maintaining full employment and buying votes by intervention in alien wars.” It charged that “in the past 20 years alone, 60,000 of America’s finest young men have been murdered to forward the ambitions of vote-hungry politicians. We shall fight the involvement of America in further wars overseas with every means at our command.”

The alliance warns rightists of the consolidation of corporate concerns. In its publication, Statecraft, the editors report on a liberal plot to secure mass censorship; and go on to reveal a Presidential committee recommendation that all competing international communications carriers be merged into one private company under government control.

The NYA resembles the New Left also in seeing its primary constituency as young workers and college students. It “vowed” to forge a “revolutionary” alliance of students and young workers to crush the Left, stem the “liberal” tide and save a dying republic. . . . The alliance seeks to carry the banner of “the forgotten America”—the exploited young American workers. “We are going to wage our fight in the factories and the campus. . . .”

Some in the New Left have even compared segments of their movement with the original youth-oriented Italian Fascist party. Thus an article in the Campaigner, a magazine published by the New York and Philadelphia SDS Labor Committees, argued (September 1968):

It is an irony of history that certain New Leftists today would be quite at home with Mussolini’s radical polemics. . . . We must look to historical precedent in order to reveal the dangers inherent in certain New Left rhetoric today. . . . [Mussolini] fought for the idea that the revolution would be decided in the streets. . . . Similarly, fascism celebrated youth as a class. “Giovenezza” was the official Italian hymn to youth; similar examples are found in Nazi propaganda. The image of youth was extended to attack the “older” capitalist nations, the “old,” effete parliamentary bureaucrats.

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From their various vantage points, and at their outer edges, the renunciation youth, the backlash youth, and the radical youth are concocting a common political brew: irrational, moralistic, non-negotiable—and therefore, finally, violent. It is a development of the deepest significance, involving not merely a youthful display of temper. These generation-units, it must be recognized, have strong and legitimate differences to negotiate; they will have to resolve their disagreement with each other, not with their elders. This hardly leaves the older generation without responsibility. But before anything else, the older generation must stop titillating itself with facile notions of the generation gap. The fact is that most of the people who write or talk about the generation gap are referring to only one segment of youth—the renouncers. And, of course, it is the adults who come into closest contact with these particular young people who are doing most of the writing and talking. We do not mean to imply that the renunciation tendency is unimportant; it will clearly have a great deal of influence in reshaping the far future of our culture. But the near future is hard upon us, and this is what the vast majority of young Americans are concerned about and will be fighting for, particularly once the United States is out of Indochina.

Perhaps a preoccupation with the so-called generation gap, with its romantic image of vast reaches of renunciation youth, is one way to avoid facing the most difficult and immediate single conflict in our society—the tug of war between the two groups of young people who do not renounce American society, but who feel increasingly that they are battling each other for its possession. Neither of these groups is capricious or primarily racist. They represent, at the core, legitimate aspirations which are in real conflict and need urgently to be accommodated in a practical political program we have not yet managed to devise.

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