Neil Howe, writing in the Sunday Washington Post, makes the case that my 40-something generation is in no position to criticize the intellectual attainments of today’s youth; in fact, we qualify as the “dumbest generation” currently on offer. (Thanks to Mike O’Connor for mentioning the article.) Howe shows how the generation born in the years around 1963 have, compared to their elders and juniors, “performed the worst on standardized exams, acquired the fewest educational degrees and been the least attracted to professional careers. In a word, they’re the dumbest.”
Growing up in the wake of the Baby Boom, raised by the television, defined from the start as a walking social problem, our generation was (it’s been argued) a victim of timing. The postwar economy contracted, the career ladder was crowded with Boomers, there was a mood of failure, and we were told to feel shocked that we might have less than our parents had had. Little wonder, then, that we dampened our curiosity along with our expectations. Sarah Palin, who shares my birth year of 1964, is typical of us in her contempt for insight and subtlety.
This is not to say that we’re all dummies, or that we have little to offer. Howe notes that while we’re relatively dumb, we’re also resilient and pragmatic, not inclined to agonize over decisions. As a group we take an aggressive interest, sometimes too aggressive perhaps, in the circumstances of our own children’s education, as if making sure they are not short-changed as we were.
One aspect that Howe does not discuss — it’s only newspaper column after all — is the role of technology and mass communication in the culture of an age group. My generation frets about the compelling power of the Internet, but we are oblivious to the harm done to us by television. Video has now become a two-way street: You watch a short YouTube vid and immediately type a comment, or shoot and post your own video in response. For us it was different. Video came at us from outside, and we were sponges, soaking up the sensory data and never making a move. This was the template for our lives. We soaked up experiences that taught us nothing. School was a joke that had stopped being funny. Mostly we didn’t read, didn’t write, didn’t think, didn’t feel, didn’t see the point.
Another aspect: living life in the shadow of apocalypse. A few shreds of the Civil Defense culture of the ’50s survived in our time, such as monthly air raid sirens (but no drills) and “Fallout Shelter” signs on buildings. In the era of U.S.-Soviet détente, I suppose it was impolite to openly discuss the threat of nuclear annihilation. We just knew about it. We also knew that a dozen kinds of pollution were threatening our survival, and the world’s population was growing too rapidly. (We were supposed to want “Zero Population Growth.”) The post-Watergate government managed to be corrupt, ridiculous, and menacing all at the same time. Our future was going to be like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (one of the few books we actually read). When we grew old, we would be like Edward G. Robinson’s character in Soylent Green — pained by memories, dazed by present ugliness. There was nothing to look forward to. Might as well take drugs.
When we hit college and young adulthood, my generation shocked (and either delighted or appalled) our elders by falling for Reagan and the New Right. Most of us who had any political opinion at all were eager to believe that it was morning in America and that our life up until then had been a bad dream. Reagan was our television father. That meant he would always come out on top by the end of the show, and the people who called attention to his mistakes or stood in his way were just plot devices to be overcome. We always knew how the show would end, with Dad cracking jokes and in charge.
We learned a new adjective: “homeless.” The cities of our childhood had not had these squads of shabby men and women walking the sidewalks and begging for change. They appeared out of nowhere, just as we had to strike out on our own and make a living. We noticed their traces in the parks, under bridges, in an abandoned house where we used to play.
We entered the workforce and learned more new words, like “downsizing” and “jobless expansion.” We were told, a little late, that a successful employee has to keep moving, like a shark, and that loyalty to a company will not be rewarded. The homeless took on an ominous prophetic quality, like figures from a post-apocalyptic movie coming true. We lived in fear of violent crime, even as the crime rate fell. These half-legendary crackheads, panhandlers, and crazy Vietnam vets made us feel deeply angry, sometimes. When we had children of our own, we kept them indoors, safe from the sick men on the street.
None of our generation’s problems are unique to us; it’s a question of degree, not of kind. What I’ve offered here is not a self-portrait. It’s an essay — in other words, an attempt — and it may not be worth much. My main point is (as Howe implies) we forty-somethings should forego the time-honored tradition of accusing youth of failing to live up to their elders’ standards. All in all, the kids today are brainier than we are, and by the time they hit college, they’ve done much more reading, writing, and thinking than we had done at that age. They seem much better qualified to run the world. We should be pleased to turn it over to them.
If worse comes to worst, in the year 2022 one of us will need a younger man’s help to uncover “the secret of Soylent Green”: