Why did this catastrophe occur? We could probably trace it back for generations, but it would take much too long and would be dreadfully boring, in all likelihood. Let us instead pick up during the 1950s, the so-called “golden age” of American history. The country had rebuilt from World War II and was entering a period of prosperity. Dwight Eisenhower’s promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was a reality for most. With this new prosperity came new visions of respectability.
The Cleaver family was the model for ’50s families. The expectation was that one should never participate in deviant activities, and if one did, one should keep it to oneself and certainly make sure one’s children were not doing anything wrong. Parents of the time were very strict and authoritarian.
The predictable result: the children rebelled. The hippies and flower children were the children of the authoritarians. They used drugs and had casual sex as a result of the taboos that had existed when they were children. They were disrespectful and mistrusting of those older than they. Most children rebel against their parents; this is not unusual. What was different was the way they formed together in a sort of society of their own.
They did not like the society of their parents, so they created their own, one of permissiveness and individual freedom. It has often been said that the hippie movement failed because they accomplished little in the political arena and because most former flower children have given up the ir counter-cultural ways. But the hippie counterculture left us with one lasting mark: the relaxation of standards and the disregarding of old values.
This is unprecedented. In previous times, teenage rebels settled down and matured once the challenges of adulthood faced them. For many in the baby-boom generation, this maturity never developed because most of them never had to face many challenges. Most of them were amazingly privileged compared to their parents and grandparents.
Around this time, the equal rights movement began in earnest. Now let me say, lest I be misconstrued, that there is nothing inherently wrong with the movement. There is no reason why people should not be treated equally without regard to race, color or gender. The problem was that many married women entered the workforce, while their husbands continued to work as they had previously. Many families with both parents working did not and do not need the money that two incomes provided. This was a scenario where practicality took a back seat to politics.
These factors combined to create a generation of permissive parents in a laissez-faire society. These parents either could not or would not provide the guidance and protection that young children need. They dumped their children in day care or sat them down in front of the television. Instead of learning values and morals from loving supportive parents, they picked up the questionable lessons of sitcoms and cartoons.
As a result, they have not been given an appropriate moral grounding by which to make proper choices in life. The result is the lost children of Generation X: they are confused about life decisions, they openly reject authority, and they whine like spoiled brats. Generation X is roundly criticized for these traits, but it is really because of the lack of guidance in their childhood that they seem unable to deal with the pressures of being adults.
The current situation is the result of two generational conflicts. The more prominent and older of the two is the clash between the boomers (the generation of teenagers-at-heart) and their parents (the Cleaver family wannabes). These two squabble as if the boomers were still teenagers. The presidential race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole is a perfect example of such generational warfare.
Politically, the two are very close; the views they espouse sound very similar and they both tend toward the center of the political spectrum. The rhetoric that emerges from the candidates often concerns character. Republicans say that Clinton is irresponsible, indecisive, and generally unfit for leadership. Democrats claim that Dole is too old, out of touch with modern problems, and lacks a vision for America’s future.
These accusations sound remarkably similar to the old cries of “shiftless pot-smoking dreamers” and “never trust anyone over thirty.” The fact that boomers have still not been able to mature and move on with their lives thirty years later is astounding.
The other conflict concerns the boomers and their children, Generation X. The boomers, already having enough difficulties with adulthood, are now forced to contend with their adult children who refuse to leave home. The amazing thing is that the boomers are paragons of responsibility and respectability compared to their children. Generation X is famous for apathy and whining. At least the boomers came up with a philosophy of sorts. Generation X hasn’t even been able to manage that. Reared during the do-your-own-thing ’70s and the get-it-while-you-can ’80s, Generation X has been left without any sort of moral guidance or direction.
The prevailing mood seems to amount to social Darwinism: whoever shouts the loudest or makes the most outrageous statement wins. It is no accident that shock jocks and “gangsta” rap have become increasingly popular in modern times. As Steve Allen put it, our society is “increasingly on the take and on the make.” If the current pattern holds, there will be no next generation. It will destroy itself to such an extent that most of its members will be either physically, intellectually, or culturally dead.