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August 22, 2007

Generational differences

John Stoehr

I'm very glad that Bridgette and Jennifer have continued talking about some of the differences between generations. It's not a conversation that you hear enough about, especially in media dominated by the sensibilities, interests, fears and anxieties of the Baby Boomer Generation, those born between 1946 and 1964.

There has been an off-blog conversation going on that's concerned about sparking a "generational flame war," as one of us called it. But we think there is merit in discussing the differences between boomers and those of us in Gen X and Gen Y (all four of us in Flyover are in Gen X, though I might be on the cusp; I'm 33).

The first thing I'd like to point out is this: As the boomers get grayer, there's a gradual but ever-hastening uptick in what I'll call the "rhetoric of declension." That is to say, the ubiquitous talk that aims to persuade and, oddly, to reassure the participants of the conversation that the world, indeed, is going straight to hell.

My parents started me on that tone, as evangelical Christians who believed the emergence of a beastly Antichrist would be any day now and that the Son of God would then return to take back with him to heaven the twice-born and Lord-we-hope-so everlasting souls of the Saved.

Then there's everybody else saying: Moral values are in decline, education is in decline, the government is in decline, the arts are definitely in decline. I'd hear this from parents and family and teachers and professors and parents of my friends.

It's like some grand paradigmatic narrative that all the adults in my adolescent life bought into. And the benchmarks of this teleological tale -- the story and its characters are, after all, slouching toward one inexorable outcome -- came when JFK and Bobby and George Wallace and the Gipper got shot.

This rhetoric of declension is everywhere, and it's getting more intense as boomers grow old, retire to the Sun Belt (which is here on the Georgia coast, by the way) and begin to wax nostalgic for the good old days when things weren't so hectic and people were just plain nice.

If it's growing more intense in everyday life, the rhetoric is virtually screaming when it comes to the arts, where it is especially pernicious. George Cotkin, in an insightful piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, provides an excellent example of how deep it goes by characterizing the state of cultural criticism from the view point of those who thinks it's going down the tubes.

The state of cultural criticism today, in the view of many, is debilitated, perhaps even moribund. For [Sven] Birkerts, Alvin Kiernan, Russell Jacoby, and others, there once existed a lively, deep, public, and engaged cultural criticism. Great critics -- Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg, Alfred Kazin, and Dwight Macdonald -- roamed the roadways of criticism, stopping to dispense sage or impassioned judgments and to uphold standards. What happened?

According to this line of thought, our present generation of cultural critics, arriving after the assault of postmodernism and the increasingly widespread commercialization of culture, has been cast adrift, without any firm basis for judgments. Publications and institutions to support serious criticism, in this view, either no longer exist or are few in number.

Critics today, it is also claimed, are too cozy behind the ivied walls of academe, content to employ a prose style that is decipherable only to a handful of the cognoscenti. The deadly dive of university critics into the shallow depths of popular culture, moreover, reveals the unwillingness of these critics to uphold standards. Even if the reasons offered are contradictory, these Jeremiahs huddle around their sad conclusion that serious cultural criticism has fallen into a morass of petty bickering and bloated reputations.

Cotkin goes on to say that this is a revisionist perspective of cultural history and that there was no Shangri-La of Literary Criticism, that there was in-fighting, vanity and narcissism even among the ranks of High Modernists perched atop the Ivory Tower.

Cotkin was inspired by an essay by Sven Birkerts, a well-known literary critic who in 2004 (when Cotkin wrote his piece) saw occasion to once again mourn the decline of intellectual discourse after the Partisan Review closed up shop.

But even the venerable Partisan Review wasn't immune to displays of self-aggrandizement, folly and cravenness, as Cotkin points out. Besides, there are many outlets for intellectual inquiry today. Cotkin's list includes Reason magazine, the New York Review of Books, the Claremont Review and the Boston Review.

Remember, Cotkin's piece was written three years ago. Much has happened since then. I would add to that list NextBook, Prospect, SignandSight and the many thoughtful and skillfully managed blogs we read -- PBS's MediaShift, Culture Lust, Theatre Ideas, Bookforum's Shelf Space et al. and, of course, Artsjournal's blogs.

Back to my original point: generational differences. Where do you think this rhetoric of declension leaves those of us in Gen X and Gen Y when we have to deal with this gargantuan belief that everything's going to tarnation?

What's left for us when persuaded to believe that the reason the theater, orchestra and dance company are struggling is because people don't support like they used to.

What's left to believe in if all of this is true?

I hope it's clear that I'm being somewhat hyperbolic and somewhat facetious when I say all this. But I stress -- somewhat. With the media being run by boomers and arts groups being consumed with the theory of "get-'em-while-they're-young," I get a sense that Jennifer was onto something when she said it looks like Gen X/Y is being written off.

I also get a sense that boomers don't understand how Gen X/Y perceives the world. Moreoever, many boomers, as they get older and more entrenched in their ways, seem practically drunk on the sweet nector of nostalgia for having been the generation that "changed the world."

Elton John provides a nice example of the latter when he expressed his wish for the internet to be shut down because it keeps "people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff."

"Instead they sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn't bode well for long-term artistic vision.

"It's just a means to an end.

"We're talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that's not going to happen with people blogging on the internet.

"I mean, get out there -- communicate.

"Hopefully the next movement in music will tear down the internet.

"Let's get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.

"I do think it would be an incredible experiment to shut down the whole internet for five years and see what sort of art is produced over that span.

"There's too much technology available."

Note that to be considered a social force one must "march and protest." I don't know about anyone else, but I'm really tired of this. It's as if Elton and his ilk didn't know that the social upheavals of the 1960s were fought on the op-ed pages as much as on the streets. And they used words in newspapers, just like blogs do.

The reason Boomers don't understand the way Gen X/Y thinks has to do with, oddly enough, the Grammys. This year, we put a wire story about the results right on the front page the day after the Grammys awards. The reason we did that has a lot of do with the cynicism at the heart of the rhetoric of declension: Pop music is what those kids like. Put it on the front page and maybe they'll read the paper. Maybe if we keep putting all this celebrity crap out there, these whipper-snappers and their confusing ways might step up like they're supposed to and be the new generation of newspaper readers.

Well, they don't read the newspaper. What's the point? They already knew who won and who lost the Grammys hours before the press run that night. There are those who might argue that popular music is popular for a reason: lots of people buy the CDs of these artists. But that doesn't take into account the fact that Gen X/Y are not buying CDs. They're downloading. The people buying CDs are boomers, mostly.

And they're already subscribing to the paper.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 22, 2007 1:14 AM


The unbelievably crappy newspaper website -- and I grant you, the Savannah Morning News' site is a little startling in its obtuseness -- is more a factor of print journalism confusion over the web than it is boomer v. gen-X thinking. You're making the admittedly creditable equation of web savvy with gen-X, web cluelessness with boomers.

But given the generally junky-ugly nature of most newspaper websites, their unbelievably balky layouts and navigation systems and -- perhaps most annoying to me -- their occasional death-grip refusal to let you return to your previous site, all of these have led me to believe that most newspapers a) haven't figured out how to translate their ad-heavy, news-bombardment formats to the web and/or b) they are either too cheap or simply can't afford good web designers.

For years at the Dallas Morning News, I suffered much the same problem you have -- compounded by the fact that the Morning News had an entire page devoted to the 'arts columnists.' But because much of my books coverage was done as features or reviews (even though my title was book columnist), people who took the obvious path and gravitated to that 'columnists' page' and clicked on my portrait would find next to nothing of what I wrote. It took years to get that simple problem corrected. It's still the case that the columnists' contributions to any blog are not found linked from their portraits.

The age and/or generational thinking of management seems mostly incidental to me in all this. There just aren't that many good newspaper websites. Even the supposedly hipper, younger alt-weekly websites can be horrorshows.

Posted by: book/daddy at August 22, 2007 8:14 AM

First off, can we speak simple English and use "decline" instead of "declension?" Our rhetoric, our ability to speak simply and clearly, is the foundation of our trustworthiness and effectiveness as writers. "Decline" was good enough for Gibbon writing about the Roman Empire; it should be good enough for us in writing about the American one. Maybe criticism's standing is in trouble because of words like "declension." Which, if memory serves, is a term from grammar. Yecch.

Second: America inarguably has declined economically, relatively speaking since the 1950s and 1960s, when it bestrode the postwar world like a colossus (and psychological studies show that relative well-being, rather than absolute standard of living, is what counts for human happiness). There has been lots of techonological progress, resulting in many wondrous improvements to health and well-being, but in terms of human dignity and freedom there has definitely been a backsliding now that it takes two incomes to buy the middle class lifestyle rather than one.

Industrial jobs that allowed high school grads to support families have vanished; service jobs sans benefits proliferate. Unions, and with them worker power, went kablooey. I'm not saying the arts can't prosper under today's increasing Medici model (it depends how much our Medici really care about and understand art and the need to let artists paint their benefactors into hell if that's what the artists want to do).

I think that excellent artists, of whatever generation, find ways to create and reach enough of a sliver of the overall audience to forge the beginnings of a legacy that can endure.

I don't buy into Boomer-idealism nostalgia -- most of the protest thing was about saving middle-class skins from the draft during a hideous war, and the key players in the Civil Rights struggle and the creation of rock 'n' roll were born before 1946.

The challenge today is finding a more just and intelligent way to reward work in our society, and to find meaningful work that doesn't require an advanced technical degree.

Health care and cleaning up the environment seem to be two obvious areas to explore. Instead of moping about whether American life is on the downswing, maybe all generations should be thinking about what we can do to make the most of what we've got, which is more than sufficient if used wisely.

One hopeful development is Gen Y's apparent progress in shucking itself of the great American curse, bigotry. Lets hope some Boomer-and-older-led horror re: immigration doesn't snuff that potentially divine flicker.

Lastly: anyone who takes the arts seriously and thinks they reflect the best of humanity's ability to approximate the truth of our condition believes in entropy and decline, because that, over and over, is one of the great themes of art: the impermanence of everything, the human propensity for vanity, shallowness, folly and greed, generation after generation, punctuated by triumphs that lose their luster before the trumpets' blare has even faded.

At best, per Thornton Wilder writing during the depths of World War II, we get by by "The Skin of Our Teeth." Or, per Beckett after World War II's horrors were fully known and nuclear dawn had struck -- "so what?"

Decline is what we live with every day; good art helps make that bearable; so can a religious outlook (preferably infused with humaneness and divested of intolerance). In philosophy, there's a lot to be said for Existentialism, a contribution of a vastly declension-beset French society; it beats the hell out of that French-made fad, Deconstructionism, which seems to have unduly influenced the Gen X intellectual sensibility.

Screed over, with apologies.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at August 22, 2007 11:26 AM


No. 1: Please see the following from dictionary.com:


-noun 1. Grammar.
a. the inflection of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives for categories such as case and number.
b. the whole set of inflected forms of such a word, or the recital thereof in a fixed order.
c. a class of such words having similar sets of inflected forms: the Latin second declension.

2. an act or instance of declining.
3. a bending, sloping, or moving downward: land with a gentle declension toward the sea.
4. deterioration; decline.
5. deviation, as from a standard.

No. 2: I like the variety and color and texture of words. "Declension" has some of that. For me, anyway. It has senses (or is it flavas?) that exceed those of decline -- deterioration, deviation, desperation, bending, succombing, sloping, emptying, etc.

No. 3: I made myself clear as crystal when I said the rhetoric of declension was rhetoric that aims to persuade us the world is going to hell.

No. 4: I liked to contrast between "declension" and "going to hell." I tried to set up that pairing to resonate. There's a certain friction between the two, one high, one low. Perhaps this is the postmodernist in me, as you say of my generation. I don't know.

No. 5: When I like a word, I use it.

Posted by: John Stoehr at August 22, 2007 12:56 PM

Well, John, you do have Laurence Sterne on your side, according to dictionary.com, and who am I to argue with him? The first 50 or so Google hits show one or two other obscure texts circa 1800 using "declension" for decline. Otherwise, it looks as if the vast majority of usages have to do with the grammar of languages other than English. And for anyone who took Latin, "declension" tends to bring on a nervous sweat; going to hell, for some people, means landing in a place where they make you memorize declensions all day. Also, my radar goes off when I encounter a term William F. Buckley might use, but that George Orwell or Jimmy Breslin would never touch. But if you must, you must. And you will, you will. Get "declension" by your editor in lieu of "decline" (and without generating any reader complaints) and I'll stand you a beer.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 23, 2007 1:14 AM

Save the beer for the following writers and their editors, all of whom were found easily using Google:

Adam Gopnik writing about Kingsley Amis:
Amis's career as a novelist was a long declension from comic candor into mere misanthropy, and toward crude misogyny, before ending in a kind of all-over nihilism that becomes interesting again.

Christopher Benfey writing about William Faulkner:

He was born William Cuthbert Falkner, on September 25, 1897. (He later added the "u," just as Hathorne added a "w" and Melvill a final "e," to make the name seem more aristocratic.) A steady declension in fortune and status from generation to generation had left him with little "soil" to call his own.

Frank Thomas, in his "Conquest of Cool," cites Rick Perlstein's "declension hypothesis" about the 1950s devolving into the 1960s:

Mainstream culture was tepid, mechanical, and uniform; the revolt of the young against it was a joyous and even a glorious cultural flowering, though it quickly became mainstream itself. Rick Perlstein has summarized this standard version of what went on in the sixties as the "declension hypothesis," a tale in which, "as the Fifties grayly droned on, springs of contrarian sentiment began bubbling into the best minds of a generation raised in unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine." The story ends with the noble idealism of the New Left in ruins and the counterculture sold out to Hollywood and the television networks.

Clive James writing about Aldous Huxley:

Those who think that Huxley's fine brain turned to mush in California are apt to ascribe his declension to the mind-bending stuff he took in: the Wisdom of the East, hallucinogenic drugs, ESP. They tend to ignore the significance of what he left out.

Albert Mobilio writing about Lydia Davis' new book of short stories, "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant":

This declension of a fantasy from passion to the pedestrian is rendered crisply, as if by a particularly astute analysand [there's a word for you; means a person getting psychoanalysis], and the concluding philosophical summation, one raising but not engaging the boundary between intention and act, functions as the punch line to a well-told joke.

Posted by: John Stoehr at August 23, 2007 9:29 AM

It's only recently that I've started to see "Baby Boom" so strictly defined as those born between 1946 and 1964.

Once upon a time a time, all those children who managed to get conceived by WWII soldiers and their squeezes were considered the start of the baby boom -- certainly they (people like my mother) grew up thinking of themselves that way. Surely the person who must be credited as giving a defining name and voice to the group known as Generation X -- Douglas Coupland -- ranks, one could posit by definition, as a Gen Xer?

And yet, according to his own online biography: "Douglas Coupland is Canadian, born on a Canadian Air Force base near Baden-Baden, Germany, on December 30, 1961."


Cutting Mr. Coupland himself out of a claim to being a part of the generation he helped define makes the point of the "Gen X" concept rather succiently: those who drop off the demographic radar having been born between the self-entitled glut of the Pepsi Generation (roughly 1940-1955) and the aptly-dubbed "Y" generation whose role models include Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton.

People lucky enough to have spent their youths in an era when youth, most emphatically, didn't buy you much (not that we're bitter about it), and yet have spent the rest of our lives enduring the cult of eternal youth enjoyed (relentlessly) by those generations that bookend us.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 23, 2007 9:49 AM

In spite of everything, I really think younger people today have it better than I did 20 years in terms of outlets for creativity.

In my not-so-copious free time, I'm taking multimedia and graphic design classes, and I'm struck by how curious my fellow classmates (who are 18, 19, 20 years old) are about technology, art and music. These kids aren't passively consuming stuff; they're making stuff on their own. They're willing to experiment and critique.

What would they be doing without computers and the Internet? Undoubtedly, they would be pouring their creativity into other things, but without the payback of public exposure, however limited, on their own websites. And without computers, some of them may not discover their inner talents at all. Technology is opening new vistas for people, and I can't help but think this a good thing.

Posted by: gary panetta at August 23, 2007 11:01 AM

I'm so sick to death of this Boomer bashing, and depending on these broad categorizations of generations. Just stop it, please. Case in point: I'm technically a Boomer -- last year 1964. Believe me I have far less in common with some old coot in their late fifties than I do someone a year younger than me. Right? Right? Just nod, OK? Thank you.

While this generational hyperbole used to be somewhat useful in discussing shared cultural experiences, there is no more Grand Audience, grand narrative, or any of it. Chances are older people are grumpy because the older you get the more you hate change. Oops. Broad generalization, scratch that. PLEASE, let it go already. Does anyone still think that Boomers are running the show? They may have the money and the status, but the zeitgeist is the province of youth.

P.S. I'm not technologically clueless. Someone had to design those early web pages, after all.

Posted by: Margaret at August 23, 2007 1:35 PM

John (hi), there's so much in this that I don't want to tackle it all--however, anyone who argues that people were better off in the 1950s and 1960s just wasn't there. I was.

Trust me. The standards (for material goods) that people have today are so much higher than they were then. The idea of a couple *buying* a house before or when they married, for example--just wasn't there. It is today. The idea that houses have to be huge (albeit in an old cotton/potato/corn patch in a low spot) wasn't there. It is now.

It's so much easier to feel like an economic failure today than it was then--but it's only, I think, because the standards are higher (I am not talking about the average clerk who has to work two jobs to make $30,000 or $40,000 a year--but the "average" income earner who is up to his/her neck in hock so that those giant houses mushrooming in the flyover fields can be purchased. If I promise not to generalize about your generation, try not to generalize about mine (whatever that might be). Cheers. L.

Posted by: LauraK at August 23, 2007 7:40 PM