[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”—Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962
“And the lonely voice of youth cries ‘What is truth?’”
One of the more astonishing things about the opening line of the Port Huron Statement is the fact that the authors—who obviously knew what they meant when they wrote “this generation”—could assume that everybody else would know too. Maybe it was that literally everyone they expected actually to read the Statement would also be part of their generation: no need to think of communicating their thoughts to the staid fathers and cheerful mothers who populated the family-friendly TV of the 1960s. It sometimes seems that Baby Boomers in fact invented the whole idea of the “generation”—along with youth culture, rebellion, and generational conflict. They didn’t (viz. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, not to mention flappers in the ’20s). But their demographic numbers gave them a sense of distinct collective identity that they added to their youthful idealism, creativity, and rebelliousness.
Maybe from the beginning it was always just a strategy for niche marketing. The invention of the “generation” outlasted the Baby Boomers’ own youth; when it emerged in the late 1980s that there was a new youth generation following on the Boomers’ heels—dubbed Generation X—this fact spawned a whole series of books on the topic of generational identity. After Generation X came Generation Y, which was renamed the Millennials; all three are sometimes lumped into a “Hip Hop Generation.”
In the real world, though, these lines are not so distinct. People have always learned from, as well as rebelled against, the past. Despite the myths of generational conflict that we have inherited, in the 1960s many young people did look for guidance to older people, for their practical experience and theoretical knowledge. Political movements included older folks—lawyers, clergy, factory workers, housewives, organizers, professors, retired people. And some simply didn’t fit easily within their generational niches. Ginsberg (born 1926) and Jean Genet (born 1910), hardly kids in 1968, were there in Chicago with the counterculture. Johnny Cash was 38 in 1970, when he exhorted older people to listen to the young. William Walker was 40 when he spearheaded the Wall of Respect, working with a team of artists in their 20s and early 30s. Several of our contributors write of being, themselves, between generations; others have made efforts to seek out older or younger comrades to defamiliarize their own point of view. And the young of the 1960s now find that they are themselves becoming the older generation, perhaps now with power that sits uncomfortably with their political sensibilities, perhaps not—but certainly with things to teach.