Reflections on Generation

Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking.
(Walter Benjamin)1

In the late 1970s, I moved to Chicago to help launch, and work for, a political newsweekly called In These Times, intending to try a new career as a journalist. This path was short-lived, but the experience marked an important transition in my life, from being graduate student and organizer for the United Farm Workers Union boycott and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, to my ongoing work as an educator, writer, and academic dean.

One morning during those early years in Chicago, while waiting on the Armitage Street "L" platform in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, I noticed that others around me, some of whom were younger than I was (although I was still quite young at the time), looked conspicuously neat and conservatively dressed. I noted that their clothing and everything else about them seemed conspicuously new—recently purchased purses, briefcases, shoes, and even new haircuts. These people were so well groomed that they looked older than their years.  Who are they? I wondered. What do they do? And why does everything about them seem so clean?

Later, I began to hear that a new generation of professionals in their mid 20s, from various business sectors, were buying expensive condos in Chicago. This was a remarkable phenomenon to me; young people with money. In my generation, you were either born rich or, like most everyone I knew, worked and acquired money over decades (or didn’t). Only later, when I heard the term "yuppie" used to describe the financially prosperous young generation that came after mine, did I realize that they were the ones whose presence had  jarred me on the train platform that morning.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, there were "hippies". Then, in the late 1960s, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman called themselves and their more theatrical, countercultural colleagues “yippies” (based on their Youth International Party). The terms “yuppies” (young urban professionals) and “buppies” (black urban professionals) came later, in the early 1980s. These stereotypes located certain attitudinal, economic, and sociological markers characterizing and caricaturing some of the many generational differences that came during and after the 1960s.

I rarely think about the concept of generation. Perhaps this is because I work in an art school and am continuously surrounded by young people engaged in the creative process. In such a community, it often feels that we are all in a state of becoming, always uncertain where our creative endeavors might lead us, with faculty engaging in similar work practices to those of the students. This environment not only helps to keep me from becoming jaded or maudlin about life, it also, for the most part, allows me to ignore age and generational differences.

Still, as difficult as it is to mark one generation from the next in any scientific way, there are real differences, and they arise from history, culture, geography, and expectation. Why did I perceive these conservatively dressed young people on the "L" platform as so unequivocally "Other"?  Why did this incident imprint itself so vividly in my memory? Perhaps because it was the first time I was aware that the world had changed and that "we" (my age group) were no longer the "younger generation". Another group was ascending, and its members appeared confoundedly different from us.

To get to the core of these differences, I return to those events that deeply shaped my consciousness: my childhood just after World War II, race relations in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the protracted Vietnam War, and the social movements that followed.

My early years in the Jewish working-class neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, the locus of the Lubavitch movement in America were focused on the Holocaust. There were many war refugees in my apartment building and several who had been in concentration camps or various displaced persons’ centers. The whole building was traumatized by what had occurred; the fear permeated everything. Those of us of the next generation could not escape this trauma, although it was never discussed. As children, we didn’t really understand much about the Nazis or the war, and few who had experienced it spoke to us directly about the atrocities that had occurred. Still we lived its repercussions daily and, in our childish ways, recited songs, jokes, and obscene rhymes that made fun of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels— the names we associated with the devastation.

Combined with the inexpressible trauma of the Holocaust was the tension in Crown Heights at that time between blacks and Jews—two groups culturally unknown to each other but thrust together in close proximity. The resultant claustrophobia and lack of understanding periodically exploded into violence. What permeated all of this intensity, for me, was a profound sense of injustice: rage for what had happened to the Jews and others, but anger as well for how African-Americans were treated in the United States. These complex and never discussed dynamics became the subjects of my own personal study and created a force that has propelled my life.

By the time the Civil Rights Movement had gained momentum, I was already attending meetings of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) and demonstrating against Woolworth’s department stores, which in the South at that time had “whites-only” food counters. I marched on picket lines and carried signs covered with slogans like “Stop Jim Crow”, but I was so young and ill-informed that when an adult passed and said, “I bet you don’t even know what that sign means!” I had to admit that he was right.  At one of these demonstrations, they took me to jail along with the other protesters and kept me there until my father came to pick me up. He was not particularly supportive of these causes, but he never told me not to protest; he too hated injustice.

By the time I became aware of the Vietnam War, I had read a lot more; and, like many others of my generation, I could easily see through the lies we were being told. My friends and fellow students were horrified that so many of our male colleagues could be drafted into a war that made no sense to any of us. The campuses were on fire, and, whatever levity our lives had had before, by 1965 it was over. After that, we were involved in constant protest. We questioned the decisions our country was making and the way its policies were affecting the future of its youth as well as the population of a small Asian country on the other side of the world that we were told was a great threat to our well-being. We didn’t yet understand how U.S. foreign policy had gotten to this point, but we were learning. By the time 1968 came around, I was in Berkeley, where protests had escalated. We could not allow the U.S. to continue on such a path. Millions took to the streets in massive demonstrations that contributed greatly to ending the conflict.

I needn’t recap here all the social movements that sprang from the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, but what I learned from participating in these protests was the importance of taking action. Hannah Arendt writes:

What makes a man [sic] a political being is his faculty to act. It enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises which would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift—to embark upon something new.2

Given my deep commitment to “embark on something new” by improving the world, what did I see when I noticed these young, preppy looking people pursuing their careers with what appeared to be obliviousness to the rest of the world? I saw another generation, one I did not understand. I am still convinced that young people should take advantage of what can be the most experimental time of their lives–when they can push boundaries, challenge society, and take risks, before they have families, are burdened with mortgages and responsibilities, and before their parents become infirm. It seemed that this new generation had already made their choices and those included a measured life focused on personal, financial gain—an entirely different and, dare I say, selfish agenda.

In a recent interview, I was asked if I still believed in making a “better world”. I was taken aback. I could not imagine a life where that was not a goal, nor a world incapable of movement forward. Having grown up believing in progress–not the progress of technology or material wealth but that of personal and social transformation—it probably is the concept of “hope” that most separates my generation from those that immediately followed. Perhaps I am delusional and, like all who suffer from delusions, unable to function without them. Or it could be that I am “hopelessly American”, as my students in Greece used to say, because of my conviction that the world can be changed for the better and that I or we, must have a hand in that process.

Perhaps this optimism will forever mark me as one of my generation. Yet such categories are repeatedly defied when I meet young people who care about the world in profoundly similar ways—as the protests against the Iraq war and many other social and environmental issues attest. These young people are fearless and will take to the streets when necessary. To me they are proof that ideas, once having entered human consciousness, can never be obliterated. Even if such thoughts, about the importance of action and activism as a measure of one’s humanity, are submerged for decades, they will reemerge when conditions are right, defying time, space, and all categories of generation.

  1. Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Peter Demetz, ed., (New York: Schocken, 1978) 162.
  2. Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Violence, “New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969. Republished in New York Review of Books, July 4, 2013.