The real chaos of the ‘new normal’
“Generation gap” is a term that trips neatly off the tongue, often used to describe banal differences between older and younger people in matters of cultural taste, approaches to work, political opinion, and myriad other features of social life. Just yesterday, The Times added sex to that list, telling us that Gen Z, compared to their elders, are “turned off” by it.
In reality, generation gaps are very rare. The UK’s last experience of one was during the Sixties, when the “cultural revolution” that consumed Western Europe and North America led to an explosion of books and articles trying to make sense of the apparent gulf between the generation that won the war and the kids growing up in the peace.
In my years researching generational conflict, I have cautioned against overheated claims that we are living through a period of strife between younger and older people: for instance, the argument that the Baby Boomers have taken more than their “fair share” of society’s wealth and are bleeding young people dry with their triple-locked pensions, or that the Sixties generation are to blame for climate change, with their record of hedonistic consumerism and careless globe-trotting. I was firmly opposed to the Covid-19 lockdowns, and wrote considerably about their deleterious impact on young people. But I could never buy the line that these restrictions were designed to protect the old at the expense of the young. It wasn’t Grandma in charge of health policy, after all, but that mewling, toddler-esque Gen X-er, Matt Hancock.
Yet as we stagger through the unfolding permacrisis of the 2020s, I perceive a true generation gap emerging — possibly as seismic as the Sixties upheaval. This goes far beyond the everyday friction that exists between different generations, as young people struggle to find their place in the world and older people struggle to guide them in a reality that is constantly changing. It is about the gap in which we all find ourselves, between the “normal” we grew up with and the chaos that we find ourselves navigating now. This is not the “new normal” confidently predicted by those who thought lockdowns would change the way we worked forever: in many ways, what is striking is how much it feels like the “old normal”, as if the lockdown experience has been memory-holed. But we know, deep down, that something quite fundamental is changing.
Generation gaps, such as those evident in the period between the First and Second World Wars and during the Sixties, emerge when there is a distinct and rapid shift in the social order. Such occurrences throw established norms, values, conventions and institutions into disarray, without a consensus about what new form of order should replace them. Those in authority find themselves contested, while newer potential forms of authority jostle tetchily for position. Caught in the eye of the storm are young people coming into adulthood, who are trying to make sense of themselves and their place in a society that is palpably at odds with itself.
The tensions involved in integrating young people into the social world during periods of rapid change have long been a staple of “generation question” in the social sciences. An insightful collection published in 1963 brought together contributions from the sociologists Talcott Parsons and S.N. Eisenstadt, psychologists Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim, Kenneth Keniston and others, in a properly interdisciplinary discussion of what Karl Mannheim, back in the Twenties, had termed “the problem of generations”. Mannheim observed how periods of accelerated social change give rise to distinctive forms of generational consciousness, in which people on the cusp of adulthood develop a very different orientation to the world than that of their elders. This temporal dislocation can result in a schism between the generations, as young people, being closer to the problems of their time, “are dramatically aware of a process of de-stabilisation and take sides in it”, while “the older generation cling to the re-orientation that had been the drama of their youth”.
Friction between generations is therefore both the product of wider social and cultural conflict, and helps to cause it. Here, “generation gaps” mark a break in continuous time, forcing an abrupt re-evaluation of how we understand our society and what we can take for granted. And as every parent of teenagers will be sharply aware, the conflicts don’t stop at the front door. Because generations also operate at a family level, these tensions invariably also arise from, and bleed into, conflicts between parents and children. Back in 1940, the sociologist Kingsley Davis identified “the rate of social change” as one of the key variables in the production of “parent-youth conflict”. Within “a fast-changing social order”, he explained, “the time-interval between generations, ordinarily but a mere moment in the life of a social system, becomes historically significant, thereby creating a hiatus between one generation and the next”.
It is this sense of “hiatus” that seems to characterise the historical moment that we are currently experiencing. After decades of stasis, in which the collapse of communism led Fukuyama to contend that history had reached its “end”, we seem to have entered a period of dramatically destabilising social change. From international conflicts escalating abroad to the “culture wars” ripping Western nations apart at home, the old order is clearly unravelling, but what comes next is far from decided. The historian Robert Wohl described the First World War generation as “wanderers between two worlds” — a century on, to some extent, it feels like we are walking in their shoes.
Of course, we are living in very different circumstances. But even if our present culture wars don’t claim the physical casualties of a military conflict, we shouldn’t underestimate their destructive trajectory, or the level of destabilisation revealed by vicious battles over questions such as “what is a woman?” Nor should we deny that young people, as in any conflict, are on the front line — either propelled there by dramatic idealism and a desire for change, or deployed as cannon fodder by the elites running the show.
But there are some important ways we can make this less bloody. First, we should be very clear that young people are socialised into, and come to live by, ideas that are not their own. The spotlight has recently fallen on the aggressive promotion of contested statements about gender ideology, racialised thinking, and climate emergencies by schools and universities, leading to concerns about the blurring of the line between education and indoctrination. It would be naïve to think that kids coming home fluent in the language of LGBTQIA+, or distraught that forest fires herald the imminent end of the world, are divining an enlightened new reality of their own accord. These ideas are being taught, rather than conceived.
Yet as young people grow into adulthood, they do start thinking for themselves. They are not passive recipients of indoctrination, but alive to both the internal contradictions and wider criticisms of the things they have been brought up to believe. The positioning of student activists as the “voice of a generation”, whether for better or for worse, misses the fact that, as Kathleen Stock has argued, many university students “tend to be sensitive, curious, idealistic but not fanatical, and genuinely want to understand the world. But they also want to play — with ideas, with jokes, with each other.” Precisely because they are growing into adulthood during a period of cultural strife, young people from all walks of life are absorbing a range of ideas and making them their own.
A second bulwark against outright generational conflict is the existence of some friction between the generations. For all the Zeitgeist pushes young people to reject the advice and guidance of their elders, they are crying out for it — not least as something to argue against. Children have always pushed boundaries, in order to work themselves out; yet parents and teachers are increasingly warned that boundaries threaten a child’s self-esteem and identity, and that what they should be doing instead is affirming how children feel about themselves. Though presented as an act of compassion and understanding, the culture of affirmation is better understood as the rationalisation of neglect. Shying away from their responsibility to guide their children, adults place the full burden of their children’s fleeting choices upon their immature shoulders. It’s easy to flatter ourselves that we are being nicer, kinder adults by avoiding confrontation, but confrontation is sometimes exactly what the young need from us.
We must remember this as we seek to address our new generation gap — our sense that the world is shifting. In times of both chaos and stasis, society is always a mess of people with diverse ideas, experiences, and personalities; life in communities does not conform to the shrill dichotomies of the online culture wars, and our physical, everyday interactions counter the relentless cultural pessimism of the current political moment. In the midst of a punishing cost-of-living crisis, escalating international tensions, crumbling infrastructure, a health service on its knees, and an education system fatally wounded by its lockdown-imposed gap year, we are surrounded by people trying to make things work. Exhausted doctors, nurses, care workers and teachers demonstrate levels of professionalism and commitment that never make the news; railway staff fighting replacement by machines act as a daily reminder of why people do the job better. Parents carry on having arguments with their kids, showing that they care enough to be unpopular.
Life in the hiatus goes on; and if it feels that we are biding our time until the next disaster strikes, maybe that’s no bad thing. It reminds our children that this strange temporal dislocation is a storm that we will all have to weather — and that this new generation gap is not unbridgeable, provided we remember to keep a foot in both the old world and the new.
First published by UnHerd, 1 November 2023.