There are any number of generational archetypes out there. The notion of a heroic “elder days” for example. But among the most enduring and one of continued relevance to us every day is the notion of the “generation gap,”, the idea that between one generation and the next there can sometimes seem to be an unbridgeable gulf.
This is of course best known in the generation gap between the baby boomers and their parents. Though I’m Gen-X, it is easy to see that there’s something very real to this. I can talk and relate easily to baby boomers, even though many of them are pushing retirement age like my parents. It’s not that we share the same experiences or world view on everything, but we can sit down and engage with each other as adults and friends. But when I talk to people even a few years older, I always notice that it’s like talking to someone in code. There’s just some unbridgeable gap or barrier that exists. The difference between talking to my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ is profound. I suspect it is often easier for a 65 year old baby boomer to have a dinner time conversation with a 25 year old Millennial than with someone 75 or 80.
I think part of this is due to the major rupture to their existence that the pre-baby boomers experienced. Those previous generations experienced the Great Depression and/or World War II. Those had to have left an indelible mark on them that is in some way missing from subsequent generations, something that rendered their life experience too alien to be fully understood, and in turn rendered them incapable of understanding.
This is the pattern we see repeated. There’s some sort of involuntary rupture that hits a generation, and they are simply unable to transcend it, nor anyone else to fully comprehend it. It’s no surprise to me that the Israelites who fled Egypt never got to enter the Promised Land. The rupture of leaving the only life they’d ever known behind simply rendered them incapable of fully enjoying what was beyond that, no matter how many miracles they witnessed. Similarly, one could argue that we’ve yet to overcome the multi-generational rupture resulting from the great ill of slavery.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the generation gap in how the urban cores of our cities are perceived. When I talk to people in various Rust Belt cities about how they perceive their urban cores, there’s a clear generation gap in evidence. As a Gen-Xer, I am close to the fulcrum of this, so I see it clearly.
Gen-X and the Millennials have a much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations. I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined. If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always here the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter. Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it. These people are never going to be able to enter the Promised Land.
For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story. None of us knew any of those things. Our experience is totally different. We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost. Gen-X, which Jim Russell views as the heartland of Rust Belt Chic, is a generation defined by alienation, so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly. The Millennials of course have a very different attitude towards cities.
I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process and moving on. This makes me think that for us to fully embrace a true urban policy, even in city government itself, it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while. Still, as time goes on, we’ll have more and more people seeing the city with fresh eyes, and only knowing it when there’s reason for hope and optimism. That by itself will be a building force for change and new directions over time, until the true changing of the guard arrives.
This post originally ran on May 6, 2011.