Saturday, June 09, 2007

City Journal Column

A New Generation Gap

I got the first jolt last year, when a university student asked me what the Cold War was.
I thought I was dealing with someone who’d been born on Mars. Perhaps alien robot students in need of programming had arrived on campus. Then I did the math. The Cold War ended in 1989. The student was about 18. He was too young to remember it.
Since then, no one had clearly explained it to him. I did my best.
A friend of mine who works at the Penetanguishene hospital for dangerous psychiatric patients told me a story about a guy who’d been locked up for about 50 years. The authorities decided to free him, so staff decided to take him on a few field trips to get him accustomed to the world of the 1970s.
They took him to Toronto and drove him down Yonge Street. He took a look around at the cars and the high buildings and asked “where did all the horses go?”
In many ways, most people my age, especially those in the media, are on the far side of a new generation gap. Our media is full of cultural references that are lost on today’s kids. The 20-year-old of today must have been baffled by the “Katrina and the Waves” references in so many headlines and stories about the storm that hit New Orleans. The band broke up ten years ago and hasn’t had a hit in North America since 1989.
That’s the year that most of the kids coming into university this fall were born.
They don’t get overworked media references to Humphrey Bogart, the Three Stooges, Top Gun, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Harry or the Graduate. The Beatles is just another band, one that doesn’t get radio time. The music of their parents is played on Oldies stations or “sampled” in hip-hop tunes.
Their first political memories are of a time when Jean Chretien was prime minister and Bill Clinton was president. Brian Mulroney is someone they’ve vaguely heard about. So is Ronald Reagan. Pierre Trudeau is someone from the textbooks.
Mentioning Watergate brings on the same blank stares as talk of the Teapot Dome or Sky Shops scandals. In fact, tagging every scandal with “gate” – say, Shawinigate – is no longer quaint, it’s a sign of age.
They’re too young to remember the first space shuttle disaster. In fact, they were only 11 years old when terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. They’ve grown up in a world dominated politically by George Bush Jr. and economically by Google and Microsoft.
In this world view, terror has always been the enemy. Iran has always been run by ayatollahs, China has always been a big supplier to WalMart, and Cuba is just a seedy vacation spot.
In this world, North Americans have finally conquered their old enemy, distance. The Internet has always been a click away. Long distance phone calls are cheap, web camming and instant messaging is free.
Today’s first-year student has no idea of a world without hundreds of TV channels, no concept of a transistor radio, and has never felt the freedom of being unplugged from the world.
If from European backgrounds, they come from families that are who are three generations removed from World War II. If they are from non-European backgrounds, Hitler is just another dictator. The Vietnam War, hippies and all the rest are just something that old people talk about.
My childhood political memories are of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A race riot engulfed my great-grandmother’s neighborhood in a Detroit suburb in the 1960s.
I remember Trudeaumania because I saw Trudeau speak in the 1968 campaign. I was a space freak who followed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights and tuned out when Skylab made space flight routine. Somehow, I’ve moved from being in the generational mainstream to being some sort of vessel of historical data.
Ottawa talk radio host Lowell Green likes to ask kids who call his show questions about the St. Lawrence Seaway. Most of the kids don’t seem to know that it’s the water route from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. The old codgers who listen to his show get a chuckle, not realizing that shifting trade patterns have made the Seaway – finished in 1957 – redundant.
The chance of a modern Ottawa high school grad ever traveling on it, or using it for shipping, is minimal. It means as much to them as the Erie Canal or the Dortmund-Ems Canal.
This morning, I went to a choir recital at my kids’ school. One song was introduced as “an old song, from the 1960s”. The parents, many of whom, like me, had their children late in life, snickered.
The kids didn’t get the joke.

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