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Wanted -- a generation without a label

By Melvin Maddocks / February 18, 1982



The labeling of generations has always been a popular pastime. One neatly affixes a face (or rather a mask) to a general idea, and voila! -- one has the hippies of the '60s, the preppies of the '70s, and the ruggies of the '80s.

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Could any sport be more exhilarating -- and more simple, if not simplistic?

''The ruggies of the '80s?'' we hear a voice from the quiet generation of the '50s scream, quietly. ''That'll never catch on.''

''But your label stuck on you,'' we answer in our own pre-quiet, post-lost generation manner.

The ''ruggie,'' according to the definers of the new species, is the ''mentally rugged non-extremist,'' purposefully walking the paths of the American campus today. He or she is ''realistic,'' ''practical,'' -- looking for the ''payoff'' to his or her education.

If the ruggie is a he, he will wear an ''open smile'' and ''athletic shoes,'' and in between, a sports shirt (''no animal logo,'' with the ''collar down'') and ''non-designer jeans or cords.'' A sample of the breed is pictured in the pages of Industry Week, carrying under one ambivalent arm copies of the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice.

How precise, how detailed the portrait is! And how terribly conclusive!

Barely two years have passed in the decade, and already we're summarized and filed away as the Decade of the New Pragmatists.

Case closed.

We're getting a little weary of the generation game -- and more than a little weary of the way the more gullible accept the latest badge and pin it on themselves, like conventioneers.

We can't help wondering how many non-ruggies on how many American campuses are reading the definition -- if it can be called that -- and crying to their mirrors: 'Ruggie! That's me!''

All games that invent a collective personality finally come under the heading of self-fulfilling prophecy. But that is no guarantee of accuracy -- quite the contrary.

On the same day we happened to read the confident statement that the ruggie is not ''into marching,'' we encountered nothing but exceptions in our local newspaper. About 70 demonstrators, it was reported, marched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carrying banners criticizing the Iranian tyranny of the Ayatollah. About 100 more demonstrators marched to Boston Common to support Solidarity. In Alabama civil rights activists were marching to push for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, future demonstrators were meeting to plan a march, protesting the armaments race.

It must be assumed that not a few of the ruggie generation were present -- and ''into marching.''

It is an insult to typecast a generation. A ruggie has to have a little hippie to him surely -- as well as a little preppie and a bit of the lost generation. One is not just the latest trend in people. One is the sum of history -- and more.

It is ironical that we seem to create more stereotypes for the young than for almost any other category of human being. We wrap on the labels just at the moment when all identities are still possible, all experiences still imminent.

Sweeping generalizations about the younger generation by the older generation tend to be acts of adoration or revenge, telling more about the labelers than the labeled. The older generation is not easy to please. ''Hippies'' turned into a sneer against the young who were too idealistic -- who wouldn't do the world's dirty work, like the rest of us. Now ''ruggies'' seems to taunt all the canny little hustlers who aren't idealistic enough -- the way we were when we were young.

Trendy games are not to be taken seriously. We don't for a minute think the ' 80s generation is going down in history as the ruggies. The name lacks panache, for one thing. We're already standing by for next year's -- or maybe, next month's -- resignation. Meanwhile, we're depending on the young people in our life to follow the only consistent course they know -- utter unpredictability.