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The Generational Divide Paints Unfair Portraits of the Young

By Dirk Smillie. Dirk Smillie is a senior staff member at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. / June 23, 1994



LAST month's gathering in New York City to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beat Generation holds an important lesson for my generation: If you stick around long enough, respect will come. Beatniks in the early 1950s took a beating in the press over drug use and their dissonance with mainstream morality. But commentary by the old media of the Beat Generation in its infancy was kid-gloves treatment compared with the assault and battery my generation has taken from old and new media alike. The range of indictments that have been handed to those between 18 and 34 is scandalous.

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Our lifestyles are trashed with glee in press stories labeling us ``slackers,'' ``grunge kids,'' and even ``the whiny generation.'' We're accused of being spiritually numb. Our values are linked to a post-Watergate milieu of unbridled cynicism tempered only by consumerism. Such conclusions are drawn without surveys or scholarship. Yet many in the media take it on faith that we are angst-ridden and greedy, conceited and bitter at the prospect of not exceeding our parents' material gains.

Sadly, many of those who commit such generation abuse are of my own generation: novelists, social commentators, pop-culture pundits. Aided by reporters with little time for research, they have become character assassins whose generational depictions are driven by observations of the fringe, not the core.

Take the supposedly glacial divide between baby busters and baby boomers, whose cultural and political views constitute the new generation gap, according to authors Neil Howe and Bill Strauss. The story, repeated uncritically by the Atlantic, US News, Fortune, and others, goes that busters loathe boomers for leaving behind a wasteland of social ills and economic problems. While boomers grew up with affordable education, low crime rates, good jobs, and free love, busters complain that they're paying the price for such excess in the form of skyrocketing tuition, escalating lawlessness, low-paying jobs, and AIDS.

The only problem with the story, notes the Roper Center's Everett Carll Ladd, ``is the fact that this alleged resentment has resisted all survey research efforts to locate it.'' Poll data show no significant differences in boomers or busters when it comes to satisfaction with the present or confidence in the future. The few differences that do show up can be attributed as much to aging as to anything else.

When voices in my generation object to such conflict-mongering, few are recognized. Much of the media world is too preoccupied with labels to dispassionately explore social and political issues important to people my age. There seems to be a never-ending attempt to coin the next big term to describe our Zeitgeist. We're usually the losers, because framing discussions around the merits of the term ``boomerangers'' over ``lost generation'' distorts our interests and obscures our values.

THE startling rise in youth turnout at the polls in 1992 revealed a new political consciousness among young people. It shouldn't be forgotten, because youthful interest in public affairs is building. The flowering of national youth magazines, voter registration, public-interest groups like Rock the Vote, Lead or Leave, and Third Millennium, and events such as last month's Youth Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., represents a generation harnessing its own steam.

Yes, I'm concerned about making a good living and owning a home. I wonder about the safety of the schools my children will attend. But neither I nor anyone I know is gripped by angst about ``McJobs'' or preoccupied with loathing our '60s antecedents. It's enough to make us want to hire our own David Gergen. Like the Beat Generation, my generation has been tainted in its own time - only in far darker hues. Our reputation precedes us, and what a bum rap it is. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.