Generations at the Age of Twelve

Let me continue with my thoughts about generational change and conflict which was itself a continuation of my thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation. This is one of those topics that gets caught in my craw.

I had two basic thoughts in response to what I’ve already written.

First, I was considering what it is that form’s a generation’s worldview. It is a confluence of events. There are cycles that seem to endlessly repeat (or, if not precise cycles, history does rhyme to an impressive degree). Still, no generation is ever the same as what came before. There is a unique moment in time, an era of childhood, a beginning point that forever shapes the collective mindset of an entire generation (at least within a single country and, increasingly so, within the larger world during this new era of globalized mass media).

Second, I was considering the present older generation and why it is so easy to see them as stalling progress. The situation we find ourselves in is somewhere between a stalemate and outright dysfunction. As a society, we can’t seem to resolve the simplest of issues, much less move forward in a productive fashion. This becomes increasingly relevant as my generation and the next takes on the reigns of power.

The first thought leads into the second.

So, about the first thought.

As I explained with the KKK post, it isn’t as if the members of the KKK (the ‘Klansmen’) were evil incarnate. Most of them were normal people doing normal things. The Second KKK in the 1920s was mostly a civic organization. Yes, it was a racist civic organization, but so were many others. Back then, especially among older whites, you would have been outside the norm to not have been racist.

Klansmen probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as racists. Most people don’t define themselves in terms of negatives. Racism was just the cultural background they were born into. It was the world of their childhood.

Childhood is that time of key formative experiences. It creates what we consider normal and acceptable. It is what we look back upon often with fondness and sometimes with righteousness. Even if our childhoods were bad, it is easy for people to not understand why younger generations should have easier childhoods that will make them soft and weak. Whatever the case, we don’t tend to be very objective and neutral about our childhoods.

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine:

“a 1957 novel by Ray Bradbury, taking place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, based upon Bradbury’s childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. [ . . . ] The main character of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy loosely patterned after Bradbury. Most of the book is focused upon the routines of small-town America, and the simple joys of yesterday.”

Bradbury would only have been 8 years old in 1928, but the fictionalized boy was 12. That is a mythical number of a complete cycle such as 12 months. In the child’s world, life revolves around summer. The end of summer in the novel is symbolic of the end of childhood with the last moment of childhood at age twelve. That last moment of childhood is the end of one period of life and the beginning of another, the ending of elementary school and the halfway point of primary education, halfway point on the way to full adulthood.

Many stories focus on this magical time of life, this point of transition. Stand by Me begins with the voiceover, “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.” Like Dandelion Wine, this is a story about the ending of childhood and the emergence of adult awareness which is most poignantly made known through death. 12 and Holding is yet another story about the dual themes of age 12 and death.

Maybe one can tell a lot about an individual or a generation in considering what the world was like when they were twelve.

For example, Reagan was twelve in 1923. That is that same quiet period as the setting of Dandelion Wine. It was the 1920s, a carefree time following the end of WWI and before the beginning of the Great Depression. I’m sure Bradbury used 1928 as signifying that innocent moment prior to 1929. The whole country was innocent. WWI would have seemed like an anomaly and anyway it was a war far away that never had much directly to do with the United States, especially for a child who would have had no memory of it at all. WWII and the Cold War were a long way off in the future.

Both Reagan and Bradbury remember childhoods during the 1920s in small towns in Illinois. Reagan considered that to be a formative period of his life. His home at age twelve supposedly is the only house he mentions in any of his books. The 1920s was a time of peace and optimism. Magnified by the memories of a pleasant childhood, Reagan carried that sensibility into his adulthood. And it was that sunny optimism that made him so popular.

Reagan spent his childhood going to school. Many of the Lost Generation, instead of schooling, spent their childhoods working whatever jobs they could find. Unlike Reagan and his cohort, the Lost Generation had less of a childhood to reminisce about. Spending age twelve in a factory or a mine would give you a different worldview for the rest of your life. The Lost Generation was unique in this way. Even the generation before them didn’t have this experience for, in their childhoods, they didn’t know mass urbanization and mass industrialization. So, neither the generation before nor the generation following could understand what the Lost Generation had lived.

Similarly, although to less extremes, Generation X had a relatively difficult childhood and young adulthood.

At age 12, the Cold War was still going on and the oppressive Cold War culture (e.g., comic book codes). As I’ve often pointed out, GenXers childhood was unique in many ways. We were the most aborted generation ever and so a small generation between two large generations. In childhood going on into young adulthood, my generation experienced high rates of poverty, child abuse, homicide, suicide and unemployment. When we were young, society stopped being oriented toward and accommodating of children. Restaurants became less welcoming of young families and less tolerant of the antics of children. Very little entertainment was made for kids and plenty of entertainment was made about evil and possessed children, rebellious and violent teens, and nihilistic and self-destructive young adults.

When most Americans were experiencing economic good times, there were two specific demographics that were hit hard in the last decades of the 20th century: GenXers and blacks. Both demographics experienced high rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. If you were a GenX black, it would have felt like the whole world was against you for everyone would have seen you as nothing but a gangsta and a drug dealer. The GenX black was the ultimate scapegoat of our society.

At age 12, GenXers saw a cynical age of greed, oppression and ignorance. That is what many in my generation came to expect as normal, just the way the world is. As a small generation, it didn’t feel like there was much we could do about it. Many of my generation embraced this worldview and so we became the generation with the highest support of Reagan. Cynical realpolitik and Wall Street greed seemed to be the name of the game. We put a very different spin on Reagan’s optimism, though, for we were better able to see through it. Optimism simply meant survival of the fittest and fuck the downtrodden. A not very nice ideal, but nice ideals were for wimpy flower children of the ’60s. That is what we learned from Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties.

That is the sad result of my generation. We played the game that was presented us, but not all of us wanted to play that game. The only other choice was to drop out entirely or at least psychologically. The advantage my generation has had is that many of us always knew it was bullshit. We never swallowed the lies to as great an extent as the older generation. Reagan actually believed what he said, an actor who became the role he played: first a cowboy, then a corporate spokesperson, and then a politician. His optimism was self-delusion. My generation at least had the sense to realize that there were alternative viewpoints.

Still, it will require a more demanding vision of the generation following mine to have a chance in hell of challenging the 20th century status quo that now bleeds into this new century.  GenXers are too mired in the Boomer worldview that has dominated our entire lives, especially for older GenXers. We are more a generation of doomsaying prophets than inspiring visionaries. The main thing my generation can do is to starkly portray and grimly explain the reasons we got here. I’m part of a generation of clowns for only clowns can speak the truth, not that speaking the truth is a requirement of being a clown.

In my second to last post (of which this post is a continuation), I somewhat simplistically implied that it was Boomers were mucking up the work. To be fair, as explained above, older GenXers are also to blame. Some would even see older GenXers as part of the older generation now ruling politics, rather than as being of the same generation as younger GenXers:

“If Mannheim’s Germans constituted a political generation because in their plastic years they experienced the Napoleonic Wars, the men and women who today dominate American politics constitute a political generation because during their plastic years they experienced some part of the Reagan-Clinton era. That era lasted a long time. If you are in your late 50s, you are probably too young to remember the high tide of Kennedy-Johnson big government liberalism. You came of age during its collapse, a collapse that culminated with the defeat of Jimmy Carter. Then you watched Reagan rewrite America’s political rules. If you are in your early 40s, you may have caught the tail end of Reagan. But even if you didn’t, you were shaped by Clinton, who maneuvered within the constraints Reagan had built. To pollsters, a late 50-something is a Baby Boomer and an early 40-something is a Gen-Xer. But in Mannheim’s terms, they constitute a single generation because no great disruption in American politics divides them. They came of age as Reagan defined a new political era and Clinton ratified it. And as a rule, they play out their political struggles between the ideological poles that Reagan and Clinton set out.”

That fits some of my experience. All of history is continuous. Disruptions are perceived which depends on the experience of those perceiving. If generations exist, it is because they share a common perception of historical events. Simply sharing the same historical period would not be enough.

However you dice the generations, the older demographic dominating politics has been creating dysfunction. I think we can all agree on that much.

So, why are the older folk mucking up the works?

It’s not just that there was a baby boom. No doubt we are experiencing the slow digestion of the elephant in the python, but there is more to it. An elephant, of course, is a difficult thing for a python to digest. More importantly, why does the elephant keep struggling so much in the process? The elephant in question obviously doesn’t want to be digested and is far from giving up the ghost.

This older generation isn’t simply in the way of progress. More specifically, this older generation is resisting progress and reacting to it, fighting it tooth and nail. They’d rather shut down the government than have an honest discussion about our collective problems. It isn’t even as if they are genuinely against government as government grew bigger under their watch than ever before.

There is a lot going on with that generation. They were a more monocultural and whiter demographic. As I’ve pointed out before, they were born at the lowest point of immigration in the 20th century and I’m not sure when it had last been that low. The conflict they grew up with wasn’t between natives and immigrants but between American whites and American blacks, especially between whites from the Northern states and blacks from the Southern states. Still, even between whites and blacks, there was a sense that the country was progressing to some extent, even though less quickly for blacks.

This generation couldn’t understand what followed nor sympathize with those who were negatively impacted. This is why many older blacks also came to support tough on crime laws and the War on Drugs, despite the fact that blacks were being harmed by it and black communities were being destroyed because of it. These older people remembered a world that no longer was and they couldn’t understand why it couldn’t remain that way. They had to blame someone. The young were one useful target, young blacks being one of the best targets of all. This is why someone like Bill Cosby can say idiotic things about poor black people.

It’s also a class thing. The economic divide didn’t just grow between whites and blacks. It also grew within the races. The middle and upper class blacks found themselves disconnected from the experience of most blacks. You would think not being accepted into mainstream white society would make older and well off blacks sympathetic to the plight of young blacks, but apparently that often isn’t the case. The power of a generational worldview can be even greater than the solidarity of race, especially for blacks who never were the exemplaries of solidarity as were the Germans, Irish and Italians.

The younger generation in general and minorities in particular, who have been hit hardest by mass incarceration, don’t receive much sympathy. Their lives have been destroyed. In response, their families and communities offer them nothing but shame. The Civil Rights movement was never good about helping the worst off among blacks.

As mass incarceration continues, a new generation is growing up either incarcerated or with the fear of incarceration. Even if not incarceration, society is offering them little to hope for. GenXers were at that magical age of twelve when all this began. Millennials at age twelve saw it continuing. Now a new generation will be coming to that age in a few years and likely it isn’t going to end anytime soon. The event of 9/11 was simply used as justification for more of the same and worse still. We will have several generations who knew nothing but a police state ever increasing in its oppression.

When will a new generation come along who will be able to fondly remember the age of 12 as a time of peace and optimism?

10 thoughts on “Generations at the Age of Twelve

  1. I’m 65, and I remember age 12 fondly as a time of peace and optimism. You get into a lot here, and miss a lot as well. First things first. Part of the reason the baby boomers screwed things up was the events of the 1960s starting with the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This wasn’t supposed to happen, it was unthinkable when it happened. and I think many of us are still processing it to this day. This was followed by Viet Nam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon, Kent State, and ultimately Watergate. I think the baby boomers collectively gave up after Kent State, and decided fighting for what’s right or for change just isn’t worth it, and change won’t happen anyway, it only makes things worse. Reagan didn’t happen in a vacuum. By 1980 people were tired of the previous 15 yrs and Reagan promised to take us back to the way things were. Of course that was impossible.
    The other thing you miss are the social changes that happened from the mid-60s on, and this includes changes in education. The civil rights movement was first, followed by the feminists, then the sexual revolution and gay rights. All of these would exert a profound impact on public education. Things that we never had to deal with, like sexuality, were suddenly thrust in kids’ faces. Naomi Wolfe, the feminist writer, has said this stating that kids were suddenly forced to deal with things that adults had difficulty with, and she deplores it. And lastly, mom wasn’t there when kids got home from school anymore.
    So there’s enough blame to go around about why 12 yo’s today aren’t as innocent as we were, I think they should all be ashamed.

    • I would say this post exagerates some aspects and over-generalizes others. I actually wasn’t trying to portray a simplistic view of blame, but I guess I failed. I was writing in a bit of a hurry because I wanted to finish it before going to work.

      There is a point I meant to communicate. Every generation is stuck in the worldview they grew up with.

      Boomers aren’t particularly unusual, at least in terms of this. The only thing that made the situation different was that it was an extremely large generation followed by a very small generation. This magnified the power and influence of Boomers, but it was a mere accident of historical conditions. It isn’t as if Boomers had an evil plan to ensure GenXers were the most aborted generation.

      I get all your points. I couldn’t include every possible issue and perspective. It is already a long post. Everything you say is true and I have written about some of that previously. Events like the JFK assassination were traumatizing to our society and I don’t know that we’ll ever get over it except by it eventually fading from collective memory. And I know all about growing up without a mom at home after school.

      It is hard to blame anyone in an ultimate sense. We are all porducts of our environments and of our moment in history. As far as I’m concerned, the failure of our society is multi-generational with plenty of blame to go around. Even being a small generation is no excuse for being exempt from sharing the burden of responsibility. We are all individuals facing complex issues of our shared problems.

      As for the age twelve perspective, I was making a cearer distinction than exists in reality. It isn’t as if no post-Boomer had a decent childhood. I actually liked my childhood for the most part. It seems to me that my generation was the last to have a semi-normal childhood. Because we were under-parented, we went to school by ourselves, had paper routes and earned our own money, rode bikes, got muddy in creeks, wandered aimlessly about anywhere we pleased, built forts in the woods, and played games in the street at night.

      However, my generation has reacted in predictable fashion. We were under-parented and so we now over-parent. All the GenX parents I know won’t let their kids just be kids. We know the trouble we got in and we’ve grown paranoid about the world. It is sad.

      A truly innocent generation maybe is being raised right now, but they are so innocent that they are being forced into an over-protected childhood and a delayed maturity. The children of GenXers will lack nothing their little heart’s desire and they will be protected from everything scary and painful, if their parents can help it. Then again, maybe it will be a good thing in getting our society moving forward. A little pampered innocence might help them not be so cynical. We don’t need anymore cynicism at this point.

      Of course, these children of GenXers will grow up to under-parent their own kids. Thus the cycle continues.

      Every generation makes its own mistakes. We humans lack perspective. We only know how to react to our narrow experience. So, we perpetuate all the same old patterns and problems.

      • You make some valid points. You could say that baby boomers were over-protected, even sheltered, but relative to what? The generation before was just as sheltered as far as that goes, they missed WWII, the older ones might have gone to Korea, but the younger ones missed that too. I don’t mean to harp on the issue of sexuality but until relatively recently 12 yos weren’t having sex. We did what you describe, we walked to school, had paper routes, played outside, weren’t even thinking of the things 12 yos are forced to think about today. We were thinking about the bomb and nuclear war, which was drummed into us in school, so we weren’t sheltered from that. I think a lot depended on demographics, where you grew up, your family structure, etc. Back then women didn’t work outside the home, so there was always that security, and couples didn’t get divorced. I think a lot of what we’re talking about are the unintended consequences of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

        • “You could say that baby boomers were over-protected, even sheltered, but relative to what?”

          I don’t know that Boomers were sheltered exactly. My mom is on the oldest edge of the Boomer Generation and my dad is on the youngest edge of the Silent Generation, but there experiences of childhood in Indiana are about the same. I’m not sure how much the differences I’ve experienced are generational.

          My parents didn’t move around much at all growing up, my mom not at all and my dad from one small town to a nearby small town. My mom in particular had a very different childhood than I did. She lived in the same house growing up, the house her father built which was next to her grandmother’s house where her uncle also lived. She knew extended family as I never did. I never lived in even the same state as extended family and, by the time I graduated high school, my family had lived in 4 states.

          Maybe Boomers were relatively more sheltered than GenXers, but I really think it was the even older generations that were more sheltered. Silents were probably very sheltered. You’d have to go back to the Lost Generation to find a generation that was truly the opposite of being sheltered.

          “I don’t mean to harp on the issue of sexuality but until relatively recently 12 yos weren’t having sex.”

          Well, there is a lot more going on that just generational patterns.

          The age of sexual maturity has decreased over time. Indigenous people living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle supposedly reach sexual maturity around age 18. Agriculture with a high grain diet apparently decreased that to the mid teens which allowed agricultural societies to out-breed hunter-gatherers. Now, because of hormones added to farm animals and hormone-like chemicals in plastic, kids are sexually maturing in their early teens and even earlier, sometimes while still in elementary school.

          That is a really messed up thing we are doing to kids.

          “Back then women didn’t work outside the home, so there was always that security, and couples didn’t get divorced. I think a lot of what we’re talking about are the unintended consequences of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.”

          I agree. Unintended consequences of industrialization and then unintended consequences of deindustrialization. Unintended consequences of mass urbanization, growing inequality and globalization. Unintended consequences of pollution and environmental destruction. Unintended consequences of destruction of small town agrarian communities and extended families. Et cetera.

          It has been more than a century of unintended consequences with ever increasing magnitude to those consequences as they build on one another. Any single factor wouldn’t matter much, but combined it is more than we know how to handle.

          • Yes absolutely. We might be able to handle just one of those unintended consequences, but all of them combined is too much to handle, at least at this time. I also agree that kids are reaching sexual maturity at a younger age. At the same time we’re telling them to put off marriage to an even older age, until they’ve become established in careers, have financial security, etc. How illogical is that?

    • Could you explain why WordPress seems cumbersome to you? Do you mean because your comment didn’t show right away? If so, that would be my fault.

      A while back, I had a post with a ton of people commenting and some of them were annoying. So I turned on the moderating option which allows me to see each comment before I approve it. But I could turn it back off again and allow comments to freely post.

      • No, it seems cumbersome because you don’t log in to Word Press until after you’ve written the comment, then you have to go back and type the comment all over again. Plus, I don’t use it that often so I never remember the password, so it has to be reset, which means waiting for another email, so the whole process is time-consuming. I’ve chosen a new password that I won’t forget.

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