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Scary fairies and other melodramatic assumptions about the generation gap

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Monday, 12 December 2005

Compared with our long-suffering, depression-enduring, world war fighting, nation-building parents, we baby boomers have had it all and then some. And yet we’re still whining about youth culture as though the next generation’s primary obligation is to make sense to us - the adult adults - its least important target audience.

Is it time we let go of our self-affirming insistence upon access equalling awareness as the only path to accepting the differences between ourselves and younger people of today? Is our anxiety about the natural disconnection between ourselves and under 25s based on ideological vanities and our generation’s self perceptions as being the coolest most understanding, tolerant and culturally expansive of all?

In a recent article in The Times, Turner Prize winning contemporary artist Grayson Perry observes that:


Few groups can be more conservative than teenagers who take coolness seriously: they pounce on difference; goodness is boiled down to the lowest common denominator of “correct” brands, bands and overwrought hair. What makes cool an immature value system is its simple hip/square, in/out, mingin’/blingin’ binary, while being adult is dealing with shades of grey and with compromise. With luck, as we mature we can trust our judgment about what feels good or bad. We can cast aside the crutches of cool.

A happily married motorcycle-riding transvestite father whose decorated ceramic spells have long set middle England and the contemporary art establishment’s teeth on edge, Perry is unusually wise to the social hypocrisies and moral inconsistencies youngsters face in today’s world.

My generation has grown up steeped in the argot of cool. There are many people of my age who still seem to think that the value system of a teenage boy applies to grown-up life. Perhaps it’s time to chuck the Pete Doherty trilby and take the surf-shack sticker off the back of your car, for cool is the new straight.

Bad news for boomer adults who’d thought that because we’ve stayed cool and in touch, we’d seen the last of generation gaps. Is it time instead to face the fact that we are the most selfish parental figures ever to crawl the face of the earth? We’ve spent years instilling naïvely assembled visions of selectively acquired cultural flexibility into our kids’ minds. Meanwhile, they’ve been captive audiences for our delayed developments, life-gripping identity crises, divorces, re-partnerings, ideological gratification and pursuits for livelihoods that keep us feeling young, fit, looking good and ethically on message, at least when decent retirement funds are provided.

Cast against a muddy landscape of headlining, political and corporate malfeasance and yes, Encarta-enabled Australian under 25s’ melodramatic pessimism may seem churlish compared with our ironically convenient cynicism. Enforced familiarity with boomers’ historical conduct as authority figures is bound to expose canyons of difference between the two generations.

As a parent says:


This generation isn’t going to produce many social workers! They care empathetically rather than conscientiously, they have much less active social consciences than when we were their age. They’re often aggressively apolitical, amazingly talented, but not particularly humanist in their stated concerns. It’s a very different global and social landscape from ours three decades ago. Comparisons between cultures and experience are simply not as vividly urgent and as confusing as that may be from our value perspectives, it would be naïve for us to expect anything else.

Nonetheless, parents are bewildered, mainstream media is frustrated, but from young people’s perspective, consumer markets often provide the most flexible stagings for the transient manifests of youth.

For us, not trusting anyone over 30 was tantamount to securing the space for our own say. Young people today are far more likely to challenge the “messenger” rather than the “the message” in the way we did.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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