The Great Disconnect

[Part 2 of Two]

[Continued from Critical Paradox, Part 1 of Two, February 21, 2017]

“Crown jewel of the Information Age, the Internet throbs with an incomparably vast source of accurate information.  It is also obviously saturated with incorrect, false, and even deliberately misleading information on a grand scale.”

─ Critical Paradox (Part 1 of Two)

At the instant of conception, we have no control over our DNA, miniscule control (if any) over our environment in the womb, and very little control during our infancy and early childhood. Those critical factors, traditionally known as ‘heredity and environment,’ significantly determine our interaction with life.

The next major stage of life is ‘Coming of Age.’ Whatever the dynamics of heredity and environment may be, the teenager no longer asks, “Why is the sky blue?” Now, he questions the complex issues of humankind. It is at this point that the overwhelming majority of teenagers have a proclivity towards group conformity.  Crazy socks and stunts are merely one way to be a popular member of the group; authentic individualists tend to be loners. Either way, gaps between parents and children do not necessarily include political differences. Family generation gaps, e.g., between father and son or mother and daughter are what I affectionately perceive as ‘semi-primordial.’ On the other hand, Generation Gaps (with a capital ‘G’) are societal gaps and are generally associated with largescale events, e.g., extraordinary economic conditions or political events, including major wars. But in the ‘60s the political familial gap was as wide as its societal gap.

The term “Generation Gap” itself originated in the ‘60s.  Several generation titles, e.g., “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Lost Generation,” speak for themselves as do many other generational titles, but most Americans refer to the ‘60s by its timeline: “the ‘60s.”

In reference to the sudden widespread use of drugs, especially by the young, it has been said of the ‘60s, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.” I vividly remember the ‘60s and was definitely ‘there.’  When Charles Dickens writes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” his description can easily be applied to the ‘60s. I was a bit past my coming of age but had empathy for the young ‘flower people.’

In the ‘60s, the young warned each other, “Never trust anyone over 30!” It had not occurred to them that they too would someday be over 30.  They are elderly now and discreetly no longer impose an age limit on honesty. Some are still countercultural, others conformists, and a few have since discovered that it’s possible to be over 30 and honest at the same time. Those few were honest before and during the ‘60s, and several still are honest.  Honesty tends to be permanent.

The causes and effects of societal gaps are usually described in broad strokes. But generational titles, facts, and entangled interpretations of facts intertwine in the larger context of historic events. For example, the Great Depression (the ‘30s) refers to a worldwide economic depression. The Greatest Generation gets its title from a book written decades later (‘90s) by a famous commentator in deference to the heroism of depression victims and WWll soldiers. The combined timeline for those two events (the ‘30s to the end of WWll) is such that the same individual might have experienced both the depression and WWll.

Millions did, and of course a few of us are still ‘around.’

My parents, two siblings and I didn’t experience a family gap. Being comfortable with my parents and grandparents, I took a pass on familiar rebellion.  Still a child in the mid- ‘30s I wasn’t aware that there was a worldwide depression, but I was sharply aware of my family’s struggle to survive.

Too young to be employed, I had the notion that I might at least help keep the Depression ─ with a capital ‘D’─ out of our home. One of my tricks was to create menus that I placed alongside seven plates at a dinner table set for members of three no-gap generations. The menus described the items of food and drink we were to have for dinner.  Inspired by the mouth-watering fragrances wafting from the kitchen, I inscribed elaborate titles on the menus for those dinner items in Italian, French, and hyped English depending on what was to be served for dinner that evening. On my menus beans and peas were ‘Légumes Céleste’; boiled potatoes were ‘Pommes de Terre Bouilles Extraordinaire;’ and the homemade wine was ‘Vino Straordinario.’  I didn’t know it then, but the inexpensive dinners my mother and grandmother prepared on a miniscule budget were actually Michelin three-star gourmet specialties!

At that table I was the youngest generation. Now I am the oldest generation at any table in the world. Perhaps it is my longevity that prompts me to combine several generations into a single period. Specifically, those generations are as follows: Baby Boomers, X, Y, and Z (a.k.a. IGEN/Millennials/ Centennials).  I think that’s why (authorities?) resorted to the postwar birth boom and the alphabet soup for post-1946 generational titles.

[Note: Typical of current linguistic fuzziness, generational titles vary. Of course that’s okay when The Great Generation is also called The Greatest Generation or The GI generation. The same is true of other generations that have two or more titles for the same generation. But during my research for this article, I noted that the iGEN generation has six or seven titles, none of which relates to any of its other titles. A social media ‘guru’ online cheerfully explains that the ‘i’ in iGEN ─ also capitalized as IGEN ─ can have a variety of very different meanings. He said, “we’ll just have to wait awhile” before choosing what the ‘I’ will eventually mean.” I add to that: “Does the ‘guru’ include the first person singular as the ultimate title? If so, wouldn’t that meaning require title disambiguation along with the Me Generation?]

If the vast volume of information available online and other sources that define the baby boomer and alphabet soup generations were to be crunched into a single historic period, the result would be the predominance of economic, workplace, and technological concerns.

There are workshops to expand an employee’s electronic communication skills to suit generational preferences, e.g., E-mail vs phone vs. face-to-face communications. There are workshops designed to smooth business relationships and age sensitivities between the young and the not so young employees.

And then there is me. My workshop is life.

As a child, I interacted every day with several people whose coming of age was in the late 19th century. Four of them, my grandparents, were born in Italy but came to live in America beginning with the period of America’s “Gay Nineties.”

[They spoke to me in Sicilian. Grandma told me about her teenage abduction in Sicily. She was walking on a dirt road close to home. Suddenly, a carriage driven by a coachman roared down the road. It was stopped by its driver within a few feet of her.  Grandpa jumped out of the carriage, threw a hood over her head, and carried her into the cab.  Her father and brothers pursued the carriage. They overtook it. They were about to kill grandpa.  But grandma, fearing she would lose her eligibility for marriage because she was alone with a man in a carriage, opened the carriage door, removed her hood, and announced, “He’s my husband now!” He was the grandfather that made the homemade wine that I titled ‘Vino Straordinario.’ When he died, Grandma was devastated. I didn’t understand why then, but now I do. As a native American in a subcultural Sicilian society, I developed a sense of generational differences that spanned two cultures and several generations.]

Mom and dad spoke to me in English and Sicilian. At dinner we all spoke in Sicilian in respect for my grandparents. As a child, I had a firsthand glimpse of “The Roaring Twenties.” An uncle of the same generation as my parents spoke to me about his experiences in the trenches of WWl. There was nothing formal about the narratives of their past. Yet, their intimate conversations with me were a form of higher education. At that time, grandparents, their children, and grandchildren spoke and learned from each other both in fun and in depth.

My mom was born in Palermo, the capitol of Sicily. The entire coast of Sicily was once a province of ancient Greece. When speaking English to me, she would occasionally slip into Sicilian, her native language, to dramatically quote a proverb. At twenty, I read a classic Greek play by Sophocles in which that proverb appears.  I was struck by that prime example of Western Civilization’s continuity: From Sophocles to mom to me.

Generations and their gaps do not exist in a vacuum. And since procreation is continuous, several generations (not just three) are contemporaries at any given moment. They affect each other directly and indirectly whatever their generational differences in age. The ‘snapshot’ descriptions of generations following 1946 reflect a superficial and economy-focused assessment of American generations following WW2. Their differences are primarily described in terms of the workplace and technology. I’m far more inclined to learn about the moral fiber of a generation. It is from those descriptions and personal experiences that I absorb the essence of generations.

Also, at the risk of seeming presumptuous, I think of generations in the traditional biological sense rather than in overlapping 20-year periods. Based on that premise, the post-war period to the present might be condensed into a single period and labeled, The Information Age.

Fast Forward to The Information Age

I believe the stream of history flows deeper when a culture is reviewed in terms of its values and direction, not primarily its economy. Of course the worldwide Great Depression is an exception: the devastating economy, exacerbated by America’s dust bowl, was the primary event of the ‘30s.

After the war, familial intercommunications somewhat diminished.  Television replaced conversation. Families watched TV at the dinner table and directly after that watched it from the couch. A whole evening might go by with minimal conversation except during commercials and rushes to the refrigerator or bathroom during commercials.  When the family had separate TVs in the home to suit age and taste differences, conversation diminished to a word or two such as, “Good Night.”

Assuming a family has dinners together, at today’s table it is not unusual for teenage children to  text their friends through most if not all of dinnertime, even though mom and dad are the hosts for those dinners. At larger gatherings and celebratory parties, frenzied fingers click in communication with friends who are not present at the party. In effect, they are ‘somewhere else.’

The current Generation (Z) generally avoids significant conversations about anything that happened prior to its coming of age.  Yes, that has always been true of the young because the young are…well…young. But today’s generation is bereft of a sense of historic continuity. And that lack is exacerbated by their extraordinary lack of elementary knowledge of what happened before they came of age.

I’ve spoken to twenty-year-olds who never heard of ancient Greece let alone that it ignited Western Civilization.  A university student told me that her history lessons begin with ancient Rome! Another student majoring in Music, never heard of Puccini! Another student shocked me when I pointed to a framed Hubble photo of the galaxy Andromeda hanging on a wall in my living room. He told me that he didn’t know that galaxies exist and that there is a universe packed with them! Please note that I don’t ‘test’ anyone about knowledge ─ ever. Know also that the incidences I’ve cited are just three of countless chance exchanges I’ve had with America’s young. They reveal a great disconnect from significant knowledge.

The kids have the universe nestled in the palms of their hands. They were born into a society in which exponential information is at the tip of their fingers. Yet, they are bereft of elementary knowledge about science, art, and history, the grand triumvirate of civilization. Throughout history, the bonding factors of the young and the more mature have always been based on a sense of existential continuity, a factor which is virtually nonexistent in today’s young. The kids talk to ‘Alexa,’ but have little to talk about with their parents.

The kids are addicted to multitasking, a practice that breeds errors. They are obsessed by the Internet and its electronic progeny. At the workplace, the briefer their communications ─ verbal or written ─ the better. The dark energy of social media dominates the world of communications. How ironic in the Information Age!

In the natural course of time, my generation is on the verge of extinction.  We and our children have largely closed generational gaps. We have more or less amalgamated into the harmonious recognition that we have much more in common than in our differences.

This time, the gap is not merely generational. This time, the gap is not just another ripple in the stream of American social evolution. This time, a silent, negative gap has widened to the extent of a rip in America’s existential continuity.

America needs a Renaissance of its own. I hope it will find one.

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