Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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Generations

25th High School Reunion

We come to hear the endings
of all the stories
in our anthology
of false starts:
how the girl who seemed
as hard as nails
was hammered into shape;
how the athletes ran out of races;
how under the skin
our skulls rise to the surface
like rocks in the bed
of a drying stream.
Look! We have all turned into
ourselves.

Linda Pastan

Power Point Presentation for Unit Three: Generations

Introduction to Unit Three:  Generations.

Youth and Aging.

Birth-Cohort Generations.

Familial Generations.

Activities for this Unit.

Generations Resources.

Introduction to Unit Three:  Generations

We've all heard much talk of "The Generation Gap," but what exactly is a generation, anyway, and why do the "gaps" between generations cause us so much concern?  How is it that the era in which one is born shapes one's values, expectations, goals, and dreams?  What do we share with our age cohorts that those from other generations might have a hard time appreciating?  Conversely, what valuable things might we learn from those born into other generations?  Finally, how ready are we to become members of a generation whose time has passed?  Such are the questions we will consider in this third unit of English 102.  (Note:  to refresh your memory about major events of the twentieth century--ancient history that it is, now!--see this Timeline of the Twentieth Century.

Definitions of "Generation": The following are the three most common definitions of a generation:

Youth and Aging:  You'll note that the media is mainly concerned with youth when it discusses generations, but there are generally at least four or five different generations alive at any given time.  The young--teenagers, in particular,  may perpetually fascinate us, but as members of the Baby Boom generation begin to age, we will have an unusually large population of elderly Americans.  It may be that this group will be large and economically powerful enough to bring both the joys and the challenges of aging to the forefront of our cultural consciousness, but aging is generally not much valued in our culture, at least not on the surface of things.  Think, for instance, of how few of our most popular media figures are old.  Indeed, images of aging are almost entirely absent from advertising, except in the most stereotypical of ways.  (Which products typically feature old people in their advertisements?) Think, too, of how much money Americans spend each year on products and procedures designed to fend off or even reverse aging

The flip side, of course, is that it isn't always all that easy being young.  The teen years that are immortalized in the songs and films of each successive generation bring almost overwhelming changes:  sexual maturity, peer-pressure, first loves, first jobs, first losses, and first forays into an independent life.  As if coping with those inescapable realities of the teen years weren't enough, there's the extra pressure of teen stereotyping to cope with--teens are widely believed to be lazy, selfish, spoiled, wild, and so on.  No matter the era, adults often consider teens "these days" to be worse than they've ever been before.

When this "gap" between the young and the old results in little or no positive contact between the generations, wonderful opportunities for mutually supportive relationships and learning are lost.  Many groups and programs, such as Generations United, and University of Pittsburgh's Generations Together are devoted to bridging the gap.  Illinois' own Intergenerational Initiative is another good example of an effort to bring young and old together to share ideas and experiences, and to forge friendships.  Consider the following questions as you explore this first definition of generations: 

  1. What are the challenges and benefits of cross-generational relationships?  Have you ever had a friend who was either very much younger or very much older than you?  What did that friendship have to offer that couldn't have come from a friendship with someone your own age? Does our culture provide many opportunities for such cross-generational forays?  

  2. What is your attitude toward aging?  Do you look forward to it, fear it, or a little bit of both?

  3. What are the most common stereotypes about teenagers today?  About the elderly?

  4. As far as you are concerned, what is the ideal age to be?  

  5. What kinds of things are expected of a person your age? Are the expectations reasonable?

A Birth Cohort Generation's Shared Experiences:  Those born into a particular birth cohort generation have a large pool of shared memories and experiences to draw upon as they form relationships with one other, but the bond between members of a given generation run deeper than recalling the same television shows, cars, or hairstyles--how we grow up shapes our values and ideals, as well.  Consider the following categories of experience likely to be held in common by those within a given generation.  How might these experiences have a profound and lasting impact on people?

The following table represents my attempt at recalling, in no particular order, a few of the experiences that shaped me.  Born in 1962, I count as a member of the "Tweener" Generation, so many of my memories are from the Seventies, though a few are from the eighties, as well:

 

Media Experiences:  

Products

Styles and Fashions

  • Shag hair cuts.

  • Strait leg red tab Levis.

  • Calvin Kleins.

  • Mood rings.

  • Ponchos.

  • Clogs.

  • Gaucho pants.

  • Minis and maxis.

  • Shag carpeting.

  • Shag hair cuts!

  • Earth shoes.

  • Smiley Faces.

  • Avocado green.

  • Harvest gold.

Historical and Political Events:

  • Vietnam on television each day.
  • Watergate.
  • Nixon resigns.
  • Gas rationing.
  • George Wallace shot.
  • Vietnam War declared over.
  • Ford pardons Nixon.
  • Attempted assassination of Ford.
  • Carter beats Ford for presidency.
  • Three Mile Island.
  • Iran Hostage Crisis.
  • Patty Hearst kidnapping.
  • Feminism.

Technology:

One thing that really stands out as I consider this list is that while drug use was openly discussed in the seventies, there was relatively little discussion of sexuality--certainly nowhere near as much as would by typical for a young person growing up today.  Although we did learn about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, discussion of AIDS and open discussion of homosexuality or "alternate lifestyles" did not come until the eighties.  Now, they are routinely a part of sex education classes in high school, and even earlier.  

What are your strongest memories of the era in which you grew up?  Try making a list of your own like the one above, and then answer the following questions about "birth-cohort" generations:

  1. What are the stereotypes of your generation? To what extent are they accurate? 
  2. If you could choose to have been born into a different generation, which one would you pick, and why?
  3. What is nostalgia?  For which time periods do we seem, on the whole, to be most nostalgic?

Familial Generations:  Are We Destined to Become Our ParentsHave you ever noticed that your definition of what counts as "old" or what counts as "maturity" change as you age?  At sixteen, someone who is twenty-one can seem positively ancient.  At twenty-one, thirty sound old.  At thirty, forty sounds old, and so on.  Much the same phenomenon can occur as we cross the boundaries from one familial generation to the next.  As children and teens, we may promise ourselves never to repeat our mother's and father's sayings, warnings, or mistakes, but once we marry and have children, we often gain both greater insight into our parents' lives, and a greater appreciation of just how much they influenced us:  their sayings, their habits, their political and religious beliefs, their strategies for negotiating a marital relationship and raising children--all of these will influence us for a lifetime, even if we really do attempt to follow through on our youthful determination to be nothing like our parents at all.  

These days, of course, contemplating familial generations is fraught with problems.  In an era of divorce, remarriage, and open discussion of the sorts of intrafamilial abuse that were once forbidden topics, no longer can we so readily invoke our nostalgia for the perfect nuclear family of the fifties, though the programs that capture that impossible ideal still regularly run on late night television.  Indeed, the evolution of the television family makes an excellent study for anyone interested in how real families have changed over the years.  Which fictional families most resemble our own?  Which do we most wish our real families resembled?  Is life more like The Simpsons than Leave it to Beaver?  Is it more like Now and Again than The Cosby Show?  Would a return to the days of extended families like the ones depicted in The Waltons or Everybody Loves Raymond really solve many of society's ills?  All of these media families not only  reflect the how real families have changed but also both shape and reveal our notions of what a family should be.

  1. Which television families did you grow up with?

  2. Which television families do you think are the most realistic and the most unrealistic?

  3. What do the currently most popular depictions of television families reveal about how our definition of "family" has changed over the years?

Activities for This Unit

  1. Read and study the unit on Generations.

  2. Participate in class discussions on issues raised by this unit.

  3. Answer questions in response to the reading.

  4. Write an essay in which you develop and support a thesis about one of the aspects of generations we've examined. Your thesis should be argumentative or persuasive.   Possible approaches include

    • Examining the stereotypes about a particular age group or generation.

    • Examining cultural attitudes toward aging.

    • Interviewing members of other generations about some specific change (technology, fashion, politics, etc.) that they've experienced, and how they've reacted to it.

    • Arguing for the merits of cross-generational friendships.

    • Analyzing the changing depictions of families in the media.

    • Reflecting on how some experience particular to your generation has influenced you.

    • Reflecting on things that have disappeared (penny candy, record players, innocence) from your life as you've aged and/or reflecting on things that have appeared (computers, the internet, car phones) in your life.  How have these disappearances and appearances shaped you?  

    • As always, you may also suggest a topic of your own.  Just be sure to discuss it with me so that we can ensure you're on the right track as you compose.

   

Generations Resources 

Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young. 

Fred Astaire

Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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FitchK@cdnet.cod.edu Disclaimer 20 December 2001