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The Ultimate Generation Gap of the 1960s

I'm a professor of history, but my articles (like my classes) cover a range of topics, including education, politics, history, and culture.

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1960s: A Time of Youth Rebellion

It would be interesting to conduct a study on the history of adolescence. I suspect that the stereotype of the sullen, rebellious, troublemaking teenager is a fairly modern concept. In a world where eighteen year olds are no longer viewed as adults, it is not surprising that they have a tendency to rebel against the authority figures “holding them down.” Still, I would not be surprised if ancient Egyptian parents were often complaining about their teenagers. Ancient teenagers, after all, just like the modern versions, had raging hormones and brains without a fully developed ability to utilize common sense.

The ultimate example of modern youth rebellion, however, would have to be the counterculture of the 1960s. And to a certain degree, this is simply the classic story of young people lashing out against the values and goals of their parents—only in this case, the behaviors of these hippies were, to put it lightly, a bit more extreme. So why did this pot-smoking, “free-love”-engaging, psychedelic-rock-listening youth generation appear at this particular point in American history?

Where Did Those Hippies Come From?

If this started off as essentially a rebellion of young people against their parents, then the place to begin would be the typical parent/child relationship in post-World War II America. Parents having large numbers of children during the initial “Baby Boom” period of the late 1940s and early 1950s were typically children of the Depression. Many grew up in tough times, with their economic situation often not improving until the beginning of World War II, the worst war in human history and a conflict in which many of these new parents had seen combat. Needless to say, the first 20–30 years of their lives were filled with trauma, insecurity, and possibly horrific violence. And due to various levels of post-traumatic stress, they may not have exactly been in touch with their emotions. Like Don Draper in the television series Mad Men, there were certain experiences and emotions that they preferred to shove under the rug, limiting their ability to connect emotionally with anyone.

Their kids, of course, often had entirely different experiences. The United States after World War II became the wealthiest nation in human history, and the middle class suburbanites, who for decades had been a privileged minority, were now the norm. Unprecedented numbers of Americans, through the combination of the economic boom, cheap housing, and government aid through the GI Bill, had the opportunity to live the so-called American Dream. These children of the Depression, seeking in these suburbs the security that they often lacked as children, now had the opportunity to buy their children happiness. And in these cookie-cutter neighborhoods surrounded preferably by people just like them, they could also shield their kids from the dangers of the outside world.

It turns out, of course, that material prosperity and safety do not guarantee happiness. One of the blessings of prosperity, in fact, is the opportunity to seek more out of life than survival. And these kids born and raised in suburbs were unable to appreciate fully how blessed their life really was. So as these kids grew up, they inevitably began to experience the “crises” familiar to anyone was has ever been a middle class child: nasty cases of acne, a romantic crush that does not quite go the way you would like, a mean teacher, a lost friendship, not making the basketball team, or other “life threatening” scenarios.

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But if these kids shared their feelings about these issues with their parents, then mom or dad – especially dad – might break off into one of their typical sermons: “When I was a kid, I barely had enough to eat, and you are complaining about a few pimples”; “I was working to support my family when I was twelve, and you can’t even keep up your grades”; or “I was walking to school in the snow –uphill, both ways - when I was your age, so get over it.”

Needless to say, for parents who had lived through some difficult times and had trouble facing up to their own emotions, they might not be particularly empathetic when it came to their kids’ childhood problems. An even larger than usual generation gap was inevitable, which may have played a significant part in feeding an unusually intense youth rebellion when these kids reached their teenage years beginning in the early 1960’s.

How the Generation Gap of the '60s Played Out

This generation gap, however, also played out on a more societal, political level. As they grew up in their suburban, relatively sheltered “bubble world,” they were generally taught in their schools and by their parents that the United States was the greatest country on earth. We were the earth’s shining example of freedom, liberty, and equality engaged in a global struggle against the godless, totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union. And like all children raised by parents seeking to shield them from some of the ugly realities of the world, they initially accepted what they were taught without question. At some point, however, we all have to grow up, and as these kids came of age in the era of television, the Civil Rights Movement, and eventually, the Vietnam War, they began to see the disconnect between the ideas embedded into them as kids and the reality of life in the United States and around the world. If the United States was a shining example of freedom and equality, then why were African-Americans forced to struggle so hard for the right to go to certain schools, drink out of certain drinking fountains, or even cast a vote? Is this global struggle versus communism worth the cost of shipping young people halfway around the world to kill and be killed in a country few Americans knew much of anything about?

Apparently, this country, created by old people, was not all it was cracked up to be. And if their parents and educators were full of it when they sang the praises of America, then maybe they were full of it about everything else. So now, this unusually large number of young people coming of age in the 1960’s was going to create a new and better culture and nation based on the principles of universal brotherhood, peace, personal freedom, individuality, self-expression, and spiritual fulfillment. They were not going to be constrained by the culture of their parents, a culture based on emotional repression, conformity, inequality, materialism, and order through force. When you look at the ideas and lifestyle of the 1960’s counterculture, it was, not surprisingly, the polar opposite of the mainstream culture of 1950’s suburbia.

As protest movements go, this was an odd group of protestors. Generally, protest movements are initiated by people experiencing some form of injustice or oppression. But especially in those early years when the counterculture was largely a movement of college students, these were protests led by the most privileged and prosperous generation in history. By the mid-1960’s, however, as the Vietnam War escalated, the “hippy” movement became almost fully intertwined with the anti-war movement. The realization by all young men that they may be sent to fight and die galvanized people from all ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. So when people flashed a peace sign, everyone knew what was meant. The Vietnam War, more than anything else, turned what was largely a middle class suburbanite movement into a mass movement that transcended traditional barriers.

Some would argue that many of the people in this so-called counterculture were not in it to change the world. They were just a bunch of spoiled kids looking for a chance to get high, get laid, and run away from any kind of responsibility. In some cases, this may have been true. It’s hard to imagine a counterculture of this magnitude emerging during less prosperous times when people had no choice but to focus on survival. Ironically enough, many of these “hippies” – assuming they survived the 1960’s – “grew up,” got jobs, raised families, and became as “square” and materialistic as their parents had been. If anything, these “yuppies” may have been even more into wealth and success than their parents, indicating that all of their “hippy” talk in the past was just an idealistic fantasy reflecting the foolishness of youth.

Is There a Generation Gap Today?

For parents today who are roughly my age, there is not in general such a wide generation gap between themselves and their kids. Since I was raised middle class in a suburb just as my kids have been, I cannot (honestly) tell them stories about how much I suffered in my youth and of how they “have opportunities that I never had.” At best, I can tell them tragic stories about coping with cassette tapes, landlines, and “Pacman” instead of having an Ipod, smart phone, and a wii. But in spite of these technological blessings, they may actually face a situation a bit more difficult than I (or even my parents) did as a child. It’s not easy to get a suburban home in Orange County, California today, and in our world of constant technological change, the prospects of settling into a stable career for life may be lower than ever before. My kids are growing up in a world very different from the one that I knew, but I don’t see in their generation a burning desire to create a planet free from all of the problems created by old people. Either they don’t think it is possible to solve these problems or they are too busy texting each other to try.

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