Stop Judging A Generation By Its Label

ALICE STEINBACH

April 29, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

I WAS WONDERING when somebody would finally get around to giving the post-baby boom generation an official label.

After all, we've been out of the '80s for over a year now, and the so-called Me Generation seems to have gone down the tubes along with the likes of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.

Well, now the verdict on America's new young people is in and an appropriate group label has been assigned. Christened by none other than Esquire magazine in a recent cover piece, the current crop of Americans under the age of 35 has been named:

The Nowhere Generation.

"Not a generation destined for greatness," is the way Esquire assesses the potential of the generation standing in line just behind the ambitious baby boomers. Characterizing them as a "faceless, colorless, odorless transitional group," we are advised not to look to the Nowhere Generation for help in changing the jTC system since they're "believed to be uniquely unprepared for the task."

Whew! It didn't take Esquire very long to size up the collective shortcomings of millions of young adults, some of whom are still in college or graduate school or taking their first steps out into the world of adult responsibilities.

But I guess by now we should be used to it: This need to lump whole generations together in what is essentially a meaningless -- but clever -- classification; one that usually conveys the flavor of a small but eye-catching group within the larger society.

You remember some of the names given bygone generations: The Beat Generation. (If you grew up in the late 50s, how many beatniks did you actually know?) The Hip Generation. (Many more hippies than beatniks but still in the minority.) The Me Generation. (Yuppies, buppies, guppies; a shorthand way to convey greedy, selfish people while ignoring the fact that many baby boomers were dedicated conservationists, environmentalists and socially concerned people.)

When, I wondered, did we begin to label entire generations with disparaging names?

A friend who used to teach American literature says the custom began in the early 1920s when Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway: "You are all a Lost Generation."

It strikes me that there's not a whole lot of difference -- semantically speaking -- between being a generation that's lost and one that's nowhere. And maybe that means we're recycling old wine into new bottles instead of letting the young wine settle and age at its own pace.

I guess I am feeling very protective about this generation, the one that Esquire deigns to call the Nowhere Generation. Perhaps that's because I have two sons on the cusp of this age group and I see nothing in their attitude or approach -- or that of their friends -- that suggests to me a generation going nowhere.

Or perhaps I feel so strongly about all this because of the senior year college students I teach. Without exception they strike me as having the potential to contribute to a larger society -- if that society offers them the opportunity to do so.

In some ways, it may be our country's ability to excel economically and competitively that is going nowhere. In the face of a shrinking pool of entry-level jobs -- down 30 percent from last year according to some experts -- the Class of '91 is having to scramble for interviews, cast a wider net and lower their expectations in terms of career choices.

It is a frightening experience for many of them, and it seems to me the last thing young people need right now is a label telling them they're the Nowhere Generation.

Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't there a time not so long ago when what was handed down from generation to generation was the transferral of experience and information? When there was a generational link that connected the old to the middle-aged to the young?

Now, instead of connecting generations, we seem to separate each age group by decade and temperament from the one that went before. It's ironic that in lumping generations together by label, we separate them from the larger community. But then we seem to be a country whose political agenda is fueled by special interest groups, some of them based on generational concerns of separate age groups.

What would happen, I wonder, if we didn't give the Class of '91 -- or any class of the '90s, for that matter -- a label? What if we tried to pass down to them a sense of trust and faith in their ability to advance or change for the better the world we live in?

It seems worth a try to me.

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