Sociology Of Generations Research Paper

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Generations constitute—just as the closely related categories of age, youth, adulthood and old age— seemingly universal categories in all human societies signifying the different stages of human life; the same is true of tensions between generations, as well as of concepts of the age group or set—in particular the youth group—as a special social category with its own distinct self-consciousness. But it is only in very specific civilizational and historical circumstances that these features come together. Only in special circumstances does historical change become articulated in terms of generational consciousness in general, and that of youth in particular.

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It was Karl Mannheim—as well as J. Marias and J. Ortega y Gassett—who emphasized the apparent universality of generational consciousness or at least posed it as a major problem of research; but this tendency, at least as reported by them, was indeed very closely connected to rather specific civilizational traditions—the European ones—and to specific historical circumstances in the development of this civilization. Accordingly a central problem in the analysis of generations is under what conditions does historical change become articulated in terms of generational consciousness in general and that of youth in particular?

1. The Cultural Definitions Of Age And Of Youth

Generational consciousness is naturally connected with that of age and age differences, and therefore it might first of all be worthwhile to specify the general conditions under which specific age groups and generational tensions and consciousness develop in human societies.

Age differences in general and youth in particular constitute a universal phenomenon. They are first of all a biological phenomenon. Although the basic biological processes of maturation (within the limits set by such factors as relative longevity) are probably more or less similar in all human societies, the definition of age differences in general and of youth in particular is always cultural. Their cultural definition varies from society to society, at least in its details.

The cultural definitions of age and age differences contain several different yet complementary elements. First, these definitions often refer to the social division of labor in a society, to one of the criteria according to which people are assigned to various social positions and roles; for instance, in many societies certain roles—especially those of married men, full citizens, independent earners—are barred to young people, while others—such as certain military roles—are specifically allocated to them. Second, the cultural definition of age is one important constituent of a person’s self-identity, his self-perception in terms of his own psychological needs and aspirations, his or her place in society, and the ultimate meaning of his life.

Within any such definition, the qualities of each age are evaluated according to their relation to some basic, primordial qualities, such as vigor, physical and sexual prowess, the ability to cope with material, social and supernatural environment, wisdom, experience, or divine inspiration. Different ages are seen in different societies as the embodiments of such qualities. These various qualities seem to unfold from one age to another, each age emphasizing some out of the whole panorama of such possible qualities.

The various qualities attributed to different ages are usually interconnected in many ways, constituting a series of sorts. The characteristics of any one ‘age,’ therefore, cannot be fully understood except in relation to those of other ages. Only when taken together do these different ‘ages’ constitute the entire map of human possibilities and limitations as envisaged in different societies; and, as every individual usually must pass through them all, their complementariness and continuity (even if defined in discontinuous and contrasting terms) become strongly emphasized and articulated. The same holds true for the age definitions of the two sexes, although perhaps with a somewhat different meaning. Each age-span is often defined differently for either sex, and these definitions are usually related and complementary, as the ‘sexual image’ and identity always constitute basic elements of man’s image in every society.

This close connection between different ages necessarily stresses the problem of transition from one point or stage in a person’s life to another as a basic constituent of any cultural definition of an ‘age.’ The personal transition or temporal progress, or change, tends to become closely linked with the designation or perception of cosmic and societal time—with the rhythms of nature or history, the cycles of the seasons, the unfolding of some cosmic plan (whether cyclical, seasonal, or apocalyptic), or the destiny and development of society. The nature of this linkage often constitutes the focus round which an individual’s personal identity becomes defined in cultural terms and through which personal experience, with its anguish, may be given some meaning in terms of cultural symbols and values.

2. Youth As A Liminal, Transitory Phase; Kernels Of Generational Consciousness

The problems of age definition and the linkage of personal time and transition with cosmic time become very often accentuated in that age-span usually designated as youth—which constitute in most societies the most liminal of age definitions—the transition from childhood to full adult status, to full membership in the society. In this period the individual is no longer a child (especially from the physical and sexual point of view) and is ready to undertake many attributes of an adult and to fulfil adult roles. But he is not yet fully acknowledged as an adult, a full member of the society. Rather, he or she is being, as it were, ‘prepared,’ or is preparing himself for such adulthood.

This image of youth—the cultural definition of youth—contains all the crucial elements of any definition of age, usually in a specially articulated way, and often in confrontation with other age categories. Moreover, in this phase the problem of the linkage of the personal temporal transition with cosmic or societal time becomes extremely acute.

The fullest, the most articulate and definitive expression of these archetypal elements of youth and of their liminal potentials is best exemplified in the ritual dramatization of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, such as the various rites de passage and ceremonies of initiation in primitive tribes and in ancient civilizations. In an even more diluted form, these elements may be found in the various spontaneous initiation ceremonies of the fraternities and youth groups in modern societies (Bettelheim 1954, Erikson 1963, pp. 54–93). Hence the youth period and its symbolism, and the liminal situations in which it becomes expressed, may become the focus both of continuity of the social order as well as of protest against it, and of its change.

The very emphasis on the transitory nature of this stage and on its essentially preparatory character, however, often create a somewhat paradoxical situation—namely an image of youth as the purest manifestation and repository of ultimate cultural and societal values of all the major human virtues and primordial qualities. Such an image may be reinforced by the identification of physical vigor in youth with a more general flowering of the cosmos or the society. It is this situation that contains the kernels of the development of strong generational consciousness especially around the image of youth, with strong potentialities of protest.

The social organization of any age and especially of the period of youth is constructed in all societies according to two major criteria. One is the extent to which age in general and youth in particular form a criterion for the allocation of roles in a society, whether in politics or in economic or cultural activity—aside from the family, of course, in which they always serve as such a criterion. The second is the extent to which within society there develop specific age groups, specific corporate organizations, composed of members of the same ‘age,’ such as youth movements or old men’s clubs.

3. The Social And Cultural Contexts Of Different Patterns Of Age And Generational Symbolism And Organization

The importance of age as a criterion for allocating roles in a society is closely related to several major aspects of social organization and cultural orientation. The first aspect is the relative complexity of the division of labor. In general, the simpler the organization of the society, the more influential age will be as a criterion for allocating roles. Therefore, in parallel tribal or preliterary traditional societies, age and seniority constitute basic criteria for allocating social, economic, and political roles.

The second such aspect is that the major value orientations and symbols of a society, especially the extent to which they emphasize certain general qualities, or types of activity (such as physical vigor, the maintenance of cultural tradition, the achievement and maintenance of supernatural prowess) become expressed and symbolized in specific age-spans. Thus for instance, in those societies in which military values and orientations prevail, young adulthood is emphasized as a very important—sometimes even as the most important—age, while those in which sedentary activities prevail emphasize older age. Similarly, within some traditional societies, where older people may serve as important ‘storers’ of collective memory, old age may be emphasized if it is seen as the most appropriate one for expressing major cultural values and symbols—for instance, the very upholding, symbolization, and perpetuation of a given cultural tradition.

The social and cultural conditions that determine the extent to which specific age groups and youth groups develop differ from the conditions that determine the extent to which age serves as a criterion for the allocation of roles. At the same time, the two kinds of conditions may be, in some situations or societies, closely related. Age groups in general and youth groups in particular tend to arise in those societies in which the family or kinship unit cannot ensure (it may even impede) the attainment of full social and political status on the part of its members. These conditions appear especially, although not uniquely, in societies in which family or kinship groups do not constitute the basic units of the social division of labor. Membership in the total society (citizenship) is not defined in terms of belonging to any such family, kinship group, or estate, nor is it mediated by such a group.

The emergence of distinct age and generational organization and consciousness, as Meyer Fortes has shown in one of his last papers, lies in the political realm, in the search and definition of citizenship beyond the family sphere and not through the family, while generational differences are mostly elaborated in the structure of the family and kinship unit.

4. Age Organization And Generational Consciousness In Tribal, Archaic, And Historical Societies

The type of social division of labor and of political and cultural symbolism that generates such conditions is found in varying degrees in different societies— primitive, historical, or modern. Such a division of labor has existed, for example, in several primitive tribes: in Africa, among the chiefless (segmentary) tribes of Nandi, Masai, or Kipigis; in the village communities of Yako and Ibo; in the more centralized kingdoms of the Zulu and Swazi; and among some of the Indian tribes of the Plains, as well as among some South American and Indian tribes. Such division of labor likewise existed to some extent in several historical societies (especially in city states such as Athens or Rome), although most great historical civilizations were characterized mainly by a more hierarchical and ascriptive system of the division of labor, in which there were greater continuity and harmony between the family and kinship groups, and the broader institutional contexts.

The fullest development of this type of social division of labor is to be found in modern, especially industrial, societies in which inclusive membership is usually based on universal criteria. In these societies the family does not constitute a basic unit of division of labor, especially not in production and distribution, and even in the sphere of consumption its functions become more limited; occupations are not transmitted through heredity. Similarly, the family or kinship group does not constitute a basic unit of political or ritual activities. Moreover, the general scope of the activities of the family has been continuously diminishing, while various specialized agencies tend to take over its functions in the fields of education and recreation.

At the same time in most modern—as well as in some historical—societies, there developed a certain dissociation between organizations of groups based on age and the symbolic distinction between different age categories. It is such dissociation that constitutes the background for the potentialities for the crystallization of specific generational consciousness formed around the image of youth and in which there develops a strong articulation of the dialectics between, on the one hand, the ‘rebellious’ protestoriented aspects of youth organization and generational consciousness, and, on the other hand, continuity-oriented aspects (Bettelheim 1954, Erikson 1963, pp. 54–93).

5. Generational And Youth Symbolism And Consciousness In Modern Societies

5.1 Generational Consciousness In Modern Society

The generational consciousness, about which Mannheim, Marias, and ortega y Gassett and many other modern writers wrote, has developed against the background analyzed above. Such consciousness is indeed connected, in a rather paradoxical way, with the fact that in modern societies the development of specific youth organizations is linked with the weakening of the importance of age in general and youth in particular as definite criteria for the allocation of roles in society become weakened. Yet this very weakening of the importance of age, as a criterion of allocation of roles, has been connected with intensive development of youth groups and movements—and lately also, perhaps paradoxically, among ‘retired’ people. Indeed, it is very interesting to note that in some of the contemporary industrial societies there tends to develop a distinct organization based on age as well as generational consciousness that are again coming together at the other end of the life-span—in old age—among the older people, that is, those who have retired from work.

It is because of these developments—some incipient phases of which can be also discerned in different archaic and historical societies, but which have not been studied adequately (Nash 1978)—that in modern societies there also arises the possibility of the development of very strong generational consciousness in general, and of the articulation of such consciousness in terms of youth in particular. It denotes the general development of the self-consciousness of generations, which develops in the public realm— whether the realm of politics or of culture—and it contains very strong potentialities of social, political, or cultural protest.

6. Historical Change, Revolutionary Orientations, Generational Consciousness In Modern Youth Movements

The development in modern societies of such a dissociation between generations, and the concomitant possibility of the development of a special type of a distinct generational consciousness, are due not only to the complex division of labor that characterizes these societies. They are also closely connected to the relatively quick tempo of historical change, and above all to the consciousness of such change. Such consciousness is often connected with changes rooted in the revolutionary orientations which constituted important components of the construction of modern civilization, cultural values, and/orientations. These revolutionary orientations were most fully articulated by the major social movements that have developed as part and parcel of modern life, of the constructions of modern social and political order and of struggle around such construction. The possibility of the development of distinct generational consciousness has been enhanced in modern societies by the occurrence of rapid historical changes or ruptures, the consciousness of which is shared by members of the same age group or age cohort.

But while historical change is particularly rapid and the consciousness of such change very widespread in modern societies, it does not always give rise to fully articulated generational consciousness—although to some degree such consciousness is probably rather common in modern societies and is not necessarily confined to the symbolism and ideology of youth. It is only in rather special historical circumstances and situations—like wars, changes of regime, and the like, especially of events which entail strong ruptures—that such generational consciousness has become articulated in modern societies in terms of youth symbolism.

Among such situations in modern societies two are probably of special importance. One was developed at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and found its fullest expression in the free German youth movements, though it was also present in the less spectacular youth movements of Central Europe and to some extent in the youth culture of various more flexible youth groups that developed in most modern societies. In all these movements very strong attempts have been made to overcome the dislocation between personal transition and societal and cultural time. It was in them that dreams of a new life, a new society, freedom and spontaneity, a new humanity, and aspirations to social and cultural change found utterance. It was in these youth movements that the forging of youth’s new social identity became closely connected with the development of new symbols of collective identity or new social-cultural symbols and meanings, which thus become foci of protest aimed at the reconstruction of society and culture.

While some of these orientations could be found in many of the youth groups that developed in most modern societies—be they in England/or the United States—they developed most fully in situations where these groups became closely interconnected with major social movements oriented at the reconstruction of the centers and symbols of their respective societies. This was the case above all in the major nationalistic and revolutionary movements in Central and Eastern Europe, in Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Russia, or in the Zionist movement, where these orientations and student movements played a crucial role.

One of the major characteristics of many, probably most, of these movements was that in their ideology the symbolism of youth was very closely connected with that of the construction of new modern, especially national, collectivities that were being constructed at the period, and among the aims of these youth movements the reconstruction of such collectivities— national, social, or cultural—was central. These movements aimed at changing many aspects of the social and cultural life of their respective societies, to reconstruct the centers and premises of their respective societies in terms of some of the major revolutionary orientations of modernity. They depicted the present in a rather shabby light; they censured it for its materialism, exploitation, restrictive views, and lack of opportunity for self-fulfilment and creativity. At the same time they held out hope for the future— seemingly the not very far-off future—when both self-fulfilment and collective fulfilment could be achieved and the materialistic civilization of the adult world shaken off. They tried to appeal to youth to forge its own self-identity in terms of these new collective symbols, and this is why they have been so attractive to youth, for whom they provided a set of symbols, hopes, and aims to which to direct its activities.

The influence of such movements and/orientations was very great, not only political and educational but also in many cultural arenas. In a way, education itself has tended to become a social movement. Many schools and universities, and many teachers, have been among the most important bearers of collective values. The expansion of education itself is often seen as a means by which a new epoch might be ushered in.

7. The Routinization Of Revolutionary Movements; The Demystification Of The World; And Youth And Student Rebellion Of The 1960s

The second historical situation in modern societies in which generational consciousness, couched in the symbolism of youth, became very prominent in the new social movements burgeoned in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and became most fully manifest in the various student rebellions and movements of the time.

The background to these new developments was a combination of the growing institutionalization of many of the collective values and symbols of the social, national, and youth movements discussed above, and the continuous expansion of education and changes in occupational structure. These developments had several important repercussions on the structuration of the life spans of youth.

The area of social life that the specific youth or student culture encompasses has tended to expand continuously. First, it has extended over a long period of life, reaching, through the impact of the extension of higher education, to what before was seen as early adulthood. Second, it tends more and more to include areas of work, leisure time activity, and many interpersonal relations. Third, the potential and actual autonomy of these groups, and the possibility their members have for direct access to work, marriage, and family life, to political rights, and to consumption, have greatly increased, while their dependence on adults has greatly decreased.

Paradoxically enough, the growing direct access of young people to various areas of life has given rise to a growing insecurity of status and self-identity and to a growing ambiguity of adult roles. This insecurity and ambiguity has been enhanced, first, by the prolongation of the time-span between biological and social maturity and by the extension of the number of years spent in ‘preparatory’ (educational) institutions, and, second, by the growing dissociation between the values of these institutions and the future—especially in terms of occupational and parental roles—of those participating in them. A third factor is that for a long period many ‘young’ people may as yet have no clear occupational roles or responsibilities and may be dependent on their parents or public institutions for their economic needs, while at the same time they constitute an important economic force as consumers and certainly exercise political rights. In turn this situation may become intensified or aggravated by the growing demographic preponderance of the ‘young’ in the whole population and by the increasing possibilities of ecological mobility.

All these developments gave rise to new types of generational and youth consciousness—a new combination between the symbolism of youth and collective symbolism. The older classical movements of protest and youth movements tended to assume that the framework and centers of the nation-state constituted the major cultural and social reference points of personal identity and of the charismatic orientations to some sociocultural orders, and that the major task before them was to facilitate the access of broader strata to these centers and full participation in them and possible changes in them. In contrast, the new movements of protest have been characterized by their scepticism towards these new modern centers and by lack of commitments to them—all of which denoted important aspects of what has been called by Weber the demystification of the world.

The foci of protest promulgated by these movements shifted from demands for greater participation in national political centers or from attempts to influence their socioeconomic politics to new directions. The most important of these directions were: first, attempts to ‘disrobe’ these centers of their charismatic legitimacy and perhaps of any legitimacy at all; second, continuous searches for new loci of meaningful participation beyond these centers and the concomitant attempts to create new centers which would be independent of the existing center; third, attempts to formulate the patterns of participation in their centers not so much in sociopolitical or economic terms but more through symbols of primordial or of direct social participation.

These developments have often been connected with the breakdown of consciousness of historical continuity and of the conception of the future in terms of such continuity. The image of the societal future has become flattened and has been deprived of its allure. No sharp ideological discontinuity has been conceived between present and future.

Through these developments, youth has been, as it were, robbed of the full experience of the dramatic transition from adolescence to adulthood and of the dramatization of the difference between present and future. Their own changing personal future has become dissociated from any changes in their societies or in cultural activities and values. As a result of all these processes, the possibility of linking personal transition to societal and cosmic time—which was so strongly emphasized in the youth movements and observable also to some extent even in the earlier, looser youth culture—has become greatly weakened.

One of the most important results of these developments has been the development of a new configuration of youth symbolism and generational consciousness—the major characteristic of which was the development of strong antinomian intellectual tendencies as a central component of such symbolism and consciousness.

It is not just the contents of these antinomian tendencies that are new, but the convergence of these contents with the spread and location of these movements. Of special importance in this context is the fact that this type of protest was not confined only to small, closed intellectual groups but involved widespread circles of novices and aspirants to intellectual status. Given the expansion of the modern educational system and the parallel effects of the spread of mass-communication media, a very large part of the educated public have become aspirant to such status, and impinge on the centers of intellectual creativity and cultural transmission and become integral, even if transient, parts thereof.

This rather unique combination of intellectual antinomianism with youth rebellion gave rise to a new type of youth ideology that was connected to the reversal of the hitherto existing relation between the definition of different age-spans and the possibilities of social and cultural creativity. Unlike in the past—even the not-so-distant past—youth became more and more seen not only as a preparation for independent and creative participation in social and cultural life, but as the very embodiment of permissive, often unstructured creativity—to be faced later on with the constants of a relatively highly organized, constrictive, meritocratic, and bureaucratic environment. Thus youth now became, even more than before, the transmitters and symbols of a continuous antinomian confrontation between the pristine values it embodies and a demystified social reality, and the impact of this new type of generational consciousness has been of crucial importance in the crystallization of what has been designated as the postmodern trends in contemporary societies. While the intensity and the concrete manifestation of this consciousness will naturally change from one situation to another, the consciousness itself with the various antinomian tendencies analyzed above seems to have become more and more prevalent.


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