GENERATIONAL CONFLICT arises whenever the interests or ideals of one generation collide openly with those of another. A generation is defined here as a "cohort group" that is born over a span of years—typically about twenty—and that shares characteristics, including some shared childhood and coming-of-age experiences, a set of common behavioral and attitudinal traits, and a sense of common identity. Like race, class, or nationality, a generation is an abstraction that includes all kinds of individuals, but generational membership affects so many dimensions of social life that few are untouched by its influence. The history of women in the United States, for example, can hardly be told without reference to the generational waves of reformers who advanced the feminist cause—from the Seneca Falls organizers in the 1840s to the woman's suffrage crusade in the 1910s, to the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even among historically excluded minorities, the rhythm of generational conflict often echoes or inspires much that goes on in the majority society. Especially over the decades of the mid-to late 1900s, the profound minority influence on mainstream youth culture suggests that the style and outlook of each "new generation" do, indeed, transcend many ethnic and racial barriers. Sociologists argue that only modern societies—in which age specific social roles are not prescribed by tradition—regularly give rise to different generational identities. This may help explain why the United States has a generational history of such remarkable diversity and drama. "Among democratic nations," Alexis de Tocqueville concluded after his American travels, "each generation is a new people."
Wars and economic dislocations always have been regarded as generation-defining events. Not surprisingly, Americans that came of age during a national emergency typically developed powerful collective identities, often oriented around an ethos of social discipline, secular progress, and confident public leadership. Three memorable examples are what Thomas Jefferson called his "generation of 1776" (the Revolutionary War); what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., called his "generation touched with fire" (the Civil War); and what some historians call John F. Kennedy's "GI generation" (the Great Depression and World War II). Each of these generations entered public life at a conspicuously early age. With inherited institutions in disarray, their quick rise to power triggered epic struggles—which invariably unleashed generational tensions—over just how the political and economic deck would be reshuffled.
For the young Revolutionary War veterans, generational conflict emerged over their efforts to secure a more powerful yet democratic political constitution against the objections of the aging peers of Patrick Henry and John Adams. For the young Civil War veterans, it appeared when they rejected the leadership of older moralists who had recently wreaked horrible destruction. For those who came of age during the Depression of the 1930s, it surfaced in the overwhelming number of votes cast for the forward-looking and youth-favoring policies of the New Deal.
National emergencies are not the only kind of event that can trigger generational conflict. The most spectacular clashes accompany "spiritual awakenings," which ordinarily occur during eras of relative peace and prosperity. Such awakenings are marked by young people's vocal advocacy of spiritual rebirth and moral reform. According to many contemporary accounts, the Great Awakening of the late 1730s and early 1740s was largely driven by the young. Again, between the 1820s and mid-1840s, young adults dominated the ranks of the Evangelicals who spearheaded America's so-called Second Great Awakening.
The "consciousness revolution" of the late 1960s and 1970s may fit the same pattern. In this case, generational conflict was so pervasive that such terms as "generational divide" and "generation gap" were common parlance for nearly a decade. Here, the passion was fired by a (babyboom) generation that came of age, vilifying the alleged moral complacency of an aging cadre of (GI generation) veterans. Unlike young war generations, which collide with the old over how to rebuild secular institutions, young awakening generations sometimes broadcast an institutionally subversive and spiritually antinomial message, the effects of which are felt more in the culture than in politics.
Generations raised as children during national crises typically mature into politically and culturally risk-averse young adults and thus avoid open conflict with elders. For example, Americans born from the late 1920s to the early 1940s are frequently referred to as the "silent" generation because of the reputation they earned during the 1950s for avoiding youth radicalism. Generations of this type were of special interest by the 1990s, with the coming of age of a generation of postboomers born after 1960. Variously labeled Generation X, or the Baby Bust, Scarce, New Lost, Nowhere, or Thirteenth generation, these young Americans as children in the 1970s absorbed an array of social pathologies that did not touch older generations as deeply, including post-Watergate cynicism, fragmenting families, crime and drug epidemics, schoolroom chaos, and pessimism about the nation's future. As young adults in the 1980s and early 1990s, this generation showed little of the animus that so many boomers once directed against "the establishment." Postboomers claimed in surveys to be somewhat more conservative, less interested in social change, and vastly more interested in individual survival and success.
Some generational conflicts that focused on the cultural and social ideals of youth have been followed by another—one that focuses on the political and economic interests of youth. In the late 1960s, the conflict was of the former type. By the mid-1990s, public speculation had clearly shifted toward a potential conflict of the latter type. The media, and political leaders of the mid-1990s, made routine reference to elder-imposed resource constraints on the young, including declines in living standards among young families, low rates of national savings, chronic federal deficits, mounting environmental liabilities, and public entitlement programs that directed most of their benefits to the old and were projected to impose stiff tax burdens on workers early in the twenty-first century. There was a rapidly growing academic literature on public policies that treat the young unfairly—examined under such rubrics as "generational equity" and "generational accounting." Whether this blunt economic language fore-tells a permanent trend toward self-preservation through material acquisition, as some have argued, is a question to be answered by the ascendant generations of the twenty-first century.
Graubard, Stephen R., ed. Generations. New York: Norton, 1979.
Samuels, Richard J., ed. Political Generations and Political Development: [Proceedings]. Lexington, Mass. : Lexington Books, 1977.
Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of American's Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Morrow, 1991.