In a recent interview published in Time magazine, Tom Brokaw was asked why we constantly compare today’s youth and politics to those of the 60s. He said:
We’re at war. It’s an unpopular and divisive war. Again, the elites have the privilege of avoiding military service because it’s an all-voluntary military. We have a much bigger drug culture now than we had then. It has given way to vast criminal empires that are ravaging the inner cities of this country.”
My take: By politicizing his remarks, Brokaw misses the boat. Brokaw is wrong on two fronts:
- The response to the wars is very different. Unless they’re just not getting reported on, today’s youth aren’t occupying the administration buildings of their colleges, the National Guard isn’t getting called in to break up demonstrations at places like Kent State, and radical groups like the Yippies and SDS aren’t particularly active on college campuses. Today’s youth may oppose the Iraq war, but their response to it is far different that the response to the Vietnam War.
- Today’s drug situation isn’t analogous to the 60s. I have no idea what the drug situation is like in today’s inner cities. It may very well be as bad as Brokaw makes it out to be. But the drug culture in the 60s wasn’t limited to urban areas. The 60s’ drug culture was about personal expression, mind expansion, and most importantly, an attempt to make a break from the rigid homogeneity of the 50s. Today’s drug situation may have grown out of what happened in the 60s, but it’s not why we “constantly compare today’s youth” to those of the 60s.
What Brokaw should have said was that the comparison of today’s youth to the 60s is due to the:
- Collaborative spirit of the respective generations. Gen Yers like to think of themselves as the first collaborative generation. Wrong. The Boomers planted those seeds (pun intended) 40 years ago. It was people like Wavy Gravy who helped start communes like the Hog Farm out west, who personify the collaborative nature of the early Boomers (interestingly, Wavy isn’t a Boomer himself, too early for that label).
- Activist nature of the respective generations. Groups like the Yippies and SDS may no longer be active on campus, but Gen Yers are very involved in community affairs. Just look at the list of extracurricular activities of the typical college student or high school senior. The cynical will say they’re padding their resumes — but it the impetus comes from their Boomer parents and Boomer college administrators who either require or look for these activities on their resumes.
- Desire for social change. The Boomers of the Sixties were looking to effect change. It wasn’t simply a reaction to a war they didn’t agree with, it was a dismissal of the culture that emerged out of the 50s. Whether it was due to the greater affluence that enabled them to focus on social issues, or the drugs that enlightened their minds, the children of the 60s wanted social change — which is what today’s emerging generation is talking about again, 40 years later.
But here’s the most significant difference: The social revolutionaries of the 60s tried to buck the system, or avoid it altogether. They created communes, or moved out into the hills. They didn’t try to change the system from within.
Which is what today’s Gen Yers are doing. They’re creating their own companies, and trying to change the culture of existing organizations. And they have something that the children of the 60s didn’t have: Technology like PCs and the Internet. Of course, they have the Boomers to thank for that.
And Al Gore. Which is probably the one thing I’ve said here that Tom Brokaw might agree with.