First, a disclaimer. At no time did I personally utter this sentence: “Never trust anyone over 30.” (FYI, it was coined by Jack Weinberg, whose 1964 arrest for violating prohibitions against political advocacy on the UC Berkeley campus ignited the Free Speech Movement, and who—at 65 or so—is still a dedicated environmental activist, having had decades to repent his youthful exhortation.) But plenty of people did say it, many of them with straight faces, so the chickens of generational conflict now clucking home to roost were hatched by some in my cohort. Just not me, okay?
For the last month or two, I’ve been reading and hearing statements in which members of a younger generation express resentment towards my own. For instance, consider these highlights from the community arts field:
- A friend reported that at a U.S.-based forum with veteran and younger artists, a thirtyish panelist said that all older artists “can do is create a safe space for the people who are coming behind us to envision something that hasn’t been created before.” The underlying call was to “allow the youngest generation to lead now.”
- In an essay calling for cultivation of a new generation of community arts leaders, a recent recipient of an M.A. in “youth in arts and community development” characterized baby-boomers thusly: “Leaders in the older generation come from a work ethic that stated organizational loyalty. Many watched their parents work for one company their entire lives and spend long hours completing the tasks of the job. Younger leaders have a different approach, though they might share the same commitment and loyalty to the organization. Many desire time to nurture relationships outside of work like family and friends. It may be difficult for older leaders to understand this since many are at a stage in life where this issue has been resolved. Their families are more mature, for example, or they merged the personal and professional long ago.” The writer went on to suggest that “different models like co-directorships, collectives and other types of shared power structures would be appropriate.”
- Responding to the advice that younger artists should start new groups, a Canadian community artist wrote “Here is my question to the privileged baby boomers and their young proteges–when are you going start honouring and acknowledging those of us GenX’ers who have really built community arts in this country–who are the authentic foot soldiers of this art form?”
Whew! Whew! I don’t really believe it’s possible to have a “safe space to envision” (it seems to me our envisioning has to go on regardless) nor that leadership has anything to do with allowing. And who doesn’t “desire time to nurture relationships” and why aren’t all those “privileged baby boomers” sharing the wealth with me? It reminds me of a story.
Twenty years ago, I helped to lead a retreat for a group of crusading lawyers: attorneys who defended death-row inmates, took on civil liberties cases, represented farm workers and asylum-seekers and conscientious objectors. At a low ebb in the Reagan years, their organization experienced a sort of generational split, and not for the first time.
In the sixties, there had been a showdown between the older generation of labor and civil liberties activists who then made up the group’s leadership and the young firebrands of sixties antiwar and civil rights movements. Flash forward two decades: in a retreat session to discuss recent tensions, a law student complained bitterly that the group’s leadership behaved as if it were impossible to lead unless one had come up through the ranks as a sixties activist. He accused the sixties veterans of wanting to keep all the power for themselves.
A woman of the sixties generation, an officer of the board whose reputation for toughness was unchallenged, tried to reply, but before she could utter, she was overcome by tears. “Last week,” she sobbed, “we buried M____,” naming a man who’d started out in the thirties and persisted through the earlier generational combat. “He was a leader. It seems like yesterday I was saying the same things to him. And now you think I’m a leader? You think I have power? We’re practically broke, Ronald Reagan is president and I haven’t got a clue.”
Tears ran down every cheek in the packed room, the seamed faces of hard-bitten vets and the smooth cheeks of students alike. The barriers to empathy burst, letting in the deep truth of shared isolation. No power-hungry oldsters and excluded youngsters, just people struggling for justice against the grain of their society, people who’d fallen into the trap of objectifying each other. Tears released understanding and from that, change began.
The younger community artists who made the comments quoted above evidently feel unseen, misunderstood and even rejected by my generation. But the feeling is mutual. Their comments reveal perceptions so far from the lived realities of most older community artists, they expose a yawning generation gap between people with so much in common they should be shoulder-to-shoulder allies.
In reality, baby-boomers who’ve stuck with organizations for decades haven’t done so out of some inherited ethic of organizational loyalty (I don’t actually know anyone in that position whose father loyally worked a corporate job to the grave, although there must be a few; more descended from immigrants and activists, more are women and people of color with other models in mind). Almost without exception, they’ve persisted because they started those organizations and nurtured them through innumerable permutations of power-sharing, so that to contemplate leaving them (as they eventually must) is pretty much on a par with abandoning their children. And as for privilege, perhaps it’s different in Canada, but stateside, I know far too many activist artists in their fifties and sixties who have no nest egg or cushion for retirement, who’ve persisted out of passionate commitment, accepting economic marginality as the cost of doing their work in an economy that doesn’t value their contributions to social capital.
I suppose some degree of generational opposition is a fact of life, as the younger members of any species push off against their forebears to launch themselves into the world. But with our big brains, perhaps we have more choice in the matter than do elk or penguins. I hope so, because in a marginal field, generational conflict serves only one interest: it deflects attention from the resource providers who baked a pie so meager that the young feel their elders are somehow cheating them by continuing to claim a portion.
While a few groups have had fat years, most community artists in the United States have been on a long-term starvation diet. This is because social policy has been dominated by thinkers who haven’t yet assimilated the tectonic shift that started in the sixties, to a new, integrative paradigm in which culture—beauty, spirit, meaning—matters right along with money and other material considerations. Like the children of Israel in the biblical book of Exodus, we’ve been wandering in the wilderness, slowly making our way while those wedded to slave-consciousness—to the old bottom-line paradigm that exacted such a high human cost to obtain material profit—pass on. When a new era dawns, just a few can see the light at the horizon. Most of the people who’ve been controlling resources up till now haven’t yet gotten the new paradigm, but many of my generation do get it, and deeply: under all that gray hair, younger artists will find a garden of good ideas, an orchard of skills to bring the new understanding to fruition in their generation, a generation marked by the potential for even greater awareness.
In the community arts field, baby boomers are not ready to leave our pie-slices on the table and drift off on an ice floe. Many of us are eager to join with younger generations to bake a much bigger pie. Many of us can look forward to years of solid, inspired work fueled by the wisdom of experience. Many of us would like to invest that time in making the paradigm shift, in helping younger generations bring it home, hoping they will be the ones to live it fully in their own ways.
Back in the day, we sixties activists searched for living ancestors. We discovered it can be really useful to talk and work with someone who shares your values and has decades more accumulated experience in trying to actualize them. But such people were frequently hard to find. Many progressives had been driven underground by the purges and terrors of the 1950s witchhunts. Those who had survived with chutzpah intact were often treasured as repositories of relevant experience. I still recall how thrilling it was in the mid-70s to finally meet artists who were veterans of the New Deal cultural programs, painting murals, taking part in the Living Theater, and so on. We had a lineage!
Today, the chain of generations in cultural organizing is unbroken, but I think it is largely ignored. Often, younger community artists who characterize my generation seem to be talking about another species; almost none of the generalizations ring true. I have a few young friends involved in other types of activism, and it is my honor and pleasure to be consulted for advice. I also love hearing their perspectives, seeing things freshly through their eyes. In contrast, except for Q&A sessions when I am invited to speak on campuses, younger community artists and cultural policy thinkers have seldom sought me out. But I am willing. (For instance, I have had a consulting practice with collectives, co-ops and other democratic organizations for thirty years, and would love to share what I’ve learned with people who are now ready to try refreshing those forms.) And I think I am not the only one.
It feels wrong to waste the accumulated wisdom of community artists and cultural activists of my generation by unfairly dismissing us as privileged, stodgy thinkers. Our younger generation counterparts report feeling dismissed too, accusing us of not taking them seriously, of not sharing leadership, so they feel wronged as well.
I like reality-based thinking. It gives us something to go on with. So how about this? We aren’t piggy oldsters and resentful youngsters; there’s nobody here but us chickens, and I imagine we could make quite an impression coming home together to roost.