Young /Old Differences - Age or Generation?

May 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some years ago, a colleague of my brother offered this example of mistaking generational differences for age differences. If you took a cross-section of the Miami population, you would conclude that when Miamians are young, they speak Spanish; as they get older, they switch to English. And when they get very old, they speak Yiddish.

I was thinking about this recently – not just because I’ve been in Florida for the past few days, but because of two articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The first was about Southern schools that hold segregated proms even though the student body is integrated.
“Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no. … They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”
The other was Matt Bai’s column on a similar difference in attitudes towards homosexuality.
The gist of the disagreement now isn’t partisan or theological as much as it is generational. Unlike their parents, younger Americans and those now transitioning into middle age have had openly gay friends and colleagues all their lives . . . . They’re less inclined to restrict the personal decisions of gay Americans.
At first, I thought the articles offered two parallel branches of the same trend – a generational shift towards liberalism on social issues. But when you have differences between young and old, there are two possible explanations – generation and age. If the difference is generational, then the kids of today will retain their liberal attitudes in the same way that they will probably retain their musical preferences. My guess is that Bai is correct and that today’s teens and twentysomethings will continue to support gay marriage.

But what about those segregated proms? It’s possible that the differences are a matter of aging, not of generation. If so, when today’s kids are older and have teenagers of their own, they may come to adopt their parents’ views. The separate black and white proms may continue even though nobody can justify them in terms of rationality or values. As one teenager quoted in the article says, “It’s how it’s always been. It’s just a tradition.”

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