Generations: is any sociological concept at once so derided and so indispensable? We move through the years alongside our age cohort. We are exposed to the same cataclysms, the same economic booms or busts, the same technological and medical developments, however unequal the access and experience. ‘No generation has learned from another how to love, no generation can begin other than at the beginning,’ Kierkegaard writes in Fear and Trembling. For the Dane, this did not mean that generations are mutually unintelligible: only by trying to understand the commitments and follies of the generations above and below can you discover those of your own. Generations: you shall know them by their passions.
Time is meaningful – think of it that way. Generations define us, perhaps not as strongly as other identities – class, religion, gender, profession, politics, nation – but in ways that may be among the most fixed. ‘He tore me away from my generation, but I was not part of his,’ Annie Ernaux writes in Le jeune homme, in which the narrator has an affair with a man three decades her junior. They share working-class origins, the signs of which are remarkably durable across time. ‘His gestures and reflexes were dictated by a continual, inherited lack of money,’ she writes. She notices his ‘hickish’ mannerisms – wiping his mouth with a piece of bread, covering his wineglass to signal no more – tics ‘I knew I’d once had in me too.’ But their separate passages through time make for differences in the quality of their emotion. Much of the woman’s feeling is vicarious, much of the man’s is inaugural, and there’s no way around it.
The concept of a generation is not very old. For millennia, mass collective experiences marked people who shared the same upheavals at the same age, but they rarely had a distinctive binding effect. Exceptions to the rule applied to upper crusts of populations, such as the so-called ‘final pagan generation’, a wealthy stratum of Roman society in the fourth century, who watched their zealot-children become Desert Fathers and Brides of Christ in the wake of Emperor Constantine’s conversion. For the vast majority, in peasant cultures the world over, parents transmitted skills and values to their children who passed them on to their children in turn, with little to differentiate them. As late as the 1940s, Ernaux could find herself the first woman in generations of her family who no longer knew how to wash clothes with ash, or use the heat of a fire to dry plums.
Generations, as we now understand them, made a leap toward definition in the years after the French Revolution. To share biological age was only the first requirement, and not the most important. To forge a generation, the same age cohort had to share an experience more historically specific than a plague or a famine – something both fusing and modernizing. The armies of peasants that Napoleon marched across Europe accumulated experience and skills (such as how to read conscription orders) beyond the imagination of their fathers. Those who made it back to France were never the same.
Among French elites, the differences between the revolutionary and post-revolutionary generations were stark. The chasm was measured by the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić in his novel The Bosnian Chronicle (1945) about two French consular officers stationed in a remote province of the Ottoman Empire in the 1810s. The older consul Daville finds his young assistant Des Fossés incapable of appreciating his values – ‘the “fundamental things” which were the substance of Daville’s life.’ For Des Fossés, the monarchy is a fairy tale, the revolution is a dim childhood memory, and Napoleon’s empire is the natural order of things. While for Daville, ‘these three concepts represented an intense and complex knot of conflict, inspiration, exultation, brilliant achievements, but also hesitations, inner disloyalties and unseen crises of conscience, with no obvious solution, with increasingly little hope of being lastingly assuaged.’ The picture emerges of mutual generational bewilderment.
Cycles of misapprehensions can make debates about art and politics from earlier periods appear disconcertingly familiar. When we see authors from Gen X write wistfully about the irony of the 1990s, it recalls Thomas Mann writing wistfully about the irony of the 1890s in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), in which he decries the return to sincerity, politics, and passion for humanitarian democracy. These trends were exemplified for Mann in the cult around Émile Zola, which grew throughout the 1910s, synonymous for Mann with a drearily censorious culture that has no place for art that wasn’t already politicized. In his revulsion with those advocating humanitarian democracy, Mann supported German bourgeois nationalism – along with an aesthetic disengagement from politics. The younger generation of Germans below him would interpret his attitude as leading to Nazism.
We are all pop sociologists now, at least in the Anglosphere. The Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Zoomers: each has reached the point of caricature. The Silents, the generation born in the decade and a half before 1945, so christened by Time magazine for their ‘still, small’ flame (read: low expectations and steady discipline), have been an extraordinary force in the literary world. It is not simply the sheer productivity of novelists and writers born before the end of the Second World War that astounds – Alice Munro, John Edgar Wideman, Margaret Atwood, Cynthia Ozick, J.M. Coetzee, Fleur Jaeggy, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, J.G. Ballard, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion – but the naturalness and ease of their story-telling. It can lead you to wonder whether there was something in the water of the 1930s.
Materially, the Silents were on much closer terms with agricultural realities, as well as manufacturing ones. Silents often know how things are made. As children, they were left to wander through the wastes and scrapheaps of the post-war moment. To this day, they inspect food and mechanical objects differently. Many of the most celebrated Boomer pop figures are in fact Silents – Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez – as if the consumption craze of the later generation had to be supplied by a cohort of indefatigable harvesters. Tonally, the Silents are distinguished by their assurance and will toward objectivity, as well as their talent for hammering at fundamentals. It is difficult to imagine an author of a different generation writing about photography like Susan Sontag, who takes to the task like Aristotle, first taking care to tell how it differs from painting, etc. The Silents at their best are simultaneously vernacular and oracular, with a weakness for loftiness. You can feel the decisiveness of the typewriter in their prose, the balm of the cigarette.
The Boomers seem notable as a generation whose literary taste fed directly into their political passions. In their youths, they experienced the Cold War at its most glacial. They read the diaries of Anne Frank under the covers as children, Solzhenitsyn in their dormitories, Kundera on East European trains, and Ian McEwan on shabby chic sofas. Their object of worship was the dissident, literary or political; ideally both. The younger Boomers (and older Gen-Xers) experienced the fall of the Soviet Union as a moment of exultation and a promise of world liberation that has never quite receded. More than 1968, they were defined by this moment, evidence that the globe was actually malleable. For a generation that saw something as permanent-seeming as the USSR go up in smoke, petty dictators like Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi looked like disposable pawns. The Boomer vision of freedom stressed experimentation, tolerance, and hedonism, with the state figuring more often as foe than enabler. They experienced the mid-century economic boom not as deliverance, like the Silents, but as the natural order of things. The early Granta was a Boomer magazine par excellence. It nurtured many of the generation’s leading Anglophone writers – Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker, Martin Amis, William Boyd. These authors came to move most comfortably on the stable flanks of historical fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro’s tales of comically minor figures misreading their historical moment from odd angles now appear like sly intra-generational ribbing.
The trajectory of some Boomers from would-be establishment wreckers into effusive caressers of farmer’s market vegetables was bound to feed the cynicism of the generation below them. The first thing Gen X learned in school was not to talk to strangers. Christian Lorentzen has described his levy – with his Gen X smirk and tossing of the hands – as the generation that will never have to suffer one of its own members as the American President. Zadie Smith has done some quick moral accounting for her cohort: right about trying to get men to do childcare; wrong about the internet. If the Boomers flattered themselves as the chief protagonists of post-war culture and history, Gen X marveled at the hypocrisies of the generation above them – the way the Boomers had cast off their most signature accomplishments, from anti-war coalitions to independent cinema. Gen X was the last generation for whom Selling Out meant something (an attitude which Millennials like to suggest is luxury masquerading as principle). Gen X’s signature lit mags were the anti-establishment Baffler, McSweeney’s, which was a way of selling out by other means (inviting New Yorker writers into your upstart magazine, sometimes under pseudonyms), and the early n+1, when it prioritized author’s voices over mappings of social movements. It was a generation for whom ‘Victory for the forces of democratic freedom’ was less a credo solemnly scrawled on placards than something David Foster Wallace’s ‘hideous men’ compulsively spurted out during orgasms.
Galvanized in their youth by a financial crisis, the Millennials entered a world of short horizons, with political ambitions that had not been seen since the 1960s, but far fewer organizational vehicles at their disposal. Having come of age on social media, many mark themselves through the articulation of their opinions and identities. They are criticized for unwittingly serving the interests of their societies’ elites through their appeals to institutional authority, but their plight, as a generation twice removed from the spoils of the Trente glorieuses (until a small fraction of them inherit from their parents), may simply be an instance of a cohort making do with the weapons of the weak. Their mobilization of morality hits their Boomer bosses in a particularly sensitive spot; it threatens to withdraw the very affirmation that Boomers most crave: that they are on the correct side of history. As Anton Jäger writes in this issue: Millennials move in ‘a public sphere in which politics has clearly reclaimed its urgency, and collective notions of class have acquired a newfound plausibility. But the resultant posture is still fundamentally one of self-expression: a [Sally Rooney] character may serenade her cleaner’s proletarian credentials, another may declare she is a Marxist, but it’s not clear what Marxist organization she’s a member of.’
The Zoomers are from another country. Raised by Gen X, they may have inherited some of their parents’ skepticism of Millennials. They are unique in finding the online and virtual worlds natural, while more willing to acknowledge the market, the geopolitical world order and actual nature as, at least in theory, open to revision. They can at times appear preternaturally practiced at making abstract critiques of existing systems, but these presentations are often followed closely by articulations of despair and depression in the face of these forces. If anything more can be hazarded about a generation whose youngest members are all but 11, it may be the gulf they feel between themselves and power. Their defining experiences may well have yet to arrive.
What about the world outside of the West? In this issue of Granta, the historian Yuri Slezkine uncoils the drama of several generations of Russian Soviets, from the ‘Impatient Ones’, who became Bolshevik Millenarians, brimming with political enthusiasm, to the all-too patient generation that grew up in the Brezhnev stagnation. In his memoir, ‘Niamey Nights’, Rahmane Idrissa paints portraits of several generations of the Sahel, where entire historical epochs seem to become compressed into his own youth. Few generational divides have been as deep and lasting as those of the People’s Republic of China, which Granta will look at in more depth in the autumn. The sheer propulsion – and starts and stops – of China’s modernization drive has meant that its elites experienced historical whiplashes on a scale unknown elsewhere. The zhiqing – the educated youth whom Mao ‘sent down’ to the countryside and who experienced a decade of extreme austerity – are at a vast distance from the generations below them, which includes both those who grew up in the boom of the last three decades, as well as those who have arrived in a China shorn of opportunity. The Chinese experience reminds us that the most salient generation-defining feature may be how far contemporary cohorts are from the utopian politics that flourished in the mid-twentieth century. Close enough to be disillusioned or nostalgic? Or far enough away to be inspired – or irrevocably cut off?
The Generations issue of Granta offers different age cohorts a chance for mutual inspection. Andrew O’Hagan plays with the idea of a kind of moralistic DNA passed across epochs in a story in which a descendent of abolitionists takes a scalpel to Desert Island Discs. The French consuls Daville and Des Fossés are delivered by Nico Walker in the form of two American police. Samuel Moyn gives a historical tour of the gerontocratic fortress that threatens democracy everywhere. Didier Eribon re-sutures the wounded rift between the social sciences and literature, in an examination of generations refracted through class. Brandon Taylor, Sam Sax, and Lillian Fishman give us different shades of their generation’s tones in three stories set in New York City. Gary Indiana, a titan of that place, reflects on what happens when you realize most of the people you ever truly liked are dead. Sheila Heti discusses with Phyllis Rose, our lone Silent, herself a careful listener to earlier generations, what one generation might learn from another about creating stronger forms of love.