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19 August 2023

The real cause of generational warfare

The internet has collapsed the space between young and old and exposed previously hidden divides.

By Jonn Elledge

It came at 8.09 on Thursday morning, as reliable and reassuring a feature of the calendar as the vernal equinox or Christmas Day: Jeremy Clarkson’s traditional tweet about why anyone getting their A-level results that day should stop worrying because he owns a big house. There followed a variety of other now traditional annual rituals: the replies asking whether he could think of any words beginning with the C and U he did manage to achieve in his grades; one lot of people congratulating the kids on all their hard work; another lot pointing out that no actual teenagers would be reading those tweets; yet another (hello) doing ironic riffs concerning the predictability of the whole thing. These little rituals give some shape to the year. Soon, the leaves will be falling from the trees.

Since this is the week when this little intergenerational dance has been playing out, though, it felt like a good time to put forward a theory I’ve been toying with for a while. The internet has collapsed the space between the generations. This single fact is enough to explain a good chunk of the culture war.

Worrying that some younger generation has different values to your own may well be a phenomenon as old as history itself. There’s tragically little evidence that quotes such as, “What is happening to our young people?” or, “Children are now tyrants” were ever actually spoken by the likes of Plato or Socrates, to whom they’re widely attributed. But what is true is that there is no shortage of similar sentiments expressed down the centuries; just within living memory, older people have worried, variously, about zoomers, millennials, feral youth, ladettes, punks, hippies, mods, rockers, and a terrifying, 1950s invention called “the teenager”.

One quote should suffice to make the point: “The student now goes to college to proclaim, rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated, in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap’.” The speaker was Spiro Agnew, a man famous for resigning as vice-president of the United States in 1973 because of tax evasion, having a name which is an anagram for “grow a penis”, and not a lot else. Who were these kids of whom he was speaking? They were boomers: the exact same people who now bewail the young for, well, going to college to proclaim rather than to learn, and so forth.

But while the generation gap is nothing new, the way the generations encounter each other is. Once, there was a hierarchy, in which those of an age to be running society would talk down to the young, whether at work or across the family dinner table. In the age of social media, though, 21-year-olds and 55-year-olds find themselves interacting as equals. The old are regularly exposed to the ideas and opinions of the young, and inevitably find some of them stupid. The young, meanwhile, are faced with the views of those who grew up in a different time from them, when the median opinion on everything from sexuality to imperialism to the environment was quite different.

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And then they all get to talk to each other. A lot.

[See also: The problem with Charlotte Proudman]

This, I think, explains rather a lot of things that have happened these last few years. It’s why certain cultural figures who always thought themselves progressive have frequently felt baffled or under siege as their ostensible fan bases rake through the inadequacies of their political views in minute detail. It’s also why certain fully grown adult men have become bizarrely obsessed with protest movements or student politics, an activity so vital to the smooth running of society that it’s utterly ignored even by most students. The things that they’re reacting to have always happened – but now, thanks to Twitter and its heirs, they’re visible, to people they weren’t intended for, and even to the people they’re about.

The result is the ongoing panics about cancel culture or “woke” values (which, for all the right’s attempts to persuade us is some terrifying new phenomenon, sounds exactly the same as good old-fashioned “political correctness” to me). Younger people have always decided there were things they just didn’t care to consume, whether for reasons of values or taste; younger people have always had a different sense of what counted as “progressive” than their elders (this is after all what progressive means). But in the past, the middle-aged would have been vaguely aware of young people, with their avocados and their pronouns, but would not have really needed to actually listen to them. Today, they can see their views every time they look at their phones, accompanied by a running commentary on all the ways in which their own views are shit.

Throw in the permanent “now”, in which for a variety of reasons older cultural figures no longer entirely vacate the stage for the next lot; add the incentives faced by an ultra-competitive media, hungry for eyeballs after its traditional revenue streams collapsed, and a political class also willing to use this nonsense for their own ends, and… well, nature has taken its course. We’ve moved from a hierarchical world, in which the old speak down to the young, and youth culture pushes back, to a much more networked one in which everyone is just yelling at the same volume and older people, who remember the old way, are confused about it. No wonder everyone’s so angry the whole time.

In other, fewer words: there’s always been a generation gap; values have always changed over time. But now we’re all in the room, watching it happen live. And the result is endless hysterical columns in the Daily Telegraph.

On the upside, anyone worried about kids today can take some comfort from the following: they may have all the pronouns, but you have all the homes. Take that, avocado munchers.

[See also: The cultural divide no one wants to talk about]

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