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From Baby Boomers to Plastic Generation – the coming of age of American youth and their European buddies
By Max Kolonko | February 6, 2014
(Max Kolonko’s lecture during Goethe Institute conference Fascination America, Fascination Europe, Berlin 2012)
American youth, in its mass is not identical with European youth, just as America is not identical with Europe. As America maintains a dominant role in the modern world, American youth maintains its dominance over their counterparts in Europe or Asia.
IPhone, iPod, iPad, Windows, the Internet, computers, Play Station, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Madonna, Elvis, electric guitar, Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, Frisbee, Aerobic, Hula Hop, Barbie Doll, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Disneyland, Juke Box, Rock and Roll, Blues, Country, Soul, the Wild West, Colt, Ford, pickup truck, baseball, football, CNN, MTV, the American Dream…all were invented by young American culture, allowing American youth a first-come, first-serve access to The New, creating an advantage over their European colleagues.
In that sense we can talk about exceptionalism of American youth which stems from the exceptionalism of America; the most powerful economic and political system of the twentieth century. America’s military, political, economic and cultural hegemony in the modern world is comparable to France of Louis XIV which established French economic, military and cultural domination on most of the seventeen century Europe forcing European monarchies to adopt the French language and French style.
The predominance and strength of America comes from its homogeneity. This union of independent states unified peoples of Judeo-Christian tradition, speaking the same language, gathered around a concept which was not political in nature but an intellectual one. It’s principle was based on unleashing resources of an individual notwithstanding race, origin, status or religion, contained in Abraham Lincoln’s formula that all man are created equal.
Contrary to this model of statehood, Europe and its young political cover, The European Union, is a political conglomerate of countries comprised of peoples speaking different languages, representing different cultures of often conflicted nations. Such a union is a formation that remains at odds with the natural process of development of states from human masses which, just as Europe’s history indicates, are usually built along cultural and ethnic, not political, lines.
Europe, contrary to America, is an entity with strong, liberal roots and as such does not promote the concept of family as the basic building block of a stable nation. On the contrary, the model of pro liberal life style discourages its youth toward the institutions of marriage and family, leading to a nation’s decay and along with that, the decay of its culture.
As a result, Europe is dying demographically with a birthrate below 2.1% which shrinks the old continent, reducing the chances of young Europeans to introduce constructive changes in the status quo.
The European concept of a social state makes its youth dependent on government intervention into their lives, replacing their entrepreneurship and energy with a social directive of politicians which destroys their creativity and leaves them ‘comfortably numb’ to paraphrase a line from Pink Floyd’s lyrics.
Whereas America absorbs immigrants quite selectively, assimilating them within one nation, Europe is becoming a Tower of Babel, absorbing into its multiracial melting pot crowds of illegal aliens speaking and maintaining foreign languages, proclaiming contradictory faiths which divides even more, rather than unites the old continent.
Also, European political tradition of nations governed by the rule of disciplined political parties, doesn’t favor the young. In order to have a direct influence on the government and its cultural institutions, young Europeans often have to become members of the party, devoting their lives to politics. On the other hand, the relaxed party system in America, allows ordinary Joe the Plumbers to become congressmen with influence on politics. The process, nursed in a mantra which is repeated in American households to every child on every occasion, you can be the president!
Despite these differences, since the term ‘teenager’ appeared for the first time in America’s Reader’s Digest in 1941, describing young people with their age in the teens, the youth on both sides of the Atlantic in different periods of their history, represented many common features.
When The Beatles, the idols of thousands of European teens, landed on the tarmac at JFKAirport in New York City, they didn’t know what to expect. How would they be received in the land of the King of Rock and Roll, ElvisPresley? Will an American teenage girl send them ‘All My Loving’? Will she shout: ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ or pout: ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’?
To their relief The New York Times reported on that day: “three thousand teenagers stood four deep on the upper arcade of the InternationalArrivalsBuilding“. It was girls. Wall-to-wall.
What do you think of Beethoven? the reporters asked Ringo. “I love him. Especially his poems” answered the Beatle. Ringo’s an idiot, huffed the music pundits. Ringo’s a genius! cried out American teens.
It was 1964. For the first time in history, American youth has bought a European product en mass. The wave of young people rising after World War II on both sides of the Atlantic began to identify themselves through culture. The youth of Berlin and New York glued to transistor radios newly introduced by SONY, listened to what nobody else wanted to listen to and read what nobody wanted to read.
Eruption of the young counter-culture turned against the status quo of the older generation. The youth embraced blacks and rock ‘n’ roll, minorities, and the yellow man of Vietcong fighting what they called an unjust war.
On Trafalgar Square in London, young pacifists gathered a group of tens of thousands of young people under the Peace Sign in one of the first antiwar demonstrations. Youth in Central Europe tugged on the Iron Curtain, organizing in Warsaw and Prague the social uprisings of 1968 attempting to break away from the grip of communism.
‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’, the youth sang an anthem of their generation during The Prague’s Spring even though Czech teenage girls’ only had gunpowder in their hair after soviet troops opened fire and blood after being clubbed by the communist police.
The counter-culture movement of the American baby boom generation engulfed America like a fire, uniting the hippies in San Francisco and beatniks in New York. They were joined by students in Amsterdam, London, West Berlin and in Paris almost seizing the city from President de Gaulle.
The baby boomers began to identify themselves through symbols. In the movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, James Dean wore a red windbreaker. The same windbreaker was worn by Bob Dylan on the cover of his album ‘Freewheeling’ and Poland’s James Dean, Zbyszek Cybulski. When the movie hit the screens, windbreakers disappeared from the stores in America and Europe. The movement of the young for the first time experienced identification through fashion.
A pick-up truck became another symbol of the baby boom rebellion. Popularized in Marty Robinson’s song ‘A White Sport’s Coat (and a Pink Carnation)’ and Don Mac Lean’s reference in ‘American Pie’, it became a symbol of potency and sex. At the peak of the counter-culture movement, young men dressed in windbreakers drive in pick-up trucks to a farm in upstate New York to make love on the grass with young women with flowers in their hair, culminating the rebellion of the baby boom generation with a historic rock concert in Woodstock.
From the very beginning of the teenage phenomenon, the American counter-culture movement of youth contesting the status quo, had a major advantage over their European counterparts with the sheer size of the phenomenon. In America, the youth rebellion of the 60’s was represented by a 70 million strong army of young people speaking one language of one nation which went down in history as the baby boom generation.
The multinational European youth could not cope with that force just as a lightweight fighter cannot compete with a punch of a heavyweight. The force of the impact of American baby boomers on culture emanates upon young generations to this day, like ripples spreading across the water after a splash of a granite rock.
What the baby boom generation experienced forty years ago affects the character of the youth we have today.
On December 8, 1980, a 25-year-old from Hawaii, Mark Chapman, approached John Lennon in the archway of Dakota House and pumped four bullets into Lennon’s back. Twenty eight years later now the 53-year-old assassin admitted to the parole board of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York that he killed John Lennon because he was frustrated with the contrast between the lavish Lennon lifestyle and the populist message he sang about.
In 1980, John Lennon, a rebel without a cause, was no longer a folk bard dressed in a trashy sheepskin jacket questioning the Establishment. Lennon was the Establishment par excellence who grew out of and was profiting from America and the American status quo.
Chapman belonged to Generation X. The unlucky 13th generation, as it is often called, was composed of post baby boomers who grew up in the times of the energy crisis of the 70’s, the AIDS epidemic, the recession of the 80’s and the market crash of 1987.
Chapman’s generation X was an epoch of migrants searching for their place not only philosophically but also physically. With the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Berlin wall, millions of young Eastern Europeans scattered around the world. John Lennon’s assassin found himself on the run from Texas through Georgia, Illinois, Arkansas and Hawaii to kick off his 1979 Asian-European Magical Mystery Tour “in search for himself” which ended a year later on a cold New York night at the archway of Dakota House.
Coming often from broken families, Xers became young outcasts without perspectives for a future. In Europe, they were building a facade of isolation portrayed by the brick wall on the cover of Pink Floyd’s double album, ‘The Wall’, and added to the general mess of punk rock and the Sex Pistols anarchists (‘Anarchy in the U.K.’).
On a cold Monday of January 1979, a sixteen-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer perched her semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle that her dad got her for Christmas on the window sill of her home in San Diego and began shooting randomly at kids of Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. When asked why she murdered two students and injured eight others, Spencer replied, ‘I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.’
That horrifying line was picked up by Bob Geldof of an Irish band, The Boomtown Rats, and became the song of the X generation (‘I Don’t Like Mondays’) in Europe but not in America.
Here, in the U.S., the elaborate guitar solos of hard rock bands were replaced by a steady beat of disco. “Stayin’ Alive” in the 1977 drama film, ‘Saturday Night Fever’, became the generation mantra for American kids. Even though that generation ‘was killin’ yourself, without killin’ yourself’, to use a line from the movie, their messy lives had a constructive overtone. In the climax of the movie Tony (John Travolta), escapes a fake life he lived under the roof of his parents in Brooklyn and moves to Manhattan, introducing an element of responsibility into his life.
This was new. Baby boomers were careless and anti-yuppy. Xers were also anti-yuppie but the economic hardships they were experiencing were unleashing creative forces within them to constructively oppose their fate.
Children of the X generation, now in their pre-teens, are yet to show us what they have learned from their decadent parents.
The youth of today’s America are the straight-line descendants of baby boomers. They are called the Echo boomers or what I would call, The Plastic Generation.
In 1999, thirty years after baby boomers gathered on a farm near Woodstock in one of the largest musical events in the history of rock and roll, their children organized a commemorating event. The ‘Old” Woodstock was remembered in Jimi Hendrix’s stunning guitar solos sliding down the strings to imitate bombs falling on Vietnam in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and in a series of memorable concerts in one of the greatest events in pop music history.
Woodstock’99 went down in history in a worldwide broadcast showing firefighters combating torching of portable toilets which teenagers, tired of binge drinking, decided to burn. After the toilets they turned to burning a dozen trailers, a bus and a MTV broadcast tower which forced the New York state troopers in full riot gear to intervene.
“The legacy of Woodstock ’99, the three-day music festival in Upstate New York that disintegrated into a melee of vandalism and destruction on its final night, has grown uglier amid allegations that several women were raped during the event”, reported The Washington Post.
This is how, for the first time, the world heard of generation Y. The Echo boomers, children of the baby boom generation.
They were born in the 80’s, to their parents were no longer care-free hippies holding each other’s hands and singing Kumbaya. The once rebellious baby boomers slowed down, ensconced at universities, government paid jobs and corporate chairs of Wall Street. Flowers in the hair were replaced by elegant coiffures at a hundred bucks a piece. Beat-up Volkswagen buses with a Peace Sign splattered on the hood were swapped for comfortable and exquisite Cadillac Escalades. Yesterday’s bards sprinkle today’s charts of The Forbes’ rich and famous.
Bob Dylan, after a motorcycle crash, became “more of a family man”, media reported. Elvis Presley, had he lived, would “probably sing gospel”. Even though Elvis was a teen idol and sex symbol, he never truly left his traditional ways just as many of the ‘flower children’ of that generation.
Just as their parents, children of the baby boomers who compose the current generation of American teens are plentiful in number, composing a group over 80 million souls strong. In comparison, according to a 2005 Eurostat report, in Europe with 460 million, there are less than 60 million kids aged 15 to 24.
Their affluent and overprotective parents, who constitute America’s middle class, sent them to expensive, often private schools and shoved laptops, iPhones, iPads, car keys and credit cards into their hands.
Where on Earth is Belgium?
Echo boomers communicate quickly and effortlessly through a variety of social networks they have created (Facebook). They are smart, nonjudgmental, self-oriented. They are aware of their mass, strength and advantage over their European counterparts but they do not express it. They don’t have to and they “don’t care”. For many of them the world ends with America, behind which “there’s all the rest”. They are proud to be American “and that’s that”.
In a makeshift poll I conducted among my New Jersey teenage friends, they claim they don’t see Europe as a single entity. They consider Europe as multicultural and that is why it interests them. “You can see Italy, Germany, Paris and London from a car and they all speak English”. After all, they think the entire world speaks English.
If they would decide to go to Europe on vacation, they would have chosen Spain. Why? ’Cuz people are nice, the country has an old culture, the landscape is interesting, food is great and girls are awesome.’ The best European cities in order: Paris, Barcelona, Prague and Florence.
What they don’t like about Europe is that it is “expensive and dark” (what Europeans do not always realize, New York is on latitude similar to that of Rome in Italy).
Echo boomers do not require anything from their European counterparts other than “be nice”. It hurts them when they are mistreated. That’s why they don’t like the French.
Gen Yers “don’t envy anything” and, in fact, the term seems foreign to them. American teenage girls admit, however, they like to show off European dresses and Paris handbags. Their favorite fashion designer? Cavalli. Favorite beer, Stella, but they do not know it’s made in Belgium (“Where on earth is Belgium?”). They like techno and in European music they constantly search for new sounds like Swedish House Mafia. Ever heard of them?
Will Europe challenge their domination? “This will never happen. We have the technology and the know-how. Europe has only Airbus”. Yers cherish in order: career, wealth, family, friendship and faith in God.
Cute. So why did I call them The Plastic Generation?
The first thing an Echo boomer receives from parents is a cell phone and a credit card. Cell phone, to keep them in touch with their over-protective parents. Credit card, because American teens are big spenders and live on credit. This doesn’t teach them responsibilities and makes them dependant on the protective umbrellas of their parents. In a prolonged recession, experts argue, it might throw these masses onto the streets just like we see it in Europe.
According to an ABC report, about 5 million young Europeans, or about 20 percent of the under-25 population, are searching for a job. In some countries the situation is far worse. Nearly 37 percent of Spain’s Gen Yers can’t find work. In France, it is 24 percent, vs. 17 percent in the US.
What restrains many young Europeans from taking it to the streets is social protectorate but not the one of their parents, but that of government.
‘In June of 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown unveiled a $1.6 billion (€1.1 billion) scheme to create 100,000 jobs for young people. And in April , French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a $1.9 billion plan to find work for 500,000 young people by June, 2010, including grants to companies that employ Gen Yers’, says an ABC report.
With state-sponsored health care and ample jobless benefits, Europeans have fewer worries than unemployed twenty-somethings in the US. Yet the clashes of youth on the streets just as we’ve seen it in Europe are unthinkable in America for now. It is not just because The Plastic Generation rejected gangsta rap as too violent. For them, it’s all about the “economy, stupid”, to use a motto of a baby boomer, Bill Clinton, in the presidential election of 1992.
If one assumes that a cultural domination is a factor of political domination, the road to rebuilding the state of European culture lies in rebuilding the position of Europe in the world. This can be done not through unification or uniformisation of Europe but through rebuilding of the strength and the character of its nations.
Since Europe is multicultural, let it remain multicultural. Europe’s strength is mulitculturalism. As yers pointed out in the poll, it was multiculturalism of Europe that they respect. Thus creation of European Union, even though it strengthens the political position of Europe in the world, does not strengthen its culture, despite a plethora of various grants. Culture is built bottom up, not top down.
Modern Europe should rebuild the concept of family and the institution of marriage as the main building blocks of society. As the American example shows, rebuilding of universal values releases creativity, replaces nihilism with an idea and hardships of everyday life introduce responsibility.
In all these aspects of the rebuilding process, Europe lags behind America. While Tony (Saturday Night Fever) moves out from his parent’s house, taking responsibility for his life into his own hands, Tony’s counterparts in Spain, along with half of his colleagues under 30, still live at home.
The end of World War II, which created the economic boom, turned the children of parents returning from the war against them. Make Love Not War became the symbol of the baby boom rebellion. While parents of baby boomers died in 1944 in Normandy with an American flag on their shoulders, their children burned the flag in public in 1968.
Their own children, however, are not eager to bust the walls of the establishment which protects them. They grew smarter. ‘You don’t bite the hand which feeds you’, say American Gen Yers. While their parents sang along with Bob Dylan, ‘when you got nothing you got nothing to lose’, their teenage kids add today a simple, more practical tone: so when you “got it”, you keep it, bro! Or make more of it.
Last summer I was hanging out with a group of Gen Yers at the pool outside my friend’s house in New Jersey. Yers drank beer (Stella) and kept talking. They tried to figure out how to make an extra buck during their summer break. The ideas that were thrown around at that pool could easily give their parents a heart attack.
When the day was coming to an end, this brainstorming left empty bottles of beer in the pool and a handful of ideas in their heads which, in a year, who knows, perhaps will change our world. Then they jumped into their cars and with girls screaming in the backseat, they speeded away God only knows where…
My parents would have called them “spoiled”. But then again, old folks, they’re always talkin’, y’ know.
( published in 2011 Goethe Institute in Berlin conference Fascination America- Fascination Europe )