Sitting in the tram earlier on the way back from the city an old man sitting nearby caught my attention. Aged between 70 and 80 he had a dignified, intelligent face, though hollowed out by time and his paper thin skin wrinkled. His hair was a pale fuzz; once upon a time he’d have had a full and healthy head of hair. He wore a really lovely houndstooth jacket that draped over his spare frame, with grey trousers, a blue woollen vest, an electric blue shirt knotted at the collar by a navy blue tie. Completing the ensemble was a tartan scarf, and his hand a polished wooden walking stick with a curved handle.. It was an elegant look that harked back to more genteel days when collar and tie was a minimum dress standard.
In his hand was a newly purchased book: The Navarre Bible. It’s that which caught my attention. I looked back from the book to the ascetic, kindly face of the man. I presumed, possibly incorrectly, that he was a religious man and at first that surprised me. I too easily fall into the trap of thinking religion is a form of reactionary ignorance, though I have known devout people who were anything but.
I fell to musing on this man and his generation, now slowly ebbing away. It’s always a great mistake to take an individual as representative of a generation, and doubly so when you don’t know the man – yet it’s very easy also. As I looked upon this man I had the inkling that was likely different even in his time – yet there were things that seemed apposite. The dress for the example; and the observed gentility of the man. Rightly or wrongly they seemed of another, distant, era.
The tram rattled on with people getting on and others getting off. The man sat serenely within his own thoughts, oblivious of these comings and goings, oblivious even of how much he stood out in this crowd. I glanced at him and then at others, then out of the window. Once I had looked upon my own family, had made judgements on the ‘evolution’ of style and manner and behaviour, if not biology within it. My grandfather was in many ways similar to what I saw in the man on the tram. He was always beautifully dressed, a keen Henry Bucks shopper he never wore jeans in his life; casual for him was like smart casual to us, though elevated even further. He was a genteel, kind man, reserved in judgement and with an aura of quiet wisdom about him.
My father was, is different. A baby boomer my father has always been ambitious and aggressive. Not for him quiet ways, he has always been overtly driven, a striver, a competitive and indomitable player in the great game of life. In his day the excesses of that made him wild; the overflow made him alluring and he was unafraid of exploiting that. Like men of that type his appetites flow in every direction. Had he been less intelligent it might have been all for frustrating naught; as it happens he was of exceptional intelligence and so cut a swathe.
Then there is me. If we are to see an emerging trend then I am the current model if you like. It’s easy to see a trend. I love and respect my grandfather and feel wistful that he had qualities I doubt I possess. I am much closer to my father, aggressive and ambitious like he, though, dare I say it, more refined. I have a better sense humour than he, am more creative; I am much more social and gregarious, and have a much greater interest in the arts and so on. In that way I have broader interests, and appear in some ways to be less single-mindedly driven. We are both ‘hard’ I think, though in different ways. His hard rock is all on the outside. Mine is inside, encased by softer, more malleable stone.
Through the three of us you might take the progression from beginning to end as being indicative of how society has changed. In some ways that’s reasonable. As individuals we reflect the society we belong to. We assume the cultural mores and standards of the times more or less unconsciously, influencing our behaviour and personality. Fashion is clear evidence of that – I spend half my time in jeans and my manner, my way of being is much easier than the more reserved and mannerly days of my grandfather.
Still, it is a flawed premise. If we are to take each of us as empirical representatives of a generation – pre-war, baby boomer and gen X – then it has some credence. We are not though: we belong, but we’re not typical. As in every generation there are variations in type – my father, for example, is far more intelligent than the average person regardless of generation. Less easy to quantify I would also suggest that he is more driven, more ambitious also. And so on. Include us in a good sized sample and the results will average out to something more meaningful; alone we are simply individuals.
There is potentially an error in observation also. My recollection of my grandfather is of him in his senior years. The man I looked upon in the tram today is nearing the end of a long life I have no visibility of. Even the Anzacs we rightly cheer on as doddery old men were once something else too easily forgotten. I never saw my grandfather in the prime of his life. As a student of history I know the first world diggers particularly were ruthlessly competent, fierce in ways that are distinctly non-PC these days. We judge how we see people in this moment of time forgetting what they have been, what they have done, overlooking that we observe near the end of the journey rather than in the vibrant middle of it.
I warned the other day against judging anyone as anything but an individual, but I am guilty of generalising myself. It’s an easy, almost natural fault of human nature. Yet for all that there are observable trends: my mistake has been to individualise them.
My fathers generation lived differently to my grandfathers, found different behaviours; just I differ from my father’s generation, and as Gen Y do to me. We are each informed by the times we live in and by what has come before. We mirror our culture even at different levels; politics, society and social change each in their turn act upon us like a breeze on a paper boat. We become, in general, what the times demand of us – or allow us to be.
It’s easy for one such as myself to sneer at what I think to be soft in Gen Y. In the first instance I belong to a generation generally more self-sufficient and independent, and see through those eyes. In the second instance I am my father’s son.
Much as I feel discomfited by what is now ‘modern’ – like generations before me have – I am better served by looking to understand the causes rather than pointlessly refute the results.
I read something the other week which made sense to me, and which also fits into the generational context. Robert Bly I guess is a psychologist best known for his investigation into and documentation of ‘men’s issues’, with his best known book being Iron John. I read that maybe 20 years ago and have it in my library still – at the time it was something that resonated with me.
He’s the author also of another book called Sibling Society. The major contention of this book is that we have neglected our elders and those who have come before us. In part that is because we – and I think this is particularly relevant to Gen Y – have enjoyed less time with our fathers and carers than in previous generations. That’s a common complaint outside of this book, a toxic sign of the times. The result, Bly asserts, is that we have changed from a vertical society in which the lessons and influence of generations before us play an active part in our development, to a horizontal society of ‘siblings’ looking for emotional nourishment and guidance amongst ourselves.
I’m not in a position to say how accurate this thesis is, but a lot of it accords with what we observe all around us today. Bly blames the baby boomers for this and that may be reasonable, and perhaps there have been symptoms of this within the generation I belong to – X. To me though it seems to describe Gen Y to a T.
Without real leadership – or leaders they’re unwilling to follow – Gen Y are self-referencing adolescents that never really grow up in the sense we’re used to. In a consumer society addicted to instant gratification and, I would argue, sensation, society has become shallow. I have written of this before, how we’re hooked on reality shows contrived to distract, and the antics of fallen stars broadcast in tabloid TV and press, the short-cuts we take that once were impossible. Once we had to do things the hard way – now it is the expectation that there must be a simpler way, if not an app. So we think different as much as we act different.
I hesitate to use words like morality, but I think our values over time have shifted, or at least become diluted. These are different days. Complain as we will for many – and those most infected by this – life is easy. Our heroes are these days are not respected elders but sports stars and celebrities. The internet and instant communication has created a different, more sterile, form of community.
Much of this has come to prove the adage that we get the politicians we deserve. It’s a dire political landscape, largely because there no leaders any more. Politicians are populist and cowardly. Boldness has been replaced by compromise. We are timid, we create artificial rules to enforce a perspective that is mind-numbing and which discourages expression or initiative. Our leaders don’t lead, they follow. In the end we follow our own tail and, for now anyway, there is no-one to lead us out of this mess. We have become moribund.
It seems a while ago that I wrote about that stately old man, and have reached a place I didn’t expect when I began. Once more I seemed to have taken a swipe at Gen Y and the world they rule – this time though I acknowledge the fault. I’m not on the outside despairing on what I see within. I, we, are part of the problem. Culture informs character, and we have allowed our culture to cheapen and to slide away into a kind of inane degeneracy. We have lost, for now, the rigour that made us good. We have closed our eyes and in our prosperity failed to see the moral cost of it. We have forgotten what is important; we have compromised on our will, have cheated on our responsibilities to lead and generally taken the easy road rather than the right road.
Sounds bleak. There will be many accusing me of being chicken little: life is good after all, isn’t it? Why complain? They have a point. I’m comfortable; most are. It’s easy to settle into this way of being and why fight it? That’s the point though. I’m not saying I know the meaning of life, but I’m sure there is more to it than living well. It is different for all of us, but if lifestyle is all there is then why strive beyond a chemical lobotomy that will guarantee it? Why not be one of droids hooked into the Matrix living imagined lives?
Life has to be more than comfort. It needs something more authentic than that. In my view life is about the journey we take from one place to another and all we see and do along the way, what we learn, where we digress, what we feel. The wisdom we glean from the journey, perhaps like my grey haired man today clutching at The Navarre Bible. Satisfaction must come from the understanding of having lived a full and meaningful life – to have strived, to have loved, to have fought, to have upheld something we believed in, lived to a standard, to come to a place like at the top of a mountain and to look back and know what you have achieved something.
This is a point in time. These are trends, Bly supplies explanations, but not all are subject to it, and there is no reason to think we cannot find our way out of it. I suspect we live in cycles, and perhaps much of what I complain about is an inevitable fact of life: the Romans declined into moral turpitude too. Perhaps we need to hit that bottom. Hopefully it doesn’t take modern day Huns to over-run us. Look around the world, I think we are close to bottom now.
We need to reclaim our values; state what we live for, and by. It’s time we re-state our meaning of life.