The Like Generation

In the '60s and '70s, young people were referred to as the "Love Generation," partly because of their insistence on sexual freedom, which they proposed as an alternative ("make love, not war") to the Vietnam conflict. Today's young people could be more accurately identified as the "Like Generation," for reasons that I will now attempt to describe.

The most immediate one has to do with their repetitive, ritualistic use of the word "like." I defy you to listen to more than two or three sentences by any contemporary 20- or 30-year-old, without hearing that term repeated like a mantra. "It was--like--the best experience of my life." "I was driving--like--down Route 95." "I had this--like--terrific pain in my gut." "I guzzled--like--three dark Coronas in a row." "We have an apartment--like--in Belvedere Towers." Even when young people are being precise about numbers or addresses, they feel compelled to employ this increasingly boring monosyllable.

Properly used, the word "like" is an essential component of simile. "I feel like a lonesome child." "Taking that river trip was like floating down the Nile." The one thing may not be identical with the other, but it is very very "like" it. Unfortunately, however, it is not as a simile or a comparison that "like" is being used today. The apartment is not like a pad in the Belvedere Towers; it is a pad in the Belvedere Towers. You weren't driving down a highway that looked like Route 95 -- it was Route 95. Using the word in this contemporary fashion is the same as using the popular phrase "you know." It is a momentary interruptive that allows you time to think of the appropriate term.

The repetition of "like" by an entire generation, however, also suggests how that group is dominated not just by imprecision, but by lukewarm caution. Having taught both generations, I believe I can overgeneralize with authority: The Love Generation was passionate, inflamed, engaged. The Like Generation is prudent, ambitious, escapist. The first would shut down a university and occupy a Dean's office to protest an unjust war (admittedly ignoring the munitions factory right up the street). The second is largely absorbed with such private obsessions as tweeting and video games, and is only truly exercised by things that might affect their careers (admittedly, because life is much more frightening in a time of economic blight than during prosperity). When one of my students, for example, asks a question these days, it is usually not about the text under discussion, but rather about his grade. He needs an A- rather than a B+ to get into Law or Business School.

I'm not arguing that the sometimes uncivil behavior of the Love Generation is preferable to the more gentle deportment of their modern counterparts -- only that passivity is having a poisonous affect on our politics. The Love Generation used to riot over any perceived ideological slight. The Like Generation -- in the face of the most outrageous and obstructionist behavior in memory on the part of Washington legislators, Wall Street bankers, and the NRA -- is raising no strong protests or showing any significant resistance to what their elders are doing to the country. Polls tell us that almost 90 percent of Americans favor some form of gun control. Yet today, when schoolchildren are being slaughtered by assault weapons, and when Congress persistently refuses to pass even the most listless law (such as background checks) to rectify the situation, does anyone take to the streets? No, as Yeats noted, it is the worst who are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction.

I know about Occupy Wall Street. But what are its goals? Have they ever been properly articulated? Are they having any effect? The very inchoateness of the Occupy movement suggests that it has not yet formulated a coherent and plausible protest. Barack Obama is currently being blamed, particularly by Maureen Dowd (and wrongly I believe), for failing to exercise strong leadership and get his legislation passed, as FDR pushed through the New Deal and LBJ the Great Society. But Obama is stuck with an implacable Republican majority in the House, and you can't twist arms when there are sharp razors in your opponents' sleeves, not to mention flabby muscle groups in those of your own party. And how can you use a bully pulpit when there are even bigger bullies congregated in front of you. Would you like to spend your days in office looking into the smirking faces of Lindsay Graham, John Boehner, or Mitch McConnell?

This is not the occasion for me to rail against our paralyzed dysfunctional government. I'd rather try to arouse the people who elected it. How can even the strongest president handle such an inflexible opposition party without the backing of an outraged electorate? Silent citizens allow wealthy contributors to call the shots. It's clear enough what produced the tea party -- a racist, selfish reactionary class of rich and would-be rich, eager to destroy anyone who doesn't protect low taxes and high profits. But it is The Like Generation that must take some of the blame for the general wobbliness of such Democrats as Harry Reid, when he doesn't stand up properly against the opposition, much less drive home the bills required to repair a broken nation. What the electorate lacks, since the disappearance of socialist theory, is a persuasive left-wing ideology that might serve as a spur to progressive legislative action, as workers pushed back in the thirties and students in the sixties. Without this--you know?--we will continue to be--like--adrift in our own backyards.