Two Hostile Extremes Generation Gap Has Become A Standoff

Posted: February 20, 1987

During a brief recess in class recently, a few students lingered in the classroom, and burst into song. One young woman wearing portable radio earphones was leading the group in an harmonious chorus of "Lean on Me," a tune made popular by Bill Withers nearly two decades ago.

I recognized the song, and spoke up to identify it - or so I thought.

"No Linda, you're behind, you're out of date," exclaimed one of the students. They were singing a recently released, hard driving, reggaed-up-and- boogied-down version by a group called Club Nouveau.

Such exchanges make the 15 years that separate me from my students feel like 50.

Last week, another student identified "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," not as a Marvin Gaye classic, but as the song on the raisin commercial and the theme from "The Big Chill."

It makes me feel old.

I try to comfort myself with the conviction that the days of "my time" - the '60s and '70s - produced some of the best music ever, trademark of a dynamic generation, worthy of imitation in a less committed era, in which crossover homogenization has replaced the multi-cultural richness of days gone by.

It is also an era in which an intense and reciprocal lack of understanding between young and not-so-young is compounding many of our most profound problems.

We're caught up in a hybrid and perverse version of what used to be called the generation gap - a benign phenomena that had grandmothers clucking over kids doing the twist, and Mom and Dad temporarily mortified that Junior had grown long hair.

The generational standoff of the '80s may be a result of change coming too quickly. In 15 years, we have entered the computer age, switched from a manufacturing to a "service" economy, and drastically revised the parameters of possibility for our children.

Economic and social change have come so quickly and drastically that few young people can expect to provide for their families as their parents provided for them - unless they make big bucks.

Is it any surprise, then, that they are preoccupied with money and acquisition of things, rather than knowledge and the other non-material rewards of life?

For the young who are also poor, future shock is broader and more devastating. The lesson they learn is that it pays to run drugs, if you want to buy $100 sneaks and Fila sweats - the trappings of success as a shield against diminished expectations.

One of these inter-generational dilemmas has to do with teenage sexuality and the threat of deadly AIDS.

On the one hand, adult ambivalence, indecisiveness and ineffectiveness in teaching the young about sex have exploded into the most severe teen pregnancy epidemic in the Western world. Another distressing side-effect is a sky-high infant mortality rate: 10.8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

On the other hand, we respond to the problem as if we are caught in a time warp - as if this were 1880, rather than 1987, a year when more than a million teenage girls will become pregnant.

Secretary of Education William Bennett and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who ought to be providing leadership on the sex education/AIDS challenge, are as confused as most parents. While acknowledging in a watered-down joint statement that "education has a fundamental role to play in teaching our young people how to avoid the threat of (AIDS)," they go on to say "the safest approach to sexuality for adults is to choose either abstinence or faithful monogamy."

Koop concedes that in the absence of such choices, "an individual must be warned to use the protection of a condom." But Bennett takes the absurd position that schools only teach about sex as a part of marriage.

It's a laughable approach, when you consider that in 1984, 56 percent of all teen births in the U.S. were out of wedlock - up from 15 percent in 1960.

We're not talking generation gap here.

It's more like two hostile extremes, youth and maturity, pulling hard in opposite directions, neither willing to change directions or even look to see which way the other side is coming from or heading to - or why.

A column by Alice-Leone Moats in Monday's Inquirer further highlights the tendency toward generational refusal to see the "other side" - or even to see reality.

Moats wrote that nobody helped Judge Lisa Richette when she was mugged

because young people today do not have good manners. And they do not have good manners because their mothers work, instead of staying home to teach their children manners.

The solution? Replace mothers as "mentors and disciplinarians" in the home, since no woman would willingly forsake a paycheck for full-time motherhood.

This "solution" to the crisis of street crime is about as realistic as telling two hot-blooded adolescents that their sexual alternatives are abstinence or marriage.

But when you are lobbing ludicrous illogic across the generational abyss, who needs rationality? At such a distance, alternatives that might work get lost - falling into the gulf that separates young from old and perpetuates pain and misunderstanding on both sides.

For all our technology and computer culture, we have been losing our capacity to empathize. Perhaps our compassion for each other across generational lines has been short-circuited by too much change.

Which is why parents can't talk to their kids. And why kids can't figure out what to do with their parents. And why both generations should take to heart the message of sharing and concern in "Lean On Me:"

Lean on me, when you're not strong

I'll give you hope to help you carry on . . .

The spirit of the lyrics is the same, whether you prefer the new version or the old.

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