Is “Each Generation … Worse than the Last”?

Ay-ya! Each generation is worse than the last.”

What’s that, Martha?

From a story by Lu-Xun,“Storm in a Teacup.” That line has been in my mind for the past month or so. The grandmother gets annoyed at her grandson, hits him on the head with her thimble and says, “Each generation is worse than the last.”

Do you believe that?

I think I might, actually. I’m a bit fearful that I do, but at the same time, I’m sure I don’t. I think we older people look at young people and we DO think that. We forget how reckless we were, how ignorant and how sure of ourselves. That was true of me, anyway. I know I thought it was really awful when that newscaster came out with his book The Greatest Generation. How to label an entire generation of people like that and then douse them with a superlative? I’m 100% sure when they were kids their grandmothers were hitting them on the head with thimbles and cackling, “Ay-ya! Each generation is worse than the last!” No question they rose to the occasion(s), growing up in the Depression and fighting in WW II. It was hard for many of us having them as parents, but I think they were pretty awesome people and I’m sad to see their grand march into eternity. I’ll miss them

What about your generation?

Oh, we and the guys immediately before us had stuff to deal with, too. We wanted to change the world; we took survival for granted. Our parents saw to that. Those were the days of a strong middle class which, I think, “they” have been trying to squash since the late 60s.

Are you going to come out with some weird conspiracy theory now?

No. I have too much to do today, but I do think the activism of the late 60s scared “the powers.” Whoever’s in charge has made very careful choices and changes in our social and political structure to defuse the likelihood of people “taking it to the streets.” It was interesting during the Wall Street meltdown of the late 2000’s that public rage was almost non-existent. The passivity of the people was chalked up to the popularity of violence simulating video games and the internet.

So now that you’re in your sixties do you think that “Each generation is worse than the last”?

If it’s true, it’s the parents’ fault, our culture’s fault. It’s human nature to work for a better life for our children. The paradox is that strife and hardship bring out qualities we generally regard as virtues — patience, faith, loyalty, thrift, generosity, compassion, for example. People today complain about our young people feeling “entitled” — and they are — but how did that happen? Still, I wouldn’t wish hardship on anyone. While I don’t think my parents’ generation was “The Greatest Generation” they were truly amazing. Still, there was much swilling of martinis, smoking of cigarettes, popping of Librium among that great generation. They were pretty well anesthetized. My mom, for instance, freaked out when she learned I’d smoked pot with my brother but at the same time, she was chasing narcotics with Bourbon. The only difference was that her behavior was socially sanctioned and that of my brother and I was not.

So what? How does this follow?

Confucius-001Well, “best” or “greatest” or “worst” is always going to depend — at least a little bit — on the lens of social acceptability. Lu Xun was quoting from Confucius in having the old grandmother say, “Each generation is worse than the last.” His point was to show that the “old” way of looking at things would not fit a new China and that this perspective — very common as the Analects of Confucius were memorized by everyone for hundreds of generations — held China back. The grandmother is ignorant and brutal. The grandson is high-spirited and full of dreams. They are symbols more than family members. The other side of the coin here is Cicero, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” He didn’t mean child in the good way as Lu Xun did. He meant immature, demanding, ignorant and self-absorbed.

Does this rambling rant have a point at all?

I don’t think it does. I think that the dynamic I’ve described is built into human beings. Our young are pretty helpless for a long time. I imagine many of us feel that helplessness is frustrating and prison like. We might reach a point when we want to assert our individuality against the totalitarian regime of our parents. We might want to know something else or be something else or look at something else. I did. That moment does make us monsters. It’s a revolution, often violent and absolute. How could a parent not say, “Each generation is worse than the last!” in that moment, possibly having forgotten their own revolution so many years before. I know my parents both rebelled — my mom dyed her hair, smoked cigarettes and drank liquor, all activities my Mennonite grandma would have disapproved. My dad? He just ran away from home. It’s the whole Youth, Identity and Crisis thing Erikson wrote about.

Have you actually read that?

No. But I have looked at the pictures.

8 thoughts on “Is “Each Generation … Worse than the Last”?

  1. I think that every generation thinks that the next generation is screwed up. It allows the old quote “You know, when I was your age…” to live on in infamy.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  2. I think my generation ‘sold out’. Or maybe it just gave up, after protesting Vietnam and fighting for civil rights, etc. and seeing that the people had no real power, we decided to get the power — and money. I am speaking generally. I personally have no power and no money, but a lot of my peers sure have messed up this world, in my humble opinion. And they’ve made sure their children and grandchildren are entitled.

    • I think we forget the large numbers of people who didn’t protest anything. I think they were the majority. My one act of social activism was the first Earth Day. I sincerely did not care about Viet Nam — having grown up by SAC and around the military all my life, with a dad who was a war-gamer, the whole thing was for me much more complex than it was for many of my peers who did protest. I still don’t get it, other than it was a way for the US to make money. I did not approve drafting people into an undeclared war; that was wrong and I could speak out against that. So I wonder if our generation “sold out” or if they were never there in the first place — that is what I think. I really believed that by now people would be MORE enlightened, not less. My decision was to shoulder my little share of the bigger burden and move forward with it. It was a real shock when I discovered — not too long ago — that was not what everyone else was doing. I figured it would be what everyone did. I don’t know if at the moment I realized that, I felt virtuous or stupid.

  3. This is definitely a conversation for Tahiti. Interesting that in the riots in Britain a few years ago, the shops most heavily looted sold things like Nikes and flat-screen TVs – ‘luxury’ items to which we’re apparently all entitled. I’m with you. It’s our job, while we’re here, to contribute.

    • Back in 1992 there were riots in LA (and many other places) ostensibly because of police brutality to a black guy. Ultimately it was about looting and taking stuff. Here’s a song that says it straight. But ordinary people like me and my neighbors and the boys I hung out with then saw it very very differently. We were sad and frantic. I lived in a racially mixed neighborhood and peace was always tenuous.

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