The idea of distinct generations with identifiable personalities always struck me as indefensible. Humans reproduce more or less continuously, not all at once every 20 years. And the named cohorts—Gen X, Millennials, Zoomers—seem to come in in various lengths on various accounts, another indication of arbitrariness. “A generation” appears to be a concept without any corresponding phenomenon.
But lately I've been thinking that maybe there's something to it in my own family. My 97-year-old mother Joyce has been recovering from Covid at her home in Rappahannock County, VA, for the last couple of weeks, and I've been caring for her here. In order to keep myself busy or deal with various anxieties, I'm cleaning up her house. It's making me appreciate, or maybe remember, some of the ways that the members of the "greatest generation" and the boomers they raised might’ve ended up with very different or even strongly opposed value systems.
The values of people born around when and where I was born (DC, 1958), which some of our successors view as having made apocalyptic disaster inevitable, emerged predictably from our raising. They’re problematic, putting it mildly, but they're also demographic. It's taken this much time for me to become aware of some of them, though I've been applying them all this time.
General descriptions of generational identities obviously don't fit anyone perfectly. That “greatests” are patriotic conformists is one commonplace. My mother, by contrast, was a Jewish red-diaper baby whose parents were atheist Communist Party members in Chicagoland, of very modest means. She was married three times, and always accounted herself a feminist.
But in other respects, the fit is close. Joyce Gitlin was born in 1925, grew up poor during the Depression, mostly in Chicago. She was 15 when World War II began, went to college afterwards at Berkeley, where hundreds of her fellow students were on the GI Bill. She married my father (a newspaper reporter at the time) in the mid-1950s, moved to a snug two-bedroom house in upper Northwest Washington, and had two babies. She accomplished something that looked like the American dream of her period, even as she was politically critical of the whole thing. Eventually, she studied social work at Catholic University and taught at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School: a life of public-spirited service.
I'm not sure whether she would’ve put it this way, but I think that, circa 1965, Joyce wanted my brother Adam and me to have what she had lacked. She wanted us to feel materially comfortable and secure and safe, and she achieved that. If I said she wanted us to feel “privileged” in a way that she hadn’t, that doesn't feel fair or accurate. That's not how she would have thought about it at all, but our upbringing couldn't have failed to have that effect. She wanted to give us enough love and enough stuff; she wanted to protect us from bad things like poverty and anti-Semitism; she wanted us to be happy. (My mother still wants me to be happy. I'm still working at it.)
We did not feel any lack, though we weren't at all wealthy. The way my mother and my step-father created our condition of privilege was by tremendous self-sacrifice and frugality. They scrimped and saved for decades to send us to college and then buy a small farm in Virginia to live in when they their retired (that's the place I'm working on now). And they tried to communicate their basic financial and material values to their children. We had a small allowance with, roughly no supplements, and were encouraged to save that. We had a structure of chores, and real penalties for slacking off. We only got an hour of television each day. My parents re-used everything and threw away almost nothing, and they insisted that their children participate in the austerity program.
I rejected this frugality or semi-secretly despised it. I didn't understand where it was coming from. It seemed that re-using that plastic bag and turning off every light every time weren't going to make the difference between wealth and welfare and definitely not worth the hassle. My mother would come along behind teenage me, turning off lights, turning down the heat, and plucking re-usable items out of the trash. I thought she wasconsumed with a grubby sort of poverty that wasn't relevant to our situation. Paradoxically, in a golden age of materialism, I didn't care about or value things the way my parents seemed to.
Given my own actual situation in 1960s Chevy Chase, I don't think I could’ve come out of my childhood with my parents' values, no matter how dedicated they were to conveying them. Looking back from 64, and despite the fact that I've also struggled financially throughout my life (I still owe 20K in student loans), I see myself as having lived a life of carelessness and excess in many ways. If I didn't want it, I chucked it and bought something else, then chucked that. In my infinitesimal way, I contributed to the disasters we face.
Over the last week, I’ve pried into every corner of my mother'slovely farmhouse (designed and partly built by my parents in the 1980s) out here near Sperryville. What I've found has annoyed me, as I knew it would. But it has also put me in this generational self-reflection mode.
My mother and late step-father weren't hoarders; their aesthetic was more stripped-down Scandinavian. But they didn't think containers should be gratuitously thrown away. There are myriads of them here: carefully washed olive jars from 1987, plastic containers for freezing, hundreds of manila envelopes and other mailers addressed to my parents, opened with care, preserved in piles just in case they ever needed a padded envelope. As Joyce snoozes in her chair, she's still watching. "There's nothing wrong with those envelopes!" she says. True, but they’ve already been mailed and have been sitting here sinceat least '97.
My parents unwrapped gifts with the utmost care; scraps of used wrapping paper are still boxed up in the attic. Last week we had Christmas with grandma: the first time my three kids and my mother and me had been together in several years. Everyone stayed at the house. My daughter Emma was delighted by the used gift-wrap collection, both for reasons of family nostalgia and as part of a basic consciousness: we've got to stop wasting things if we're going to survive.
Saving wrapping paper might not make a difference between broke and prosperous, or ecological destruction and survival, but it expresses an orientation toward the world that might be the only hope in the long run, and which is also a comprehensible reaction to environmental disaster and the values of boomer parents. When I came across the wrapping paper, I rolled my eyes. My kids were more like: “respect.” They’re beginning to seem more like my parents. Perhaps we boomers didn't succeed in conveying our own values either.
My way of being in the world, I'm seeing, has been awfully destructive and rather un- or anti-conscious: an attempt not to become aware of my own effects. I'm trying not to just bag everything up and haul it away to the dump, but really to look at each thing, talk to her about some of them, save what could be useful, recycle whatever can be recycled. I'm trying, at this very late date, to absorb and apply some of the values, her values, that I rejected. But it's hard, Ma!
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell