We have the google generation. But everyone does not become addicted to google.
The world has always known of diversities and differences within generations, presenting a heterogeneous mosaic rather than a supposedly monolithic structure. But the West has often failed to recognise this phenomenon because it reckoned everyone was similar. If they are not, yet they ought to be similar and if they are unable to be similar, it implies something is wrong somewhere. That something is wrong with the West’s notion of generations is very obvious.
Societies attribute a distinct set of characteristics to each generation. These are mere notional constructs; generations are not a flat category. Yet, there is some truth in holding that the 16th century generation was different from the 17th century generation and so on.
We have these moments in history when change happens more rapidly than at other times. For example, some of the western countries have set notions about baby boomers, Gen X and the millennials. In the last 10-15 years, with the advent of mobile phones, the generational gap has widened because the technology shift has been very rapid. The world stands overwhelmed and has not been able to give a name to the new generation. Folks in the 20th century used to talk of a totally new liberal culture, a new kind of music, new kinds of TV screens and a new kind of access to media. Globalisation marked the 1990s.
With access to whatever is published anywhere, we have the Google generation. One attribute of this generation is that you don’t need to remember anything; you just need to google. But everyone does not become addicted to Google. There is a vast set of individuals still retaining a huge power to memorise.
Changes have always been happening. Sometimes they are cyclical in nature, not necessarily linear in direction. Certain things come back but certain things do not. These trends also reflect political currents of the times. Take the history of blue jeans, linked to the democratisation of American society. Blue denim was the dress of the working class. It had a certain meaning. If you wore a T-shirt and denim pants, it meant you were a worker and belonged to the proletariat. It was part of 1960s and the early ’70s. The idea was that everyone ought to be equal and look equal. However, this came to us as a fashion.
Another example could be the way black music in the US was of a particular kind of dress culture. What young black kids from the slums sported became the norm for young people to wear. So these are context-specific and politics is also involved. However, India remains a very status-conscious society. I don’t think we have picked up anything from popular Dalit tradition and made it mainstream. India also has its own specificities with diversities. We also have many significant intra-generational differences/diversities.
Age is only one of our attributes; we have class, community, region, community, specific upbringing and the kind of parents you have grown up with. So all these sum up our human existence and these identities are part of us. We invoke one identity in a particular context and another in a different context; differences and similarities co-exist. When we talk about generations we don’t think of them as flat categories. We would think of where a person has come from, is he from a village or city or what kind of class/caste category he belongs to. People within a particular state are different from each other despite the tendency to stereotype them.
People born in the 1940s are likely to be different from those born in the 1970s or 1990s. If you have a teenager son or daughter and you are urban middle class, chances are that s/he is going to stand up and make you feel outdated. They are better socialised in the use of mobile technology than the older generation is.
Obviously when they grow old, when they are of our age and when they have children, they also become conservative like us. So obviously there is a kind of life cycle. I didn’t find anything particularly surprising in it because you have these flat notions.
As social beings we all construct stereotypes and these stereotypes help us navigate the world and there is nothing wrong with that. Same is the case with generations. We think people who lived in the 15th century and the 16th century obviously would have been very different. We have strange notions that make them look very strange, but they are not.
Generational differences are only one category of differences. There are many others. Youth is always a hyphenated category — which category of youth is one talking about: rural youth, urban youth, Dalit youth, the Brahmin youth or the corporate sector crowd.
(The author is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University. He specialises in social stratification and social identities, caste studies and religious minorities)