The Great Separation

by Matthew Shaffer

A few weeks ago I was sitting around in a park with some college buddies, and one us asked the rest of us how many friends we had from a different generation. There was silence. So, how many acquaintances? Did we even, excepting our bosses and professors, speak to people one generation older, face-to-face, in a typical day? Did we speak to anybody two generations older at all? More silence.

I thought it was very sad, so I wrote an essay about it for the magazine, now online here. Here are two excerpts:

As Americans…began to move westward, we conceived of property less as a family trust to be preserved for our children because it was imbued with the spirits of our grandparents (as it was traditionally conceived — even in Christendom, which always preserved some element of ancestor worship), and more as a commodity to be taken, possessed, alienated, and leveraged for personal uses. In ancient Rome, a family was more possessed by its home than vice versa. In modern America, individuals own houses temporarily, their eyes fixed not on the intrinsic value of the land or the spiritual continuity it could provide, but on constantly fluctuating real-estate values and interests rates as they relate to a financial portfolio. The hearth around which three generations of one family could gather is now archaic….

Alienation from the elderly makes us ahistorical, senseless of what has gone into making our lives possible; it blocks the transmission of tradition; it creates a provincial chauvinism by letting each generation go unconfronted by the standards of the past, making all self-certain of their own, chronologically local mores; we lose humility, a sense of our human weakness and the impermanence of our bodies, when we are exclusively with the physically fit, the healthy, the attractive, the upwardly mobile, and never the declining; and most important is nothing extrinsic, but that we are missing out on other persons who deserve our love and friendship and knowledge, especially in the time when retirement and death of peers make one most vulnerable to loneliness.

I take a stab at a few other explanations for generational segregation, too — particularly cultural changes in the Sixties. And I take on Facebook (if that’s your thing), which is sort of faux-cosmopolitan, in that it makes our circle of acquaintances horizontally broader, but vertically more narrow — it incorporates people of all nationalities and all tongues but who are fundamentally of like mind into friend groups. The same thing is true of our hyper-mobile society in general, although in a less aggravated form. It all reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which the denizens of hell have a perfect autonomy that leads to perfect self-enclosure.

I encourage you to read the whole thing here, precisely because it’s a bad piece, in need of serious work — quite sketchy and incomplete. Several commenters have already pointed out flaws in it. But a lack of articulable solutions to the problem stems in part from the fact that people don’t seem to be discussing it. We ought to start the conversation.

P.S.: A few readers have written in lightly chastising me for generalizing about twenty-somethings. Though I aspire to become a curmudgeonly old man railing against kids these days, I should admit that I am, for now, 22. So, though there are exceptions to all trends, my general observations of youth culture should not be attributed to lack of experience or prejudice.