Youth’s Role in Social and Cultural Transformation | Inside Higher Ed

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Take a peek at the latest list of the most popular baby names and you’ll be struck by how drastically names, especially girls’ names, have changed over the past few decades.

Mary, which was number 1 among newborn girls in 1960, is now 124.  Deborah, which was number 2 in 1960, is now 907th. Barbara, then 12th, is now 899.  Today, Catherine is the 267th most popular name; Ellen, the 804th.  Neither Lisa nor Susan are among the top 1000 most popular girls’ names.

Changes in children’s names reflect a generational shift that is transforming U.S. society.  Among girls, there has been a sharp increase in gender-neutral names, such as Alex and Leslie, and feminized versions of boys’ names, such as Sydney and Kari; in unusual and original names stressing children’s uniqueness and individuality, such as Beyonce or LeToya; and in Waspy names with overtones of wealth and glamour, such as Kendall and Taylor.

One striking development is a proliferation of vintage names that reflect defunct occupations (like Cooper, Carter, and Mason).  Another is the rise of names exhibiting pride in ethnic heritage, including a surge in Biblical names like Samuel and Rebecca, and, especially among African Americans, traditional African and Islamic names such as Jamail and Yasmin, as well as newly-coined names that draw upon African patterns, such as Makayla and Nyasia.

Whereas many Baby Boomer names ended with the letter “k” (like Nick or Jack), many more children today have names that begin with “K” (like Kai, Kayden, Kim, and Koby).  This appears to reflect parents’ desire to make children’s names more unique and unusual and to use distinctive spellings that stand out.

In contrast to the Baby Boomers, whose names were drawn from a relatively small pool of “generic” names, and which included many “diminutives” (like Stevie or Tommy or Susie or Tammy), the names of today’s children tend to be more diverse and more formal and adult-sounding (like Charlotte or Eleanor).

The impact of mass immigration is especially evident in the growing popularity of names like Alma, Angela, Amelia, and Sophia and Sofia that have both English and non-English referents.

Although some scholars dismiss the concept of generations as little more than artificial categories imposed by marketers, journalists, and survey researchers, it’s becoming increasingly clear that cultural values change “one funeral at a time.”  Nor are generational shifts confined to aesthetics, cultural pastimes, or politics.  Scientific change, too, seems to reflect generational succession.

Even though generational labels like Generation X or Millennials or Generation Z are cultural and sometimes commercial inventions, this doesn’t mean that they lack significance.  Despite differences along class, ethnic, racial, gender, political many other lines, generational cohorts tend to share important experiences in common.  The ways that they are socialized by the peer group, their education experience, their exposure to popular culture, and their historical circumstances appear to foster certain collective sensibilities, tastes, outlooks, and attitudes.

As one generational cohort passes away, a new cohort seems to drive shifts in cultural values and behavior.

There is mounting evidence that shifts in cultural norms are less the product of individuals shifting their views, but rather of generational succession.  As a new cohort’s influence increases, social values undergo profound changes.

In recent years, college attendance appears to be a powerful force contributing to generational shifts in cultural attitudes.  There seems to be little doubt that college graduates, especially those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, have adopted more liberal social attitudes.  These graduates also appear to have become more absolutist in their moral views and have, increasing numbers, embraced a distinctive vocabulary to deal with everything from pronouns to sexuality to ethnic identity.

The obvious retort to the growing emphasis on the importance of generational cohorts is the simple fact that these cohorts are themselves diverse in their attitudes and behavior.  A widely cited example is that during the late 1960s, more young people were members of YAF, the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, than SDS, the more radical Students for a Democratic Society.

Yet despite the obvious differences in political orientation, it would be a gross mistake to downplay the commonalities that are apparent in dress, demeanor, lingo, musical tastes, sensibility, and the timing and frequency of key life course events.

Without in any way minimizing far-reaching political differences among today’s youth, college students, in particular, share certain experiences and attitudes in common.

1. In their attitudes toward diversity and difference.
Cross-culturally, youth today appears to be more tolerant than their elders toward stigmatized groups and those perceived as racially or ethnically different, and to experience more interactions with others who are culturally diverse.

2.  In their anxiety over their future and their faith in government.
Terms that many youth invoke in surveys include “afraid,” “anxious,” “angry,” and “powerless.”  Their anxiety involves their economic future, the affordability of a middle-class life style, and a sense that work is more precarious than it was for previous generations, along with worries about such issues as climate change and global warming.  Many of these concerns cut across the political spectrum.

3. In their strong belief that generational differences exist across multiple dimensions.
Even scholarship that concludes that generational differences are small acknowledges that generational stereotypes are widespread and have a powerful impact on behavior.

The notion of youth as a cultural avant-garde is not new.  Over a century ago, the so-called prophet of youth, the Progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne extolled youth as “the incarnation of reason” against “the rigidity of tradition.  As he put this:

“Youth puts the remorseless questions to everything that is old and established… .And when it gets the mumbled, evasive answers of the elders, it applies its own fresh, clean spirit of reason to the institutions, customs, and ideas, and finding them stupid, inane, or poisonous, turns instinctively to overthrow them and build in their place the things with which its visions teem.”

Karl Mannheim influential theory of generational difference and change, “The Problem of Generations,” which appeared in 1928, argued that each generation develops its own distinctive consciousness.   This consciousness, in turn, grew out of the economic circumstances in which the younger generation grew up, the impact of historical events that occurred during its formative years, their family upbringing, and a dialogic process in which it defined its values, aesthetics, and sensibility in opposition to its elders.

Ironically, it’s on college campuses that the generation gap appears to be especially visible, especially in language, attitudes toward free speech and academic freedom, and expectations of what about what higher education ought to provide.   Contributing to the campus generation gap is the aging of the professoriate.

It’s up to us, the faculty, to bridge this generation gap.  Teaching our courses is not enough.  We need to address, head-on, our students’ anxieties and concerns and engage in dialogue over the issues that trouble them most. 

How might we do this?

  • Be respectful:  Avoid generational stereotypes and attitudes or behavior that might be interpreted as condescending or paternalistic.
  • Be understanding:  Cultivate a classroom culture of mutual respect and open dialogue.
  • Be supportive:  Express a willingness to mentor and assist and be open to “reverse mentoring,” a willingness to learn from your students.
  • Be flexible:  Accommodate students with different learning styles, interests, and modes of expression by considering new ways to assess student mastery of essential knowledge and skills.
  • Be open minded:  Don’t respond negatively to generational differences in communication styles, attitudes, characteristics or priorities.

Remember:  We were once on the other side of the generation gap.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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