When I meet someone who runs an organization in a blue state, I often ask: Do you have a generation gap where you work? The answer — whether the person leads a college, a nonprofit, a tech company, an entertainment company or a publication — is generally the same: Yes, and it’s massive.
The managers at these places, who are generally 35 and older, are liberals. They vote Democratic and cheer on all the proper causes of the left. But some of the people under 35 are not liberals, but rather are militant progressives. The older people in the organization often have nicknames for the younger set: the Resistance, Al-Jazeera, the revolutionaries. The young militants are the ones who stage the protests if someone does something deemed wrong.
If a company fires an employee for writing an inappropriate memo or uttering an inappropriate phrase, it’s usually because there’s been a youth revolt. If a speaker is disinvited from a festival or from campus, it’s often because of a youth revolt.
This generation gap is completely unsurprising. After the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Midge Decter wrote an outstanding book called “Liberal Parents, Radical Children.” We’re seeing a similar chasm today.
On the left, the big difference is over meliorism. The older liberals are appalled by President Donald Trump, alarmed by global warming, disgusted by widening income inequality, and so on, but are more likely to believe the structures of society are basically sound. You can make change by voting for the right candidates and passing the right laws.
The militants are more likely to believe that the system itself is rotten and needs to be torn down. We live in a rape culture, with systemic racism and systems of oppression inextricably tied to our institutions. We live in a capitalist society, a neoliberal system of exploitation.
Two great belief systems are clashing here. The older liberals tend to be individualistic and meritocratic. A citizen’s job is to be activist, compassionate and egalitarian. Boomers generally think they earned their success through effort and talent.
The younger militants tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy. Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.
The big generational clashes generally occur over definitions of professional excellence. The older liberals generally believe that the open exchange of ideas is an intrinsic good. But for many of the militants, these restraints are merely masks for the preservation of the existing power structures. They offer legitimacy to people and structures that are illegitimate.
When the generations clash, the older generation generally retreats. Nobody wants to be hated and declared a moral pariah by his or her employees. Nobody wants to seem outdated. If the war is between the left and Trumpian white nationalism, nobody wants to be seen siding with Trump.
Whether on left or right, younger people have emerged in an era of lower social trust, less faith in institutions, a greater awareness of group identity. They live with the reality of tribal political warfare and are more formed by that warfare.
I guess the final irony is this: Liberal educated boomers have hogged the spotlight since Woodstock. But now events are driven by the oldsters who fuel Trump and the young wokesters who drive the left. The boomers finally got the top jobs, but feel weak and beleaguered.
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Writes for The New York Times.